Airpower and Unconventional Warfare

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Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).

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“Airpower” and “unconventional warfare” have radically changed the concept of war in the 20th century. Addition of the fourth dimension, the air, has brought speed, flexibility and dynamism to the modern battlefield while “unconventional war” has meant a non-linear battlefield with no front and no rear, with soldiers without uniforms targeting combatants and non-combatant’s alike without observing Marquess of Queensbury’s rules of gentlemanly conduct. The savagery of unconventional warfare can be very pervasive, even regular forces have resorted to conduct anathema to the Geneva Convention as seen in Qila-e-Janghi with respect to prisoners of war.

“Airpower” and “unconventional warfare” have radically changed the concept of war in the 20th century. Addition of the fourth dimension, the air, has brought speed, flexibility and dynamism to the modern battlefield while “unconventional war” has meant a non-linear battlefield with no front and no rear, with soldiers without uniforms targeting combatants and non-combatant’s alike without observing Marquess of Queensbury’s rules of gentlemanly conduct. The savagery of unconventional warfare can be very pervasive, even regular forces have resorted to conduct anathema to the Geneva Convention as seen in Qila-e-Janghi with respect to prisoners of war.

 

 

Airpower had already become a decisive factor during conventional war, Stealth technology and precision guided bombs has force multiplied its lethality. However airpower is costly, fragile and can never be a substitute for clear military objectives. Rapid advances in science and technology ensured that airpower has accuracy, speed and is difficult in countering, making it also more decisive in unconventional wars, unconventional warriors not having the resources to afford counter-measures or avoid being manipulated into providing conventional targets. World War 2 and the Arab-Israeli wars show the decisive effect of airpower on conventional forces, a number of intangible factors delayed decisiveness in unconventional warfare till very fairly recently. The major intangible, intelligence, unless reliable, can limit the influence of airpower on conduct of military operations, effectiveness of airpower depending upon its timely and accurate availability. An infantry soldier firing his weapon sees the enemy physically in real-time, artillery is dependant upon forward observation officers (FOOs) acquiring targets, like Special Forces providing forward air observation in Qila-e-Janghi and Tora Bora. A conventional army may find it difficult to acquire accurate information because an unconventional enemy does not (and should not) conform to the known rules of warfare. The technological advance has been startling, when one looks at the Gulf War, the Bosnia and Kosovo air campaigns and compare it with Afghanistan.

Airpower had already become a decisive factor during conventional war, Stealth technology and precision guided bombs has force multiplied its lethality. However airpower is costly, fragile and can never be a substitute for clear military objectives. Rapid advances in science and technology ensured that airpower has accuracy, speed and is difficult in countering, making it also more decisive in unconventional wars, unconventional warriors not having the resources to afford counter-measures or avoid being manipulated into providing conventional targets. World War 2 and the Arab-Israeli wars show the decisive effect of airpower on conventional forces, a number of intangible factors delayed decisiveness in unconventional warfare till very fairly recently. The major intangible, intelligence, unless reliable, can limit the influence of airpower on conduct of military operations, effectiveness of airpower depending upon its timely and accurate availability. An infantry soldier firing his weapon sees the enemy physically in real-time, artillery is dependant upon forward observation officers (FOOs) acquiring targets, like Special Forces providing forward air observation in Qila-e-Janghi and Tora Bora. A conventional army may find it difficult to acquire accurate information because an unconventional enemy does not (and should not) conform to the known rules of warfare. The technological advance has been startling, when one looks at the Gulf War, the Bosnia and Kosovo air campaigns and compare it with Afghanistan.

