NATO: Losing the Libyan Air War

by Crocker on April 20, 2011, 7:55 am

in History,Military,Politics

NATO is losing the air war in Libya – because it is relying on air power alone to get the job done. Not that I think that NATO or anyone else should have intervened in Libya, mind you, but the inability to take down Libyan ground forces through use of tactical air power was surely predictable. As the good people at Strategy Page point out, air power alone has never decided a conflict, all Air Force and Navy propaganda to the contrary.

Bomb damage assessment has been an inexact science since World War II. What BDA types thought they were destroying is usually quite different from what they actually destroyed once the ground forces moved in to take a close look and ground forces continue to have the edge at concealment and evasion. As the Strategy Page authors note, after World War II the Strategic Bombing Survey examined in considerable detail the damage done to German and Japanese industry by the U.S. and British strategic bombing campaigns.

The results were a mixed bag. While the surveys acknowledge the overall effects of the campaigns, they also note that that certain key industries (particularly in Germany) increased production at the height of the strategic campaigns and that strangulation of Japanese industry was largely due to submarine interdiction of shipping. Moreover, the Japanese survey seems to conclude that remaining Japanese industry could have been curtailed through selective strikes on key rail links and tunnels, thereby turning Japan into a series of isolated communes. From a purely strategic point of view, it probably wasn’t necessary to burn Japan’s cities to the ground.

Yet in Libya – as in WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the First Gulf War – air forces and navies continue to believe that war aims can be achieved technically, tidily and predictably. As Strategy Page observes, this is because the air forces and navies are technical services. Soldiers and marines, however, have no such illusions. For the infantry, war is a dirty and decidedly unpredictable business and it’s only when you are able to kill the enemy at close range and hold ground can a war be truly won.

But air power (and all other technical trades) maintains its allure. Hanging on my late father’s office wall was a classic poster he bought during his course at the Artillery School at Fort Sill. Entitled, “Artillery Lends Dignity to What Would Otherwise Be a Vulgar Brawl”, the poster captures some of the quest for tidiness in war. But war is never tidy and it is certainly not predictable.

This is what an infantryman’s war looks like – with all its dirt and unpredictability. Lifted from the series “The Pacific” the clip shows Gene Sledge and other members of K/3/5 reducing a Japanese bunker during the campaign on Peleliu – an operation that was supposed to take three days but stretched to more than sixty, wrecking both the First Marine Division and the Army’s 81st Infantry Division.

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