On October 7, 2001, less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration launched a bombing campaign against Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. An invasion to "liberate" the country followed. Almost 15 years later, with the Taliban again gaining ground, President Obama has just eased constraints on the U.S. military's use of air power there. To aid Afghan troops, American planes can once again be sent out in "proactive" strikes against the Taliban whenever U.S. commanders believe it useful or necessary. In the decade and a half between those two bombing decisions, American air power has been loosed not just in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Somalia -- seven countries across the Greater Middle East and Africa.
So how'd that turn out? Of those countries, only Somalia might have been considered a failed state in 2001. Today, it has been joined by Libya, Yemen, and Syria. All are now egregiously failed states. Iraq, a country invaded by the U.S., occupied, and in most of the years between 2001 and 2016 repeatedly battered by air strikes, is now a riven land. Its Sunni areas are partially occupied by the Islamic State, its Kurdish territories independent in all but name, its government a sinkhole of corruption and nearly bankrupt, its army notoriously open to collapse. And as in Afghanistan, so in Iraq all these years later, the skies are again filled with U.S. bombers and drones and just recently another form of air power as well: U.S.-piloted Apache helicopters have been sent back into action to support Iraqi troops in their faltering offensive against the Islamic State (even as U.S. planes help reduce ISIS-controlled cities to rubble). By now, Iraq certainly qualifies as a failing, if not failed, state. Afghanistan (see above) falls into something like the same category. In all of them, terror groups have spread widely. Of the seven countries in question, only Pakistan might have escaped the failing category and yet, from the expansion of terror groups on its territory to its faltering economic state, it is in worse shape today than it was in October 2001.
Of course, air power can't be blamed for the sorry fates of these lands, but let's just say -- as TomDispatch regular and retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore does today -- that it has proven remarkably incapable of producing any positive results. And yet, though the evidence of its ineffectiveness should be clear to all by now, U.S. politicians from Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton respond to just about any development -- linked however minimally to events in the Greater Middle East (including the recent massacre in a gay nightclub in Orlando) -- with calls for loosing yet more air power. A disconnect? No one in Washington seems to notice. Fortunately, William Astore has. Tom
Dominating the Skies -- and Losing the Wars
Air Supremacy Isn't What It Used to Be
By William J. Astore
In the era of the long war on terror, Thursday, June 2nd, 2016, was a tough day for the U.S. military. Two modern jet fighters, a Navy F-18 Hornet and an Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon, flown by two of America's most capable pilots, went down, with one pilot killed. In a war that has featured total dominance of the skies by America's intrepid aviators and robotic drones, the loss of two finely tuned fighter jets was a remarkable occurrence.
As it happened, though, those planes weren't lost in combat. Enemy ground fire or missiles never touched them nor were they taken out in a dogfight with enemy planes (of which, of course, the Islamic State, the Taliban, and similar U.S. enemies have none). Each was part of an elite aerial demonstration team, the Navy's Blue Angels and the Air Force's Thunderbirds, respectively. Both were lost to the cause of morale-boosting air shows.- Advertisement -
Each briefly grabbed the headlines, only to be quickly forgotten. Americans moved on, content in the knowledge that accidents happen in risky pursuits.
But here's a question: What does it say about our overseas air wars when the greatest danger American pilots face involves performing aerial hijinks over the friendly skies of "the homeland"? In fact, it tells us that U.S. pilots currently have not just air superiority or air supremacy, but total mastery of the fabled "high ground" of war. And yet in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Greater Middle East, while the U.S. rules the skies in an uncontested way, America's conflicts rage on with no endgame in sight.
In other words, for all its promise of devastating power delivered against enemies with remarkable precision and quick victories at low cost (at least to Americans), air power has failed to deliver, not just in the ongoing war on terror but for decades before it. If anything, by providing an illusion of results, it has helped keep the United States in unwinnable wars, while inflicting a heavy toll on innocent victims on our distant battlefields. At the same time, the cult-like infatuation of American leaders, from the president on down, with the supposed ability of the U.S. military to deliver such results remains remarkably unchallenged in Washington.
America's Experience with Air Power
Since World War II, even when the U.S. military has enjoyed total mastery of the skies, the end result has repeatedly been stalemate or defeat. Despite this, U.S. leaders continue to send in the warplanes. To understand why, a little look at the history of air power is in order.
In the aftermath of World War I, with its grim trench warfare and horrific killing fields, early aviators like Giulio Douhet of Italy, Hugh Trenchard of Britain, and Billy Mitchell of the United States imagined air power as the missing instrument of decision. It was, they believed, the way that endless ground war and the meat grinder of the trenches that went with it could be avoided in the future. Unfortunately for those they inspired, in World War II the skies simply joined the land and the seas as yet another realm of grim attrition, death, and destruction.- Advertisement -
Here's a quick primer on the American experience with air power:
* In World War II, the U.S. Army Air Forces joined Britain's Royal Air Force in a "combined bomber offensive" against Nazi Germany. A bitter battle of attrition with Germany's air force, the Luftwaffe, ensued. Allied aircrews suffered crippling losses until air superiority was finally achieved early in 1944 during what would be dubbed the "Big Week." A year later, the Allies had achieved air supremacy and were laying waste to Germany's cities (as they would to Japan's), although even then they faced formidable systems of ground fire as well as elite Luftwaffe pilots in the world's first jet fighters. At war's end, Allied losses in aircrews had been staggering, but few doubted that those crews had contributed immeasurably to the defeat of the Nazis (as well as the Japanese).
* Thanks to air power's successes in World War II (though they were sometimes exaggerated), in 1947 the Air Force gained its independence from the Army and became a service in its own right. By then, the enemy was communism, and air power advocates like General Curtis LeMay were calling for the creation of a strategic air command (SAC) made up of long-range bombers armed with city-busting thermonuclear weapons. The strategy of that moment, nuclear "deterrence" via the threat of "massive retaliation," later morphed into "mutually assured destruction," better known by its telling acronym, MAD. SAC never dropped a nuclear bomb in anger, though its planes did drop a few by accident. (Fortunately for humanity, none exploded.) Naturally, when the U.S. "won" the Cold War, the Air Force took much of the credit for having contained the Soviet bear behind a thermonuclear-charged fence.