The recent Israeli airstrikes in Syria, through which the Israeli Air Force appears to target weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah, provoked an important debate among those concerned about a U.S. military intervention in Syria. Given the prominence of concerns about the requirements of establishing air superiority over Syria not simply from civilians such as myself, but from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should the IAF’s successful raids prompt us to recant some of our skepticism?
CFR’s Steven Cook recently wondered why there was such contrast between a reluctant U.S. military and a daring Israeli one, asking:
Why does it seem that Israel’s air force can penetrate Syria’s alleged superior air defense network at will and with impunity, but whenever the idea of using American and allied air forces to help the rebellion comes up, the Syrians are 10 feet tall?
Undoubtedly some commentary and analysis has exaggerated the Syrian air defenses. While dense and certainly more modern and comprehensive than Libya’s relatively dilapidated Integrated Air Defense System (IADS), they are hardly insurmountable. However, simply because something is operationally feasible does not make it strategically wise. Strategy is not simply the sum of tactical possibilities. What matters, when assessing Syria’s military is what kind of costs and obstacles it poses for the objectives we want to undertake. Can our tactical and operational capabilities deliver us strategic results in proportion with the risks and costs?
Before I begin, I would like to note that Cook is absolutely correct that there’s no reason to exclude him from the conversation simply because he does not have military experience or a background in strategic studies or related technical knowledge. However, I do think civilians such as myself writing about the feasibility of military operations do have some obligation to engage thoroughly with discussions about capabilities. If we’re interested in answering why the Israelis conduct raids with impunity but the U.S. is worried about imposing an NFZ, we need to thoroughly examine the numerous military considerations and not simply questions about political willpower. Cook believes arguments such as mine and MIT PhD candidate Brian Haggerty’s boil down to five contentions, the first four of which he finds unconvincing “in whole or in part.”
1) Israel’s brief incursions are different from the sustained campaign the United States—and presumably allies—would have to undertake to establish a no-fly zone (NFZ) in Syria.
2) Israel’s missions have been on the “periphery” of Syria and have never had to contend with the dense network of air defenses in and around major population centers.
3) The Assad regime has placed air defenses within population centers, putting both Syrian civilians and American aviators at risk during any air campaign.
4) Intervention in Syria would be costly and detract from the U.S. military’s ability to conduct operations in other areas.
5) Syria is complicated and military intervention may not help the situation; in fact, it might make the situation for Syrians a good deal worse.
Cook’s objection to the first is that just because the U.S.’s imposition of an NFZ would be more complex and comprehensive than Israeli raids in 2003 on Islamic Jihad, 2007 on the Deir ez-Zor nuclear facility, and the three airstrikes since the beginning of the Syrian civil war (as well as he 2003 and 2006 overflights of Assad palaces), “does not mean the United States should not or cannot prevent Assad’s forces from flying.” That is true, but examining how different these operations would be is necessary to understand why Israeli strikes should not change the calculus of an NFZ.
First, let’s address the nature of the recent Israeli strikes. Several sources report that the attack targeting Syrian surface-to-surface missiles, possibly destined for Hezbollah, came from munitions launched over Lebanese airspace. The January attack on a shipment of SA-17 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) came from aircraft traveling over Lebanese airspace, although they may have briefly penetrated Syria. The most recent attack, supposedly conducted with “rockets,” likely used a similar model of avoiding or only briefly penetrating Syrian airspace, particularly if the IAF used an air-to-surface missile such as the Popeye (although “lofting” guided bombs could achieve similar results).
The point here is that the IAF is engaging ground targets with stand-off weaponry. Because they have extremely limited target sets located near the fringes of Syrian airspace, Israel can target them without the need to destroy Syrian air defenses, let alone achieve persistent air superiority. This relates to Cook’s refutation of the second generic talking point about Israeli air strikes, that they were at the “periphery.” As Cook rightly points out, Latakia is not at the periphery of Syrian air defense capability. Israeli over-flights of Assad’s summer residence, however, were conducted at extremely low altitude and supersonic speeds, and because Latakia is on the coast, Israel could conduct most of the operation from international airspace with the brief exception of over-flying the palace itself, significantly reducing the window of practical and political vulnerability to Syrian air defenses. As for the Israeli airstrike in Deir ez-Zor, like all these other raids, its goal was to minimize windows of vulnerability through an extremely limited target set, minimal sorties at high speed and low altitude, in addition to the relatively novel and extensive use of electronic warfare and computer network attacks to temporarily blind or misdirect Syrian radar in the area.
The problem is, none of these techniques apply to the essential conduct of a NFZ – patrols to establish and maintain control of Syrian airspace You cannot create a persistent NFZ through repetitive raiding in the Israeli style, because these raids rely on minimizing time over Syrian airspace and avoiding air-to-air combat. NFZs, to be effective, must do precisely the opposite. You want your aircraft to spend as much time as practically possible over the airspace you are patrolling in order to deny enemy aircraft windows of opportunity to operate. This renders your aircraft vulnerable to enemy anti-aircraft fire, which is why destroying hostile IADS, commonly referred to as suppression of enemy air defense (or SEAD) is such a vital prerequisite to NFZs (and would involve, as in many other cases, massive amounts of standoff fire and more direct attacks by specialized SEAD strike aircraft).
