Sky High: Illusions of Air Power

September 1, 2001 Topic: Security Tags: Cold WarIslamismWar In Afghanistan

Sky High: Illusions of Air Power

Mini Teaser: For all the talk of humane warfare from above, the Kosovo war reconfirmed airpower's perennial strength--its deadly efficacy against civilian targets.

by Author(s): Conrad C. Crane

It is clear that whatever sort of victory nato's Kosovo air campaign brought, it was not achieved by "plinking" tanks or by causing strategic or operational military paralysis. Despite European attempts to restrain the attacks, a less-than-final settlement was achieved with the same sort of "imposed cost" strategy attempted in Korea and Vietnam, resulting in massive destruction of Yugoslavia's civilian infrastructure. Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon admitted as much when he speculated that the main factor in Milosevic's acceptance of terms "was the increasing inconveniences that the bombing campaign was causing in Belgrade and other cities."

The more precise truth is that a yawningly broad definition of the term "dual-use" opened up a wide array of targets for NATO airmen, including bridges, heating plants and television stations. Black humor in Belgrade had it that even bakeries were valid targets for NATO aircraft because "soldiers also eat bread." When the 78 days of attack on cities, factories, power plants and other targets finally ended, 45 percent of Yugoslavia's television broadcast capability was degraded and a third of military and civilian radio relay networks were damaged. Petroleum refining facilities were completely eliminated. Seventy percent of road and 50 percent of rail bridges across the Danube were down. Destruction is what airpower does best, and it contributed to an enormous Balkan repair bill that the president of the World Bank fears will use up any money available to deal with other humanitarian crises in Asia and Africa.

There is also a good chance that Yugoslav civilian casualties exceeded military ones, suggesting that Mr. Bacon's choice of the term "inconveniences" did not quite capture the extant reality. This is particularly ironic considering the expectations for a bloodless war caricatured so well in Doonesbury cartoons and reinforced by NATO briefings on targeting accuracy. High NATO expectations for extremely low casualties on both sides helped convince reluctant coalition members to support the air campaign, and hence increased the political impact of each scene of civilian dead and wounded. Such expectations may also have played some role in persuading UN war crimes prosecutors of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to assess evidence in December 1999 that NATO commanders had violated the laws of war with their air attacks.

Wrongheaded attempts to criminalize military activity aside, we must face the ethical implications of the fact that NATO airpower achieved success only because of the destruction wreaked on civilian infrastructure and the resultant noncombatant casualties. This does not necessarily make the application of such military force wrong; that judgment depends on a calculus-never easy to parse-of the greater and lesser evils to be considered in any given case. But it should dispel all illusions about the surgical bloodlessness of modern military technology, airpower not least.

In our ethical accounting, too, we need to factor in the role of precedent. One nation, in particular, quickly applied Kosovo's lessons on airpower to its own problems. Though they opposed NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia, the Russians soon applied the same tactics against Chechnya, trying to force the withdrawal of Islamic militants without a bloody and unpopular ground war. Russian newspapers declared that "the Kremlin is using the scheme NATO applied in Kosovo", and indeed, the Russian Air Force Commander, Col. Gen. Anatoly Kornukov, conducted NATO-style briefings narrating combat footage of precision munitions striking targets in Grozny. His forces were also conscious of the need to justify the destruction of dual-use targets. Russian aircraft destroyed Chechnya's cellular telephone exchange to prevent the rebels from talking to each other, bombed oil refineries to deprive the rebels of black market revenues, and presumably attacked the television station to stop the transmission of misleading propaganda-just like NATO did. As the damage to the civilian infrastructure and the civilian death toll mounted, more than 100,000 Chechens became refugees fleeing the violence.

Instead of demonstrating how airpower in limited war allows "righteous" states to restrain transgressors with a minimum of bloodshed on both sides, the Kosovo and Chechen conflicts show how aggressive belligerents with advanced technology can inflict massive destruction on others at low cost to themselves. They also show how modern technology has inclined to merge the civilian and military sectors of society to an unprecedented degree, creating a broader target spectrum that can be justified for attack. Instead of making war less likely and destructive, the power of new "precision strike" technology has done the opposite. It is now much easier to get domestic support to use force when all it requires is to launch a cruise missile or drop a precision bomb, for the expectation is that results will be clean, decisive and above all safe for the attacking side. When the results are neither clean nor decisive, it is easier to escalate a conflict as impatience grows, especially when there is a considerable technological mismatch between belligerents. So instead of heading for the sort of future envisioned by modern American airpower theorists, in which paralyzing attacks on military structures end wars quickly and with relatively little impact on the civilian sphere, we may be headed for that foreseen by Douhet, in which new weapons decide wars by inflicting maximum distress on civilian populations, which are inherently more vulnerable to the destructive power of modern technology than are military capabilities.

Particularly in lopsided contests, the fact of civilian vulnerability in turn raises the question posed by an anonymous European observer in the aftermath of the Kosovo war: "Now we know what Americans are willing to kill for; but what are Americans willing to die for?" It is a good question, for it gets at the choices and priorities that even great powers cannot-or, at any rate, should not-neglect, even if advanced military technology tempts us into thinking otherwise. Particularly for America, as another contributor to these pages once put it, "even a high-tech military offers no easy escape from the moral ambiguities that remain the lot of an imperial democracy."

This is not a new problem. During World War II, the Army Air Force staff created a model reply to answer any letters they received questioning the humanitarian application of their new technology. One section read:

We see air warfare as being different only in the range of its potential destruction. The air gives uncurbed bestial instincts a wider field of expression, leaving only humanity and common sense to dictate limitations. Law cannot limit what physics makes possible. We can depend for moderation only upon reason and humane instincts when we exercise such a power.

Would that such moderation and reason came in as ample a supply as the precision weapons in our arsenals.

Essay Types: Essay