In praise of “In praise of Aerial Bombing”

Scholar, strategist and pirate hunter extraordinaire Edward Luttwak has a new article on Foreign Policy on the utility of air power in modern warfare. Though it has attracted a few harsh comments already (and my own comment on which this post is based), this is by far one of the least controversial and provocative articles by Luttwak in ages, and one that deserves serious consideration.

His contention is that, although strategic bombing has its limitations – and may not be the panacea that some claimed it to be periodically ever since Douhet’s “The Command of the Air” – it is not wholly useless and may be, in certain situations, preferable (more cost-effective) to ground operations and nation building. He does away with the fantastic notion that aerial bombing can be “surgical” and concedes that it is a dirty business, with real human and political costs. And the idea that aerial bombing works best when targets are out in the open and have no way of fighting back is especially straightforward and uncontroversial, and it also restricts the utility of bombing to situations where it is easier (though sometimes still difficult) to single out concentrations of armed personnel from the rest of the population. Seems pretty fair and balanced to me.

The problems is that here operates a false dichotomy, as people now seem to think that the alternatives are somehow necessarily less murderous. Well, they’re not. Ground assaults also kill lots of civilians (as recent developments in Marjah demonstrate); occupation forces murder, rape and plunder. War is hell, by air, land or sea. The fact that these alternatives also don’t seem to work, prolonging the conflict and its financial and human costs to both sides, should also be factored in.

If successful nation building is unlikely, and arguably unnecessary as far as US security interests are concerned – this, I believe, is prof. Luttwak’s unspoken assumption, and, if explicit, would be the only truly controversial claim in his article, but one with which many reasonable analysts agree –, then limited, sporadic, targeted punishment by the air designed to make the Taleban’s life impractical is probably better than the current strategy.

That said, I am not as sure as Luttwak that Obama (or the next POTUS) will get there eventually. Realists have been pushing for a remaking of US foreign policy based on “selective engagement“, “offshore balancing” (see also here and here), and, in more general terms, for more pragmatic and restrictive definitions of the national interest, since the dawn of time (Realists, such as Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz were among the most staunch opponents of the Vietnam War, for example). And yet forecasts of the death of interventionism and the adoption of more limited strategies have been proven precipitated time and again, motivated mainly by wishful thinking. I hope to be proven wrong, of course, and that, though neither Obama nor his Republican opponents are not even remotely Realists, they will be forced by exhaustion to change course. But I’m not counting on it. States tend to believe foolish ideas and are slow learners; as Luttwak notices in his own article, the lessons of history are not always learned, and can even be “overlearned”. While there are only a few ways to get things right, there are plenty of ways to get things wrong. Betting on people getting things right is betting against the odds.

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3 Comments

  1. Aerial bombing, while relatively efficient, is much too overt. Greatly preferrable is President Obama’s undercover strategy, based on attacking the true enemies of the USA (Haiti and, just now, Chile) with advanced seismic weaponry developed in the Cold War, as Comrade Chávez’s report illuminates. Seismic attacks are currently impossible to defend against and cause not only widespread damage to the enemy’s land forces, but also great havoc and confusion to civilian institutions, sometimes enough such as to drive the country into ungovernability. It is in this sort of “post-seismic” situation that it is easier to speak of virtually cost-free “nation-building” in a form convenient to the USA, via its known imperialistic proxies such as Brazil.

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  2. There are a few problems.

    First one is to assume only the two extremes as possibilities: aerial bombing (0% engagement) and so-called “nation-building” (over-engagement). Reality is a lot more complex and no reasonable policy-maker (Rumsfeld/Cheney are not reasonable) lives in this dualism.

    Furthermore, Luttwak chooses to ignore the reality that, in fact, Hezbollah gained much leverage after the bombings of 2006. They stopped bombing Israel mostly because, in fact, they gained much more control of the Lebanese State – focusing on internal politics and being recognised as a legitimate (and unavoidable) player.

    In summary, it’s bullshit (as usual).

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    1. Thanks for the comments!

      Marcos,

      Those are great points that deserve some elaboration, so excuse me if the reply is rather long…

      Again, I’m not arguing that aerial bombing is a “one-size-fits-all”, perfect solution. It is not an argument for going from, as you put it, over-engagement to no-engagement, but for rethinking goals and drastically reducing troop commitments in favor of greater reliance on air power. To state that reality is complex and leave it that is to avoid the argument entirely. As I tried to emphasize before, air power has limited applicability and potentially high political costs, JUST LIKE ANY OTHER instruments of war, and all political instruments for that matter. The argument here is just that there is a case to be made in favor of GREATER reliance on air power because of its lower financial and human costs IF CERTAIN CONDITIONS ARE MET – such as enemy inability to shoot back and existence of high-contrast targets – and if your strategic objectives are limited enough (and conceding that they should be limited is unfortunately not the consensus).

      Bombing can be a costly and dangerous enterprise against countries with advanced air forces and anti-aircraft capabilities, and insufficient (or downright inappropriate) to achieve more ambitious goals such as defending your country against invasion or conquering territory – in which case land power is the way to go – or compelling a state (or political group) to do your bidding – in which case military force is rarely effective on its own – or to revert a course of action it is already undertaking. But air power can be quite efficient in destroying enemy capabilities and deterring aggression by threatening to inflict unacceptable damage. It is almost too obvious to say that it always needs to be backed by good intel and sound planning, just as it might need to be complemented by other means, but these complementary actions would demand much lower troop levels.