Rather than comparing Israel skirting around the task of SEAD, or using temporary SEAD techniques such as EW and computer network operations, to a Syrian NFZ, it would be better to examine Israel’s Operation Mole Cricket 19. During the 1982 Lebanon War, Israeli air operations faced Syrian forward deployment of SAM sites in the Bekaa Valley and along the Syrian border. In order to establish air superiority (in this case to facilitate air support to Israeli ground forces), Israel launched an ambitious operation, involving roughly one hundred aircraft, extensive use of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, and remotely-piloted aircraft to engage seventeen out of the nineteen SAM targets and hundreds of Syrian aircraft. While the raid was a brilliant demonstration of effective SEAD and air-to-air combat, it also highlights precisely why even an extremely successful SEAD operation is an onerous undertaking compared to the raid operations that seek to avoid it entirely.
According to estimates, SEAD operations destroyed 52 of 70 air defense targets in Bosnia and 33 of 35 air defense targets in Operations Northern and Southern Watch over Iraq. As in Mole Cricket 19, achieving air superiority over a conflict zone requires comprehensive SEAD, and even then, these operations often fail to break the will of enemy air defenses. Within months of Mole Cricket 19, Syrian batteries targeted and fired upon U.S. reconnaissance flights over Lebanon, provoking an airstrike that saw two U.S. planes downed. Even more directly, Iraq continued throughout years of U.S. NFZs over northern and southern Iraq to provoke or attempt to engage U.S. aircraft, and even rebuilt damaged sites. In the Kosovo War, U.S. SEAD efforts met continual challenge from Serbian forces despite overwhelming U.S. military superiority.
Avoiding the problem of destroying Syrian air defenses by trying to use shoot-and-scoot raids with the assistance of electronic warfare is utterly impractical for enforcing a comprehensive NFZ. Electronic warfare aircraft are not easy to come by and could not maintain the sortie generation ratio necessary to protect combat air patrols over Syria indefinitely, so short of a massive SEAD operation, a U.S. NFZ is simply not going to happen. Even dilapidated air defense systems must be thoroughly reduced in order for the U.S. to maintain effective air coverage to deny Syrian airspace.
Now, Cook argues that because the U.S. has the operational capability to impose an NFZ on Syria, the only relevant issue is whether or not a NFZ would improve the situation or not. It seems clear, however, that the scale of costs should influence what degree of prospective improvement justifies action. The U.S., as the strongest military power on earth, has the capability to undertake military operations of enormous scale. The question that a strategist must ask is whether or not the U.S. can realize such an operation in a way that improves the situation in Syria, but whether that improvement, and its advancement of American policy goals, is commensurate with the costs of the operation itself.
In this sense, it actually matters an immense deal that Israeli airstrikes require only a handful of jets, but a SEAD effort in Syria would require perhaps around six times as many aircraft as did NATO operations in Libya. It matters quite a lot that few of the tricks the Israelis used to conduct their raids will allow us to avoid the major task of what will likely be a long and onerous campaign. Here, Cook’s dismissal of the fourth contention, that a Syrian NFZ could seriously distract from other fronts, rings especially hollow: “the last time I checked, the U.S. armed forces were designed to fight on multiple fronts.”
Yes, and it is wise to limit to that multiplier, especially when the wear of a decade of war and fiscal constraints on deployments, operations, and maintenance come into consideration. The U.S. is still at war in Afghanistan. The U.S. has security considerations in the Persian Gulf vastly more central to its interests than what is occurring in Syria. America has security guarantees of far greater gravity and value to South Korea and Japan. As Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Mark Welsh, remarked, deploying, say, the F-22 to Syria could detract from “a concern in the Pacific somewhere, there aren’t many airplanes. In this business, quantity does have a quality all its own.” (An infamous RAND briefing on the dynamics of U.S. air combat in the Pacific reached a very similar conclusion.) Much the same could be said about electronic warfare aircraft such as the B-2, EA-18G Growler, ISR aircraft, along standoff precision-guided munitions, which take part in everything from deterrence missions in Korea to intercepting and disrupting insurgent communications in Afghanistan. The cost a NFZ imposes on the U.S. increases as it drags on and imposes further constraints on redeployments and lag-times for combat readiness in other theaters.
That the U.S. capability to impose an NFZ in Syria would require hundreds of aircraft and thousands of precision guided munitions that its air defense capabilities, then, deserves much more emphasis than the fact that the Israelis were able to execute a completely different and more limited mission set without such a commitment. While Syria’s air defenses could not indefinitely hold off the USAF, USN, or IAF in a pitched battle, that they can still challenge the air forces such as Turkey’s, and that its smaller allies lack the ability to scale up their deployments from their performance in Libya will mean the U.S. will face poor prospects for mitigating or spreading the costs of its operations with its allies. Do any of these considerations make an NFZ impossible? No, but these operational considerations complicate the answer enough that simply saying we have the capability to impose a NFZ on Syria is woefully insufficient for analyzing an intervention’s practicality and prospects.
