How Useful Is Air Power In Irregular Warfare: US Air Force And Its Intervention In Afghanistan
October 7th, 2001, 25 days after the airplane hijackings and the following crashes aimed at the world trade centers and at the pentagon, the United States declared war on terror. Al-Qaida, the Taliban regime and Afghanistan were central in the war to come, and at first the US strategy was to send air strikes aimed at these two organizations and their bases in Afghanistan. I will investigate the position of airpower in irregular warfare using a realist approach. To illustrate I will mainly use the United States air force and its operations in Afghanistan as an example.
My paper will investigate how a western state, the USA, applies the military tool of airpower to fight irregular warfare, represented by the al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan. -All under the category of “state security”. State and power are sentral terms in regards of the realism theory. As such, I will use the classical realism theory to further understand the research question at hand. Classical realism holds that states are sovereign, the international system is an anarchic one, and power is the only currency when security is threatened. (Baylis, Wirtz, Collins. 2016, 7)
Realism holds the state as an actor, and although al-Qaida and the Taliban are not states, I will still use this theory to further understand the US and their use of airpower. Why I did not choose a liberal theory: The afghan operations was sanctioned by the world community, but the Iraq war was not. “. . . the subsequent Iraq war shows that international law and international institutions can be disregarded if they become obstacles to the national interests of a major power. ” (Poowin Bunyavejchewin, 162) And as such, it fails to explain that US decision making, post 9/11, is based on international law and institutions. Or as a realist would put it: “States will agree to laws when it suits them, but will disregard them when their interests are threatened. ” (Baylis, Wirtz and Gray 2016, 7)http: //www. dtic. mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a545635. pdf http: //www. academia. edu/6769338/War_in_Afghanistan_A_realist_approach Presentation of termsIrregular warfare (IW) U. S definition: “IW is characterized as a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s). In IW, a less powerful adversary seeks to disrupt or negate the military capabilities and advantages of a more powerful military force, which usually serves that nation’s established government. “ www. jcs. mil, “Joint publication 1, Doctrine of the Armed Forces of the United States ”, (2013) /( incoporating change 1, 12 july 2017)/Air strike (US DoD definition): “An attack on specific objectives by fighter, bomber, or attack aircraft on an offensive mission. May consist of several air organizations under a single command in the air. ” web. archive. org, “Air strike definition”, (2011). Special operation force (SOF): Small-scale, clandestine, covert or overt operations of an unorthodox and frequently high-risk nature, undertaken to achieve significant political or military objectives in support of foreign policy. (Tugwell & Charters in Barnett et al. (eds. ) 1984 p. 35)xxx(“The difference between terrorist groups and insurgents lies in their different objectives: while the first uses violence to draw attention, the second aims at overthrowing the political order…”using a combination of subversion, terrorism, guerilla warfare, and propaganda. ””. Taddeo (2010, 28))Complex irregular warfare: Definition from the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London is: “Nontraditional modes of warfare that are causing violent perturbations to the existing world order”. Hoffman (2006, 396)
There is a saying from Napoleon that goes “Never interrupt your opponent when he’s making a mistake”. This is to be considered a pillar in the field of strategic thought, according to Frank G. Hoffman (2006, 395). As 9/11 took place, there was a process of changing the defensive priorities in the US. The plan was to “displace conventional forces” and “shift investment priorities”.
The new investment focus would mainly be on missile defense systems, information technology and high precision standard weapons. Had the US been allowed to complete this transformation they would have been significantly weaker off when facing the new threats of “complex irregular warfare”. Hoffman (2006, 395). Hoffman goes on saying that the 9/11 attacks put a halt to this reorganization, and the US military realized that this transformation was not relevant to the future threats against US national security. (2006, 396) The US air force has in the last decades been a very important piece of the puzzle in establishing the US as a dominating actor from a military point of view. Much of this comes from the fact that the US Air Force always seeks to establish airpower dominance. This is an important arena in irregular warfare and US airpower dominance must be sustained in order to have the best possible starting point in an irregular conflict. Hoffman (2006, 402) Stephen Biddle gives an account on how effective the Afghanistan campaign was in the beginning. The Taliban forces was not expecting the US and their new standard precision weapons.
At first Taliban members would often be located by “exposed ridgelines”, with little to non attempts at concealment. Their combat vehicles did not have a proper place to be parked, and so, the U. S did not have a hard time locating and targeting Taliban forces. (2003, 34) At Bishqab, U. S. SOF targeted Taliban forces from more than eight kilometers distance and they were eliminated with precision attacks using 2000-pound bombs. At Cobaki, observation posts could be spotted from 1,500 to 2000 meters distance and taken out by use of precision bombs. Air strike was used to eliminate combat vehicles and heavy weapons on a hillside near the Balkh River. These targets was spotted by SOF from a four kilometer distance. (2003, 35)However, in Afghanistan, the al-Qaida and the Taliban quickly learned from the unexpected american attacks. It did not take long for the enemy to implement counter measurements. Shortly after the first SOF coordinated air strikes, reports came in stating that the Taliban had started to cover their cars with mud to avoid detection. By december al-Qaida used camouflage, used the terrain to their advantage and split up when travelling rather than going in big groups.
