Under the Obama Administration, There Will Be No Victory Through Air Power — Unless You Count ‘Climate Change’

us fighter planes strike isis in syria
U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel/NurPhoto/AFP

I.) Do We Want to Defeat ISIS — Or Not?

Here’s a disturbing report, made all the more disturbing because of the grisly familiarity of the topic: ISIS has executed 175 of the 300 Syrian cement workers it kidnapped on April 7. As usual, ISIS was brazen:

The workers from Al-Badiyeh Cement company, based in the town of Al-Dhmeir 30 miles northeast of Damascus, were reportedly taken from their workplace Thursday and put on buses by ISIS militants.

Then most of them were killed. And we can immediately observe that, over the last few years, ISIS has engaged in a lot of outdoor activity; in its own showy fashion, it has murdered hundreds, if not thousands, of people — including Americans.

Yes, ISIS, being the media whore that it is, has typically chosen to commit its murders in fetishistic mass-ceremonies, recorded in broad daylight, so that the whole world can see. It has also defiantly bulldozed or otherwise demolished priceless monuments and archaeological artifacts. By definition, that too, is visible outdoor work.

Which is to say, if the U.S. had really wanted to, it could have been observing, and interdicting, every ISIS action, using drones and other aircraft. More specifically, and desirably, America could have annihilated ISIS fighters wherever and whenever they appeared.

Yes, if the Obama administration had cared, we could have filled the skies over Syria with drones, ready to fire off a rocket or cruise missile every time an ISIS member made a move. Drones are, after all, cheap: In the U.S. today, we have millions of them. In 2015 alone, hobbyists bought 700,000 drones. And so, if ISIS has about 30,000 members, well, it would have been easy for America to put forth a new military doctrine: For each and every ISIS fighter, one watchful drone, one shot — and one kill.

Yes, that technological capacity is available, but it hasn’t been fully used. So we can only conclude that the Obama administration lacks the imagination, or the inclination — maybe both — to truly destroy ISIS.

Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence that the U.S. effort against ISIS has been lackadaisical, at best. As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2014:

The campaign against Serbia in 1999 averaged 138 strike sorties daily. Against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria: seven.

Two years later, the U.S. has maybe picked up the pace. But then again, maybe it hasn’t. Meanwhile, in the last two years, ISIS has picked up the pace against us: two attacks on Paris and one on Brussels. And, oh yes, the recent attack here in America, in San Bernardino, which the Obama administration tells us was the result of “lone wolves” — you know, the same administration that told us the 2009 Fort Hood shootings were “workplace violence.”

So it seems fair to ask: Is President Obama truly interested in destroying ISIS? It would seem that in his mind, the main mission is to improve U.S.-Islamic relations, which can hardly be helped, he thinks, by killing more Muslims, even if some insist on calling them terrorists. After all, at some point, if there’s too much killing, won’t the Norwegians demand that Obama give back his Nobel Peace Prize?

Of course, Obama’s is not the only American voice. Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, has a much different view. As he says, if he becomes the 45th president:

We will utterly destroy ISIS. We will carpet-bomb them into oblivion.

Cruz’s choice of words — “carpet-bomb” — caused a storm of indignation, at least on the left. Typical of the MSM counter-fire was this headline in Esquire: “Carpet Bombing Is Not an Acceptable Military Tactic, Even Against ISIS. Listen up, Ted Cruz.”

In that article, and in all the others, we are piously informed that “carpet-bombing” is a war crime.

Some might say that Cruz’s real crime, in the eyes of the left-establishment, is that he wants to win our wars.

But okay, let’s play out this carpet-bomb issue in the light of our own history: After all, we carpet-bombed plenty of cities and countries in World War Two, using high-explosives, and, on two occasions in 1945, nuclear ordnance. And yes, it’s worth recalling that we won that war, rather handily — but for the moment, let’s stay focused on the supposed “illegality” of carpet-bombing.

As we think about the Greatest Generation and what it did to win WW2, we might ask: If carpet-bombing is a war crime, does that mean that all the American GIs who dropped bombs on Germany and Japan were war criminals? Were the three million men and women who served in the air forces of the Army, Navy, and Marines all guilty? And what about our top generals, such as George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, and Hap Arnold — were they, in fact, arch-war criminals? And what of our Commander-in-Chief, Franklin D. Roosevelt — was he the worst of them all? And for that matter, what about all Americans? Were we, and are we, all collectively guilty?

