Martin van Creveld: it’s the age of failed airpower. Yet we try, try, try again.

Summary: Today Martin van Creveld examines one of the great oddities of our time — our persistent and absurdly unjustified faith in the power of airpower to defeat 4th generation foes. Future historians will marvel at our inability to learn from experience, of which this is just one example.

Italian-Turkish War
First aerial bombing: 1 Nov 1911 in Libya, Italian-Turkish War.

When Will They Ever Learn?

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 1 October 2015
Posted with his generous permission

For over a year now, the US armed forces have been fighting The Monster. AKA ISIS, AKA DAESH, AKA one of the most ferocious band of cut-throats the world has ever seen. Joining President Assad’s Army, who is the only one with the necessary guts, as of this writing Turkish, Russian, and French forces have all entered the fray. So, in less direct ways, have some 60 other countries. As the growing list of belligerents indicates, without too much success. Fearing casualties, officially at any rate none of the above mentioned interventionist forces have deployed boots on the ground. They prefer to rely on air strikes instead.

So just to remind those of you who may have forgotten, here is a short list of some of the things airborne devices, regardless of whether they are or are not manned, fly high or low or circle the earth in the manner of satellites, can not do:

  • The cost-benefit relationship of airborne devices means they have difficulty coping with a widely dispersed enemy. In plain words: one cannot send an F-16 or a Predator after every terrorist, real or, much less, suspected.
  • Airborne devices cannot take prisoners and interrogate people. In other words obtain HUMINT from both enemy combatants and the civilian population.
  • Airborne devices cannot look inside houses and other buildings which terrorists/guerrillas/insurgents use to hide, plan their operations, store weapons, recuperate, and so on.
  • Airborne devices, owing to their inability to look inside, cannot normally block transportation arteries except by shooting up everything that moves on them. In other words, they cannot do so in a discriminating manner; it is either/or.
  • Airborne devices cannot occupy territory and hold it. To quote a World War I saying which still holds true in many cases: They come from the devil knows where; drop bombs on the devil knows what; and disappear to the devil knows where.

Age of Airpower
Available at Amazon.

The really interesting point, which ought to make us all think, is that none of this is at all new. In fact it dates back to the earliest days of airpower. The first to use aircraft in war were the Italians in Libya from 1911 on. Initially, when the opponent still consisted of the Ottoman Army and most of the fighting took place along the coast, the few primitive airship and aircraft deployed to the theater of war were quite useful in obtaining intelligence and artillery-spotting in particular.

Later things changed. Airships and aircraft remained absolutely essential for reconnaissance and surveillance. They were the eyes of the army, as the saying went.

Too often, though, the opponents, now consisting mainly of native nomadic Bedouin, adapted and started devising countermeasures. As by taking pot shots at their enemies, forcing them to fly higher and use their ordnance less effectively; as by switching to night operations; and as by using terrain features, dispersion and camouflage in order to avoid discovery. In case they were discovered the small bombs dropped on them often killed combatants and noncombatants alike. Instead of extinguishing the flames of war they stirred them up. So great were the difficulties that, at one point, the Italians decided to forget about bombs altogether but resorted to leaflets instead.

All these problems explain why the campaign, which the High Command in Rome had expected would take up just a few weeks or months, lasted intermittently until 1928. And why, ultimately, it was decided not by aircraft and their pilots, important as they were, but by a quarter million of ground troops sent by Mussolini with license to commit every kind of atrocity (including the use of poison gas) under the sun until “order” was restored.

Disney's Victory Thru Airpower
See it below!

Do these problems sound familiar? If so, that is because, since then, they have resurfaced so many times as to make me, at any rate, lose count. The British lost first Ireland and then, after World War II, the rest of their colonial empire. Starting in 1946-47, the same fate overtook the French.

The Americans, stepping in where their former allies had failed, lost first Vietnam and then the rest of Indochina. The Soviets lost Afghanistan. The Americans were thrown out of Lebanon. The South Africans were thrown out of Namibia. The Americans were thrown out of Somalia. The Israelis were thrown out of Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. The Americans were thrown out of Iraq. The Americans were thrown out of Afghanistan. Etcetera, etcetera.

The above is just a small sample of a list that could be continued indefinitely. It covers a very wide variety of countries, circumstances, and armed struggles no two of which were exactly alike. What makes it remarkable is the fact that, whatever else, in every single case, the one thing the “forces of order,” “counterinsurgents,” or whatever they called themselves, enjoyed was absolute control of the air. And in every single one, that control availed them little if at all.

When will they ever learn?


About the Author

Martin van Creveld

Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy.

The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of theory about modern war is difficult to exaggerate. He has provided both the broad historical context — looking both forward and back in time — much of the analytical work, and a large share of the real work in publishing both academic and general interest books. He does not use the term 4GW, preferring to speak of “non-trinitarian” warfare — but his work is foundational for 4GW just the same.

Professor van Creveld has written 20 books, about almost every significant aspect of war. He has written about the history of war, such as The Age of Airpower. He has written about the tools of war: Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present.

Some of his books discuss the methods of war: Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance, and Air Power and Maneuver Warfare.

He has written two books about Israel: Defending Israel: A Controversial Plan Toward Peace and The Sword And The Olive: A Critical History Of The Israeli Defense Force.

Perhaps most important are his books examine the evolution of war, such as Nuclear Proliferation and the Future of Conflict, The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (IMO the best work to date about modern war), The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq, and (my favorite) The Culture of War.

He’s written controversial books, such as Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (German soldiers were better than our!) and Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line?.

He’s written one of the most influential books of our generation about war, his magnum opus — the dense but mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State – the ur-text describing the political order of the 21st century.

For links to his articles see The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.

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