Saturday, April 22, 2006

Beware: Airpower theorists

Some ideas never die, no matter how many times they get beaten. Look at the theory of land-value taxation, or social credit, or anything religious. The art of war, like every other field of intellectual activity, has its own. This is airpower theory, the notion developed by the Italian general (not, perhaps, a good sign) Giulio Douhet just after the first world war that victory could be achieved easily by bombing the enemy's strategic cities, which was later taken up by, well, every air force in the world.

Douhet was influenced by two things - one was the Italian experience of the first world war, which consisted of futilely battering at the Austrian southwestern front in the Alps in the face of their defensive strategy, which relied on the mountains and huge amounts of artillery as a substitute for manpower. The Austrians were short of men but had loads of big guns, thanks to the industries of what is now the Czech Republic and still the most advanced industrial area of central Europe. That sounds no fun at all, and it wasn't - the Italians lost a stupid number of people, not far off Britain's total, fighting out an entirely secondary war of their own, piling up offensives over the Isonzo river until the battles got into double figures.

He concluded, essentially, that rather than trying to fight over the mountains and through the Austrian artillery fire, it would be far better to blow up the Czech industries that supported them. This, he thought, could be achieved with big planes. The second thing that influenced him was the fact he was a fascist, although he didn't know it yet, and his fear and loathing of the working class provided the other half of his theory. Once the industries of Prague and Linz and the Vienna railway yards were at a standstill, he argued, the workers would turn on their rulers in a mobswarm of hell and the enemy would collapse from within.

Essentially, that's yer airpower theory - it went through a few iterations, moving to a strong form that argued that the so-called knock-out blow would cause not just revolution but total social collapse, then back to a weaker form that argued that targeting key facilities would bring about a slow blockadelike victory by strangulation, and even persuaded a lot of people on the Left despite all the rightwing baggage, but that's essentially it.

In the test of reality, several things became evident - first of all, as early as 1936, it became clear that effective air defence would be an option with the arrival of monoplane fighters and radar. Until then, a sort of proto-MAD theory had ruled, on the principle that only enough bombers to offer a credible threat of the KOB could provide security. Secondly, when the bombs began to drop, it turned out that bombing people doesn't - strangely enough - make them like you. From Madrid onwards, a whole string of populations were strategically bombed, and usually turned out to prefer revenge on the bombers to apocalyptic rebellion - or failing that, fatalism. Another thing the bombers realised was that it was harder than it looked to destroy the other side's industries. German industrial production peaked in November 1944, when much of urban Germany had been bombed to buggery, rebombed, bombed again, and bombed repeatedly to make the rubble bounce. Even bombing oil refineries (when the RAF could hit them, which was less often than you might think) turned out not to be anywhere near as destructive as you might think.

The RAF Bomber Command and the US 8th Air Force fell out about the exact interpretation of airpower theory they preferred. The Americans went for the weak form, hiring economists like J.K. Galbraith to analyse the German economy to work out what to destroy, like the famous Schweinfurt ball-bearing factory. "Bomber" Harris disagreed, essentially because he thought it was girlie and insufficiently savage (and, I suspect, because the people involved were cleverer than he was), preferring just to bomb everything in order to "dehouse" the working class, which would of course lead to the knock-out blow, revolution, back home for tea & medals. None of it worked.

This is the essential lesson of airpower theory - it doesn't work. It never has. Strategic bombing is pointless, unless you go nuclear and keep nuking until you kill 'em all. So far, it's been tried in the Spanish Civil War, WW2, Korea, Vietnam, Iran-Iraq, GW1, Kosovo, Chechnya(arguably), Afghanistan (arguably, like Chechnya, being used to drive people out of the countryside), India/Pakistan (several times)...and it didn't decide any of them. It has a pernicious effect on the mind, too..once it gets a hold of you, it doesn't stop until you're convinced a bomb or two would improve anything from Najaf to Wimbledon, via Staines and Sondre Stromfjord. (Although..) Crack cocaine for generals, basically.

Now, to my point: worryingly, the Dick Cheney wing of the US government seems to have been at Curtis LeMay's old stash, and they want to try it on Iran. There is no even vaguely realistic prospect of enough troops to invade the place, so air it's gotta be..and they face a serious problem. They can bomb "nuclear sites", but they don't know where all of 'em are, and they can be repaired. Even if they take John Robb's advice and bomb the electricity grid, even that doesn't solve the problem, because unless they keep bombing it the Iranians can fix it, and start enriching again, get bombed again, fix it again, and stick it out until they arrive at The Bomb and impunity.

