Sunday, July 25, 2010

Airpower and Counterinsurgency

Posted by Chris at 9/27/2008 5:17 PM ...

Air Force Major General Charles Dunlap and Army Chief Warrant Officer John Robinson had a bit of dustup in the pages of the Atlanta Journal Constitution this week over the utility of airpower in fighting insurgencies.  General Dunlap took the normal bomb them into the stone age tack - attack aircraft are the key to the fight in Afghanistan because the Taliban fear them, which is why they spend so much effort on negative public relations about the effects of airpower on civilians.  Because of this, and because of the Taliban's proven resilience in the face of American arms, we should keep using the weapon they fear most.

CWO Robinson takes the opposite view - he argues that rather than risking civilian deaths due to misapplied airpower, which has happened at least twice when U.S. forces were used to settle local disputes by supposed allies who provided "intelligence" information about where Taliban forces were gathered, we should deploy more ground forces to Afghanistan to do the real work on the ground using traditional COIN practices.  CWO Robinson says that airpower should be used judiciously in support of troops, or when there are NATO spotters on the ground to observe targets.  Otherwise we need to use the slow and dangerous work on the ground.

Gen. Dunlap warns that not using airpower aggressively in Afghanistan runs the risk of allowing a repeat of the infamous experience of the French at Dien Bien Phu, which he thinks proper use of airpower would have prevented as evidenced by the successful defense of Khe Sanh in 1968.  Only by using the tool the Taliban fear so much, as evidenced by radio intercepts, can we prevail in Afghanistan.

It seems to me that Gen. Dunlap is in sore need of some remedial history lessons for both Afghanistan and Vietnam.  Afghanistan first, since it's simpler.  In a famous quote a member of the mujahideen told his debriefer that he was not afraid of the Soviets, but that he was afraid of their helicopters.  The Soviet Union used large numbers of attack helicopters and ground attack fighters against the mujahideen during their long war in Afghanistan.  Despite the Soviet willingness to kill pretty much anyone in sight, they still lost the war.  They never developed the COIN techniques necessary to do so.

Vietnam is more complicated.  Could airpower have lifted the siege at Dien Bien Phu?  Maybe.  Admiral Radford certainly did when he pushed for Operation Vulture, one option of which would have used atomic weapons against the Viet Minh commanded by Vo Nguyen Giap.  Other options for Culture included a bombing raid using 60 B-29 or other strike packages.  The problem was that the Vietminh were well dug-on both in trenches close the the French fortress, but also in the surrounding hills.  They also had large amounts of both field and anti-aircraft artillery, as well as numerous machine guns.  Indeed, these items had largely closed the air field to French supply drops and to French close air support.  The almost suicidally brave pilots who flew for France had already been driven from the skies above Dien Bien Phu (see Bernard Fall's excellent Hell in a Very Small Place for a detailed account of the battle).

The American experience at Khe Sanh 14 years later was a whole different animal.  The United States had been developing the tactical use of airpower against concentrations of North Vietnamese forces for four years already, and there was a huge inventory of heavy bombers and fighter-bombers available.  B-52 bombers flew Arc Light strikes against North Vietnamese forces a week before the seige began, flying over 90 sorties.  During the siege, the Buffs flew 35 sorties each day, for a total of 2,548 sorties.  Just the B-52s dropped over 59,000 tons of bombs.  This against an enemy that was not dug in like the Vietminh at Dien Bien Phu.  Even with all of this airpower on display, the Marines still needed artillery support totaling 200,000 rounds in order to hold out, and still had to abandon the Special Forces base at Lang Vei.

Despite what Gen. Dunlap and the Air Force may want to believe, there was not enough airpower available to lift the siege at Dien Bien Phu.  Neither were the two battles identical scenarios due to terrain and other issues.  And neither battle has much to do with Afghanistan unless we end up with a sustained siege of a large base by a huge number of Taliban.  There is, however, a parallel between Gen. Dunlap's argument and the Vietnam War, and CWO Robinson recognizes it even if he doesn't come out and say it.

One of the glaringly obvious points that John Paul Vann gets upset about in Neil Sheehan's A Bright and Shining Lie is the use of unobserved artillery and air strikes in Vietnam.  His argument, one supported by others later, was that when artillery and aircraft kill innocent civilians, they are driven into the hands of the enemy.  After all, even if you apologize and make some sort of payment in acknowledgment of the loss of their friends, families, and homes, you have still harmed them.  The enemy doesn't even have to do much PR for this to happen.  When American bombs  killed random villagers in Vietnam, those villagers started to think that the North Vietnamese and Vietcong might just have a point about those nasty Americans being just a continuation of the French imperialists.

And so it goes in Afghanistan.  When we bomb a wedding in Afghanistan, those folks are going to have good reason not to support us, as will their families and their clans.  The Taliban just amplify this with their PR work.  They are spreading the word that Americans are at war against Islam or Afghanis, etc... even if that is patently not true.  We've still given them evidence of bad intention that is understood on a more visceral level than a school or hospital might be.  This is why we have to be extremely careful with our use of airpower in counterinsurgency operations.  Like CWO Robinson says, it's much easier for a soldier to not squeeze his trigger when a kid runs by than it is to stop an iron bomb dropped from 10,000 feet.

And, yes, there is a role for airpower in COIN - reconnaissance, close air support, logistical support, electronic warfare, interdiction of supply lines, etc...  We just have to be very careful with the kinetic aspects of airpower.  Otherwise we run the risk of handing victories to the enemy.

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