In Praise of Aerial Bombing

Why terror from the skies still works.

Ever since the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey cast doubt on the efficacy of aerial bombardment in World War II, and particularly after its failure to bring victory in the Vietnam War, air power has acquired a bad reputation. Nowadays, killing enemies from the skies is widely considered useless, while its polar opposite, counterinsurgency by nation-building, is the U.S. government's official policy. But it's not yet time to junk our planes. Air power still has a lot to offer, even in a world of scattered insurgencies.

Military aviation started off splendidly in 1911, when the Italians pioneered aerial bombing in Libya. But since then it has often been a great disappointment because the two overlooked conditions of success in 1911 have been absent: the barrenness of the Libyan desert, which allowed aviators to see their targets very clearly, and the total lack of an enemy air force or anti-aircraft weapons that could interfere with their attacks.

Through all the wars since, the 1911 rules have held. Aerial bombing works very well, but only if the enemy must move in open, arid terrain and has no air force or effective anti-aircraft weapons. These conditions emphatically did not apply to World War II until the very end. And Vietnam was full of trees, as well as brave men: hence the failure of tactical bombing in the south, while the strategic bombing of the north was strongly resisted and there were too few good targets anyway.

But the supposed lessons of Vietnam have clearly been overlearned. Back in 2006, while the Israeli Air Force was bombing down its target list in Lebanon, assorted experts were almost unanimous in asserting that the campaign would fail. As a defiant Hezbollah continued to launch rockets into Israeli territory day after day, the consensus was seemingly proven right. And because television and photographers in Lebanon kept feeding pictures of dead babies or at least broken dolls to world media while withholding images of Hezbollah's destroyed headquarters and weapons, Israel was paying a very high political price for its bombing. In any case, it was running out of targets: There were only so many bridges and viaducts in Lebanon. Even its friends could only regretfully agree that Israel seemed to be failing.

But that is not at all how it turned out. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah admitted immediately after the war that he would never have ordered the original deadly attack on an Israeli border patrol had he known that Israel would retaliate with such devastating effect. Before the 2006 war, Hezbollah launched rockets into northern Israel whenever it wanted to raise tensions. Since the Aug. 14, 2006, cease-fire, Hezbollah has rigorously refrained. Whenever rockets are nonetheless launched, Nasrallah's spokesmen rush to announce that Hezbollah had absolutely nothing to do with it. Evidently, Israel's supposedly futile bombing did achieve its aim.

Nevertheless, less than three years later, during Israel's systematic campaign of aerial bombing during the Gaza war, the same doubters repeated their assertions -- only to be proven wrong again. As in 2006, many civilians were killed and injured in the bombing, and not only because of accidental proximity: Hamas commanders worked to maximize civilian casualties on their own side, routinely launching rockets from apartment courtyards to provoke artillery fire, in order to raise the political costs for Israel.

These costs were real. And the 1,300 Palestinian civilians killed suggest why airstrikes can never be called "surgical." But when the 1911 rules apply, such tactics can at least achieve material results. In 2008, 3,278 projectiles from Gaza landed in Israel, including 1,553 rockets. Last year, the total went down to 248, making 2009 the most peaceful year Israel has enjoyed in recent memory, with no suicide bombings and only 15 Israelis killed by all forms of attack.

What about Afghanistan? Do the 1911 rules work there? The expert consensus again seems to be no. And yet the Taliban, for all their martial virtues, are still a few centuries removed from having an air force capable of engaging U.S. fighter-bombers -- which fly too high for hand-held anti-aircraft weapons -- and even in that most mountainous of countries, Taliban fighters must cross open, arid terrain to move from one valley to the next.

Most unfortunately, having so often greatly overestimated air power in the past, the United States is now disregarding its strategic potential, using it only tactically to hunt down individuals with remotely operated drones and to support ground operations, mostly with helicopters, which are the only aircraft the Taliban can shoot down. Commanding Gen. Stanley McChrystal, understandably concerned about the political blowback from errant bombings widely condemned both inside and outside Afghanistan, has put out the word that air power should be used solely as a last resort. He intends to defeat the Taliban by protecting Afghan civilians, providing essential services, stimulating economic development, and ensuring good government, as the now-sacrosanct Field Manual 3-24 prescribes. Given the characteristics of Afghanistan and its rulers, this worthy endeavor might require a century or two. In the meantime, the FM 3-24 way of war is far from cheap: President Barack Obama is now just about doubling the number of U.S. troops by sending another 30,000, at an average cost of $1 million per soldier per year, to defeat perhaps 25,000 full-time Taliban.

The better and much cheaper alternative would be to resurrect strategic bombing in a thoroughly new way by arming the Taliban's many enemies to the teeth and replacing U.S. troops in Afghanistan with sporadic airstrikes. Whenever the Taliban concentrate in numbers to attack, they would be bombed. This would be a most imperfect solution. But it would end the costly futility of "nation-building" in a remote and unwelcoming land. Eventually, after trying everything else, Obama will probably get there.

Sven Torfinn


Let Europe Be Europe

Why the United States must withdraw from NATO.

Over the course of the disastrous 20th century, inhabitants of the liberal democratic world in ever-increasing numbers reached this conclusion: War doesn't pay and usually doesn't work. As recounted by historian James J. Sheehan in his excellent book, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?, the countries possessing the greatest capability to employ force to further their political aims lost their enthusiasm for doing so. Over time, they turned away from war.

