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It’s Not Airpower Vs. Boots On Ground Any More

Posted by Robbin Laird on


CV-22 AFSOC Osprey refueling

As the Air Force Association girds for its annual conference, which starts Monday here in Washington, I was struck by several comments from several experts that the traditional dichotomy between air power and ground forces — often the focus of internecine budget battles between the Army and Air Force — isn’t that relevant any more. Aircraft have begun to generate their own targeting grids using sensors. The model of Special Forces troops working closely with strike aircraft, as in the early days of Afghanistan, has moved further along as Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) sensors and processing power have improved. As Dave Deptula argued in our pages recently: “Today, virtually every combat aircraft brings some degree of precision intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) to the fight, allowing airmen the ability to find, fix, and finish a target without ground assistance.” Robbin Laird argues below that the debate between boots and planes just isn’t that relevant anymore. The Editor.

As the Ukrainian and Middle Eastern crises roil our world, the debate quickly turns on which path will work best to deal with the evolving threats: boots on the ground, or planes in the air operating without boots on the ground. The specter of responses to the 9/11 attack and the various engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq naturally shade everyone’s perspectives.

But changing capabilities and concepts of operations are obliterating the classic distinction. The Marines have become the only tiltrotor enabled force in the world; the Air Force and Navy have shaped highly integrated air grids, and advances in both the lethality and effectiveness of manned and unmanned aviation have grown.

The past decade’s experience of the need to shape a very large and expensive ground grid from which to feed Special Forces and ground operations is not one the US is going to repeat anytime soon.

At the same time, conflict is evolving as well. The evolving pattern of 21st century conflict is emerging.  It is a pattern in which state and non-state actors are working to reshape the global order in their favor by generating conflicts against the interests of the democracies but which the democracies are slow to react.

The assumption of ISIS terrorists, Putin as he invades Ukraine, and the Chinese leadership expanding their sovereignty beyond the limits recognized by international law is that the slow decision-making cycles of democracies can be exploited. Their diplomatic, policy and territorial gains are being achieved on a piecemeal basis, rather than going for the big grab because that might allow democratic leaders to rapidly mobilize public opinion, respond and generate resources.

They blend non-kinetic, kinetic and information warfare elements into an assertive political-military policy against democratic interests.

A good case in point is that of Putin and his ongoing efforts to control Ukraine. Russia has seized territory, used Special Forces, waged information war, relied on indigenous Russian armed and trained “separatists” and other techniques.

Vladimir Putin, then a young KGB officer, was active when President Reagan won the information war against the Soviet Union when it tried to stop the US and NATO placing tactical nuclear cruise missiles in Europe as a major deterrence move. In the Euromissile Crisis, he learned how not to lose an Information War.

By seizing Crimea, Russia set in motion internal pressures aided by direct support to continue map writing in Ukraine and to reduce the size of the territory under the control of the government in Kiev. The Crimean intervention was destabilizing, and the enhanced role of Russian “separatists” aided and abetted by Moscow within the remainder of Ukraine is part of the Russian 21st century approach to warfare.

The shoot-down of the Malaysian airliner by Russian “separatists” and the absence of any Western attempt to secure the site and work with the Ukrainians to stop the separatists was a key element of his successful strategy. The US and NATO lost a significant opportunity to do a very good thing in protecting the victims’ bodies and rolling back literally drunken separatists, which could have been achieved by the President of Ukraine calling in an insertion force of Marines flown in an MV-22.

If this had been the pre-Osprey era, an insertion might have been difficult, but with the tiltrotor assault force the Marines could have been put in place rapidly to cordon off the area. If we’d done this we would have signaled a credible global response to Russia’s disinformation campaign.

Airpower dominance over Ukraine, coupled with the Marines on the ground and forces loyal to Kiev, could have secured the crash site without becoming a permanent US military base. It is about using flexible military insertion forces in ways appropriate to the political mission.

The 2014 Marine MV-22 insertion forces can also respond to the ISIS threat. The emergence of ISIS is a political force challenging President Obama and our allies in how to respond with an extremist group aggregating power, trying to build an army and shaping a leadership role in a volatile region. The ISIS rejection of all groups other than their own, a join-us-or-die mantra has proven to be a very powerful weapon of information warfare.

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ISIS is dedicated to the violent destruction of those who object to their leadership of a mythical Middle Ages dream, one which is directly opposed to any Western values of religious freedom, secularism and tolerance. When you have a group grabbing for power that Al Qaeda finds extreme, then the United States, Europe and many countries in Middle East, from Israel to Saudi Arabia have a major problem.

ISIS is building its brand via its military successes and its ability to eliminate religious opponents; it is a kinetic force using information war to spread the murderous fanatical brand to shape their evolving influence in the region. The leader does not dress in black or fly a black flag by accident; it is part of the branding effort and the religious information war against their enemies.

ISIS needs a response that is not measured in the months and years of another effort to train an Iraqi Army, which the Obama Administration has already clearly recognized as part of the problem, not the solution. The total collapse of the Iraq Army after a decade of US investment marks a complete failure, regardless of who is at fault in the US government.