 

 

On Sep 11 in New York, an unconventional enemy crafted a commercial aircraft into unconventional airpower and made a major impact on conventional forces, conventional forces miserably failing to protect against unconventional means. In Afghanistan, the US faced for the first time since Vietnam an unconventional enemy but used both superior technology and human assets to acquire intelligence, and having target acquisition delivered maximum force with decisive effect. Intelligence succeeded for unconventional forces and failed for conventional forces in New York, in Afghanistan stealth technology was not needed but smart bombs were guided by real-time intelligence in causing crippling damage to the Talibaan rank and file, both materially and psychologically. Airpower was devastating in Vietnam but failed the US because Viet Cong seldom gave lucrative targets to airpower already straitjacketed by US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara’s fatal decision to restrict air support within South Vietnam, allowing North Vietnam to be used a staging point for guerilla warfare in the South. With the North Vietnamese dragged their feet during subsequent Paris Talks in 1972, US President Nixon ordered air strikes against Hanoi and Haiphong in North Vietnam, only 700 B-52 sorties brought the North Vietnamese back to a successful conclusion of the peace negotiations. In Afghanistan we have seen an awesome display of US airpower, a combination of cruise missiles, B-52s, B-1 and B-2 bombers, as well as unmanned Predator aircraft, both armed and unarmed, and F-14s, F-15s and F-16s, etc launched from ground bases and aircraft carriers, delivering virtually designer-made precision-guided munitions (smart bombs), this crescendo rising to a Wagnerian climax at Tora Bora in non-stop bombing for over a week. The effects of this concentrated assault could be seen on the dozen or so shell-shocked Qaeda prisoners paraded by the bounty hunting Mujhahideen (you cannot purchase an Afghan, you can only rent him by the hour). They shuffled into view like Zombies, living dead.

On Sep 11 in New York, an unconventional enemy crafted a commercial aircraft into unconventional airpower and made a major impact on conventional forces, conventional forces miserably failing to protect against unconventional means. In Afghanistan, the US faced for the first time since Vietnam an unconventional enemy but used both superior technology and human assets to acquire intelligence, and having target acquisition delivered maximum force with decisive effect. Intelligence succeeded for unconventional forces and failed for conventional forces in New York, in Afghanistan stealth technology was not needed but smart bombs were guided by real-time intelligence in causing crippling damage to the Talibaan rank and file, both materially and psychologically. Airpower was devastating in Vietnam but failed the US because Viet Cong seldom gave lucrative targets to airpower already straitjacketed by US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara’s fatal decision to restrict air support within South Vietnam, allowing North Vietnam to be used a staging point for guerilla warfare in the South. With the North Vietnamese dragged their feet during subsequent Paris Talks in 1972, US President Nixon ordered air strikes against Hanoi and Haiphong in North Vietnam, only 700 B-52 sorties brought the North Vietnamese back to a successful conclusion of the peace negotiations. In Afghanistan we have seen an awesome display of US airpower, a combination of cruise missiles, B-52s, B-1 and B-2 bombers, as well as unmanned Predator aircraft, both armed and unarmed, and F-14s, F-15s and F-16s, etc launched from ground bases and aircraft carriers, delivering virtually designer-made precision-guided munitions (smart bombs), this crescendo rising to a Wagnerian climax at Tora Bora in non-stop bombing for over a week. The effects of this concentrated assault could be seen on the dozen or so shell-shocked Qaeda prisoners paraded by the bounty hunting Mujhahideen (you cannot purchase an Afghan, you can only rent him by the hour). They shuffled into view like Zombies, living dead.

 

 

Writing in “Unofficial History”, Field Marshal (then a Brigadier) Slim (of Burma), mentions the panic created in the whole Brigade by a very good British infantry battalion at Gallabat who could not bear Italian bombing for even 10 minutes. Despite all its decisive effect, one of airpower’s limitations lies in its basic inability to hold ground. It is also relatively too expensive, being vulnerable to far cheaper anti-aircraft weapons and total dependence for its success rests on strategic and tactical intelligence. If a relatively strong country had been supporting the Talibaan’s unconventional forces morally and materially, airpower’s effects could have been drastically checked and/or curtailed. As the massive onslaught of B-52 carpet bombing and precision-guided bombs on Tora Bora has shown, topographical factors can severely limit the use of conventional airforce against unconventional forces. Airpower can create opportunities but political realities can only be altered by exploitation by ground conventional and unconventional forces to bring down political rivals or targets, as the sudden break-up and rout of the Talibaan has shown. While the Talibaan’s resilience was overcome by airpower creating shock and dislocation. Gen Jim Jones, Commandant of US Marines, speaking on CNN’s Larry King Live, contrasted the Kosovo air campaign with Afghanistan in the use of airpower. In Kosovo they had no one on the ground to act as “eyes and ears” to “paint” the targets, in Afghanistan this was done effectively. Speaking on the same programme, Senator John McCain spoke of the tremendous impact of airpower but said in the end soldiers like the US marines have to go in on the ground to complete the job.