I personally agree with Cook about the third concern in the abstract – civilian casualties from U.S. strikes are an inevitable outcome of imposing an NFZ in virtually any situation, and must be weighed against the danger of Assad’s air force. That said, it does matter that U.S. forces would be in danger of inflicting larger numbers of civilian casualties if a Syrian NFZ expanded to a bombing campaign against regime ground forces as the campaign in Libya did almost immediately (Cook does not make this argument in his post, but some proponents who want “safe zones,” such as John McCain, have objectives that imply striking ground forces and not simply aircraft). Given that Assad’s forces are greatly more numerous than Gaddafi’s and engaging in overwhelmingly urban combat, and in an environment where tactical intelligence for targeting purposes will not likely be as forthcoming.
Ultimately, Cook argues that the only salient objection is whether “military intervention might not attenuate the civil war or might make things worse and, I would add, the American people do not want to become involved in another Middle Eastern imbroglio.” Yet failing to weight the cost of exercising a capability makes assessing the actual risks and benefits of a campaign impossible. For example, interventions that provide minor or discrete but not decisive advancement to our objectives in a conflict can often be very sensible if they require a limited amount of force at low risk, but far more questionable when limited gains come at massive expense even when the risk is low.
If anything, the Israeli strikes provide a useful insight into everything a NFZ will not or cannot be. The Israeli strikes aim at specific, identifiable direct threats to vital Israeli interests and use the smallest force and lowest risk possible to eliminate those threats. The Israelis may not be able to solve the problem of potential arms transfers to Hezbollah writ large, but standoff strikes against discrete targets do not tie down Israeli forces enough to make it a distracting quagmire.
A NFZ, on the other hand, massive amounts of aircraft and munitions in both standoff and air superiority roles to even deliver the basic goal of grounding the Syrian air force. A Syrian NFZ presents an even larger operation than the Libyan air campaign, and one that is likely to be even less effective, especially if it is a pure NFZ that refrains from the additional aircraft, munitions, and ground/intelligence efforts that would be necessary to support a campaign to target the Syrian army. Syria’s mix of ground forces and paramilitary groups appear far more combat effective than their Libyan regime equivalents, and, even without air cover, would not be operating at crippling loss without their air force (Syrian aircraft appear far more competent at terror bombing than tight close-air support).
Whereas Israel can pick and choose which targets to engage and which raids to forgo, a NFZ is an open-ended commitment that requires a major aerial (and likely naval) presence until the Syrian government capitulates. Even if the U.S. is operationally capable of imposing such an outcome, it is entirely fair to argue the requirements of such an operation would make such a minor improvement in the Syrian situation insufficient to grant that capability a strategic logic. The operational requirements of a NFZ are great and yet they only seem to ameliorate U.S. concerns about Assad-rebel fighting, but provide only nebulous and indirect ways of addressing other key concerns in the region. Syria’s military may be puny on its own, but launching a massive operation for the sake of stripping away one instrument in a civil war while the U.S. is limited in its fiscal means and faced with far more direct challenges (if ones less immediately violent) to its interests elsewhere merits scrutiny of the means required. Large aerial operations against third world militaries were attractive and appealing in the 1990s when the U.S. enjoyed greater flexibility and little fatigue or fiscal trouble in its armed forces, policymakers must now make harder choices.
The fifth objection that Cook recognizes as legitimate – concerns about the efficacy or potential harmfulness of intervention – is not independent of the other four. The requirements of dismantling rather than evading Syrian air defenses and the opportunity costs of expending those resources absolutely weigh upon whether an intervention’s effect on a conflict makes for good strategy and policy. Through parsing why the Israeli strikes are so different from U.S. operations, the disproportionate ratio of requirements to outcomes, the dubious clarity of objectives, murky parameters for action all become even more obvious in contrast.
While cheap precision weapons, supposedly expendable drones, and invulnerable standoff fires continue to fascinate publics and intrigue policy makers, we should be careful before subsuming these developments into a coming “new way of war.” As a recent RAND study points out, in a comparison between reusable platforms (think strategic bombers and strike aircraft) and expendable weapons (think cruise missiles), expendable weapons become less cost-effective during prolonged conflict. As Thomas Hamilton explains:
The conflict duration at which exclusive reliance on expendable platforms becomes prohibitive depends on a number of assumptions about the cost, availability, and utilization rates of weapon systems, but for any realistic possibilities, expendable platforms become costly for conflicts persisting on the order of ten days.
Of course, no war uses purely expendable weapons, and no expendable weapon is purely expendable – weapons such as the TLAM are incredibly dependent on the presence of naval vessels which costs enormous sums and must be made to stick around for a long while. But the limitations of expendable weapons have important implications for thinking about future warfare.
For example, despite the proliferation of cheap precision-guided munitions, as my co-blogger pointed out in a recent post, these payloads are still extremely dependent upon reliable platforms to deliver them. The greatest recent advances have not been in expendable long-range weapons (U.S. efforts to develop hypersonic weapons and Prompt Global Strike munitions have been marred with difficulty lately), but with small, inexpensive missiles or bombs that tactical attack aircraft can carry. Colombia’s Super Tucanos and America’s relatively small Predator and Reaper drones are so feared by their insurgent targets because precision weapons, when loaded on such platforms, allow for sortie generations to attack insurgent groups and other irregulars that were too mobile and dispersed to target before.
