William Astore: Air Supremacy Isn’t What It Used to Be

By William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor. His personal blog is Bracing Views. Originally published at TomDispatch

In the era of the long war on terror, Thursday, June 2nd, 2016, was a tough day for the U.S. military. Two modern jet fighters, a Navy F-18 Hornet and an Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon, flown by two of America’s most capable pilots, went down, with one pilot killed. In a war that has featured total dominance of the skies by America’s intrepid aviators and robotic drones, the loss of two finely tuned fighter jets was a remarkable occurrence.

As it happened, though, those planes weren’t lost in combat.  Enemy ground fire or missiles never touched them nor were they taken out in a dogfight with enemy planes (of which, of course, the Islamic State, the Taliban, and similar U.S. enemies have none).  Each was part of an elite aerial demonstration team, the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds, respectively. Both were lost to the cause of morale-boosting air shows.

Each briefly grabbed the headlines, only to be quickly forgotten.  Americans moved on, content in the knowledge that accidents happen in risky pursuits.

But here’s a question: What does it say about our overseas air wars when the greatest danger American pilots face involves performing aerial hijinks over the friendly skies of “the homeland”?  In fact, it tells us that U.S. pilots currently have not just air superiority or air supremacy, but total mastery of the fabled “high ground” of war.  And yet in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Greater Middle East, while the U.S. rules the skies in an uncontested way, America’s conflicts rage on with no endgame in sight.

In other words, for all its promise of devastating power delivered against enemies with remarkable precision and quick victories at low cost (at least to Americans), air power has failed to deliver, not just in the ongoing war on terror but for decades before it.  If anything, by providing an illusion of results, it has helped keep the United States in unwinnable wars, while inflicting a heavy toll on innocent victims on our distant battlefields.  At the same time, the cult-like infatuation of American leaders, from the president on down, with the supposed ability of the U.S. military to deliver such results remains remarkably unchallenged in Washington.

America’s Experience with Air Power

Since World War II, even when the U.S. military has enjoyed total mastery of the skies, the end result has repeatedly been stalemate or defeat.  Despite this, U.S. leaders continue to send in the warplanes.  To understand why, a little look at the history of air power is in order.

In the aftermath of World War I, with its grim trench warfare and horrific killing fields, early aviators like Giulio Douhet of Italy, Hugh Trenchard of Britain, and Billy Mitchell of the United States imagined air power as the missing instrument of decision.  It was, they believed, the way that endless ground war and the meat grinder of the trenches that went with it could be avoided in the future.  Unfortunately for those they inspired, in World War II the skies simply joined the land and the seas as yet another realm of grim attrition, death, and destruction.

Here’s a quick primer on the American experience with air power:

* In World War II, the U.S. Army Air Forces joined Britain’s Royal Air Force in a “combined bomber offensive” against Nazi Germany.  A bitter battle of attrition with Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe, ensued.  Allied aircrews suffered crippling losses until air superiority was finally achieved early in 1944 during what would be dubbed the “Big Week.”  A year later, the Allies had achieved air supremacy and were laying waste to Germany’s cities (as they would to Japan’s), although even then they faced formidable systems of ground fire as well as elite Luftwaffe pilots in the world’s first jet fighters.  At war’s end, Allied losses in aircrews had been staggering, but few doubted that those crews had contributed immeasurably to the defeat of the Nazis (as well as the Japanese).

* Thanks to air power’s successes in World War II (though they were sometimes exaggerated), in 1947 the Air Force gained its independence from the Army and became a service in its own right.  By then, the enemy was communism, and air power advocates like General Curtis LeMay were calling for the creation of a strategic air command (SAC) made up of long-range bombers armed with city-busting thermonuclear weapons.  The strategy of that moment, nuclear “deterrence” via the threat of “massive retaliation,” later morphed into “mutually assured destruction,” better known by its telling acronym, MAD.  SAC never dropped a nuclear bomb in anger, though its planes did drop a few by accident.  (Fortunately for humanity, none exploded.)  Naturally, when the U.S. “won” the Cold War, the Air Force took much of the credit for having contained the Soviet bear behind a thermonuclear-charged fence.

* Frustration first arrived full-blown in the Korean War (1950-1953).  Primitive, rugged terrain and an enemy that went deep underground blunted the effectiveness of bombing.  Flak and fighters (Soviet MiGs) inflicted significant losses on Allied aircrews, while U.S. air power devastated North Korea, dropping 635,000 tons of bombs, the equivalent in explosive yield of 40 Hiroshima bombs, as well as 32,557 tons of napalm, leveling its cities and hitting its dams.  Yet widespread bombing and near total air superiority did nothing to resolve the stalemate on the ground that led to an unsatisfying truce and a Korea that remains bitterly divided to this day.

* The next round of frustration came in the country’s major conflicts in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and early 1970s.  American air power bombed, strafed, and sprayed with defoliants virtually everything that moved (and much that didn’t) in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  A staggering seven million tons of bombs, the equivalent in explosive yield to more than 450 Hiroshimas, were dropped in the name of defeating communism.  An area equivalent in size to Massachusetts was poisoned with defoliants meant to strip cover from the dense vegetation and jungle of South Vietnam, poison that to this day brings death and disfigurement to Vietnamese.  The North Vietnamese, with modest ground-fire defenses, limited surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and a few fighter jets, were hopelessly outclassed in the air.  Nonetheless, just as in Korea, widespread American bombing and air superiority, while generating plenty of death and destruction, didn’t translate into victory.