They can't keep bombing at a slow pace indefinitely (see Iraq 1993-2003), either, for fear of the Iraq/oil/terror/finance consequences. So, they have to get a quick strategic decision, and the only thing that will offer this is a mob rising. And heeeeeerrr's Giulio! Bomb'em and they'll rebel. Jobzagoodun. This is where, speaking more generally, I have a criticism of the John Robb "Global Guerrillas" version of 4GW theory. So it's all about infrastructure disruption, right? Bugger about with the oil pipelines and the electricity enough and state failure, security privatisation etc - the 21st Century form of revolution - follows. Fair enough, seems to fit Iraq..but how is this different to the knock-out blow theory, which we know from experience to be a crock of shit with the force and effect of a lightly poached egg?

This is all very bad news, because the two things that have permitted strategic airpower theory to survive in a hostile memetic environment are as follows: firstly, it's highly congenial to several of our normal cognitive biases. Secondly, it's well adapted to life in bureaucracy, its usual habitat. First, airpower theory has always offered a quick and easy, but total, form of victory. It ain't cheap - AJP Taylor calculated the RAF bomber offensive sucked up 25% of UK industrial production - and it ain't necessarily light on casualties - being RAF Bomber Command aircrew was far more likely to kill you than being an infantryman, and only being a submariner was more dangerous, but at least the absolute number of people on your side who are exposed is small. Crucially, though, the essentially vicious nature of bombing seven bells of shit out of absolutely innocent civilians allows policymakers to feel that taking the easy option is actually a sign of toughness.

And the one thing airpower theory is good for is if you want to build an air force. Even if you want the air force for entirely different purposes - close air support, air defence, mobility, sea patrol - it seems that airpower theory is good for institution building. This is because it presupposes an independent, strategically self-governing air arm with its own doctrine, which fits the air force to thrive in the Darwinian struggle for budget. Airpower theorists, who tend to be either strategic bomber aviators or topline fighter pilots (the other key mafia in any air force), rise to the top of air forces, which enable them to rise to the top of defence establishments.

It's certainly notable that those air forces that espoused airpower theory seem to have been more successful over time than those who went tactical or remained part of the army. The Luftwaffe, despite Hitler's politically-driven boasts and general bomber fear, was an army-driven, tactical air force, something it did near perfectly. But it lacked the institutional infrastructure of technical schools, training, doctrine, aircraft maintenance and supply that Lord Trenchard insisted the RAF must have in its own independent control (rather like the contemporary new institutions of the UK, the BBC and the Royal Ballet, who both set out from the word go to have all the facilities and career paths they used in-house). Similarly, the USAF began as the US Army Air Force, but had from the beginning a strong airpower theory core given it by Billy Mitchell. The Japanese suffered from duplication between the Army and Navy.

It's just a pity the buggers start believing it.

Update: This post has been heavily linked to, and various criticisms aired in comments. Some of those have been dealt with by other comments, but I'll respond too. Essentially, the criticism is that "the technology's much better, and what about Gulf War 1 and Kosovo?"

Certainly the technology of dropping bombs onto precisely defined targets has improved dramatically, and air power played a huge role in recent US wars. But it wasn't air power that won Gulf 1 - sure, it helped, but there still had to be a gigantic armoured invasion of Guderian/Malinovskian scale. The popular memory that it was all over quickly and with few casualties tends to mask the fact that there was a LOT of tank fighting. Airpower certainly killed a lot of Iraqi soldiers, which brings us to a key point.

When advocates of the "Revolution in Military Affairs" talk about airpower, what they really mean is tactical airpower - essentially, tank-plinking, fancy reconnaissance, close air support and communications-interdiction. Stuff you do to the enemy's army in order to win the land (or sea) battle. The Kosovo campaign was initially imagined as a big tactical air attack on the JNA and police in Kosovo, with the aim of achieving the operational level success of preventing them from dragooning the Kosovars and hence the strategic level success of getting Milosevic to give up. When this arguably incoherent program didn't work - because there was no land battle, thus allowing the JNA to take its armour off the roads and hunker down - NATO tried some strategic bombing, bombing the TV station in Belgrade, the Novi Sad bridges and the Zastava factories...which didn't work. Neither did bombing the Chinese embassy, strangely enough.

Eventually, NATO brought up a sizable army with lavish close air support assets and all the tanks you can eat, and the KLA got strong enough to force the JNA to concentrate troops in the open. That created a valid situation for close air support, up to and including B52s in the tactical role. The prospect of trying to fight off the NATO 1 ARRC tanks with that kind of air support caused Milosevic to, eventually, give up.