Of course, there were lingering exceptions. The United States and Israel have remained adamant in their determination to harness war and demonstrate its utility.

Europe, however, is another matter. By the dawn of this century, Europeans had long since lost their stomach for battle. The change was not simply political. It was profoundly cultural.

The cradle of Western civilization -- and incubator of ambitions that drenched the contemporary age in blood -- had become thoroughly debellicized. As a consequence, however willing they are to spend money updating military museums or maintaining war memorials, present-day Europeans have become altogether stingy when it comes to raising and equipping fighting armies.

This pacification of Europe is quite likely to prove irreversible. Yet even if reigniting an affinity for war among the people of, say, Germany and France were possible, why would any sane person even try? Why not allow Europeans to busy themselves with their never-ending European unification project? It keeps them out of mischief.

Washington, however, finds it difficult to accept this extraordinary gift -- purchased in part through the sacrifices of U.S. soldiers -- of a Europe that has laid down its arms. Instead, successive U.S. administrations have pushed, prodded, cajoled, and browbeaten European democracies to shoulder a heavier share of responsibility for maintaining world order and enforcing liberal norms.

In concrete terms, this attempt to reignite Europe's martial spirit has found expression in the attempted conversion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from a defensive alliance into an instrument of power projection. Washington's aim is this: take a Cold War-inspired organization designed to keep the Germans down, the Russians out, and the Americans in, and transform it into a post-Cold War arrangement in which Europe will help underwrite American globalism without, of course, being permitted any notable say regarding U.S. policy.

The allies have not proven accommodating. True, NATO has gotten bigger -- there were 16 member states 20 years ago, 28 today -- but growth has come at the expense of cohesion. Once an organization that possessed considerable capability, NATO today resembles a club that just about anyone can join, including, most recently, such military powerhouses as Albania and Croatia.

A club with lax entrance requirements is unlikely to inspire respect even from its own members. NATO's agreed-upon target for defense spending, for example, is a paltry 2 percent of GDP. Last year, aside from the United States, exactly four member states met that goal.

The Supreme Allied Commander in Europe -- today, as always, a U.S. general -- still presides in splendor over NATO's military headquarters in Belgium. Yet SACEUR wields about as much clout as the president of a decent-sized university. He is not a commander. He is a supplicant. SACEUR's impressive title, a relic of World War II, is merely an honorific, akin to calling Elvis the King or Bruce the Boss.

Afghanistan provides the most important leading indicator of where Washington's attempt to nurture a muscle-flexing new NATO is heading; it is the decisive test of whether the alliance can handle large-scale, out-of-area missions. And after eight years, the results have been disappointing. Complaints about the courage and commitment of NATO soldiers have been few. Complaints about their limited numbers and the inadequacy of their kit have been legion. An immense complicating factor has been the tendency of national governments to impose restrictions on where and how their forces are permitted to operate. The result has been dysfunction.

When Gen. Stanley McChrystal's famous assessment of the situation in Afghanistan leaked to the media last year, most observers focused on his call for additional U.S. troops. Yet the report was also a scathing demand for change in NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). "ISAF will change its operating culture.... ISAF will change the way it does business," he wrote. "ISAF's subordinate headquarters must stop fighting separate campaigns." The U.S. general found just about nothing in ISAF's performance to commend.

But McChrystal's prospects for fixing ISAF run headlong into two stubborn facts. First, European governments prioritize social welfare over all other considerations -- including funding their armed forces. Second, European governments have an exceedingly limited appetite for casualties. So the tepid, condition-laden European response to McChrystal's call for reinforcements -- a couple of battalions here, a few dozen trainers there, some creative bookkeeping to count units that deployed months ago as fresh arrivals -- is hardly surprising.

This doesn't mean that NATO is without value. It does suggest that relying on the alliance to sustain a protracted counterinsurgency aimed at dragging Afghans kicking and screaming into modernity makes about as much sense as expecting the "war on drugs" to curb the world's appetite for various banned substances. It's not going to happen.

If NATO has a future, it will find that future back where the alliance began: in Europe. NATO's founding mission of guaranteeing the security of European democracies has lost none of its relevance. Although the Soviet threat has vanished, Russia remains. And Russia, even if no longer a military superpower, does not exactly qualify as a status quo country. The Kremlin nurses grudges and complaints, not least of them stemming from NATO's own steady expansion eastward.

So let NATO attend to this new (or residual) Russian problem. Present-day Europeans -- even Europeans with a pronounced aversion to war -- are fully capable of mounting the defenses necessary to deflect a much reduced Eastern threat. So why not have the citizens of France and Germany guarantee the territorial integrity of Poland and Lithuania, instead of fruitlessly demanding that Europeans take on responsibilities on the other side of the world that they can't and won't?

Like Nixon setting out for Beijing, like Sadat flying to Jerusalem, like Reagan deciding that Gorbachev was cut from a different cloth, the United States should dare to do the unthinkable: allow NATO to devolve into a European organization, directed by Europeans to serve European needs, upholding the safety and well-being of a Europe that is whole and free -- and more than able to manage its own affairs.

As with Nixon and Sadat and Reagan, once the deed is done everyone will ask: Why didn't we think of that sooner?

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