The answer, of course, from the vast majority of Americans, is a “no.” Even, “hell, no.” The victors of World War Two were heroes, full stop.

Indeed, evaluated even from the most airless possible legal perspective, the answer is still “no” — but let’s face it, that’s only because of the calendar. Americans who served in the air forces of World War Two — and Korea and Vietnam — are off the hook, legally, because carpet-bombing was not illegal when they did it.

Yet as of June 8, 1977, the rules, in the form of the Geneva Conventions, were revised, and a new “Protocol Additional” prohibited “area bombardment.”

Looking back at this development, we can thank, if that’s the right word, the world’s politicians — led, of course, by Jimmy Carter — for changing the rules of war.

Of course, to be more precise about the matter, the Geneva worthies changed the rules by which the legal-minded countries of North America and Western Europe — that is, the nations that take things like the Geneva Conventions seriously — might wage war; there’s little evidence that the revised Conventions rules have changed the behavior of most governments around the world.

Today, the regimes of Russia and Syria, to name just two, are carpet-bombing in the Middle East like nobody’s business. And, we might add, the Russians and Syrians appear to be winning.

In fact, a cynic might conclude that the rules against “area bombardment” are taken seriously only by governments that don’t about worry much about winning their wars. To put the matter another way, if the niceties of lawyerized combat hold more appeal for you than actual victory, then you’ll love the 1977 Protocol. Or to be even more blunt about it, if you just don’t think that your country should be fighting wars for any reason — aiming to win, or not — then the revised Geneva Conventions are definitely A-okay with you.

We should pause to declare, here, that our point is not to praise the killing of civilians; we must mourn the loss of any innocent life.

However, we might emphasize a different point, the same point that was made in World War Two. And that is, because war is hell, we should seek to end it as quickly as possible. End it, that is, by winning it.

In the meantime, if we put on our let’s-get-real thinking caps, we can easily conclude that those who wrote and ratified that 1977 Protocol probably did think that the Allied bomb-droppers in World War Two were to be regarded as war criminals. It helps to recall the mood of 1977: It was right after the Vietnam War had ended, right in the middle of America’s post-Watergate, pre-Reagan, funk. Back then, in the late 70s, the Carter administration was engaged in its own worldwide version of Barack Obama’s famed “apology tour.” So in those days, it was easy for the likes of then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, guilt-stricken as he was by U.S. “misdeeds” over the years, to think that the new Protocol was a necessary national cleanser.

But now, four decades later, we can see the fuller implications of that Protocol — including what it has done to our capacity for powerful strategic thinking.

Indeed, we can step back and ask ourselves: Why don’t we think ambitiously about using air power? Why can’t we use drones to annihilate — as opposed to merely harass — ISIS? And why aren’t we rushing into battle with other sky-based weapons, such as lasers, that could possibly be used to obliterate ISIS?

The answer, of course, is that air power has a badly-sullied reputation. And yes, air power is now associated with “war crimes” — and what up-and-coming officer or strategist wants to be part of that? After all, who’s to say that an aggressive air campaign against terror wouldn’t be judged, by some activist international lawyer somewhere, as “area bombardment”?

It wasn’t always like this.

II. Victory Through Air Power — Back When We Thought that Winning Was a Good Idea

Back during World War Two, in 1943, when the USA really wanted to win the fight against fascism, Walt Disney released a remarkable film, Victory Through Air Power, narrated by Alexander de Seversky, a combat pilot-turned-aviation entrepreneur. As its title suggests, the film is an extended argument for defeating the Axis with, yes, area bombardment. It starts with this quote from aviation visionary Billy Mitchell:

Now air power is the dominant feature of military operations. Air power can fly directly to the vital centers of an opposing state and neutralize them. It can destroy the cities, it can wreck the aqueducts, it can knock out the lines of communication, it can destroy the food supplies, and make the people helpless to resist.

That approach to warfare sounded pretty good to most Americans in 1943; yes, it was “area bombardment,” but it promised to be a big improvement over, for example, the mud and blood of trench warfare.

Indeed, the Disney film was, in its way, inspiring: The special penetrating bombs we used to destroy heavily fortified Nazi U-boat submarine pens on the Atlantic coastline were known as “Disney Bombs,” because their design was influenced by a sub-busting scene in the movie.

Yes, in World War Two, America really did seek victory through air power. For starters, we built more than 300,000 military aircraft. And we can add that the Army Air Corps (after 1942, the Army Air Force, or AAF), flew 1.69 million sorties in the skies of Europe, and over the Pacific, it flew another 669,000. The Navy and Marines flew many more.

