War on The Rocks
August 26, 2015
In an iconic installment of “Calvin & Hobbes,” the beloved comic strip by Bill Watterson, little Calvin and his stuffed tiger Hobbes are playing baseball. Calvin gets a hit and rounds the bases to home, but Hobbes cries foul. “You didn’t touch all the bases!” he tells Calvin. Calvin protests and Hobbes retorts, “You didn’t touch seventh base.” They then debate what all the bases are, revealing there are at least 23 bases in addition to — as Hobbes reveals — a “secret base.” Calvin asks where it is and Hobbes tells him he can’t say. It is a secret, after all. A confounded Calvin grouses, “I can’t believe this moronic sport is our national pastime.”
This is how I often feel as I watch the inter-service wars — increasingly the national pastime of the U.S. military.
In their recent essay at War on the Rocks, “Airpower May Not Win Wars, But It Sure Doesn’t Lose Them,” two senior Air Force pilots, Mike Pietrucha and Jeremy Renken, argue that the United States has departed from “the successful post-Vietnam template that relied on airpower to seek limited objectives” in favor of a “ground-centric approach” that “failed to achieve stated goals” in Afghanistan and Iraq. Few national security analysts would disagree with their assessment of the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the key words of their thesis are “limited objectives” and “stated goals,” not “airpower” or “ground-centric.”
The United States should stop fighting unwinnable wars, whether by land, sea, or air. Alas, given that its political leadership has repeatedly ignored that advice, it would be foolish to make force planning decisions based on a fantasy alternate reality. As a wise man once noted, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
It’s true that airpower was the primary U.S. and NATO contribution to the successes in Bosnia (Deliberate Force, 1995) and Kosovo (Allied Force, 1999). But the victories in Grenada (Urgent Fury, 1983) and Panama (Just Cause, 1989) were predominantly ground combat operations. What these victories had in common was very limited strategic goals that were amenable to quick resolution by military force.
Having served as an Army field artillery officer in Desert Storm, I’d like to think ground forces helped win that war. But, certainly, the massive aerial campaign that went first was the main effort. (And doubtless saved the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of us ground pounders.) Regardless, we won a decisive and relatively quick victory mostly because our aims were exceedingly narrow: force Saddam Hussein to withdraw his forces from Kuwait.
A dozen years later, our successors accomplished a much more challenging mission — invading the heart of Iraq and toppling Saddam’s regime — in half the time with a quarter of the forces and half the casualties of Operation Desert Storm. The failure was in achieving the nebulous, arguably unachievable, follow-on objective that post-Saddam Iraq would “set an example to all the Middle East of a vital and peaceful and self-governing nation.” To the extent that goal — for which some 4,400 Americans died in vain trying to achieve — was attainable through U.S. military action, it was going to be facilitated by ground forces. But it wasn’t going to happen in an acceptable timeframe, without a massive mobilization of forces, or otherwise fit within the political constraints rightly imposed by a democratic society on war aims so tangential to the national interest.
But let’s not forget that, in the intervening period, a series of aerial operations (Southern Watch from 1991 to 2003, Northern Watch from 1997 to 2003, Desert Strike in 1996, and Desert Fox in 1998) failed to achieve much less ambitious aims in Iraq. Saddam continued to repress the civilian population, conduct air operations, and thumb his nose at UN nuclear inspectors throughout the period, and attempted to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush to boot.
For that matter, while Pietrucha and Renken are right when they note that “the ground-centric military paradigm undertaken in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom was strategically questionable, costly, and did not prevent the emergence of strengthened radical Islamist movements,” the same could be said of more than a decade of air strikes not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in places such as Pakistan and Yemen. And, while I wholeheartedly share President Barack Obama’s reluctance to deploy significant American ground forces against the Islamic State, it’s worth noting that a year of a rather heavy “air-centric military paradigm” hasn’t exactly been a rousing success, contrary to what Pietrucha and Renken argue.