Writing in “Unofficial History”, Field Marshal (then a Brigadier) Slim (of Burma), mentions the panic created in the whole Brigade by a very good British infantry battalion at Gallabat who could not bear Italian bombing for even 10 minutes. Despite all its decisive effect, one of airpower’s limitations lies in its basic inability to hold ground. It is also relatively too expensive, being vulnerable to far cheaper anti-aircraft weapons and total dependence for its success rests on strategic and tactical intelligence. If a relatively strong country had been supporting the Talibaan’s unconventional forces morally and materially, airpower’s effects could have been drastically checked and/or curtailed. As the massive onslaught of B-52 carpet bombing and precision-guided bombs on Tora Bora has shown, topographical factors can severely limit the use of conventional airforce against unconventional forces. Airpower can create opportunities but political realities can only be altered by exploitation by ground conventional and unconventional forces to bring down political rivals or targets, as the sudden break-up and rout of the Talibaan has shown. While the Talibaan’s resilience was overcome by airpower creating shock and dislocation. Gen Jim Jones, Commandant of US Marines, speaking on CNN’s Larry King Live, contrasted the Kosovo air campaign with Afghanistan in the use of airpower. In Kosovo they had no one on the ground to act as “eyes and ears” to “paint” the targets, in Afghanistan this was done effectively. Speaking on the same programme, Senator John McCain spoke of the tremendous impact of airpower but said in the end soldiers like the US marines have to go in on the ground to complete the job.

 

 

Achieving or not achieving air superiority can decide the outcome of other conventional or unconventional war, it is a balancing factor that can change the equation for the positive. Airpower brings great flexibility to land forces and can cause severe psychological damage not only on the enemy leadership but also rank and file as we have seen in Afghanistan recently. In actual fact, the Talibaan and Northern Alliance ground forces came into live ground contact only at Shebergan near Mazar-i-Sharif and for a short time at Konduz, thereafter the Talibaan were relentlessly pursued by concentration of airpower. With Afghanistan in the throes of impending famine, US used another strategic employment of airpower, dropping hundreds of thousands of food packets in a bid to reach directly into the hearts and minds of the Afghan population. The result of these “food bombs” strategy is not yet known.

Achieving or not achieving air superiority can decide the outcome of other conventional or unconventional war, it is a balancing factor that can change the equation for the positive. Airpower brings great flexibility to land forces and can cause severe psychological damage not only on the enemy leadership but also rank and file as we have seen in Afghanistan recently. In actual fact, the Talibaan and Northern Alliance ground forces came into live ground contact only at Shebergan near Mazar-i-Sharif and for a short time at Konduz, thereafter the Talibaan were relentlessly pursued by concentration of airpower. With Afghanistan in the throes of impending famine, US used another strategic employment of airpower, dropping hundreds of thousands of food packets in a bid to reach directly into the hearts and minds of the Afghan population. The result of these “food bombs” strategy is not yet known.

 

 

Airpower as an offensive weapon must be employed primarily to accomplish strategic objectives before turning to tactical needs. Sound intelligence and all air resources must be pooled to be virtually and laterally integrated, commanded and controlled by air experts rather than being employed by jacks of all trades. There is a case for a poor man’s airforce to meet the land forces needs while the battle for air superiority is raping.

Airpower as an offensive weapon must be employed primarily to accomplish strategic objectives before turning to tactical needs. Sound intelligence and all air resources must be pooled to be virtually and laterally integrated, commanded and controlled by air experts rather than being employed by jacks of all trades. There is a case for a poor man’s airforce to meet the land forces needs while the battle for air superiority is raping.