The thing is, it's not the technology that makes strategic bombing, it's the aim. It's a feature of current warfare that aircraft, weapons and tactics designed for Cold War strategic and semistrategic tasks are used for tactical ones - B-1B Lancers circling for hours over Afghanistan waiting for the call from four special forces soldiers to drop a single bomb over there near that goat. The most strategic-like tasks are usually the "first night of the war" ones aimed at gaining air superiority, which is an operational goal not a strategic one. In a sense, the intervention in Afghanistan used strategic aircraft and support systems in a tactical role in order to help achieve the Northern Alliance's operational aims, in order to achieve the US's strategic goals.


Greg said...

I'm not sure you're right on this. Not absolutely, anyway. I was convinced, for pretty much the same arguments you outline here, that the 1999 NATO offensive against Serbia would fail, and it didn't. There were problems, sure, but that was through lack of ground support. The basic approach worked.

That might be the exception that proves the rule, mind.

Greg London said...

the Darwinian struggle for budget

That's the main reason strategic air power sticks around, people have 10 and 20 and 30 year careers in the works. And they must justify their jobs or lose their prestige, their retirements, and go from flying sexy jets fighters to looking for a job at an airline.

Bing said...

Didn't airpower do reasonably well in Iraq in 1991? That war ended pretty darn quickly.

Scott said...

The reason that Kosovo "Worked" was that eventually enough Kosovar guerillas were on the ground that the Serbian Army had to come out and engage them. Then the Serbs could be hit from the air. The strategic campaign had very little to do with it.

Scott said...

As for Kuwait/Iraq in 1991, yes, the interdiction campaign had a large effect on the ability of Iraqi forces to operate, but, although short, the ground offensive was absolutely necessary to achieve a decision.

Anonymous said...

The successes, such as GW1 and Kossovo, aren't successes of neo-Douhetism. A B-52 may be a strategic bomber, but carpet-bombing the Iraqi army's field positions is about as tactical as you can get with a plane like that. They're no more strategic bombing than the heavy bomber raids used in the American breakout from Normandy.

And, while there's at least reason to think that bombing electriciy generation, or oil refineries, can seriouly affect the ability of a country to sustain a war, the USA fights its wars with accumulated stockpiles of munitions.

And a smart bomb combines heavy engineering -- that big lump of steel that has to be cast and machined into the right shape -- with the high-tech electronics.

War is about traditional heavy engineering, even with all the fancy electronics.

I doubt that there is a single country in the world which can make bombs, bullets, and artillery shells faster than they can use them. Nobody can fight a long war.

Anonymous said...

I thought that the consensus on Kosovo was that NATO was almost completely unable to hit the Serb army in the field (due to hills, forests, cloud, decoys etc) and that the Serbs only cracked when NATO started hitting strategic targets in Belgrade.
And, of course, eventually Milosevic was kicked out by popular force, wasn't he?
I don't think you could point to any single factor and say it 'decided' the Second World War, or indeed any war, so strategic bombing's no different in that respect.
As for 'sparking a rebellion'; Yugoslavia aside, Iraq had been strategically bombed in 1991, and the loss of central control that caused probably led to a couple of (admittedly unsuccessful) revolts.
Chechnya was not strategic bombing, but (over)use of tac air - different thing. Same with the Russians, and the coalition, in Afghanistan. Strategic targets would be industry, seats of government, civilian population, and lines of communication outside the battle area. Tactical targets are troops, supplies, and communications in the battle area.

And certainly it would have been a lot more difficult to get air superiority over Normandy if all the German fighters hadn't been pulled back to defend the Reich.

Jakob said...

I can heartily recommend Stephen Budiansky's excellent book 'Air Power'. He suggests that airpower has had the biggest effect when it has been used as a tactical battlefield force, rather than as a strategic force. The problem with strategic bombing is that nobody's quite sure what it should entail. This isn't to say that the strategic bombing campaign in WWII (eg.) was pointless, but it certainly didn't bring about the collapse of the Axis all by itself. These days, though, the boundaries between tactical and strategic airpower are very much blurred. If both F-16s and B-52s can drop guided smart weapons that can annihilate a conventional army and defence infrastructure, isn't strategic bombing redundant? You don't need to destroy the enemy's will to fight by hitting nebulous strategic targets of dubious efficaciousness, if you can destroy his means to fight. Your problems are going to start when the ground troops have occupied enemy territory, if and when you start having to fight counter-insurgency battles. Here airpower may yet become useful in future, if concepts like armed micro-uavs are introduced in service, but weapons don't win guerilla campaigns - for that you need people intelligence and hearts and minds.

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