When the U.S. chooses to conduct combat operations in countries such as Kosovo and Libya, strategic bombers must still make an appearance alongside expendable weapons such as TLAMs. Strategic bombers played a significant role in target servicing over Kosovo, and B-1s had record-breaking persistence during their deployment in Afghanistan. But reusable platforms are aging, expensive, and save for B-2s, very dependent on SEAD sorties to clear the way for their operation.
One concern frequently leveled against armed drones is that they make wars easier, because they are inexpensive, and since they are remotely piloted, morally expendable too. Of course, if drones made war easier to conduct, they would hardly be the first system to enhance the margin of superiority of the U.S. over its opponent. But how credible of a claim is expendability, and how much does the low price of blood and treasure in drones shift the paradigm for warfare? Not so much, it should seem.
While there is no blood price to shooting down a drone, the cost is still hefty, and it comes atop a high accident rate. It is telling the U.S. secures permission or acquiescence from countries such as Pakistan and Yemen when it flies armed drones, and in the case of Libya, waited out the destruction of its air defenses by conventional means. If completely expendable Tomahawk missiles do not drastically reduce costs of prolonged strike operations, armed drones, which are fundamentally reusable platforms by nature, are even less likely to do so.
Another question this study suggests is how the U.S. and its allies will keep up with the logistical costs of future conflicts. Even the relatively low-intensity period of sustained strikes in Libya early on taxed the resources of NATO allies. Campaigns such as Iraq required 800 cruise missiles, and Syria might take up to 700. While standoff expendable systems such as the TLAM and ALCMs allowed NATO countries to support U.S. counterparts in the way Europe’s lack of strategic bombing capability cannot, ultimately it is America’s vastly superior stocks and financial resources for warfighting that allow it to conduct such sustained bombardments.
Preventing the overstrain of that logistical chain is increasingly important, and ultimately, it will severely limit the ability to treat remotely piloted systems as expendable assets like cruise missiles, and ensure a continued role for larger and costlier platforms in the vein of B-2s, F-16CJs, and EA-18Gs that help make operating environments safe for drones fulfilling the strike roles of their manned counterparts.
Similarly, the pervasive role of dispersal and deception in countering U.S. fire superiority demands the persistence of ISR assets that standoff expendable systems simply cannot provide on their own. Though “shoot and scoot” weapons are becoming more advanced, putting enough of them into a theater at a reasonable price requires reusable platforms if only to defend non-expendable C3I and ISR assets.
The logistical challenges of keeping future offshore warfare cheap will likely pose a significant problem in future conflicts. As the fiscal sinews of American war power weaken, maintaining meeting voluminous sortie generation demands will get more challenging, even cheaper PGMs will remain largely dependent on a host of platforms to find, fix, and finish targets, while expendable standoff munitions, let alone exepndable UAVs, will be unable to take a central role in conflicts of longer duration. While covert wars and conflicts such as Libya seem within U.S. limits, even prolonged periods of high-intensity strikes will ensure that the “old way” of air warfare will remain quite persistent.
When over a dozen insurgents attacked Camp Bastion’s airfield with explosive vests, automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and possibly truck-borne mortars, they inflicted the greatest loss on VMA-211 since December 8, 1941, when the unit – then designated VMF-211 – lost twelve aircraft during Japan’s opening assault on Wake Island. The eight Harriers destroyed or damaged in Afghanistan, though, recalled a type of attack the U.S. dealt with many times in theaters from Indochina to Puerto Rico.
My co-blogger Adam helpfully pointed to this RAND study on ground attacks on military airfields, which, chronicling them from 1940-1992, noted that relatively unsophisticated and lightly-equipped forces were able to destroy 2000 aircraft during this time period. While hostile air attacks on U.S. airbases (excepting, of course, missile threats) look relatively unlikely in the near term, determined ground attackers, acting either as part of regular or irregular forces, have used a variety of small arms, light artillery, and assorted other man-portable weaponry to disrupt air operations.
Whether in full-blown theaters of war such as Afghanistan or less-active and more secure theaters of conflict, America’s large military bases are an attractive target. Their potential vulnerability to ground assault makes such attacks provides a badly-needed recourse for those facing America’s massive aerial firepower. Particularly as the U.S. turns away from large-footprint ground wars and their associated operational risks and political costs, U.S. bases provisioning air support for partner forces, hosting intelligence and advisory personnel, and providing “lilypads” for Special Operations Forces and clandestine capabilities may become increasingly important, especially if maintenance and cost issues end up degrading the readiness of America’s surface-borne aerial assets.
The 2009 Camp Chapman attack, along with this one, provides another important reminder about the multifarious potential vulnerabilities in such a “low footprint” strategy. In that case, a Jordanian double agent detonated a suicide vest, killing several intelligence personnel at a facility heavily involved in servicing targets for airstrikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Though his objective may have been killing personnel rather than airframes, it demonstrates the continued vulnerability of American bases.