Come March they also started using techniques to draw attention away from their real location. Such as starting decoy fights elsewhere to make the americans think they had discovered their position. “The Taliban did not just passively suffer under American attack; they adapted their methods to reduce their vulnerability. “ Biddle (2003, 35). Taddeo writes in her article that when the US first launched a campaign in Afghanistan it ended up lasting less than two months. In combination with law enforcement, targeting financial assets, and the use of tactical aircraft with new generation weapons in military operations, the US had an advantage on the battlefield. In addition, the US sent in SOF into northern Afghanistan to get support from the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Shortly after, the resistance collapsed and al-Qaida and Taliban members ran for cover in the mountains in the eastern regions of Afghanistan. (2010, 29). This proves a flaw of airpower, although the enemy has been bombed away, they have still not been captured nor eliminated. Airpower can be very useful and have a great impact on the evolvement of a battle, but not necessarily in achieving the goal of defeating the enemy. Realism theory can provide an insight into this development. Firstly power is by most realists reckoned as “the defining feature”. (Collins 2016, 14)
The US strive for air dominance fits with this point of view. Their sought for power, for dominance, is at the core in classical realist thought with regards to “power seeking states”. Airpower and SOFStephen Biddle concludes in his paper “Afghanistan and the future of Warfare” that the war in Afghanistan shows that if you want to win a war, precision firepower will not do the job on its own. He continues by saying that precision air attacks alongside highly skilled troops that can maneuver on the ground is what is needed to attain results. Furthermore Biddle describes the advances made in recent year concerning military technology, how these developments have “increased America’s real military power relative to that of any plausible foe. ” (2003, 45). 15 years later the United States is still rated as the strongest military power in the world according to the Global firepower “2018 military ranking” index of 2018. The US SOF has since 2001 until the start of 2018 more than doubled in size when in comes to personnel. In 2018 there are around 70 000 active duty, national guard and reserve personnel assigned to a Special Operation Forces station. (Andrew Feickert 2018) When reading about recent SOF activity in Afghanistan it highlights the intensive use of SOF. During a period of nearly 6 months in 2017, from june 1st to november the 24th, US joint SOF conducted 2 175 missions on Afghan soil. In conclusion SOF operations keep on increasing. The use of precision bombing is an important tool, and as Stephen Biddle said, when used in combination with SOF you will have a strong likelihood of success. If the Air force SOF missions are successful, it will legitimize the US military power, in Irregular warfare, as well as in conventional warfare. DronesThe Afghanistan conflict gave remotely piloted aircrafts (RPA), commonly known as drones, an upswing.
This was the first time that RPA was extensively used. (Perry and Kassing. 2015, 42) Predator and Global Hawk RPAs were taken into use, and contributed to surveillance and at times was used to follow fleeing enemy targets. This allowed the US to pinpoint the al-Qaida and Taliban members new hideouts, feed the information and coordinates to air strike capable airplanes, and thus, with a drastically low risk of losing lives, the US was able to take the enemy targets out. All this was made possible due to the fact that the likelihood of being detected dropped when using RPAs, in the case of the Global Hawk, it could fly at heights as high as 60 000 feets. The predator could reach heights around 25 000 feets. (2015, 42) A realist see a “limited role for reason, law, morality…” in the way the world society works. (Baylis, Wirtz and Gray 2016, 7) There is no universal understanding of what is and what is not moral, and as such, morality should not play a big part when assessing a states behaviour in the world society. When a state makes the decision to use drones, whether or not it views it as correct or wrong, whether or not it is condoned by other states, -In the end it all comes down to whether or not it serves the state’s national interests. (Baylis, Wirtz and Gray 2016, 8) Limits of airpower“.
Over-reliance on airpower and unrealistic expectations…” (Baylis, Wirtz and Gray 2016, 277) As mentioned under “Airpower and SOF”, the unwillingness of politicians to commit soldiers on the ground is not a way to achieve success. Airstrikes is a “ low-risk, low- commitment measure”. (Baylis, Wirtz and Gray 2016, 278) Airpower alone cannot do not have high chances of defeating the enemy.