 

 

Strategic and tactical planners firstly ensured that application of superior technology was combat effective and well integrated. The Talibaan did not have the means of countering either the force and/or its effects. They did not have the military sense to avoid giving lucrative targets to airpower, resulting in a total rout. Aircraft were used in multi-role or multi-tasked wherever necessary and whenever possible to create “strategic paralysis”. However, this does not equate to defeat, if opposition forces had remained tactically vital, they would have required defeat in detail. Faced with the contrasting requirements of garrisoning urban areas and to defending them, the Talibaan made the classical mistake of not doing either properly. They denuded their garrisons by occupying defensive locations and were pounded in their pitiful defensive lines around cities. Though US airpower is even now acting against the Al-Qaeda to inflict defeat in detail, the Talibaan almost total extinction as viable governing entity was caused by airpower. The Mujhahideen they had disarmed in 1996 on coming to power were re-armed by the Talibaan as a last resort in the vain hope that they would side against a common external enemy. A combination of pent-up hatred at the humiliation of several years at the hands of the Talibaan and the green of US dollars easily subverted their loyalties. Providing adequate intelligence to US Forces, they also supplied fighting soldiers (on payment) for ground combat. Supplemented by unarmed reconnaissance vehicles predators (UAVs), positioned satellites, electronic surveillance units, etc. this served to identify and destroy the Talibaan’s control mechanism producing, transporting or giving combat. Airpower pulverized the Talibaan but it could not accomplish the primary war aim and/or attack what it could not sense, it allowed Mullah Umar and Osama Bin Laden to escape, at least till now. Without knowledge it can not defer attacking what it should not have, thus causing civilian casualties. Airpower can blow a door of its hinges but unlike a simple combat soldier Nathu Khan, it cannot see what is behind the door. The manhunt for both Talibaan and Al-Queda leaders goes on.

Strategic and tactical planners firstly ensured that application of superior technology was combat effective and well integrated. The Talibaan did not have the means of countering either the force and/or its effects. They did not have the military sense to avoid giving lucrative targets to airpower, resulting in a total rout. Aircraft were used in multi-role or multi-tasked wherever necessary and whenever possible to create “strategic paralysis”. However, this does not equate to defeat, if opposition forces had remained tactically vital, they would have required defeat in detail. Faced with the contrasting requirements of garrisoning urban areas and to defending them, the Talibaan made the classical mistake of not doing either properly. They denuded their garrisons by occupying defensive locations and were pounded in their pitiful defensive lines around cities. Though US airpower is even now acting against the Al-Qaeda to inflict defeat in detail, the Talibaan almost total extinction as viable governing entity was caused by airpower. The Mujhahideen they had disarmed in 1996 on coming to power were re-armed by the Talibaan as a last resort in the vain hope that they would side against a common external enemy. A combination of pent-up hatred at the humiliation of several years at the hands of the Talibaan and the green of US dollars easily subverted their loyalties. Providing adequate intelligence to US Forces, they also supplied fighting soldiers (on payment) for ground combat. Supplemented by unarmed reconnaissance vehicles predators (UAVs), positioned satellites, electronic surveillance units, etc. this served to identify and destroy the Talibaan’s control mechanism producing, transporting or giving combat. Airpower pulverized the Talibaan but it could not accomplish the primary war aim and/or attack what it could not sense, it allowed Mullah Umar and Osama Bin Laden to escape, at least till now. Without knowledge it can not defer attacking what it should not have, thus causing civilian casualties. Airpower can blow a door of its hinges but unlike a simple combat soldier Nathu Khan, it cannot see what is behind the door. The manhunt for both Talibaan and Al-Queda leaders goes on.

 

 

While there is no doubt about its effectiveness, an unconventional enemy has to be as obliging as the Talibaan to be decisively defeated by airpower.

While there is no doubt about its effectiveness, an unconventional enemy has to be as obliging as the Talibaan to be decisively defeated by airpower.

Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).

Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).

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