* Fast-forward 20 years to Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990-1991, and then to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  In both cases, U.S. and coalition air forces had not just air superiority but air supremacy as each time the Iraqi air force fled or was otherwise almost instantly neutralized, along with the bulk of that country’s air defenses.  Yet for all the hype that followed about “precision bombing” and “shock and awe,” no matter how air power was applied, events on the ground proved stubbornly resistant to American designs.  Saddam Hussein survived Desert Storm to bedevil U.S. leaders for another dozen years.  After the 2003 invasion with its infamous “mission accomplished” moment, Iraq degenerated into insurgency and civil war, aggravated by the loss of critical infrastructure like electrical generating plants, which U.S. air power had destroyed in the opening stages of the invasion.  Air supremacy over Iraq led not to long-lasting victory but to an ignominious U.S. withdrawal in 2011.

* Now, consider the “war on terror,” preemptively announced by George W. Bush in 2001 and still going strong 15 years later. Whether the target’s been al-Qaeda, the Taliban, al-Shabbab, al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, or more recently the Islamic State, from the beginning U.S. air power enjoyed almost historically unprecedented mastery of the skies.  Yet despite this “asymmetric” advantage, despite all the bombing, missile strikes, and drone strikes, “progress” proved both “fragile” and endlessly “reversible” (to use words General David Petraeus applied to his “surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan).  In fact, 12,000 or so strikes after Washington’s air war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq began in August 2014, we now know that intelligence estimates of its success had to be deliberately exaggerated by the military to support a conclusion that bombing and missile strikes were effective ways to do in the Islamic State.

So here we are, in 2016, 25 years after Desert Storm and nearly a decade after the Petraeus “surge” in Iraq that purportedly produced that missing mission accomplished moment for Washington — and U.S. air assets are again in action in Iraqi and now Syrian skies.  They are, for instance, flying ground support missions for Iraqi forces as they attempt to retake Falluja, a city in al-Anbar Province that had already been “liberated” in 2004 at a high cost to U.S. ground troops and an even higher one to Iraqi civilians.  Thoroughly devastated back then, Falluja has again found itself on the receiving end of American air power.

If and when Iraqi forces do retake the city, they may inherit little more than bodies and rubble, as they did in taking the city of Ramadi last December.  About Ramadi, Patrick Cockburn noted last month that “more than 70% of its buildings are in ruins and the great majority of its 400,000 people are still displaced” (another way of saying, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it”).  American drones, meanwhile, continue to soar over foreign skies, assassinating various terrorist “kingpins” to little permanent effect.

Tell Me How This Ends

Here’s the “hot wash”: something’s gone terribly wrong with Washington’s soaring dreams of air power and what it can accomplish.  And yet the urge to loose the planes only grows stronger among America’s political class.

Given the frustratingly indecisive results of U.S. air campaigns in these years, one might wonder why a self-professed smart guy like Ted Cruz, when still a presidential candidate, would have called for “carpet” bombing our way to victory over ISIS, and yet in these years he has been more the norm than the exception in his infatuation with air power.  Everyone from Donald Trump to Barack Obama has looked to the air for the master key to victory.  In 2014, even Petraeus, home from the wars, declared himself “all in” on more bombing as critical to victory (whatever that word might now mean) in Iraq.  Only recently he also called for the loosing of American air power (yet again) in Afghanistan — not long after which President Obama did just that.

Even as air power keeps the U.S. military in the game, even as it shows results (terror leaders killed, weapons destroyed, oil shipments interdicted, and so on), even as it thrills politicians in Washington, that magical victory over the latest terror outfits remains elusive.  That is, in part, because air power by definition never occupies ground.  It can’t dig in.  It can’t swim like Mao Zedong’s proverbial fish in the sea of “the people.”  It can’t sustain persuasive force.  Its force is always staccato and episodic. 

Its suasion, such as it is, comes from killing at a distance.  But its bombs and missiles, no matter how “smart,” often miss their intended targets.  Intelligence and technology regularly prove themselves imperfect or worse, which means that the deaths of innocents are inevitable.  This ensures new recruits for the very organizations the planes are intent on defeating and new cycles of revenge and violence amid the increasing vistas of rubble below.  Even when the bombs are on target, as happens often enough, and a terrorist leader or “lieutenant” is eliminated, what then?  You kill a dozen more?  As Petraeus said in a different context: tell me how this ends.   

Recalling the Warbirds 

From Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, dropping bombs and firing missiles has been the presidentially favored way of “doing something” against an enemy.  Air power is, in a sense, the easiest thing for a president to resort to and, in our world, has the added allure of the high-tech.  It looks good back home.  Not only does the president not risk the lives of American troops, he rarely risks retaliation of any kind.