      Which brings me to the next issue. I deliberately refrained from addressing the Israel-Lebanon/Israel-Hamas controversy, but here we go. This is one of the many points in which I disagree with Luttwak. I would not argue that the Israeli bombing of Lebanon in 2006 is a particularly good example of an intelligent use of air power (and let’s not forget that ground troops and artillery were also used here) and therefore not a very good case to test the above propositions. By Luttwak’s own “1911” criteria the aerial campaign against Lebanon was only partially a good idea – and rather poorly executed –, since despite the ease with which Israel gained control of the airspace and the existence of some high-contrast targets (such as roads leading in and out of the country towards Syria, and roads and open fields in the South) it was also in part a campaign against highly populated areas and against distinctively civilian targets. This was partly a necessity due to the irregular nature of the conflict and partly a deliberate choice in attempt to discourage further attacks and maybe to a lesser extent to punish Lebanon as a society for harboring and supporting Hezbollah. It is not clear, however, that Israeli leaders actually thought that the campaign would demoralize Hezbollah or force its capitulation from domestic politics; their stated goals were limited to getting rid of Hezbollah’s arsenals, disrupting supply routes and deterring future attacks.

      Since it was only partially a “good idea”, it had predictably mixed results. On one hand, Israel did succeed in reducing Hezbollah’s arsenal and partially dismantling some of its operations and supply chains, and the group has ceased launching rockets into Israel. On the other hand, as you well put it, Hezbollah has come out of the conflict somewhat strengthened by most accounts, which could have something to do with why they stopped attacking Israel. However, I would like to offer a couple of considerations on these last points.

      Though it is clear that the Lebanese people didn’t respond to the bombings by turning on Hezbollah, it is not that clear that the group was such a big winner either, or that its increasing role in domestic politics can account for its recent restraint in engaging Israel. First of all, despite a great deal of support for Hezbollah during the war, this was mostly true among groups that already supported Hezbollah in the first place, and important voices did criticize the group for its recklessness and the damage it caused. Support by other constituencies was very limited and not that enthusiastic, and had largely faded by the time the dust settled. By most recent polls public opinion in Lebanon is still highly divided and a majority of the population disapproves of Hezbollah, its radical agenda and unsavory political tactics. Support is highest among the Shi’a population, especially in the South, and lowest among Sunni and Catholic populations in more developed urban areas; and numbers haven’t changed significantly in the last few years.

      Second, Hezbollah didn’t suddenly become a legitimate or relevant domestic player in 2006. It has been acknowledged as a relatively legitimate actor in national politics since the early 1990s and especially since the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, and has been an important player since at least that same time, when it started to increase significantly its participation in party politics. In fact, though Hezbollah has certainly continued to consolidate its position as a major force in Lebanese politics – not as a consequence of the war but of factors that precede the conflict such as demographic trends, the group’s growing social assistance network, the efficient use of political violence against domestic rivals, and political crises that have more to do with Syria than with Israel –, in the 2009 parliamentary elections Hezbollah’s coalition, the March 8 Alliance, actually lost influence to the situation coalition and the party itself had results nearly identical to those of the 2005 elections. Moreover, during the last two decades Hezbollah’s aggressive stance toward Israel was not only consistent with its political growth, but was arguably central to it, as it drew most of its legitimacy from its role in the resistance against Israeli occupation of Lebanon and, since 2000, of the Sheba’a farms (also repression of the Palestinians, and imperialism writ large). This is why I would contend that the gradual expansion of the group’s political goals since its inception as a resistance movement and its increased participation in domestic politics may be contributing factors, since they increase the stakes for Hezbollah and make it harder for them to externalize the costs of their actions, but are not sufficient to explain recent restraint in the party’s stance toward Israel. In fact, by themselves, they are indeterminate.

      The explanation for the change in behavior since 2006, I would argue, lies not in changes in Hezbollah’s goals and priorities, but mainly in a change in perception and strategy, precipitated largely by the Israeli bombing campaign. To make it clearer, the question shouldn’t be whether aerial bombing alone causes a change in behavior, but whether it contributes decisively to it and how it does so. In this case what it did was effectively convince Hezbollah that the costs of directly engaging Israel outweigh its potential benefits. Launching rockets, kidnapping soldiers and other such activities are ineffective in compelling Israel to comply to the group’s demands (I refer back to my comments on the limits of the use of force) and indeed counterproductive, as they impede resolution of these issues through peaceful means (though these are obviously not the only obstacles to their resolution). Now it is also clear that they are extremely damaging to Hezbollah’s domestic agenda, as invites massive, disproportional and ruthless retaliation. Any narrow gains they might have had in public support were more than offset by the damages to the population, the country’s physical infrastructure and political institutions (in which they have an increasing stake) and, perhaps most importantly, the group’s paramilitary capabilities, which are used not only against Israel but also for domestic purposes. They have learned that inflating external threats, practicing inflammatory rhetoric and engaging in foreign adventures are only viable strategies to divert attention from domestic issues or, more precisely in this case, build up domestic support if the windmills you choose to fight don’t fight back with overwhelming force.

      This logic also applies, with minor modifications, to Hamas in Gaza.

      Sorry for the long reply. I am sure I missed a couple of things along the way, but I hope to keep the debate going.

      Cheers!

      Dani Nedal

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