The Transformation of American Air Power
by Benjamin S. Lambeth
Cornell. 337 pp. $29.95
In the long history of warfare, the air weapon is a latecomer, arriving on the battlefield less than a century ago. Virtually from the outset, advocates of this weapon were persuaded of its revolutionary potential, and vigorously repudiated efforts to consign airplanes to the ancillary role of supporting the forces fighting on land or sea. In the aftermath of World War I, pioneers of military aviation were already spinning theories that cast air power as a war-winner.
Such claims, in their own time, generated more controversy than consensus in military circles. And the debate only intensified through subsequent conflicts in which air power played an ever more visible role—World War II, Korea, and especially Vietnam. But with the Persian Gulf war in the early 1990’s, events seemed finally to bear out the devotees. The visually spectacular and astonishingly successful bombing campaign that opened Operation Desert Storm made the defeat of the Iraqi army and the liberation of Kuwait a cakewalk. Military aviation, at long last, seemed to have come into its own.
In The Transformation of American Air Power, Benjamin S. Lambeth, a senior staff member at RAND, the government-funded think tank, recounts this “final coming of age.” Over the past two decades, he writes, “American air power has experienced a nonlinear growth in its ability to contribute to the outcome of joint operations at the higher end of the conflict spectrum.” Translated from RAND-speak, this appears to mean that air power has conclusively demonstrated its ability to win conventional wars, although in fact Lambeth stops just short of making quite so sweeping a claim. Instead, he argues that a well-designed air campaign can “neutralize enemy armies and surface navies anywhere,” leaving to earthbound forces the crucial but now-secondary role of occupying contested territory, disarming a demoralized foe, and carrying out the terms of surrender.
In tracing the maturation of the air weapon, Lambeth properly begins with the debacle of Vietnam and the military renaissance launched in its wake. Chief among the inanities that undermined the U.S. bombing campaign in Vietnam, as he tells it, was the strategy of gradual escalation intended not to destroy the enemy but to send “signals.” Others have made this point as well, but to it Lambeth adds another: namely, that American airmen themselves, having spent the 1950’s preparing to wage all-out nuclear war against the Soviet Union, were ill-prepared for Vietnam. Even had civilian leaders allowed the generals to conduct the air war according to their own lights, defective operational concepts and unsuitable hardware would have posed all but insurmountable obstacles to success.
To their credit, as Lambeth shows, the generals learned from their failures in Vietnam. In the aftermath, each service (for in the American system each of the four military branches has its own air force) embarked upon major reforms. Although the top priority reverted to countering the Soviet threat in Europe, the favored scenario changed from a dependence on nuclear weapons and strategic retaliation to a reliance on conventional weapons. Given, however, the Warsaw Pact’s enormous edge in mechanized formations, a successful conventional defense required radical improvements in air capabilities. And indeed the late 1970’s and 1980’s saw a host of innovations, including not only new technologies such as precision-guided munitions and stealthy aircraft that would be invisible to enemy radar but also new concepts for fighting air wars and training regimes of unprecedented realism and rigor.
The Warsaw Pact assault on Western Europe never materialized, of course, but then in August 1990 came Saddam Hussein’s reckless invasion of Kuwait. The ensuing campaign brought to bear the full panoply of new air weapons and techniques. What made the difference was not the so-called “strategic bombing” of the Iraqi military and industrial base—that effort, according to Lambeth, yielded little—but relentless attacks on the Iraqi army in the field. These led directly to “the individual soldier’s loss of will and resolve to fight.”
In the years after Desert Storm, as Lambeth shows, the United States has come to rely ever more heavily on air power as its preferred military instrument, a trend that culminated in the U.S.-led war against Serbia in 1999. At least as the Clinton administration portrayed it, this casualty-free war was a triumphal feat of arms, and the fullest expression yet of what has emerged as the new American way of waging battle from the skies.
Lambeth tells his story in close and engaging detail. But whether he is right in contending that a “new day” of air dominance has dawned is not so clear.
His case would be more persuasive if military history had come to an end in 1991, amid the detritus of the battered Iraqi army and widespread amazement at the effectiveness of high-tech arms. But viewed from the perspective of a decade later, Operation Desert Storm turns out to have been less a template for the future than an anomaly. What the passage of time has allowed us to see is that the Persian Gulf war was fought in conditions uniquely favorable to the United States and its allies, while the Iraqi military, their adversary, proved to be remarkably inept. Desert Storm was, in the end, not a harbinger of something new, but an antique: the last manifestation of a now-outmoded style of industrial-age, mechanized warfare.
The more recent and, arguably, more instructive war for Kosovo was something else entirely. In this conflict, the U.S. and its European allies triumphed, but in doing so confronted large new questions about air power’s actual efficacy and continuing limitations. As Lambeth himself makes clear, NATO ultimately prevailed in Kosovo not through the “cleverness” of its aerial assault on the army in the field (as had been the case in Iraq), but by “bring[ing] the war home to the Serbian population” with attacks on civilian targets—inflicting greater damage than the “successive Nazi and Allied bombing of Yugoslavia in World War II.” Moreover, as he goes on to suggest, it was not bombing but the likely prospect of NATO intervention on the ground that finally caused Slobodan Milosevic to give way. When he did so, his army withdrew from Kosovo intact, “spirited and defiant rather than beaten.” Finally, as an instrument for stopping Yugoslav ground forces from engaging in ethnic cleansing—the very object for which the U.S. went to war—air power failed abjectly.
In short, though the American-orchestrated air campaign against Yugoslavia ended in a success of sorts, it both differed from Desert Storm in its approach and resulted in an ambiguous outcome. To understand why requires the consideration of factors other than the strictly military.
In the years leading up to Desert Storm, there unquestionably was a transformation in the nature of war, a transformation that centered on technology and technique; but in the years since, that transformation has been matched, and eclipsed, by another of greater importance. Even as America’s role and responsibilities as the world’s sole remaining superpower have expanded, so have the ranks of those who reject American values and who use violence to contest American preeminence. In doing so, those opponents rely on means of their own choosing. These means have not tended to include the massing of armored divisions vulnerable to air attack. More often, they resemble the urban guerrilla attacks U.S. forces encountered in Somalia, or this past autumn’s suicide bombing in Yemen of the USS Cole.
At its core, the change I am describing is political in nature, and in war, politics trumps all else. Lambeth, despite his enthusiasm for air power’s “nonlinear growth,” seems to be aware of this. In a brief passage notable for both its modesty and its clarity, he observes that “air power is, at bottom, a blunt instrument designed to break things and kill people in pursuit of clear and militarily achievable objectives on the ground.” True enough. When military theorists venture beyond such axioms and begin touting air power as an all-purpose elixir—low cost, risk-free, with results guaranteed—it is time to be wary.