Whether our presidents know it or not, however, air power always comes with hidden costs, starting with the increasingly commonplace blowback of retaliatory terrorist strikes on “soft” targets (meaning people) in cities like Paris or Madrid or London.  Strikes that target senior members of enemy armies or terrorist organizations often miss, simply stoking yet more of the sorts of violent behavior we are trying to eradicate with our own version of violence.  When they don’t miss and the leadership of terror groups is hit, as Andrew Cockburn has shown, the result is often the emergence of even more radical and brutal leaders and the further spread of such movements.  In addition, U.S. air power, especially the White House-run drone assassination program, is leading the way globally when it comes to degrading the sovereignty of national borders. (Witness the latest drone strike against the head of the Taliban in violation of Pakistani airspace.)  Right now, Washington couldn’t care less about this, but it is pioneering a future that, once taken up by other powers, may look far less palatable to American politicians.

Despite the sorry results delivered by air power over the last 65 years, the U.S. military continues to invest heavily in it — not only in drones but also in ultra-expensive fighters and bombers like the disappointing F-35 (projected total cost: $1.4 trillion) and the Air Force’s latest, already redundant long-range strike bomber (initial acquisition cost: $80 billion and rising).  Dismissing the frustratingly mixed and often destabilizing results that come from air strikes, disregarding the jaw-dropping prices of the latest fighters and bombers, America’s leaders continue to clamor for yet more warplanes and yet more bombing.

And isn’t there a paradox, if not a problem, in the very idea of winning a war on terror through what is in essence terror bombing?  Though it’s not something that, for obvious reasons, is much discussed in this country, given the historical record it’s hard to deny that bombing is terror.  After all, that’s why early aviators like Douhet and Mitchell embraced it.  They believed it would be so terrifyingly effective that future wars would be radically shortened to the advantage of those willing and able to bomb. 

As it turned out, what air power provided was not victory, but carnage, terror, rubble — and resistance.

Americans should have a visceral understanding of why populations under our bombs and missiles resist.  They should know what it means to be attacked from the air, how it pisses you off, how it generates solidarity, how it leads to new resolve and vows of vengeance.  Forget Pearl Harbor, where my uncle, then in the Army, dodged Japanese bombs on December 7, 1941.  Think about 9/11.  On that awful day in 2001, Homeland USA was “bombed” by hijacked jet liners transformed into guided missiles.  Our skies became deadly.  A technology indelibly associated with American inventiveness and prowess was turned against us.  Colossally shocked, America vowed vengeance.

Are our enemies any less resolutely human than we are?  Like us, they’re not permanently swayed by bombing. They vow vengeance when friends, family members, associates of every sort are targeted.  When American “smart” bombs obliterate wedding parties and other gatherings overseas, do we think the friends and loved ones of the dead shrug and say, “That’s war”?  Here’s a hint: we didn’t.

Having largely overcome the trauma of 9/11, Americans today look to the sky with hope.  We watch the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds with a sense of awe, wonder, and pride.  Warplanes soar over our sports stadiums.  The sky is our high ground.  We see evidence of America’s power and ingenuity there.  Yet people in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere often pray for clouds and bad weather; for them, clear skies are associated with American-made death from above.

It’s time we allow other peoples to look skyward with that same sense of safety and hope as we normally do.  It’s time to recall the warbirds.  They haven’t provided solutions.  Indeed, the terror, destruction, and resentments they continue to spread are part of the problem.

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  1. Nelson Lowhim

    Well written, and better than what we usually see elsewhere. Since this is a topic that interests me, having been “patriotic” enough to have joined the army, gone to Iraq and gone through a thorough reeducation, I’ll jump in: no where in this article is the issue of morality [1] mentioned. I find that maddening. There is little moral power to much of our bombing. That’s why we end up losing—unless our end game is simply to bomb all of them… in other words a different way to commit genocide. Because that seems to be the end game: Keep bombing them and keep radicalizing more so that one can keep up the cycle.

    There was a perceived success story for bombing: Laos. There our airforce bombed a country side without much risk to American life. Read Voices from the Plain of Jars. It’s good, strong stuff. Anyhow, we won that one—or so they say.
    These aren’t answers, but they certainly help us move along there. Thanks for this

    [1] Most “serious” takes on war try to remove morality completely. This is war, after all, and all is fair. But I dare say that it is indeed important, and that certain fundamental (and usually violent) movements will keep arising because some people have no other recourse (even if they aren’t being bombed for the air—only one kind of oppression)

    1. Disturbed Voter

      While I honor your service, your paymasters are Realists like Alcibiades. The air war wasn’t moral, on any side, in WW II. LeMay knew he was committing war crimes and later wanted to do more of that, against the Soviet Union. He is the real person behind the fictional character (AF general) in Dr Strangelove.

      If you want morality, go into the clergy. War is for Realists only.

      1. ThePanzer

        “If you want morality, go into the clergy. War is for Realists only.”

        Why is it I get the feeling you’ve never actually worn the uniform?

        I served in two branches, officer and enlisted, and punched out in 2007 because i wasn’t interested in fighting in our immoral wars of choice in the middle east. LOTS of my brothers and sisters in arms make the same decision every day. You literally have no idea what you’re talking about.

        As Napolean said the morale is to the physical as 3 to 1. And soldier Morale is most definitely effected by the overall morality of the fight.

        Playing COD and watching the hunt for red october does not make you a military expert jackass.