However, the results in WW2 were not as decisive as we might have hoped, for three reasons:

  • First, targeting was imprecise. The Norden bombsight was a major advance, one of the most valuable wonder-weapons of the war, but even so, bombing was hit-and-miss. It’s estimated that no more than a third of U.S. bombs hit within 500 feet of their intended target. The occluding factors of clouds, fog, and smoke — to say nothing of nightfall and enemy resistance — made it necessary to strike the same target over and over again, and yes, to carpet-bomb; that was the only way to make sure that the target was destroyed. (Today, of course, a laser- or GPS-guided projectile can hit the bullseye almost every time.)
  • Second, back then, the U.S. had little capacity to linger over a target, in hopes of guaranteeing a hit. Home base then was typically in England, and that meant that time over the target, deep in Central Europe, was limited to a few minutes. (By contrast, today’s drones can hover over a possible target for a week or more, and, high above them, orbiting satellites are on station permanently.)
  • Third, and most importantly, in WW2, the enemy could shoot back. America lost 18,000 airplanes flying over Nazi-dominated Europe; some 40,000 airmen were killed, and another 40,000 captured. In all, 36 members of the AAF were awarded the Medal of Honor for actions performed during air missions, 22 of them posthumously.

So for all three of these reasons, air power in World War Two was not enough to achieve victory. We had to slog across Europe with infantry, artillery, and tanks.

Still, our air forces were pretty darn effective. In addition to devastating the Wehrmacht — and knocking the Luftwaffe out of the sky completely by 1944 — the rubble of German cities and factories was testament to the damage done by sustained bombardment. Indeed, it was out of desperate necessity that the Germans built their tanks and planes in inefficient, makeshift, only-at-night outdoor factories, or deep in underground mine-shafts.

But one needn’t take my word for it, about the impact of our aerial might. Instead, we can learn all we need to know from the Germans we defeated.

In the words of General Feldmarschall Karl Gerd von Rundstedt, commander-in-chief of German forces in France and Italy until 1945:

Three factors defeated us in the West where I was in command. First, the unheard-of superiority of your air force, which made all movement in daytime impossible. Second, the lack of motor fuel oil and gas — so that the Panzers and even the remaining Luftwaffe were unable to move [mostly the result of air power]. Third, the systematic destruction of all railway communications so that it was impossible to bring one single railroad train across the Rhine. This made impossible the reshuffling of troops and robbed us of all mobility.

And here’s General Feldmarschall Albert Kesselring, commander-in-chief of German forces in Italy:

Dive-bombing and terror attacks on civilians, combined with the heavy bombing, proved our undoing. Allied air power was the greatest single reason for the German defeat.

We might note Kesselring’s words, “terror attacks on civilians.” It’s perfectly to be expected that a German commander would label any aerial attack that killed civilians as “terror.” Meanwhile, an American, fighting in the same war, might regard the victims of an aerial attack as “collateral damage.” Such is the difference between winning and losing — and it’s a good thing that we won. Yet without a doubt, we have to admit: There was nothing nice about U.S. aerial attacks.

And here’s the summation of a German industrialist, as he saw the effect of American air power:

The virtual flattening of the great steel city of Dusseldorf, Germany’s Pittsburgh, contributed at least 50 percent of the collapse of the German war effort.

Lastly, we might heed the opinion of Hjalmar Schacht, Hitler’s onetime finance minister,

Your bombers destroyed German production, and Allied production made the defeat of Germany certain.

Of course, as can be said of anything that big and that consequential, the American bombing campaign has always been controversial. The fact that the bombing was mostly “area bombardment” is only the beginning of the controversy.

Critics have pointed, for example, to the costly American decision to pursue daylight bombing — daylight, of course, being better for bomb-targeting, but also better for better for anti-aircraft targeting. In addition, Uncle Sam disastrously failed to develop a fighter with the range needed to escort bombers over their targets, leaving them at the mercy of nimble Messerschmit and Focke-Wulf fighters. The problem was not solved until late 1943, with the arrival of the P-51 Mustang; for American bomber crews, it was a bloody hell until then.

And of course, there was the issue of the civilian casualties that American bombers inflicted. The incendiary bombing of Dresden in February 1945 — rendered so memorably in the novel Slaughterhouse Five by a survivor of the inferno, a young American POW named Kurt Vonnegut — shocked the conscience of many. Even more conscience-shocking, of course, were the nuclear explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet many others, starting with Presidents Roosevelt and Harry Truman, staunchly defended the bombing, including the atomic-bombing, arguing that it ended the war sooner and thus saved millions of lives.

