Why do politicians continue to believe that air power on its own can get results?

Air power is clean, technical – a surgeon’s blade applied to nation states to cut out all the bad without affecting its people. We count them out, then count them back in again. Nobody except the bad guys gets killed, and ‘smart’ weapons are so smart that this really is true.

More to the point, the USA has all the technology, and like a surgeon looking at an infected leg, is going to operate – as opposed to all the other options . With all those boots in Afghanistan, the USA doesn’t have much else that could be useful with regard to Libya.

But air power isn’t working – air power on its own never does.

We need a Clausewitz able to combine military action with diplomatic strategy. Unfortunately this is what air power folks tell you they do. Looking at the Google Earth screens in a warm command bunker in Washington DC, planning decisive air strikes that will get all your guys in and out in a few hours, is the kind of war presidents prefer.

But as we re-discover every time, it doesn’t work – and never will, because air strikes don’t take any account of the humanity causing the problems. To continue my medical analogy, rather than surgeons who only do surgery – in the same way that the US Army famously declared after the Iraq invasion “we don’t do nation-building” – we need ‘differential diagnosis’ – people able to think laterally – a physician like Dr Greg House.

The USA isn’t much bothered about Libya: it’s quite happy that the UK lead the way aided and abetted by France. Being in charge of this one would be huge hassle; having to obtain concensus from so many sad little countries that can’t be bothered to spend the money on modern command and control assets, and aircraft (everyone in NATO); who want to be involved but not actually fire at anything (Italy and the Scandinavians), or simply refuse to be involved at all (the other NATIO countries headed up by Germany). In any case Libyan oil is more of a European thing, so let the Europeans take responsibility – as soon as possible.

But the USA is looking towards the end game in Libya. Yesterday’s statement by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates that Gadhafi never posed a threat to the USA, and regime change was never on the US agenda, has send a chill wave through the coalition.

Immediately Germany and Italy offered a ceasefire and ‘peace-building’ – presumably with Gadhafi, and to get Germany to join in. Turkey, seeking to maximise its advantage from the situation, is offering to negotiate with Gadhafi. All this leaving Britain and France on their own, on a limb created by those who persuaded the two prime ministers that air power could sort this one out…
But the USA isn’t bothered. Britain released the Lockerbie bomber in return for oil and UK trade advantages. The UK isn’t going to remain shoulder to shoulder with the USA in Afghanistan, and is very rapidly-defence cutting itself out of any kind of serious military consideration.

Soon Britain will have a special relationship with … well France. But at least the French still have an aircraft carrier – and it’s one with proper aircraft.

6 thoughts on “Why do politicians continue to believe that air power on its own can get results?”

  1. as well you know, air power creates the conditions for military success as you point out in your latest book, which, by the way I was fascinated to pick up in wh smith channel tunnel – look at the pictures and find myself in it!

    I enjoyed it enormously as I could not vouch for the authenticity of the army stuff but it was derring do alright. Glen got a DSO not a DFC. My pilot Brian Robinson got a DFC – I got diddly squat like most of the navs, a really poor show.

    There were no Phantoms (RAF) in theater but there were Tornado F3’s which also did diddly squat.

    Glen is wrong to say that air activity was slight after the ground war started. Riyadh was beside its self with anxiety about a rogue brigade somewhere out in the western desert that could thrust into the French flank and we spent 4 night keeping tabs on it. It was located be Brian and me in a previously unknown air base at an Nukhayb about half way up the border and eighty miles in. At first I thought the buggers were pointing at us but about 5000 soldiers were all firing AK47’s at us (no harm done)

    There is one point where I felt that Glen was taking a little pop at me but my wife felt the blow fell elsewhere as one pilot was sent home with a rare eye condition. Everyone had the jitters at some point I had a major funk following a double generator failure too far from the border to get back safely it it went pete tong. I had a night off and Roger Bennett took my seat – Torps was experimenting with NVGs and got a little too close to Robbo’s aircraft leaving a little bit behind and afterwards Robo had to explain to the futre CAS that it was actually dangerous out there and be a little more thoughtful of how people coped.