        1. Disturbed Voter

          I was observing WW II reality … not imperial wars of choice of the Anglo-American empire. I don’t judge though, each person makes their choice. But there has been nothing, since at least the Korean War, that has been remotely moral … regarding US military adventurism. Maybe you saw your service as a high moral action … and I salute that too. War is about human sacrifice … marginally moral that.

          I served on the civilian side in the Cold War, and had relatives in Korea and Vietnam. I was prepared to kill the entire human race, to ensure the peace. But not because of my high moral standards.

          1. mad as hell.

            I always get an uncomfortable feeling when I hear “thank you for your service.” Not knowing exactly what the thankee did to get the thank you. Putting on a uniform, perhaps but a lot of people put on uniforms thou I will grant you that they are not all warrior uniforms. Fighting for democracy, well we could probaly start splitting hairs here on fighting for and the word democracy as it applies to present day America or past America. Something just seems hollow about that obligatory gratsius. When I see the care and the suicide rates for the veterans it’s obvious that those thank yous didn’t mean to go toward those people! Then again I never wore a uniform except as a boy scout so I probaly am a jackass too in some people’s eyes.

            1. Disturbed Voter

              Point taken. I am being both disarmingly rhetorical and sincere. I work with Millennials in military uniform, and I am very grateful. It is given that to choose to serve in a voluntary way in particular, encourages me to give their reasons for doing so, the benefit of the doubt. And the same for whatever they may have done while in uniform.

            2. Nelson Lowhim

              Not to worry, most of us don’t like the mindless “thank you for your service” either. I certainly did put on the uniform for many reasons, one being “fighting for country [1]”, that I was wrong didn’t dawn on me until later. And yes, it seems like a cheap substitution [2] for proper care of those veterans who need it (and many do).

              [1] and its inherent freedoms. I can write a book about this, so if you want more ask.

              [2] Though we certainly wouldn’t want to be mistreated ala the myths of what happened to Vietnam soldiers (myths according to some Vietnam soldiers I talk to, as a way to smear the anti-war movement which was filled with veterans—I tend to believe them). Nevertheless, the drum beat for veterans rarely matches the actual care for them (agent Orange etc), though I’m pretty damn grateful for my GI Bill.

          2. Nelson Lowhim

            Ah, not sure, then, what you’re trying to say. If it’s that war is an immoral act, then I agree with most of that (or as a model with few exceptions), but it does matter if someone thinks they’re doing something immoral for a greater moral good (even if this is everyone’s excuse, even for the worst aggressors… in modern history). Is this what you’re arguing?

        2. w.p. kelpfroth

          One might except a war where your opponent is waging a war of extermination, but all wars are wars of choice.

        3. Nelson Lowhim

          Well said. The overall morality of the fight will allow the soldier on the ground to do some awful things. But yeah, punched out because of the immorality as well. Also have passed over the really good contractor jobs post military as well, just because of that.

      2. equote

        your are correct … but war treats immorality as virtue …
        “. . . what you call murder and robbery may not really be — war and conquest, those sacred foundations of empires, those sources of all human virtues and all human greatness.” Anatile France Penguin Island (p 53)

      3. Nelson Lowhim

        Ah, so saying morality can matter makes me a non-realist? Okay. Even if one simply wants to ignore war as having any morality [1] one should consider the actions of the people being bombed as they most likely have a set of morals which would create more terrorists.

        And I’m simply speaking for us here Stateside—not the Generals/leaders. Few people want to consider the moral aspect of the drone war (or what it will lead to once others get a chance to flex their drone tech) and how that should play into any analysis. It’s usually, there was a bad guy, now there isn’t (if we take official accounts as truth, of course).

        [1](yet you say in another comment that no war post-Korea has been remotely moral?)

    2. JacobiteInTraining

      I agree wholeheartedly with your wish for the morality of these air campaigns to be included in the calculus *somewhere*. I am sure it is included in the Deep State’s calculations, and I would tend to agree that in their analysis the ‘blowback’ is not remotely a bug, and is a much coveted feature. The more terror created, the more terror reflected back upon us, the more budgets & weapon systems & ‘homeland security systems’ of all kinds can keep the bloody lucre flowing.

      From a civilian perspective, however, very few (empowered) individuals seem to do much cogitating over the morality. Until we start getting attacked at home even more regularly then we are currently I do not expect the majority of citizens to care. A truly sad indictment of our current culture.

      Even worse, once the people *do* start to care becuase it is increasingly their own blood that is being spilled in the streets – it will likely be in the context of the Police State tightening the screws to full-on lockdown mode. At that point, the means of truth dissemination & the Internet will be filtered ala the Chinese Great Firewall, or disconnected entirely.

      ‘Protests’ that do get organized will be dealt with in increasingly brutal ways as ‘clearly sympathizers with the enemy’, and the poor souls in our own military will likely have to make that choice that so few US soldiers in our history have ever had to make – do we fire on our own, or not?

      Sorry to be so pessimistic.

      1. RBHoughton

        Your contribution touched me Jacobite. I believe you have seen the escape route

        “Good and upstanding people must be persuaded by gentle means. The rabble must be moved by terror” Napoleon (after the “whiff of grapeshot”)

        I fear at least in so far as Western culture is concerned that we must be forced to comply with law. Merely issuing Edicts is inappropriate for us. That’s the problem.