Particularly as the U.S. embraces a model where it provides support and standoff firepower to a local force doing the bulk of the ground fighting, it will be particularly vulnerable to insider threats and beholden to the reliability (both in competency and loyalty) of foreign forces. Exposed forward facilities in America’s “secret wars,” from Lima Site 85 to today, will become increasingly attractive targets. Even U.S. conventional opponents may try to exploit such sapper tactics in order to strike against American airbases (such attacks might feature prominently in the outbreak of large-scale hostilities between the United States and an opponent with sophisticated irregular capabilities, such as Iran).
While the attacks on Camps Chapman and Bastion may be less likely in a theater where a country’s population is less mobilized (and its insurgency far less battle-tested) U.S. presence than it is in Afghanistan, the fact that groups such as Puerto Rico’s violent Machetero separatists could conduct similar operations against a base on U.S. soil is a warning against complacency. If America wants to scale-down its forward presence and power projection footprint, it will need to focus more energy and attention on force protection. Attacks on such facilities target capabilities that are relatively difficult for the U.S. to sustain in the face of concerted attrition. While limiting one’s presence in a country to those necessary to operate and support missions providing aerial and naval firepower, advisory roles, intelligence gathering, special operations, and civilian roles such as those the State Department fills certainly will certainly not generate as many casualties as those an occupying counterinsurgency force generates, the loss of aircraft, highly-trained Special Operations personnel, or diplomats can dramatically set back U.S. operations in a context of limited resources and multiple theaters of operation.
Not only that, but attacks on such critical facilities can create significant escalatory effects and political pressures. While we may now associate the supporting and advisory missions of these bases with the political dénouement of U.S. involvement in a conflict, effective strikes on U.S. aircraft, naval vessels, and vulnerable facilities unleash political fallout that might undermine the determination of policymakers to effectively tame the scope and scale of a U.S. “secret war” or limited conflict. The notion that a lack of “boots on the ground” means American lives and security are at little risk is fallacious. Any kind of sustained U.S. military presence will generate potential targets for enemy attack, and the U.S. will need to find ways to effectively conduct force protection missions in such environments if these sorts of activities are to be tactically and operationally viable.
Robert Haddick has a provocative post at
Foreign Policy suggesting that the rise of strategic
air power and anti-ship weaponry might render carriers obsolete, and cause major inter-service conflict to boot.
He might be right about the second part, but I have strong doubts about the
This isn’t the first time the aircraft carrier as we know it received an early obituary. In the wake of World War II, the advent of strategic bombing and nuclear weapons strongly suggested to a number of overeager politicians, along with Army and Air Force officers, that the Navy and Marine Corps were on their way out. The arguments? Expensive supercarriers capable of fielding aircraft that could carry the day’s five-ton nuclear bombs were too expensive, unwieldy, and vulnerable compared to strategic bombers, immediate aerial force, rather than support of ground operations, was the overwhelming concern for rapid response, and access to theater land basing would be either reliable or unnecessary.
There certainly was a massive breach in inter-service relations, as the Revolt of the Admirals and the attendant fallout revealed. Yet the carrier did not die. and indeed it rose in prominence as an instrument of U.S. power. Today, though, Haddick suggests carrier killer technologies are sufficiently disruptive, and carriers sufficiently expensive, to keep them out of useful combat range, to the point where they would require sortie-limiting midair refueling.
This misses half of the anti-access/area denial challenge. Certainly, countries such as china and Iran have increasing access to anti-ship weapons ranging from cruise missiles to small boat swarms. However, these countries also possess increasingly sophisticated capabilities to strike land basing. As RAND studies of air warfare have pointed out, China could also choose to rain ballistic or cruise missiles on U.S. air bases in the Western Pacific, forcing the U.S. to operate from a long distance and rely on tankers anyway. Countries can also simply choose not to provide overflight or access to theater basing for tactical aircraft.
Haddick suggests that bombers with precision weapons could elide these issues. Yet the continuous presence of strategic bombers is still dependent on thorough SEAD. SEAD operations, though stealthy aircraft can participate, still rely in significant part on specialized short-range aircraft such as the EA-18G and F-16CJ, as well as hundreds of TLAMs from naval vessels. Haddick recognizes that longer-ranged carrier aircraft, such as carrier launched-UAS, could shift this balance (as lighter nuclear bombs shifted the logic of carriers after the Revolt of the Admirals), but then asks why intercontinental drones could not work,
Simply looking at carriers ability to dispense aerial firepower, however, is insufficient to understanding their value. Carriers project power, not just firepower. Bombers can support troops in contact in Afghanistan, sure, but Afghanistan isn’t exactly the height of the A2/AD challenge (and you can see plenty of F/A-18s providing airstrikes there too). Indeed, with the exception of landlocked countries, anywhere that the U.S. is providing close air support to American troops in contact, it will likely have a naval presence nearby. Indeed, if access to theater basing for tactical aircraft is diminishing, than projecting a ground presence into an area is more, not less, likely to necessitate a carrier. Carrier Battle Groups will likely need to integrate their operations more with strategic bombers and tactical aircraft, to confront A2/AD challenges, but for some kinds of crisis response, strategic bombers likely won’t cut it.
