Extolling the virtues of strategy – its understanding and practice – is much easier said than done. Strategy is difficult, as generations of statesmen, generals and policymakers can attest, and those who are able to truly master it are few and far between. But because strategy is difficult does not mean that those charged with this nation’s security should not even bother with it at all. Rumor has it that the Air Force could possibly be doing just that, albeit for the best of intentions. In a bid to increase the role of air and space power in the fight against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan (and as a result, increase its share of the defense budget), some senior Air Force leaders are on the verge of committing a grievous strategic sin. No longer, say these leaders, should we use the word ‘counter-insurgency’; instead, they argue, we need a new word to describe what is going on so that the Air Force can claim it as its own mission in the wider War on Terror, put steel on target, declare victory, and win the lions share of the defense budget. Oh dear. Here are some words that usefully describe this approach: ’discombobulation’, ‘cognitive dissonance’, ‘denial’, ‘fantasy’, ‘lunacy’, ‘idiocy’ … ‘astrategic’. To deny that there is an insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan is akin to describing World War II as a minor altercation in a bar between two pathetic drunks. It’s a free country and no one can stop anyone from describing WWII in such a manner, but have no doubt – if a belligerent viewed it as such its existence would have been consigned to the dustbin of history as Blitzkrieg descended upon them. Indeed, World War II, and all wars before and since, reveals a litany of belligerents who lost or were rendered utterly irrelevant because they decided to embark on a style of war that suited their own prejudices rather than the one being fought by their enemies. If the Air Force goes down this route it risks not only irrelevancy but ridicule, and more importantly, the lives of its own airmen and US and coalition soldiers and marines, as well as the lives of innocent Iraqis and Afghans. By calling the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan anything but an insurgency is to wholly misunderstand the nature of the conflict being fought in these benighted countries. If these Air Force leaders had their way, the Air Force would be merrily putting steel on target from altitude while Iraqi and Afghan insurgents would be merrily rushing in to fill the political vacuum that will inevitably emerge as the dust clears from newly created rubble. The end result would be an irrelevant Air Force strategy that has nothing to do with the issues at hand, and a whole load of carnage that provides little, if any, political return for the US and its allies. The Israelis learned this to the cost of their military credibility in last summer’s conflict against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the reputation of Israeli air power has suffered as a result as the IDF reorients its military strategy and doctrine. With the defense budget circus upon us, the Air Force is fighting tooth and nail to, at the very least, preserve its share of the finite budget pie. With massive recapitalization costs for replacement aircraft and satellites, as well as operational and personnel costs, the Air Force finds itself having to justify its share of the budget in fierce competition with a resource-hungry Army and Marine Corps currently embroiled in counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Air Force plays a major – often critical – role in supporting the Army and Marines in these counter-insurgency operations, a point which Capitol Hill and the Army and Marines should be constantly reminded of. Air and space power can deliver precise firepower against insurgent targets in often sensitive areas, as well as critical intelligence, surveillance and reconaissance (ISR) support, communications and mobility, thus reducing the coalition footprint in an increasingly hostile environment. With some creativity, it may find that it has other, perhaps critical, roles to play in such operations.
Yet, such is the institutional insecurity among Air Force leadership that these critical counter-insurgency roles are not enough. It seems that the Air Force cannot justify its existence unless it can claim the lead role across the entire spectrum of conflict. Not only is this approach immature, silly and liable to backfire on the Air Force as it, yet again, makes promises it is unable to fulfill, it also betrays a largely astrategic culture among some Air Force leaders. Instead of trying to conjure up an alternative conflict – an air power mirage if you will – for the Air Force that is at odds with a brutal reality on the ground, perhaps these leaders should stop what they are doing for a moment and reflect upon this pearl of wisdom offered by Carl von Clausewitz:
The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.
Amen to that.