        1. Nelson Lowhim

          That’s a sad outlook, though I don’t have much to counter it. I write, so that’s part of why I think gentle means of persuasion matter.

    3. Carolinian

      “The moral is to the physical as three to one”? I think you are right that the moral component to these struggles–with moral meaning a sense of fairness and justice, not some religious appeal to “thou shalt not”–matters greatly. People are disinclined to accept conquest from opponents sitting safely 30,000 ft in the air in their metal tubes or even worse in some air conditioned drone base in Nevada. The frustration of being attacked by an enemy who won’t even face you “like a man” probably just adds to their determination to retaliate. War is after all a kind of narrative and the wars now waged by our politicians in Washington–none of whom have experienced war themselves–cast us as the villains. All the prating about “bringing democracy” or “responsibiltiy to protect” can’t change this.

    4. Take the Fork

      Life Under an Air War: great book.

      A similar, if far more powerful, campaign was conducted across the border in Cambodia. We “lost” that one.

      And so this:

      “When they don’t miss and the leadership of terror groups is hit, as Andrew Cockburn has shown, the result is often the emergence of even more radical and brutal leaders and the further spread of such movements.”

      Makes me wonder… As far as I know, the Khmer Rouge leadership was 100% intact all through the US bombing campaign. And yet the Blame America First Brigade (Shawcross, Chomsky) have argued for decades that it was precisely this bombing that radicalized the Khmer Rouge, and so want us to believe that US bombing produced The Killing Fields, and that Maoist totalitarianism in fact had nothing to do with it.

      If both of these propositions are some true (and I’ll allow that neither might be, and even if they were we may be in apples/oranges here) then what, if any, lesson are we to draw?

      1. ambrit

        The bombing didn’t have to radicalize the Khmer Rouge leadership. What it probably did is radicalize the mid level cadre leadership class. Every leadership class needs an effective follower class to accomplish anything. Every village or hamlet bombed back then gave rise to a small part of the overall class of “true believers.” If you were an elder in a village that had been bombed to H— and back by the Westerners, and the only effective opposition to those westerners was the Khmer Rouge; what would you have done?

        1. Take the Fork

          Agreed. But I supposed then I would ask: why did the similarly bombed NVA/NLF fail to radicalize and thus not produce a similar sort of genocidal regime in a reunified Vietnam? Was it solely because they were more of a Soviet than Chinese client?

          1. ambrit

            That and the Vietnamese Communist Party has a history that goes all of the way back to Paris and Moscow in the 1920’s. The Khmer Rouge? It did look and act like a Maoist based organization, and was much younger in it’s history. Remember that the Khmer Rouge was removed from power forcibly by Vietnam in 1979. In one sense, the Khmer Rouge can be considered as a radical splinter group of the Vietnamese Communist Party that had to be ‘put down’ for humanitarian reasons. Bombing didn’t kill it; it committed suicide.

  2. EndOfTheWorld

    One flaw in his spiel is he’s accepting the government version of 9/11. I, OTOH, don’t. Until these “analysts” get serious about what really happened on 9/11 they are not really analysts, IMHO.

    Bill Clinton was a big advocate of just using bombers instead of sending in a lot of ground troops. Hillary likes bombing. Obama is a fan of drones. It’s real hard—in fact, impossible—to make the case for the Democrats as the “peace party” of the old days of McGovern and Carter.

    1. hemeantwell

      Both parties are the parties of maximizing imperial strategic flexibility by minimizing US military casualties.

    2. Steve in Flyover

      When Bubba was in office, you could count on a cruise missile strike somewhere, anytime any of the Clinton “Scandals du Jour” were on the front page of the papers.

      I’m thinking about starting an overseas company, that pretends it’s a terrorist organization that nobody has heard of, and build mock “terrorist camps” way out in BFE, just to give the boyz something to shoot at.

      The money won’t be in blowing up the camps. The money will be in starting the consultancy in DC that knows all about this obscure terrorist organization, and the money generated by the DOD and State Department contracts for “intelligence”.

  3. ewmayer

    As long as we maintain our legendary Hot Air Supremacy as the self-anointed Greatest Nation on Earth and indispensable spreader of truth, democracy and the American way™ … USA! USA! USA!

  4. Bill Smith


    Not sure how this is measured: “At war’s end, Allied losses in aircrews had been staggering”. Losses in other branches where not ‘staggering’? Sub crews? Infantry? Rangers? No idea myself but when I see claims like that that aren’t backed up by anything I start to wonder.

    He left out the WWII in the Pacific where we burned large parts of Japan to the ground.

    “when it comes to degrading the sovereignty of national borders” It seems the complaints by Pakistan are for show. More likely the rulers of Pakistan are okay with what it going on. The people who’s name the rule in may not feel the same way though…

    Why is the long range strike bomber “already redundant”? Another claim backed up by nothing in the article. Might well be true but nothing in the article backs that up.

    Don’t disagree with the overall point against the drone strikes though.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      The author is a military historian and former USAF officer, so I think it can be assumed he knows his facts. The death rate among aircrews (in particular over Europe) is well attested – the average loss of bombers over Europe was something like 5% per mission. While death rates in the various air forces over the wars was fairly similar to other services, only a small percentage of air force officers actually went to direct combat for obvious reasons.