The best response to a crisis isn’t always delivering the largest amount of warheads to the largest amount of foreheads. You can’t evacuate American citizens to a B-2, or drop a JSOC team out of one. Maritime power remains more flexible than air power for supporting ground operations thousands of miles away from home, and where maritime power goes, it is good to ensure a whole variety of tactical aircraft - from helicopters to EW and SEAD platforms to close-air support and air superiority jets - can follow. Despite the run of good luck in Libya, The messy business of ground operations won’t always be easy to outsource, and theater basing will not always be easy to procure. The spectrum of operations necessary to conduct under those circumstances will likely quantitatively overburden and qualitatively outstrip the limits of the bomber force.
As a final point, naval power provides an effective show of presence and force that intercontinental bombers cannot. Although gunboat diplomacy may seem like 19th century skullduggery, the ability to park a huge amount of floating combat power offshore is a more effective demonstration of presence than strategic bomber patrols, and more politically flexible (and economically inexpensive, in many cases) than trying to secure theater basing for non-amphibious ground forces or tactical aircraft. Ultimately, A2/AD is going to make it more difficult for all forms of power projection, not just carriers. Even if the platform’s halcyon days are behind it, the continued dependence of U.S. forces on maritime control and power projection generally is likely to give the carrier a continued, if increasingly circumscribed, role well into this century.
The French Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le
Drian, recently stated that France is willing to help impose
a “partial” no-fly zone in Syria, pending
international legitimacy and participation, and so long as it was not a full
no-fly zone, since that would be “tantamount to war.” There are several
curiosities to unravel here, and they are not exactly unique to this case.
The modern obsession with finding forms of military intervention short of war is a quixotic enterprise. As Micah Zenko has extensively studied, and co-blogger Adam has written about elsewhere, Discrete Military Operations such as no-fly zones are tantamount to wars in many respects. They are, if not sanctioned internationally, acts of aggression. They will often be treated by the target actor as an act of war. The dynamics of conflict and military action still apply.
What is particularly revealing here is that a “partial” no-fly zone is floated as some sort of non-war action, but a nationwide no-fly zone in Syria would be “tantamount to war.” But of course, imposing a no-fly zone over part of Syria or the whole of it is a matter of quantitative degree rather than qualitative difference. As I explored in a piece for the United States Naval Institute, imposing a no-fly zone in Syria would likely mean conducting intensive Suppression of Enemy Air Defense to destroy Syria’s air defenses and air force. Even a partial no-fly zone would likely require some strikes outside its limits in order to degrade Syrian airfields, early-warning radars and mobile or semi-mobile air defense systems.
Imposing even a partial no-fly zone would be tantamount to war, just as arming Syria’s rebels would be an act of war, and constitute foreign engagement in the Syrian civil war, and their success would rely on the combustible cocktail of passion, reason, and chance that all wars do. The difference between these “time-limited, scope-limited kinetic military actions” and war is ultimately an arbitrary distinction of political language which gives away when either the target or the intervening force, in order to achieve its objectives, escalates force to the point where the label is no longer tenable or useful.
In Iraq, the case is instructive on the dangers and shortcomings of such short-of-war thinking. In the wake of Desert Storm, despite the battlefield defeat of the Iraqi army and widespread desertion or imprisonment of Iraqi conscripts, Iraq maintained the will to suppress revolts in its north and south, resulting in the imposition of no-fly zones under Operations Northern and Southern Watch. The result was continued U.S. engagement in warfare against Iraqi air defenses and air forces and Iraqi warfare against rebelling forces in both no-fly zones. Saddam repeatedly violated America’s imposed standards despite the experience of 1990-91, which occasionally required the threatened reinsertion of Western ground forces or, in the wake of Saddam’s intervention in the Kurdish Civil War, and ended pretenses of respecting them due to strikes nominally aimed at his WMD program (but in practice, at many other critical political and military facilities). Ultimately, America’s political goals in Iraq, as codified in the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, required a military action everybody rightfully identified as a war.
Ultimately, although using labels such as “humanitarian intervention,” “kinetic military action,” or, to get really old school, “Quasi-War” may be politically or historically sensible, particularly in retrospect, they remain, from the perspective of military analysis grappling with prospective scenarios, frequently misleading. It is only the result of an equilibrium between the preferences of the belligerents engaged, and frequently devolve into war because each side retains the capacity to frustrate the political objectives of the other without an unmistakable increase in willpower or commitment. In Iraq, that increase ultimately came in the form of an invasion force. In Libya, luckily enough, it was a combination of NATO airstrikes and a weak government military which allowed escalation to proceed on much more favorable terms. Any application of concerted military force against a sovereign state is “tantamount to war.” Being vague or conflicted about its ends and obscure about its ways and means just makes it more politically convenient to discuss openly, but less convenient to discuss effectively.