For defenders of Counter Insurgency (COIN) warfare, it would have to be explained why time and continued effort would overcome what are clearly deeply rooted fissures within the political texture of Iraq: namely the Sunni-Shia cleavage, the role of Iran and the use of the military by Prime Minister Malki for his own political purposes?

In effect, Maliki has used his Shia-dominated military and security forces in ways similar to how Saddam Hussein used his Sunni-dominated military, namely to prop himself up in power and to shape domestic political outcomes to his benefit. Simply changing the name of the leader is not likely to change power realities.

And when ISIS were able to aggregate forces, the absence of an air-enabled ground force demonstrated a fundamental fact often forgotten: war is not about airpower versus boots on the ground. As retired Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula (a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors) has pointed out, the future is about ground forces made more powerful by air dominance versus ones that are not, especially with a 21st Century ISR grid in the air  — not on the ground.

A notable political difference between Iraq in 2014 and 2003 is the politics of the Turkish-Kurdish relationship and the ability of the US to build upon that relationship.  Kurdistan, with its pershmerga fighting force, is one part of Iraq that has immediate promise of thwarting, rolling back and to begin the process of destroying ISIS.

With respect to success in IW, the leaders of Kurdistan deserve great praise because of the tolerance and life-saving sanctuary they have provided to Christians and others whom ISIL wanted to murder. The Kurds can now play a key role in shaping a relatively stable island in a violent region and in providing an important focal point for the United States and its allies. Working with the Kurds and augmenting their autonomy within Iraq, including control of critical oil infrastructure, is a clear objective for the operation of US forces.

Successfully employing airpower to destroy military equipment such as ISIS-captured, tanks, artillery, rockets,  Humvees, MRAPS and pick-up trucks with automatic weapons can be done. Destroying this captured US military hardware, which enables ISIS to operate and maneuver, is a key priority.

If we can destroy the ability of ISIS forces to maneuver, as well their crew-served weapons and armored vehicles, especially tanks, to seize terrain and key choke points, they will be forced back into the cities or be forced to hide in small units in the countryside.

If US forces can see them outside of cities, they can kill them. Urban warfare should be left to what remains of the Iraq Army.

ISIS was well on the way to fielding an army when the US finally engaged. Focusing upon what is needed to pulverize military capabilities of ISIS to move rapidly and lethally, can buy some strategic maneuver space to sort out what kind of aid the Kurds might really need to protect their augmented territory within a fragmenting Iraq.

Because the US has the option of using our sea base with whatever force capabilities might be shaped to support the Kurds, the US is not forced to have agreements with a collapsing regime to influence events. The sea-based force can strike ISIL without the need for specific territorial agreements on basing with fractious factions in Baghdad. The result: ISIS will encounter death from above, delivered by Air Force and Navy combat pilots. This is war-tipping capability. We don’t need to write a blank check for the insertion of forces of COIN-force packages and prop up Iraq, an ally who isn’t; we have already tried that one.

Buying strategic maneuver space for the immediate future, and pulverizing ISISs military capabilities – trucks, cars, artillery pieces, etc. — are the crucial objectives. That is an airpower mission. It is about the ability of aircraft to find, fix and destroy a target using its own ISR rather than relying on the previous US Army way of war, building an extensive and expensive operational grid on the ground.

In both the Ukrainian and Iraq cases, the ability to insert forces complemented by airpower is crucial.  What is often forgotten about drones and Special Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan is the need for a very large ground-based support grid to move the ground forces (helicopters), feed ground forces, provide medical assistance to ground forces, support Special Forces and also feed the vast targeting appetite of the drone fleet.

By contrast, the ability to station and supply a Navy-Marine team anywhere around the globe, ready for immediate combat, demonstrates, yet again, why carrier battle groups and ARG/MEUs are invaluable assets for American military power projection.

The Marines can easily setup a temporary Forward Operating Base for 22nd MEU and its V-22s somewhere in Kurdistan to conduct missions into Iraq to rescue Christians and to eliminate ISIS fanatics and then leave.[In fact, Laird and his team spotted a photo by a Dutch journalist of either an Air Force Special Forces Osprey or one flown by the Marines in Erbil, Kurdistan. The Editor.] The USS Bush carrier group could provide a real combat punch when ISIS mass their forces, or SOCOM/CIA identifies isolated groups. Just like they could have secured the crash site in Ukraine.

None of this is about occupation and training; this is about the Marines’ sea-based MV-22 assault forces coming to the aid of the Kurds and Christians, setting up a forward operating base that can influence events in the Nineveh plain, moving threatened minorities to Kurdish protection, all the while working with Special Forces in country, and then returning to their ships.

The U.S. has forces able to engage and withdraw. We don’t need to set up long-term facilities and providing advisers who become targets. The ability to establish air dominance to empower multi-mission Marine insertion force able to operate effectively, rapidly and withdraw is a core effort that now exists in US way of war for emerging 21st century conflicts.

The classic dichotomy of boots on the ground versus airpower no longer captures either the evolving capabilities of airpower or the evolving capabilities of ground forces.

What do you think?