      There is no evidence that Pakistan welcomed the killing of the Taliban commander – in fact, it was probably aimed specifically as a warning to Pakistan. The commander killed was widely seen as ‘Pakistan’s man’ in the Taliban, they had hoped to use him for influence. The real reason for the attack is probably lost in the murk of geopolitics, but there is no question but that the Pakistani’s were genuinely furious over it. If they wanted him dead, they could have done it themselves and avoided the humiliation of apparently not being able to influence the US.

      You could have multiple long arguments about why the long range strike bomber is ‘already redundant’, its a complex issue, but its notable that its supporters have not been able to provide a real justification for a weapon which is simply replicating what ICBM’s, drones or cruise missiles can already do, usually much cheaper. The existing B2 had hardly been used in any combat and its doubtful if it has any real military utility. Its sole purpose is providing jobs in the military industrial complex and geopolitical dick waving.

      1. Steve Gunderson

        I seem to recall that bomber pilots during WWII could put in for a transfer after 25 missions over Germany, with 5% not returning from each mission.

      2. animalogic

        My understanding, quite possibly incorrect, is the US has plans for all new strategic bombers in the next decades (along with new classes of nuclear Submarines and aircraft carriers.) Would appreciate any clarification here.

    2. SufferinSuccotash

      Out of 110,000 aircrewmen who served in the RAF Bomber Command during WW2, more than 50,000 were killed or missing by the time the war ended. 50% losses is what most of us would call “staggering”.

      1. Ishmael

        The Eighth Air Force which was bomber command in Europe lost approximately 88,000 men of the total US loss in WW2 of approximately 450,0000. I am just pulling those numbers off the top of my head. Now I do not know if that number includes bomber losses in places like Italy which Catch 22 was written about.

        My father who flew a glider into Normandy with the 82nd Airborne on the early morning of D Day (some say the most dangerous job in the Army during WW2) as well as several other airborne assaults said he would have never made it through the war if he had gone into the Eighth.

  5. digi_owl

    Frankly the post WW2 decades has for USA been a rerun of the inter-war years were for the British empire.

    After WW1 the British also tried to do police action of its sprawling holdings via air superiority. It never worked.

    Frankly when any empire shifts from expansion to securing, and yes USA is an empire (though with a slightly different structure than empires of old), holding the high ground means crap all.

    1. Disturbed Voter

      Technology boosters claim that technology will solve all problems, including victory. Technology addicts buy all the technology they can. It was claimed by some in WW II, that war could be won from the air alone. Herman Goering comes to mind. He had his allied equals. Other saner people knew better, you win with troops on the ground. The US does recapitulate the British Empire … Churchill was bombing Iraq shortly after WW I, and he was following ideas of Italian Futurists who were hot to bomb Libya for the colonial glory of it (and later genocide in Ethiopia). Eventually imperial over-reach and warfare destroyed the British Pound … the US Dollar shall be no exception.

      1. Paul Greenwood

        Technology is how you get people to spend a small fortune buying a Mercedes or BMW which is still a box with four wheels which other manufacturers can make more cost-effectively. Same with aircraft. A Russian SU-34 export cost is $50 million whereas an F-15 is $100 million or an F-18 at $92 million or an F-35 at $200 million.

        Much the same as spending $9 billion on a Gerald Ford class flat-top and waiting for a Ziron or Dong-Feng-21D to sink it

        1. Disturbed Voter

          Very accurate. As Norm Augustine said … in the end, the Army will fly one combat plane, 2 days a week, the Air force will fly the same plane 2 days a week, and the Navy will fly the same plane 2 days a week, and the Marines will get to fly on Sunday.

          War requires oceans of money. Military preparedness in the modern and global world, requires nearly as much. Overreach equals bankruptcy.

  6. PlutoniumKun

    I’m not sure air war ever was ‘what it used to be’. I was in Damascus 12 years ago and I remember looking up at the metal roof of the grand market place – it was peppered with bullet holes dating from the 1920’s, apparently from a French plane trying to keep order during some disturbances. The British of course pioneered the use of WMD in Iraq when they dropped poison gas on remote villages for the same reason. It didn’t work. In WWI the air forces consumed a lot of resources and manpower but probably had zero strategic impacts. Post WWII research indicated that the mass bombings of cities had far less of an impact on German and Japanese industrial production than was thought (although air drops of mines in Japanese coastal waters did cripple the distribution of food). Vietnam, Afghanistan (both in the 1980’s and the 2000’s), Chechnya, Iraq…. the list goes on. Air power always seems an easy ‘solution’, it often just makes things worse.

    1. Jim Haygood

      Yes … probably the strategic merit of air supremacy has been a myth from the beginning.

      But it’s deeply embedded in the American psyche, and has become indispensable to presidents who can always lob a few bombs to show that they are “doing something.”

      Meanwhile, how long will it take before the first drone terrorist attack on the U.S.? Technology spreads. The U.S. thought it had a nuclear monopoly in 1945, but it wasn’t long before all kinds of no-account countries turned up with nukes. Same with drones. It’s gonna be ugly.