After WW2 was over, Uncle Sam attempted to assess systematically the bombing campaign; hundreds of experts were engaged to study the issue from every possible angle.

The result was the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, released in 1946. It argued that the American air campaign, while a success overall, was nevertheless mottled by mistakes and shortcomings. Yes, our aerial bombardment eventually succeeded in knocking out, for example, the entirety of German gasoline production. Yet at the same time, the output of German war materiel rose substantially, even as Germany was losing.

Ever since, historiographical disputants have hashed through the data: How much of the Nazis’ industrial increase was due to the organizational genius of the German production chief, Albert Speer? And how much more would output have risen had Dusseldorf’s steel mills, for example, not been flattened?

Meanwhile, in the post-war era, the reputation of air power was further undermined, of course, by the U.S. involvement in Vietnam — as we TV viewers were flooded with those images of B-52s raining down bombs.

Without getting bogged down in the merits or demerits of that conflict, we can say this much with confidence: Over and over again — steadily, for the last half-century — we’ve been told that air power “doesn’t work,” that it’s all a cruel joke, aimed at, to be extreme about it, napalming children.

Yet in point of fact, one could just as easily argue that air power worked well — once it was really tried. Any American pilot who flew over Vietnam will tell you that he was hamstrung by ludicrous political rules of engagement — hit this low-value target, ignore that high-value target. Yes, it was a strange war, indeed, when the American actress Jane Fonda could pose for cameras as she sat inside a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft emplacement and then return home and resume being a big Hollywood star.

Interestingly, after all the years of futile fighting, it was only in December 1972 that the full fury of American air power was finally fully unleashed on the enemy, in the Linebacker II bombing of December 1972. The North Vietnamese came to terms days later. Again: One need not endorse the Vietnam War to see that yes, indeed, air power can work when it is determinedly applied.

Finally, we can observe that in the seven decades since the war was won, peace and prosperity have mostly dulled the sensitivities of bombing supporters — and sharpened the sensitivities of bombing critics.

The Germans, for example, have turned the fire-bombing of Dresden into something of a cause celebre; that is, the memory of the 25,000 or so civilians burned to death offers a chance for Germany to distribute some of its war-guilt on to others. Jorg Friedrich’s 2002 book, Der Brand (The Fire), translated into English in 2006, portrays the attack on Dresden as pointless mass-murder. It was a huge best-seller in Germany.

Meanwhile, the Japanese, having started the war at Pearl Harbor in 1941 — and before that, having launched a war against China in 1931, which many historians see as the real beginning of WW2 — have done an even more brilliant job of painting themselves as victims.

So we can see how the image of air power has, over the years, taken a bruising. Amidst the generalized post-war prosperity, the Anglo-American liberators went about their post-war lives, while German-Japanese aggressors have had the luxury of re-positioning themselves as injured parties in the war.

Just on Saturday, the Washington Post reported that President Obama is seriously considering visiting Hiroshima when he visits Japan in May — a Hiroshima visit would be a first for a U.S. president. Such a visit, were it to happen, would rate as a huge moral victory for Japan and would undoubtedly be accompanied by abundant anti-nuclear rhetoric — Obama in the past has pledged a “world without nuclear weapons” — thus further diminishing a.) the U.S. achievement in building the A-bomb, b.) the effectiveness of our current nuclear deterrent, and c.) prospects for further progress toward improving air-war strategy in the 21st century.

And on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry did, in fact, visit Hiroshima, the first U.S. secretary of state to do so. Kerry, standing with Japanese officials, laid a wreath at a Hiroshima shrine — evidently, there were no flowers and no shrine for the thousands of American POWs who were murdered, tortured, and enslaved by Japan in World War Two — and then wrote in the guestbook:

It is a stark, harsh, compelling reminder not only of our obligation to end the threat of nuclear weapons, but to re-dedicate all our effort to avoid war itself.

And thus, in just 30 words, after having symbolically dissed American valor and sacrifice in the war, Kerry managed to undercut the U.S. effort in World War Two, while at the same time further undercutting the U.S. nuclear deterrent overall. That is, if you feel you must lay wreaths of sorrow for the victims of a nuclear bombing, how could you think well of President Truman’s decision to drop the bomb or ever think well about using a nuclear bomb in the future?