Air strikes and local reactionAlthough the US sent in a lot strikes in Afghanistan, their targets was centered around Taliban communications, air defense weapons as well as barracks and other facilities used by the Taliban. Robert A. Pape has in his research shown that if one launches a bombing campaign the target that gives the most effective results is that of military nature. Jakobsen (1998, 28). This is relevant to the US targets. But in an conventional war, bombing infrastructure targets and energy sources, is considered an effective way of coercing ones enemy. But the US did not send in strikes aimed at infrastructure nor targets relevant to the energy supply. This is due to the fact that it would easily have caused anger with allied nations, and that it would alienate the Afghan public. (Perry and Kassing. 2015,44) James L. Capra, wrote in his master thesis about information asymmetry with regards to airstrikes. A state will not tell a targeted enemy in advance that they have been targeted fearing that they will run away or implement counter measurements to deny the attack success. The US sent special forces to apprehend Osama Bin Laden in secrecy, the operation was under strict need to know restrictions. (2016). This theory can be compared with selling a product to investors. The US has airpower (a product). They do not want to disclose everything, but need to reveal enough for the investors( civilians) to find it interesting. The airstrike is the demonstration. And after all this the investors (civilians) have to make a decision on whether or not it is a good product or a bad product. This is one of the big tasks with airstrikes. The side that has the knowledge cannot expose to much, and in the worst case, tip of the target. But if they do not disclose any information at all, the public will quickly turn away. When the state have the information upperhand, and the insurgents do not possess much information political violence increases, when insurgents has enough information violence decreases. “Afghans in general understand that U. S. and coalition forces are conducting airstrikes; however, grievances still exist based on civilian casualties”(2016, 25)
For western democracies support from the people is important. -How can one justify bombings as the most efficient means of action?There are two ways of analyzing the public view. The first: It lowers the risk of casualties, the public at home can be more willing to support an operation when they know that their countrymen are in “. . . fast jets a thousand meters above the conflict. ” (Baylis, Wirtz and Gray 2016, 277) In later times, since the NATO intervention in Libya 2011, when the US nearly exclusively contributed with airpower, the willingness of committing ground troops in the middle east has been very low. Especially when one takes into account the conflict with the Islamic State. “Airpower is a low-commitment measure”. (Baylis, Wirtz and Gray 2016, 278)The second way of analyzing the public view takes into account reactions from other members of the state. Often the most shocking images broadcasted from war zones are taken post-air strike. In aftermath, the public may react, but this distorts the fact that modern airstrikes very seldom kills civilians compared with other means of warfare. Precision weaponry and increased intelligence technology has reduced the number of unwanted casualties. Meilinger (2001, 78) Furthermore, an estimate says that, from the year 1900 until the year 1970, 62 millions is estimated to have died from genocide or war-induced famine. 17 millions died due to artillery and naval gunfire, and air strikes took 2 million lives. As one sees, although 2 millions is still a high number, in comparison it is very low. Meilinger (2001,78)In 1991 the Organization of American States and in 1993 the UN launched economic sanction on Haiti in order to bring the coup leaders to lay down their arms and surrender. A study from Harvard shows that approximately 1000 children died per month as a result of the sanctions, and the leaders did not seem affected at all.
A UN study on the impact of the economic sanctions on Iraq from 1991 until 1998 estimates that half a million infants died during this period as a result of the continuing sanctions. History shows that those under embargo are willing to suffer civilian loss if it means achieving their aim. As Philip S. Meilinger puts it himself, “It is not the dictators and their cronies that go to bed without their supper. ” (2001, 79)In Kosovo, the human rights watch estimate that there was 500 casualties caused by the air strikes. But if one looks at the number of air strikes flown, 14 000, and the number of munitions dropped, 28 000, the number is more acceptable than that of the haitian children or the number of iraqi infants. Economic sanctions kill from the bottom up. The question then becomes how to convince the public that using bombs and sending in air strikes is more humane than the often considered more diplomatic sanctions are. Maybe it can be related to the trolley problem, -sending in bombs feels more direct, than sanctioning someone financially. But that is not for me to discuss, and will have to be dealt with in another paper. Robert A. Pape says in his book Bombing to win that an ideal risk campaign using airpower as means would resemble one of punishment, but it would differ on the point of quick, decisive attacks. Instead, Pape writes, it would start by gradually increasing its air operations, allowing pauses for diplomatic signaling. The targets, including civilian targets,would at the same time become increasingly harmful. (1996, 55).
Schelling writes in his book, Arms and influence, on the threat of use of force as a bargaining chip, and ultimately make the adversary change his behaviour. “The power to hurt is a bargaining power. To exploit it is diplomacy--vicious diplomacy, but diplomacy” (1966, 2) In a state v state war this is very true. But in an irregular war, i. e in the war against the taliban and al-Qaida, it has proven much harder to threat or scare by using threats of actions. They have a much higher acceptance rate when it comes to losses, both when it comes to losing lives as well as material. At first the US attempted to coerce the Taliban to hand over the al-Qaida leaders, they sent in limited airstrikes, gave them time to think, but in the end the Taliban did not let themselves scare and the US coercion plan failed. Still the Taliban had no reason to believe that the US did not mean business, and “. . . the threat credibility could not have been higher. ” (Collins 2016, 282)
To what extent a military operation has been effective can be measured in two different ways: combat effectiveness and strategic effectiveness. Combat effectiveness focuses on whether or not a target has been destroyed by the military force. Strategic effectiveness, on the other hand, focuses on whether or not the military operation achieves the wanted political goal. Robert A. Pape (1996, 56). Conditions for efficient irregular warfare (Øyvind Østerud lecture)Popular supportsafe havenopen time horizonfavourable terraintolerance for loss of livesexistential engagementSafe haven. According to Antonio Giustozzi, (Rich and Duyvesteyn 2012, 224), there is evidence that pakistani security agencies have offered sanctuary to Taliban members in Pakistan since 2002, but it is unclear to what degree they are extending help. Giustozzi continues with mentioning that some people believe that the taliban are receiving more and more support and safe haven opportunities in Iran as well. Conclusion