Since the Cold War’s end, the classic roles of airpower and land power have changed places in major combat against modern mechanized opponents. In this role reversal, ground forces have come to do most of the shaping and fixing of enemy forces, while airpower now does most of the actual killing.
Operation Desert Storm in 1991 showcased, for the first time, this departure from past practice between air- and ground-delivered firepower. During the Battle of Khafji in January of that year, coalition air assets singlehandedly shredded two advancing Iraqi armored columns through precision night standoff attacks.
This role shift repeated itself with even greater effectiveness in 2003 during the three-week major combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom that ended Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s rule.
Modern airpower’s achievements in these two high-intensity wars demonstrated that precision air attacks now offer the promise of being the swing factor for victory in an ever-widening variety of theater war scenarios. The primary role of US land power may now be increasingly to secure a win against organized enemy forces rather than to achieve it.
In organizing their response to Hussein’s forceful seizure of Kuwait in 1990, the leaders of US Central Command aimed to destroy as many of Iraq’s armored forces from the air as possible before launching any land invasion to drive out the occupying enemy troops. It remained unclear, however, how effective allied airpower would be under this approach until they actually executed the air campaign.
Three factors came together to enable allied airpower to draw down Iraqi forces to a point where allied ground troops could advance in confidence that they would be engaging a badly degraded opponent once the ground offensive began. First, allied aircraft were able to operate at will in the medium-altitude environment, unmolested by Iraqi radar guided surface-to-air missiles or fighters, thanks to an earlier US air defense suppression campaign.
Second, the introduction of the E-8C JSTARS aircraft permitted allied air planners to see and identify fixed and moving objects on the battlefield clearly enough to make informed force commitment decisions and to execute lethal attacks day or night. Third, allied planners discovered during the campaign’s initial preparation phase that aircraft equipped with infrared sensors and armed with laser guided bombs could find and destroy dug-in enemy tanks one by one in large numbers at night.
It’s a long article, but it doesn’t get any smarter. Let’s just fisk a little of what we have here.
First and foremost, let me state again that I’m not opposed to airpower. Air superiority, or at a bare minimum air parity, is a necessary precondition for success in high intensity combat.
1. Uncontested medium altitude operations- There’s certainly no guarantee that future campaigns will allow our tactical airpower to operate freely over the battlefield, whether at medium altitudes or any other. While the Iraqi forces had a reasonably sophisticated air defense system for fixed installations, they lacked modern mobile air defenses for maneuver units. Future enemies learned a lesson about that. And Lambeth ignores the long time the Air Force had to devote to the suppression mission (SEAD-Suppression of Enemy Air Defense). Time spent on SEAD was time and sorties not spent attriting Iraqi armor. Had the Iraqis made a large scale offense while the Air Force was still trying to achieve suppression, rather than the modest attack at Khafji, we groundpounders would have faced a much more difficult problem.*
2. JSTARS tracking and targeting- Well, that’s what it’s for, to give the commander an ability to look deep throughout the depth of the battlefield and identify and track enemy formations. But two things about that. First, few places on earth are as conducive to JSTARS tracking formations as the Iraqi desert. Second, having learned that the capability exists, any enemy can quickly devise countermeasures, which can be as simple as just having a bunch of people driving private autos around, either randomly or as spoof formations.
3. PGMs as anti-armor weapons- Tank-plinking was indeed a successful campaign. Why, a gazillion dollar F-111 could go out and in the space of a 2 hour sortie, drop its four GBU-12 500 pound LGBs, and probably kill 2 or even three tanks. But for all the success of the campaign, vast amounts of Iraqi armor still survived, and was still capable of maneuver and engaging our forces. As a counterpoint, I had a front row seat when my brigade engaged a Republican Guard brigade. In the space of about half an hour, we eviscerated the entire formation, destroying somewhere around 100 armored vehicles, and probably another couple hundred vehicles.
Further, the Air Force is still limited in its ability to attack armor or other moving formations in bad weather. Cloud layers will degrade laser designators quickly, leaving the attack aircraft either unable to deliver ordnance, or forcing them into the low altitude air defense environment, where they are terribly vulnerable. Ground forces ability to engage can be degraded by foul weather, but not to nearly the extent of air power. Artillery doesn’t care if it is cloudy.
The bottom line is this- in spite of almost a century of airpower visionaries proclaiming that the days of muddy boots are over, airpower still cannot stop the enemy on the ground. It can impede it, it can attrit it, it can make movement costly. But airpower still remains a supporting fire, much as the artillery. No sane commander would attempt to fight a campaign solely with artillery. One of the historical strengths of our armed forces since World War II has been our incredible ability to harness the synergy of combined arms, whether from the Infantry/Artillery team, or the unified application of land, sea, air and space power. Puerile arguments about the supremacy of airpower do little credit to the Air Force Association’s flagship publication.
*Especially units like mine. We had people on the ground, but our vehicles hadn’t even reached port in Saudi Arabia yet.