The point here is not to trash the Japan of 2016. Japan today is a valuable ally. The problem is the current American leadership, not the Japanese.

Yet we should recall that we built that strong alliance over the last seven decades while agreeing to disagree about World War Two: The Japanese have never fully apologized for all their many aggressions and atrocities in that war, and the U.S. has never asked them to; after 1945, after all, we generously allowed their ultimate war leader, the Emperor Hirohito, to remain on the throne.

Okay, so sometimes, difficult historical questions are best left ambiguous and unresolved. But now, Kerry — and perhaps, soon, Obama — have resolved the nuclear question in a much different way, by adding one more apology to their multi-year world-tour road show of apologizing.

III. The Strategic Environment the Next President Will Face — and the Technological Opportunity

As we have seen, since 1945, political and cultural currents have been running strongly against air power. Yet even so, technology tends to have a life of its own, and the phenomenal advances in microelectronics and computing have radiated into every sector, civilian and, yes, military.

As a result, over the last few decades — and with a notable boost from the Reagan administration — aviation technology has enormously improved. We can identify three big jumps: first, precision-guided munitions; second, cruise missiles; and third, drones.

Thus we can see a steady increase in American aerial effectiveness — when we have wanted to use it.

For example, we saw air power used to powerful effect in 1991’s Operation Desert Storm and then, at various times later in the decade, over the former Yugoslavia. Notably, the U.S. bombed Serbia into submission without suffering a single KIA.

Okay, so why wasn’t air power as effective, more recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan? Part of the answer is the nature of the targets; we could shut down Belgrade, and all of Serbia, by knocking out power plants and power lines, and yet later, after the fall of the Taliban and Saddam regimes, it was much harder to find the pressure points against the insurgents.

In addition, there was the even bigger problem of America’s strange double mission in those two countries: We were there to defeat the enemy, yes, but we were also there to win hearts and minds, to nation-build, and to promote democratic elections. To illustrate the depths of this geopolitical challenge, we might think back to World War Two: What would have happened if we had tried both to defeat and befriend the Germans and Japanese — at the same time?

Indeed, as we compare the effectiveness of air power, decades ago, to the effectiveness of air power today, we can fairly come to this conclusion: Quantum gains from technology can nevertheless be overwhelmed by the losses that come from having lawyers and spin-doctors second-guess every decision.

Yet despite all these political hurdles, drone technology is such a huge paradigm-shift that today we have, once again, the chance to achieve Victory Through Air Power — at least against the low-tech likes of ISIS.

Of course, President Obama does not seem interested. Sadly, he’s not focused on protecting innocent Syrian cement-workers, and it’s hard, in fact, to know if he’s focused on protecting anyone else — including even Americans.

Indeed, if there’s an “air” issue that Obama is taken by, it’s “climate change,” not air power. As chronicled by Breitbart’s Jerome Hudson, Obama has cited climate change — not ISIS, Iran, China, Russia, etc. — as the leading danger to America. With a mindset such as that, it’s rather hard to make military progress. An unverifiable and unenforceable treaty on, of all things, carbon dioxide: That’s “victory through air power,” Obama-style.

Fortunately, we will have a new president in 2017. And who knows, it might even be Ted “carpet-bomb” Cruz.

Cruz, careful constitutional lawyer that he is, would, as president, have no desire to violate the Geneva Convention’s prohibition against “area bombardment.” And he’d be realistic enough to know that any possible amendments would take years to enact.

Yet as we have seen, it’s a new era: Cruise missiles and drones give the U.S. the capacity to transcend any concern about area bombardments, by taking warfare into a new realm of precision — even personalization.

Thus air-weapons now have a granularity that great aviation visionaries, such as Billy Mitchell, Alexander de Seversky, and Walt Disney, could only have dreamed of.

So in the future, we won’t need literally to be carpet-bombing terrorists. But from their point of view, it would seem as though they are being carpet-bombed. They would be just as dead, just as quickly, even as those around them are unhurt.

Moreover, with the right sort of investment, down the road we will have even more precise weapons, such as lasers and weaponized AI. At which point, even the most zealous ISIS recruits will see that yes, indeed, they have signed their own death warrant — effective immediately. And while martyrdom might seem to be an okay eventual fate for a wannabe jihadi, instant martyrdom is just a drag.

Yes, the right commander-in-chief could be fully respectful of international law and still be fully capable of energetically defending America and its allies.

And that new era, as we have seen, could start with a simply-stated doctrine: For each and every ISIS fighter: one watchful drone, one shot — and one kill.


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