      1. washunate

        I wonder how deeply embedded it really is, though? Outside of the warmongering class, there really isn’t that much interest in maintaining the empire. It’s a top down policy from the control freaks, not a broad desire by the general public.

        1. animalogic

          My guess: the average American wouldn’t know WHAT you were talking about if you mentioned the “US Empire”… And would deny it’s existence if they did know….

    2. Nelson Lowhim

      Exactly. I always hear the argument that Germany and Japan were turned into peace loving people via bombing and this is what’s needed elsewhere. Yet the analysis shows that simply bombing the cities did not do what some people claim. Even the 2 nukes’ usefulness [1] is more controversial than thought. But I don’t hear that. I hear people getting frustrated with us “fighting nice” and wanting to turn the middle east into a glass parking lot.

      [1] Have not studied this matter, merely read a few articles on Japan’s surrender. More info would be great

  7. SoCal Rhino

    It seems the Russian use of air power in Syria has been effective used in coordination with ground forces, as a form of artillery in effect. I’ve read that the German use of tactical air support was highly effective at the opening of WW II. I think the point is that air power can’t be a substitute for masses of ground forces, but the perceived lack of cost to the US leads to its use over and over agai .

    1. Steve in Flyover

      You forget that the Russians problem is a lot simpler than ours

      Support Assad. Try not to pizz off the Iranians/Shiites. Everyone and everything else is on the target list.

      Unlike ourselves, who can’t seem to figure out who is a supposed “friend”, and who is the enemy. At least for today.

  8. Paul Greenwood

    The real reason the RAF and USAAF engaged in 1000 Bomber raids over Germany losing 75% crews simply because they failed to open the Second Front Stalin asked for 18 July 1941 following German invasion of USSR on 22 June 1941.

    Bombing was a surrogate for landing an army in Europe which Churchill could not do with recollections of Gallipoli in 1915. So it was not until June 1944 when Operation Bagration saw the Red Army enter Poland and Romania destroying 20 German Divisions and advancing 450 miles that the Allies landed in Normandy

    The allies had no choice but to believe in air power delivered from 4-engined bombers but the Strategic Bombing Assessment postwar probably showed most of the devastation was to working class housing. even the devastation in Dresden failed to hit the military compound at Albertstadt and it still stands today.

    The Allies deluded themselves, it was artillery and infantry that won that war and 11,000 Soviet guns firing 7 million rounds into Berlin

    1. ambrit

      I remember reading that German war production continued expanding until late 1944, despite the bombing campaign. Revile them as you will, Lemay (US,) and Harris (UK,) knew, and stated that aerial bombing was primarily a terror weapon. Else, why obliterate Dresden or Tokyo?

      1. sid_finster

        That is correct. September of 1944 was the highest month for German war production.

        More effective were allied attacks on synthetic fuel and transportation.

        That said, the Soviet Union is what brought the Nazis to their knees.

      2. Steve in Flyover

        Believe it or not, almost all of the German aircraft manufacturing plants were working ONE shift well into 1943.

        They sadly didn’t realize how many machines (tanks, aircraft, trucks, etc) a modern mechanized war would consume. Much of the Wehrmacht’s transport was horse-drawn, even before we started taking out their oil industry.

        Our industrialists were a lot smarter than theirs for the most part. Production of semi-obsolescent combat aircraft types continued in the US until well into 1944. Mainly because our guys recognized that a semi-obsolete airplane is better than no airplane at all.

      3. PlutoniumKun

        Yes, post war research indicated that neither tactical nor strategic bombing had much real impact on German war production. It didn’t have much impact on Japanese war production either. And it seemingly had little impact on moral so it wasn’t a particularly good terror weapon either. The one major impact was on German oil refining. Also, the aptly named ‘Operation Starvation’, the aerial mining of Japanese harbours and inland was highly effective in crippling Japanese internal trade. Few military historians consider that the major aerial campaigns were worth the gigantic loss of life and industrial production (bearing in mind that every B-17 built was a a few tanks or artillery pieces that weren’t built.

        1. animalogic

          The European air war did have one significant positive (up until late ’44 when it did really start to bite) it drew off significant air resources from the Eastern front. Maybe not war winning, but of some benefit to the Soviets.

  9. a different chris

    Off topic a bit, but I noticed the fact that the F35 cost is the same as our current college indebtedness figures. We could just pay it off.

    (Now I think… I *know*… that the a-holes running our esteemed institutes of learning are screwing the students over good, but that doesn’t help a bunch of young people who weren’t presented with any other choice… so when I say “college should be free” that doesn’t mean I think we don’t seriously need to also address the current -and constantly rising – level of tuition)

    1. Paul Greenwood

      Do you recall that movie with Michael Douglas “Falling Down” ? He was a victim of the contracting war economy and his life imploding. There never was a real expansion of the peacetime economy to employ engineers and quant jocks – they all got sucked into Wall Street doing useless algorithms instead of producing the goods the US started to import from China or Thailand or Korea

  10. Donald

    I recommend anyone unfamiliar with the bombing of North Korea read the link supplied in the article. We probably killed more civilians in Korea than we did in Japan in WWII, yet in my experience very few Americans know this. That says something about our country– we killed at least many hundreds of thousands of civilians and perhaps in the million range and as far as most Americans know it never happened.

