As with most such debates, the truth is in the middle. Air Power is not a silver bullet. It is most often most effective when used in joint actions with ground and maritime forces. Yet, there are examples, where Air Power alone did achieve objectives. And this is a view shared by most Air Force leaders. Indeed, former Air Force Chief of Staff General Norty Schwartz and I made this argument together in an article in Aviation Week (sadly behind a paywall) refuting a book that argued that the Air Force should be disbanded. We said:
Farley offers an incomplete history of the effectiveness of combat air power in recent conflicts. He is certainly correct that early optimism about airpower as a panacea for modern warfare has proven misplaced. The strategic bombing campaigns during World War II did not have the decisive effect that early airpower advocates envisioned. And, Farley is also correct that the bombing campaigns in Vietnam failed to accomplish their goal. But Farley’s unstated assumption that airpower can never be decisive apart from support for ground troops cannot be reconciled with history. As even Farley admits, without the NATO air offensive in Kosovo, Serbia would have been unlikely to come to the table.
There are other, more recent examples as well. While the intensive bombing campaign against Iraq known as Operation Desert Fox in 1998 was heavily criticized at the time as ineffective, we have since learned that the operation was largely responsible for Saddam Hussein’s decision to end his WMD efforts. U.S. military operations in Afghanistan in 2002 and in Libya in 2011 were largely exercises in air power. And had we intervened in Syria, the focus of our efforts would have been on the use of air power. Simply put, airpower is not a panacea that can replace the need for ground and naval forces–history has made that point abundantly clear–but in some circumstances, combat air power is an indispensable tool of national power.I was therefore fascinated to find a great analysis of the power, and limits, of the use of Air Power in the war against the Islamic State, by Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institute. First, Byman notes that Air Power has been effective in degrading the capability of terrorist organizations. In addition to killing leaders, Byman notes that the use of Air Power limits a terrorist organizations capability:
Yet, in this context, Air Power has a serious limit. We can degrade and destroy the enemy, but unless we address governance issues that allowed ISIS to arise in the first place, we can prevail in the battle and still lose the war:Training on a large-scale is harder, if not impossible, as large gatherings can be lethal. Group leaders’ influence wanes, as they must hide or remain incommunicado. Trying to organize a kids’ soccer game, let alone a global terrorist network, becomes almost impossible if you can’t use phones or the Internet regularly. The indirect effects also matter. Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been laying low since U.S. military operations began, diminishing his charismatic presence from Islamic State propaganda and, presumably, disheartening his beleaguered troops. Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, the spokesman who headed the group’s external operations, was also charismatic and inspired terrorists around the world to attack—and eventually the United States tracked him down and killed him in an airstrike.
The article is well worth reading. You can find my own expanded thoughts on the uses and limits of air power, in this book review.Nor does air power address the biggest long-term challenges in fighting the Islamic State: governance. The United States has proven again and again that it can dislodge terrorists, insurgents, and forces loyal to local despots. Filling the vacuum so that they don’t return is much harder. The terrorists often come back, or, at times, chaos rules. Neither outcome is an improvement for locals, and new terrorist groups can breed if there is no government to keep them down. You can’t provide that governance with a drone.Moreover, for air power to be effective, you need capable local allies. Their forces can provide the necessary intelligence to find and target Islamic State fighters. In addition, when they advance, they force Islamic State forces to mass—making them vulnerable to air power. If Islamic State fighters stay dispersed and hidden, then forces on the ground can root them out. Local forces can also fill the vacuum after victory, ideally establishing a legitimate government and preventing the terrorists from returning or new extremist groups from arising.