Author's note: this is another delayed post, composed during my travels last week. As it turns out, it is an effective retort to a recent column by Fred Reed in the Washington Times, heralding the "delusion" of airpower.
I recently heard a senior intelligence officer express frustration over the lack of information on the conflict between Israel and Hizballah. As he noted, we’re basically getting one side of the story (from the Israelis) and you’ve got to take their information with a huge grain of salt.
For example, consider the Israeli claim that it destroyed 70% of Hizballah’s rocket inventory and most of its launchers. That assessment seems a bit hard to believe, considering that the terrorists launched their heaviest rocket barrage against Israel on the day before the “cease-fire” went into effect. Perhaps it was Hizballah’s “last hurrah,” but the number of reported rocket attacks on Sunday suggests that significant portions of the terrorist group’s arsenal—or, at least their Katyusha inventory—was still intact when the firing stopped.
Having dropped out of a laser-based rocket defense project a few years ago, Israel had to rely heavily on its Air Force to track down and destroy enemy rockets and launchers in Lebanon. From what I’m told, the IAF averaged more than 300 combat sorties a day during the Lebanon operation, with many of those devoted to the counter-rocket mission. All told, the IAF logged more than 9,000 combat sorties during a month of high-tempo operations, with the capability to launch even more sorties, if directed by political and military leaders. BTW, the sortie count includes totals for both “fixed wing” fighters (F-16s, F-15Cs, F-15Is), and attack helicopters (AH-1s, AH-64s). Sorties by reconnaissance and targeting drones were counted separately; by one estimate, Israeli UAVs logged more that 700 flights during the Lebanon campaign.
The numbers of munitions employed were equally staggering. One source tells me that the IAF exhausted its limited JDAM supplies early in the conflict, and required an emergency resupply from the U.S. By the end of the conflict, IAF stockpiles of Paveway II laser-guided bombs were also depleted, forcing Israeli planners to use “dumb” bombs instead. The effectiveness of the Israeli bombing campaign is a matter of conjecture; while the IAF shut down all major airfields in Lebanon--and destroyed virtually every bridge between Beirut and the southern border—Hizballah survived to fight again another day, allowing it to claim “victory” against the region’s most powerful military.
Results of the Lebanon campaign, coupled with the on-going war in Iraq, will re-ignite the debate over the limits of airpower. According to some pundits, western nations have become over-reliant on advanced aircraft and precision weapons, tools that are (supposedly) of less value in a global War on Terror. The Air Force’s F-22 fighter program has become a symbol of this debate; while critics acknowledge that the Raptor is a technical marvel, they argue that buying even limited numbers of the stealthy, air superiority fighter makes little sense in conflicts that require large numbers of “boots on the ground.”
But those arguments ignore other, equally salient facts. Ground forces still require air support, even in low-intensity conflicts. From tactical airlift to ISR operations, Army, Marine Corps and special forces units are heavily dependent on the air arm. In Iraq, for example, convoy operations are often accompanied by surveillance UAVs—operated by the Air Force. The hunt for insurgents and IEDs are aided by a variety of airborne platforms, including U-2 and RC-135 intelligence platforms; E-8 surveillance/battle management aircraft, various strike fighters and of course, the ubiquitous UAVs, all Air Force assets and linked together through battle management and intelligence nodes “owned” and controlled by the USAF. Increasingly, these are platforms that ground commanders say they cannot live without—and they are only available through the employment and application of airpower.
As for those expensive F-22s, they also offer needed capabilities for the ground commander, namely the ability to dominate the airspace and penetrate enemy air defenses. Admittedly, Hizballah or Al Qaeda don’t have much in terms of air defenses, but other potential adversaries (namely North Korea, Syria and China) certainly do. And, those air defenses will grow increasingly complex in the years to come. China has already acquired the advanced SA-20 SAM system—equivalent to the U.S. Patriot---from Russia, and Moscow is selling TOR-1M (SA-15) missiles to Iran as well. With such systems protecting adversary ground forces, the U.S. and its allies will need advanced aircraft to ensure air superiority and deliver the precision attacks required by military commanders and political leaders.
Airpower by itself cannot defeat terrorists. But it is wildly inaccurate at best—dangerous at worst—to completely dismiss the effectiveness of air systems in supporting the GWOT. And it is equally reckless to ignore the growing air and air defense threat from adversaries like China, a threat which mandates development (and deployment) of advanced air systems. Critics like Mr. Reed are little more than misguided and misinformed.