Thursday, August 17, 2006

The failure of Israel’s air campaign in Lebanon to be decisive brings up an old question: How useful are advanced aircraft in real war? Do modern militaries spend too much on whiz-bang gadgets that don’t work?

Not infrequently one sees amateur strategists issuing blanket indictments of air power.

It is a witless formulation.

To begin with, advanced military aircraft work very well indeed at what they are designed to do.

Examples abound. The Pacific war in World War II was largely an air war, determined by advanced weaponry.

In both Gulf wars, technologically advanced aircraft were instrumental in destroying the Iraqi military.

But what happens time and again is that militaries get carried away by the power and imagined invincibility of their air forces and forget that there are things they can’t do well.

An advanced fighter-bomber is fine for destroying a point target, such as a power plant. It is next to useless for fighting guerrillas spread through a city.

An intelligent enemy is going to ask what his high-tech opponent cannot do.

This is why recent wars against modern nations have been fought by guerrillas hiding in cities, jungles or other broken terrain.

Fighting where U.S. air forces can get at you is a losing proposition. So you do something else.

The question becomes:

Why does air force after air force promise more than it can deliver?

Why are bright and well-informed air staffs so often taken by surprise?

They know their aircraft intimately, because they fly them.

I think the reason is psychological. Warplanes are exciting, powerful, almost magic. They are fast and noisy and appeal to a male love of controllable complexity.

They have elaborate sensors, infrared and phased-array radar and so on. Aircraft computers these days are almost sentient.

They are on the cutting edge of technology, and indeed carry all sorts of things that the pilots can’t talk about.

All of this Star Wars atmosphere encourages overestimation of capability in a way that a new tank does not.

The combination of romance and the attraction of the ultramodern has always been a powerful drug.

Air strategists now forgotten — Billy Mitchell, Giulio Douhet, Alexander de Seversky — all grossly overestimated aircraft.

Now, suppose that you have, a la Israel or the United States, a magnificent air force with superb pilots, data links to satellites, Airborne Warning and Control System command-and-control planes and really slick missiles.

It is a splendid, well-trained outfit, and you know that it is. It becomes so very easy to underestimate a bunch of scruffy guerrillas, perhaps half-literate peasants, armed only with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

They hide. They spread out. You bomb a bridge, and they swim across with rifles on inner tubes.

You destroy buildings in cities, but it turns out the guerrillas weren’t in those buildings.

They dig tunnels with hidden entrances. They think. They adapt.

You have the right air force but the wrong war, or at least the wrong use for the air force.

Technology can do amazing things, among them fooling the people who own it.

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