Libya and Air Power Enthusiasm

University of Kentucky professor Rob Farley has a fine piece over at WPR on what Libya tells us about the ongoing air power debate.  For the uninitiated, the argument centers on the issue of whether air power can achieve decisive coercive effects largely on its own.  I’ve been teaching this debate recently so Rob’s piece comes at a great time for me.  Rob’s basic point is essentially what I’ve been telling my classes for a long time (based largely on works by scholars such as Robert Pape and more recent critics of the strategic bombing crowd).  Indeed, the voices seem to be singing awfully familiar tunes to those of us who had to live through the post-Kosovo AAR.  Aside from the obvious institutional interests and dream-like appeal to liberal interventionists that keep it alive, it is hard to believe that air power enthusiasm has serious legs.  Great to see Rob holding his position with aplomb.

Here is a nice paragraph from Rob’s piece:

In fact, the Libya campaign supplies only very tenuous and measured support for the idea that airpower has become decisive in modern warfare. The focus on tactical rather than strategic targets represents a profound retreat from the principles that guided the employment of airpower as recently as Operation Iraqi Freedom. Historically, the U.S. Air Force, like the air forces of many other countries’ militaries, has resented “tactical” tasks such as hunting and killing enemy tanks and supply vehicles or bombing entrenched enemy positions. Direct attacks on fielded enemy forces can hurt, but they also require great skill and lack the “multiplier effect” supposedly accrued by attacks against “strategic” targets such as communications networks and command nodes. Tactical campaigns also tie air assets to the whims of ground commanders, in this case a combination of French and British special forces and Libyan rebels. In the minds of many pilots, a tactical campaign turns an air force into an exceedingly expensive artillery branch. While there is no doubt that such a campaign can have an effect, most advocates find it a waste of airpower’s potential. 

One thought on “Libya and Air Power Enthusiasm

  1. This sounds much more like a who to bomb and what to bomb type of argument rather than a whether to bomb one.

    Also, as we move more and more to drones that can really do the tactical stuff well, I wonder if the argument would change (and whether drones can really be lumped in with B-52s and F-16s).

    And it seems like the main argument in favor of air power doesn’t come into play: the level of US casualties.

    [I’m going just off your post, I haven’t read the article yet.]

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