Andrew Davies at the Australian
Strategic Policy Institute recently highlighted a fascinating work taking the long view of weapons
The argument essentially goes that, as weapon power has increased exponentially
in past millennia, so too has the density of combatants in the field appeared
to decrease substantially. The relationship here is obvious, but also obviously
not one-sided. The increased lethality of weapons raises the risk of
concentrated formations, but additionally, technological advances in logistics,
battlefield mobility and communications enable more dispersed formations as
Take, for example, this report from the Colombian think-tank CNAI (Esp.), which, among many, many other things, explains the shift in FARC tactics in response to Colombia’s use of light attack aircraft such as A-37s and Super Tucanos. FARC, for much of the late 1990s and early 2000s, was able to operate in quasi-conventional formations and challenge Colombian forces for territorial supremacy in a number of provinces, as well as to construct large encampments. In certain terrain environments, the Colombian military was long impaired in bringing indirect fires to bear against FARC concentrations.
Contrary to the caricature of irregular war and COIN that rejects a role for heavy weapons and airpower, Colombia has not only exploited airpower quite effectively in destroying FARC force concentrations, but also made significant gains in putting it towards campaigns of high-value targeting, including (across borders when necessary). FARC, consequently, was forced to re-disperse its forces and adopt a series of newer techniques, tactics, and procedures in order to mitigate its vulnerability to Colombian fires. This all came at relatively insignificant political cost (perhaps excepting the 2008 Andean crisis), as Colombian public opinion appears to largely support or at least accept Colombia’s aerial campaign, though there is much more criticism of Colombia’s use of proxy forces and ambiguous ties with paramilitaries, or the human rights conduct of Colombian ground troops and intelligence services.
The pattern of counteracting concentrated firepower with forms of dispersal, then, demonstrates a significant degree of continuity between regular and irregular wars. In Kosovo and Iraq, target governments responded to air power by dispersing and camouflaging their forces to wage a protracted defense against Western military might. The response of Serbian Integrated Air Defense System to American air power was in many ways similar to FARC’s - the dispersal of forces, the decreased reliance on fixed rather than mobile combat assets, and a focus on attrition and harassment rather than outright contestation of the battlespace.
In irregular war, the “political” aspects of the war appear more salient because, in addition to geographic dispersal of the battlefield, there is also a social dispersal by the irregular force by adopting ruses and perfidy to disrupt the enemy’s ability to present concentrated targets. This includes not simply the disguising of combatants as noncombatants, but the integration of noncombatants more directly into logistical and other supporting functions - using unarmed noncombatants to courier information, provide intelligence, transport and procure supplies, et cetera. For countries obeying modern laws of armed conflict and especially those with modern liberal norms, dealing with that kind of dispersal requires non-military means by virtue of the counterinsurgent forces’ own political standards. The Lieber Code and other customary laws of war which sanctioned summary executions and reprisal measures through a wide variety of means and a wide spectrum of persons and properties, were ultimately political measures rather than reflections of the nature of the conflict per se.
Nevertheless, regularized or conventional forces frequently blurred these arbitrary lines in the past as counteractions to hostile combat power. Sherman and Sheridan were contributors to the American traditions of total conventional war and counterinsurgency both. That the application of massive conventional force to problems of insurgency does not simply reflect arbitrary political decisions, but also the military circumstances that limit the overwhelming application of superior firepower generally. The most powerful fires are not always the easiest to bring to bear, if geography, intelligence, and the logistical tail do not permit it easy introduction to the theater or a leading role in its operations. The sort of limitations that initially prevented Colombia from making good use of fires in its counterinsurgency operations also occur in conventional battlefields, albeit under different circumstances, and the response of dispersal will continue to frustrate firepower. The dispersal of a combatant in response to superior firepower can involve a transmutation in organizational form is a reminder that, in part, the configuration of a foe is, ultimately, a strategic choice bound by capability, rather than essence.
Last week, CJ Chivers fied a riveting briefing about airpower:
It’s far from perfect, though when a modern Joint Terminal Attack Controller is working with a well-trained pilot and weapon systems officer, and the comm is up, close air support in the age of guided munitions, infra-red targeting pods, Rover links and G.P.S. has become so precise and so effective that people have come to expect perfection. That very idea once seemed an impossible notion. .. It’s a form of warfare that captures many of the contradictions and drives many of the emotions surrounding modern Western war, as it has become so fine-tuned that every mistake fuels anti-foreigner anger. And yet without it many of the remote outposts and operations in Afghanistan would otherwise be in no-go zones. Everyone complains when a strike goes bad, for very good reason. And yet almost everyone who is pinned down finds the mind going to that recurring question: Where the fuck’s the air?
It is true that modern airpower has advanced by leaps and bounds over the decades, particularly in the area of close air support. Of course, many problems remain the same. No matter how advanced air systems may be, enemy workarounds are possible and targeting very much depends on accurate intelligence. Furtheremore, airpower, like any other tactical means, also is dependent on correct policy and strategy to gain strategic effect. Make no mistake--American small wars are sustained in large part by airpower. It is difficult to envision a American campaign without air coverage, and the lack of effective close air support in Vietnam was one of the many reasons why North Vietnamese and Vietcong ground forces were able to inflict such heavy casualties on American forces. Enemy formations were devastated whenever effective air power could be employed. The defense of Khe Sanh and other firebases is a case in point.