    Good old tale though and I still think he was the best squadron commander I ever had.

    politicians know diddly about air power and expect us to do it clinically with PGM’s. Bollocks to that! get in at 100 feet and 600 knots and scare the shit out of everyone – the SAS told us afterwards they were petrified when we overflew them like that!


    1. Hi Gordon. Many thanks for contacting me,

      I think of air power as proving the template within which everything must operate: advance comms to create C3I, on which everything else is built. But just as the boots on the ground can’t survive without this template, neither does the template solve the problem – even though it’s easier for politicians to sign up to air strikes that risk just a few lives, than to ground operations taking up lots of voters’ sons and daughters for indeterminate periods of time. Libya is interesting: first world air with third world ground forces (plus enhancements) – but to my understanding of it does prove the point.

      The problem with history is that which gets into books (and these days other media) ends up becoming the accepted account. I try to bring it back to life with what people were actually doing and thinking, but one can only include so many from each ‘sector’ of an enterprise as huge at Gulf War One. (I had more than enough for several very thick books.) I’m sorry not to have been able to include more on the air dimension which created such a favourable battle space.

      If you do feel like telling your story, let me know, as I’m developing another work in which I won’t have to worry about length, in which to gather more threads of what I consider to be a very important war.

      Thanks again for getting in touch. All very best, Hugh

  2. Hi Hugh

    Yes that would be good. – I have just completed an MA at The University of Birmingham department of war studies on the British First World War experience. My dissertation was on the battle for the Hindenburg Line, or a tiny bit of it and even then Haig had to deal with a stupid prime minister sticking his nose make threats about bloodbaths!

    Yes, air power is the easy option for the reasons you state, but it was better in the good old days when we were allowed to scare people whitless with jet noise at 100 feet!

    1. I expect it’s soon going to regarded as extravagant to do any serious flying except in a simulator.

      But a very interesting bit of the First World War. I wonder if Iraq War theatre commanders spoke as openly about Bush and Blair – who were indeed “a wretched lot…”?

  3. Charles Robinson

    Hi Hugh and Gordon,

    I am a bit late to this tread but I hope that it gets to you.

    As an ex-FAC I can safely say that you are both right, in as much as although air power is very surgical at times, you cannot go any further than destroying known targets without boots on the ground. No where has this been more prevalent than in Afghanistan over the last 7 years and even then, the combined power of air and ground holding troops has had little effect in combating the tide of insurgency (that is unless there is a regiment of Apaches in the air, but that is another debate!).

    Although Gordon is quite right, in that the way that air power is projected has changed some what over the years (not to mention the change in attitudes of those men flying; and nav’ing) there is still something to be said for the effect of a jet at 100′ (UK jets only) with trust on combat whizzing over an enemy’s head. Many a time did this do the trick better than a 500lb’er dropped from the heavens. I will never forget the time that my FAC at the time, Sgt “Sub” Thomas, called for a supersonic SoF from our friendly US callsign Bone; a B1-B Lancer. Seeing a jet, the size of a passenger plane, dropping from 22,000′ and then beating up a valley at 500′ and unfortunately (they weren’t supposed to) breaking the sound barrier just over the enemy position will stay with me till I die.

    However, I am sure that your story from the SAS boys has been exaggerated though. I never knew that my father ever flew above 100′, let alone when showing off to the SAS! I feel for you Gordon being strapped in with him for all those years. And don’t worry, us mud dwellers never get the recognition we deserve either…

    Hugh, if Gordon does get in touch then please pass my email on as I would love to hear about his days with my old man. Unfortunately he passed away many years before I could truly understand what went on over there.


  4. Hugh McManners

    Thanks very much indeed Charles – and welcome!

    I totally agree about the need to control FGA from the ground. At 600 knots it’s all a blur, and even if you see the stick men, they’re are insignificant, and what they do a mystery!

    I’ll PM Gordon vis a vis your father.

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