The most interesting part of President Obama’s speech yesterday at the National Defense University wasn’t his articulate defense of the way his administration had conducted the war on terror or the measure he announced to dial down the intensity if not the scope of future efforts against terrorist networks. Rather, it was a two sentence quotation. The President asserted that the drone campaign had been both necessary and effective. To prove his point, he quoted, of all people, Osama bin Laden:
“To begin with, our actions are effective. Don’t take my word for it. In the intelligence gathered at bin Laden’s compound, we found that he wrote, ‘We could lose the reserves to enemy’s air strikes. We cannot fight air strikes with explosives.’ Other communications from al Qaeda operatives confirm this as well. Dozens of highly skilled al Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb makers and operatives have been taken off the battlefield. Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, U.S. transit systems, European cities and our troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.”
The President went on to argue that targeted lethal actions, his term for drone strikes, had advantages over other forms of conventional military power in addressing terrorist threats. Conventional air power and missiles are less precise than drones. And boots on the ground, no matter how capable and effective they are, will get Americans killed (not my words, those are the President’s).
Echoes of bin Laden’s words might be found in the operational communiques of other military leaders who faced American or coalition air power. Erwin Rommel might have written a similar comment as he tried to send reinforcements across France to defeat the Normandy invasion in the face of Allied air dominance. Slobodan Milosevic’s forces experienced a fate similar to that of al Qaeda and the Taliban when the Serbs went to war against Kosovo. Saddam Hussein could have made the same observation in the spring of 2003 as coalition air forces destroyed his Republican Guard even in the midst of a blinding sandstorm.
Obviously, air power alone will rarely be sufficient to win a war. But it has often been decisive in shaping the battle space and in determining the course and outcome of conflicts. If an adversary’s reserves can be attacked successfully from the air, his chances of success decrease dramatically. This was the thought behind the doctrine of AirLand Battle which the U.S. military promulgated in the 1970s as a response to the Soviet/Warsaw Pact advantage in massed conventional ground forces. By attacking Soviet reserve formations, NATO could disrupt the structured nature of the Warsaw Pact offensive, creating the potential for Allied front line forces to hold the enemy at bay. Bin Laden’s statement suggests that the concept remains valid to this day, even under conditions about as different from the Fulda Gap as one could imagine.
The bin Laden quote also points out another advantage of modern air power: few adversaries have the means to defeat it. Moreover, there is no equivalent of the five dollar IED to counter air power. Indeed, with the introduction of appropriate tactics and countermeasures, it proved difficult for insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan to attack successfully low-flying rotary wing platforms. Classic passive counters to air threats, dispersal, concealment and hardening are of limited value to a group or nation that seeks to act offensively. Moreover, with modern ISR systems able to provide continuous observation of the battle space, even dispersed adversaries can become targets. For the future, the challenge will be for the U.S. military to develop the ways and means to counter efforts by adversaries to protect their forces and defeat our air power assets.
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