The authors argue that landpower was unsuccessful in Vietnam because it could only be applied “at extreme cost in blood, treasure and popular support.” But it’s not as if the Air Force or naval aviation sat that war out. A massive, years-long bombing campaign did nothing to further our strategic aims. As noted by Dennis M. Drew, a retired Air Force colonel and long-time member of the Air University faculty, Operation Rolling Thunder, “the longest sustained aerial bombing campaign in history,” spectacularly failed to achieve the objectives set forth at the outset: “to persuade the North Vietnamese to quit the war, or failing that, to entice them to the negotiating table to arrange a compromise settlement of the problems in Southeast Asia.” Follow-on missions, notably Operations Linebacker I and Linebacker II, were more tactically successful but nonetheless not strategically decisive. As with the ground war, military superiority over the enemy couldn’t overcome the unachievable political objectives and the concomitant constraints on the use of force.
Pietrucha and Renken rightly note that the dropping of two atomic bombs was the decisive blow in the Pacific theater in World War II and claim this “settled that airpower could end wars.” But our political leadership wisely rejected the idea of using atomic weapons in Korea and Vietnam and never seriously considered using them in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our strategic aims seldom rise to the level at which the nuclear option is viable. At the same time, they repeatedly rise to the level at which our democratically elected leaders deem war necessary.
In fairness, Pietrucha and Renken fully admit that airpower has its limitations. But they judge it by different standards than they do ground combat. They seem to dismiss the failure of aerial warfare to achieve our stated political aims as a feature — “reversibility that preserve[s] options for decision-makers” — rather than a bug. Meanwhile, “landpower proved insufficient to meet the challenges” and “produced costly failures that we should not be eager to repeat” even in wars in which a massive application of airpower was employed in conjunction with the ground campaign. Airpower can win but never lose only if we’re playing Hobbes’ version of baseball or, even better, Calvinball — the game invented by Calvin in which the players may declare new rules at any point in the game.
Naturally, all of this is about a budget fight. The authors contend that “both the Air Force and Navy are struggling to make up for chronic neglect brought on by a focus on land campaigns” and suggest that budget resources should be allocated more generously to the U.S. Air Force and Navy rather than to the Army.
First off, while it’s certainly true that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were exceedingly costly in terms of American blood and treasure, it’s hard to argue with a straight face that it has resulted in “neglect” for the Air Force and Navy. We have, after all, famously continued to pour billions into the F-35 boondoggle which costs more than the entire GDP of Australia, enough to buy every homeless person in America a mansion, or whatever other cutesy comparison you’d like to make for a trillion-dollar airplane. Meanwhile, the Navy is getting ready to field the first Ford-class aircraft carrier at just under $13 billion a copy, with two more on the way.
Second, the Obama administration is already doing precisely what they recommend. The Army and Marine Corps, which bore the brunt of the last fourteen years of fighting, are being drastically downsized. The Army is shrinking from a wartime high of 570,000 to 450,000 and could fall as low as 420,000 if sequestration remains in place. (This, as the talking point goes, issmaller than it’s been since before WWII. That’s technically if only barely true, but largely meaningless in terms of combat power.) The Marine Corps drops from a wartime high of 204,000 to 182,000, or 175,000 under sequestration. Meanwhile, the main austerity inflicted on the Air Force is doing away with the A-10, whose sole mission is to support the Army, while the Navy is having to do with fewer Littoral Combat Ships used to support Marines. Indeed, while the Army budget plummets from a wartime high of $287.2 billion to $126.5 billion in FY2016 constant dollars, the Air Force only drops from $183.8 billion to $152.9 billion. The Navy takes a modest haircut, going from $194.4 billion to $161.2 billion — much of which comes out of the hide of the Marine Corps.
Given limited resources, a rising China, a resurgent Russia, and a weariness around counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations, that’s arguably a sound policy. If, as Pietrucha and Renken suggest, we can simply rely on being “isolated by two great oceans,” accept “limited objectives,” and stop expecting “decisive conclusion[s]” to our disputes with other countries, it’s certainly the right call.
Yet history shows that this can never remain American policy for long. We are, as the historian Geoffrey Perret dubbed us more than a quarter century ago, “A Country Made by War.” Indeed, we’ve fought an awful lot of them since. While even sequestration-sized Army and Marine Corps would be more than adequate for any deterrent mission plus various special operations, humanitarian relief missions, and other small deployments, they’d be woefully inadequate for a re-run of the last decade.
While the obvious solution is the one stated at the outset — avoid such a re-run — a global superpower never runs out of challenges to its perceived interests. Recall that the man who led us into Iraq campaigned on a “humble foreign policy” that eschewed “nation-building.”