Airpower in small wars, however, is only an extension of a larger operational method of power projection. For most of human history, the expense of vehicular transport meant that rivers were often the most effective means of transport. Rivers not only enabled rapid transportation and logistics but also rapid reinforcement and decisive raiding. Both blue and brown water forces enabled a strategy in which small numbers of troops could project power far into large landmasses in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Those forces, superior in discipline, logistics, organization, and tactics to local forces, could spread rapidly and destructively. Technology was more variable--firearms, for example, were common throughout the world during the height of the colonial era. Given superior terrain and doctrine, local forces could inflict stunning tactical and strategic defeats on foreign power-projection units. Local victories were not just achieved by guerrilla units, but also by large land armies.
Airpower added a new dimension to an already rich tradition of land/sea power projection by making it easier to reinforce ground units and strike enemies in distant zones. Aerial resupply, movement, and casualty evacuation also increased the ease with which relatively numerically understrength mobile ground forces could operate in small wars. Both airpower and naval gunfire support were a large part of US "gunboat diplomacy" in Central America, psychologically intimidating opponents and protecting infantry forces. Airpower and naval forces are also dependent on basing for sustained operations inland. Finally, both can also be blocked by enemy standoff weapons such as anti-ship missiles and integrated air defense systems. In an earlier era ships were blocked by mines and coastal fortifications and airpower defeated by dense flak guns.
Critics of airpower often cite T.H. Fehrenbach's adage that cannot pacify a country simply by flying over it, but the more general problem is that tactical superiority has never easily translated into gaining the control necessary to achieve expansive political objectives. War is not warfare, and it has always been possible to lose the war while still winning the warfare. Distance in particular has always taken its toll. The US could count on more coercive power in Central America, a region with shorter distances from central US bases and one pliable to naval and air forces. Elsewhere the strategic effects of naval and air based tactics is far more ephemeral. The ability to sustain small bases without the ability to gain overall control over the area of operations, most dramatically seen in the documentary Restrepo, hardly suggests the kind of operational dominance necessary to triumph in small wars. Manpower--especially modern military forces--is expensive to sustain and movement even more so. As Jonathan Riley suggests, modern military operations actually make it cheaper to stay still than maneuver operationally.
In Vietnam, supposedly airmobile forces often found themselves landing in hot dropzones preregistered with enemy firepower--if contact could be had at all. The approach of helicopters into some jungle clearings often caused enemy forces to scatter. Worse yet, the need to achieve surprise and avoid ambushes often led to forces being dropped far from the objective and hiking to contact. Of course, the contrasting tactical success of the Rhodesian FireForce operational concept suggests a diferent approach to airmobility could have been had--but the total character of the Rhodesian Civil War was precisely what enabled tactical risktaking and innovation. Consequently, European forces in late 19th century China with limited political objectives (mostly relating to trade) could exert power with tiny ground forces and native proxies because they did not seek to establish control over the whole country. The Imperial Japanese Army lacked such political limits and found themselves floundering despite repeated tactical victories and the destruction of many large Chinese cities.
The paradox of airpower is that it is essential to small wars yet also sustains strategic delusions. Those delusions have little to do with blowback, drones, or even lethal targeting altogether. Strategists frequently believe that air and naval power projection platforms, coupled with a small elite Western force (or a large unskilled native force), can realize expansive political objectives. Given the right policy and strategy, small elite forces coupled with naval and air forces and possibly local armies can have beneficial strategic effect. But these capabilities are often paired with political objectives that accentuate their worst failings and downplay their benefits.
It had taken the American military many days to identify, track and target the senior Taliban officer. But the risk of civilian deaths was deemed too high. Air Force commanders, working with military lawyers, aborted the mission. The Taliban leader escaped.In recent weeks, Afghan politics has been roiled again by a series of high profile aerial bombings in which civilians and Afghan police have been killed or at least in which untrue stories of civilian casualties have gained widespread acceptance among the Afghan populace.
“We miss the opportunity, but the beauty of what we do is we will get them eventually,” said Lt. Gen. Gary L. North, commander of American and allied air forces in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. “We will continue to track them. Eventually, we will get to the point where we can achieve — within the constraints of which we operate, which by the way the enemy does not operate under — and we will get them.”
Hit by one of the artillery rounds, a thatched hut was blazing. Of the family of five, three had survived, although wounded. The mother and her daughter had been killed. Beebe called in a helicopter to evacuate the father and his two boys. Lam [a senior police official] told the villagers that he had been standing next to the Americans when they had called for artillery and that he would have done the same. The error had not been made at the fort. But two women were dead because of firepower gone awry, and the black ashes of the house could be seen by the patrols coming and going from the fort, a constant reminder which for seventeen months affected, if it did not actually determine, the American style of fighting in the village of Binh Nghia. The Marines saw too much of the villagers, and lived too closely with them, not to be affected by their personal grief. Besides, the Americans had to patrol with the PFs [Popular Forces, i.e., local militia], whose own families were scattered throughout the hamlets and who were naturally concerned about the use of any weapon which might injure their relatives. The rifle--not the cannon or the jet--was to be the primary weapon of the Americans in Binh Nghia.