The Sky’s the Limit

The new manual for irregular warfare overlooks air power, Air Force officials say.

The Air Force feels left out of the counterinsurgency debate. What's particularly galling to some officials is that the role of air power was relegated to a five-page annex at the back of the new Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual. Setting out to rectify that perceived shortcoming, the Air Force is drafting its own manual for irregular warfare, due out this summer. And officials are speaking out about air power's contribution to labor-intensive irregular warfare, seen as the domain of the U.S. military's ground pounders.

"The Air Force has acknowledged we have a hole in our doctrine," says Maj. Gen. Allen Peck, director of the Air Force Doctrine Center at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, Ala. While the military can't ignore what the Air Force terms the "high-end threat," or technologically advanced conventional adversaries, he says the fundamentals of warfare are changing. In the future, America's wars more likely will resemble the close-in firefights against shadowy guerrilla fighters in Iraq's urban jungles and the mountains of Afghanistan rather than traditional state-vs.-state conflicts. The Air Force's new doctrine manual will encompass all irregular warfare, not just counterinsurgency, Peck says. It's a welcome contribution to the warfighting debate, even if a little overdue, says Frank Hoffman, an irregular warfare specialist at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Va., who contributed to the Army and Marine Corps manual.

Coming off a decade as the reigning champion of the military services, the Air Force has had it tough the last few years as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan placed a premium on ground troops versus precision weapons dropped from the sky. The 1990s was a good decade for the Air Force. It began with an impressive performance in 1991's Desert Storm, and ended with the Kosovo war, which was almost entirely an air power show.

Before 2004, military planning and preparation for war was influenced by the big battle concept. The most likely enemy was deemed a facsimile of America's conventional Army, Navy and Air Force, equipped with Russian and Chinese hardware. America's premium guided weapons and networked command and control would ensure dominance.

Many in the defense community believed that the U.S. military had found the silver bullet in precision guided munitions. America possessed the ability to strike its enemies from standoff platforms such as remotely piloted vehicles or bombers loitering far above the battlefield while limiting the boots on the ground that result in politically unacceptable deaths. A casualty-averse American public eagerly embraced the notion of high-tech, and by implication, low-cost war.

But initial hopes of quick campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq proved illusory, as neither succumbed to the rapid decisive attack that had dominated military planning in the era of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. A much needed reorientation in military planning and resources has been driven by bloody, intractable irregular wars in both countries.

This change in strategic thinking was codified in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, which shifted military planning in the direction of irregular warfare. While the QDR made none of the politically difficult decisions on the future of costly weapons systems, it accurately noted that future battles most likely would be against guerrilla fighters, militias and terrorists rather than large conventional militaries.

The Air Force has taken to touting show of force missions as a vital tool in counterinsurgency. These low-level fly-overs are intended to intimidate opponents on the ground. Jet aircraft fly a few hundred feet above rooftops in downtown Baghdad and drop a string of flares as part of a psychological operations campaign. But it's difficult to discern how show of force demonstrations compete with an enemy who cuts off its opponents' heads and leaves the bodies lying in the streets.

The Air Force's Peck believes the aerial dimension provides the American military an area where irregular adversaries cannot compete. "It's the high ground on the battlefield; it's our asymmetric advantage that they don't have," Peck says. Air Force planes and unmanned drones provide persistent surveillance over large areas, particularly in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are spread thin and the rough terrain makes ground movement challenging, he says. Bombers and fighter jets, maintained 24/7 in rotating strike packages, provide vital fire support for ground troops. Peck says a ground commander in Afghanistan told him that without the combat power provided by aircraft, "hundreds of thousands" more troops would be needed there.

A good portion of the Air Force's fleet is dedicated to nontraditional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, scouring Iraq and Afghanistan for guerrilla fighters planting roadside bombs, Peck says. They have caught some in the act, but even with electronic eyes it can be difficult to determine from thousands of feet in the air whether somebody is picking up garbage along the roadside or planting a bomb.

Peck and other Air Force officials bristled at this passage in the new counterinsurgency manual: "Inappropriate or indiscriminate use of air strikes can erode popular support and fuel insurgent propaganda. For these reasons, commanders should consider the use of air strikes carefully during [counterinsurgency] operations." He agrees that recent air strikes, particularly in Afghanistan, have caused civilian casualties and generated ill will.

Taliban fighters in Afghanistan have developed the practice of firing rockets or mortar rounds at U.S. and NATO bases, waiting for aerial sensors to pick them up, and then running into a village and waiting for aircraft to bomb it. But the Air Force follows strict rules before dropping bombs, Peck says, constantly refining the process to minimize possible civilian deaths. The service also has invested heavily in small-caliber bombs and special fuses designed to minimize blast damage. Peck says the manual failed to emphasize that ground commanders should use caution because troops often inadvertently kill civilians as well.

Because of population growth and increased urbanization, future wars increasingly will be fought not in ever-dwindling wide open spaces but within population centers. Air power plays to the U.S. military's strong suit, Air Force officials say, and the new manual will address what they see as a vital component of irregular warfare. Still, as Hoffman says, the burden always will fall inordinately on the shoulders of troops on the ground. That is, after all, where people live.

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