  11. Crazy Horse

    Agreed. The American policy of ordering “signature strikes” using Predator drones will never succeed in eliminating all cell phones.

    On the other hand, since the goal of America seems to be that of creating permanent warfare (and war profit opportunities) the policy has been highly effective in creating an endless supply of enemies.

  12. Robert Dannin

    “tell me how this ends?”

    we’re going to the moon again, folks. congress just mandated it. this time with the clear intent to weaponize outer space because, as the impenetrable logic goes, if we don’t do it, china will.

    the madness will continue until the people restore democracy.

    1. polecat

      “the madness will continue until” …….. there’s so much space junk whirling around the planet’s orbit, both low and high, that the moon people won’t be able to return to Terra……

  13. Gaylord

    We humans had better stop fighting or we’ll all end up in graves, along with the rest of life on earth.

  14. Steve in Flyover

    The “stalemate” in Korea was a decision made in Washington.

    Absolutely nobody in the US was/is willing to commit the number of ground troops neccesary to “win” against the Chinese, especially after the West saw Stalin put the whole of Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain, and the West Germans were totally convinced that Stalin was going to take the rest of Germany, given half a chance.

    Everyone forgets, too, that the USAF became a deterrent force, because the US didn’t want to pay for a standing army big enough to deter the Warsaw Pact.

    And, as usual, the general public doesn’t understand the rational behind our procurement policies. The USAF can’t find the crews to man the airplanes they have now, without huge retention bonuses. Where are they going to find the money to crew a bunch more cheaper and less sophisticated airplanes?

    (Why was the Abrams tank crewed by four guys? Because the “lifetime” costs (salaries/benefits/retirement) of the fifth crewman weren’t worth it. Why not three (if it had been built with an autoloader for the main gun?). Because operating and maintaining a MBT is a lot of hard work, enough so that it justified the cost of the fourth crewman.

    Same with “stealth”. The airplanes aren’t and don’t need to be “invisible”. They just need to be tougher to get a “lock on” long enough for our guys to launch first.

    The problem isn’t the airplanes. The problem is the decision making process in Washington. Not just for getting into these conflicts, but for pursuing domestic policies that demand intervention to “protect” our oil supplies. For a cartel that isn’t afraid of price gouging, when they can get away with it.

    And not having enough procurement specialists, paid enough to make lifetime government employment attractive, who have enough experience to recognize when these procurement programs are in trouble.

    Of course, the civilian world is no better than the government. They are just better at hiding their blunders.

    1. washunate

      a standing army big enough to deter the Warsaw Pact

      I’m curious about the mindset behind this. Maybe I’m reading into this something you don’t mean?

      1) You make it sound like the Warsaw Pact were the aggressors. The Warsaw Pact happened after NATO, not before it. It’s us (the Americans) that were staking out a claim to global military power projection.

      2) You make it sound like it’s possible to win a conventional war in eastern Europe with a peacetime standing army. That concept makes no sense to me. It’s the mindset of the defense lobby (see point 4). Do enough to make us rich, but not enough to actually matter in the event that the faux threat we are hyping were to actually occur.

      3) It’s the US nuclear shield that was the deterrent, not the creation of the air force.

      4) You make it sound like we demobilized after the war, which is the exact opposite of what we did. The rise of the permanent national security state following WWII is one of the most important and terrible choices of post war American policy.

      1. Steve in Flyover

        My whole point is that nobody in the US has the stomach for, or wants to spend the money to have a giant peacetime military establishment. Especially if it requires a peacetime draft to make it happen.

        Because our manpower is (relatively) limited due to budget and political considerations, and because our technology allows us to do it, we err toward the “fewer numbers, but more lethal” end of the spectrum. Our guys assume that if we go up against a First World opponent, they are going to be out numbered.

        For example, consider the numbers of F-22s vs it’s most likely opponent, should the SHTF, the SU-27s and SU-35.

        F-22s = 187 combat capable airframes, scattered over the entire surface of the planet. Of which at any point in time, 25-40% of them will be in major maintenance, or in training.

        SU-27/35 = Approx 850

        We went from several million men in uniform in 1945, to a fraction of the number in 1947. While the Soviets kept a giant army in Eastern Europe.

        Budgets were slashed across the board. When the SHTF in Korea, all of our equipment was WWII leftovers, and we were so short of tanks that “monument tanks” at US Army bases were being pulled off pedistals and packed off to Korea to bring armored units up to strength.

        Likewise, when the Soviets cut off ground access to Berlin,
        every C-54 that was still in USAF and US Navy inventory was sent immediately to Germany. Nobody wanted to pay for anything more than a barely adequate (for peacetime) transport fleet until we were forced to. Of course, you can make the case that we didn’t have to do anything, and could have saved a bunch of money by pulling out of Berlin and letting Stalin and the Soviets have it.

        The Soviets have always been paranoid about European invaders, and wanted (and still want) a “buffer zone”. the problem with stalin in the late 1940s is that he seemed to want to extend his “buffer zone” all the way to the Atlantic.

        Which (digressing) is why our current Ukrainian adventures are so stupid. The fact is that Russia is always going to have significant influence in Eastern Europe, if only because of proximity.

        OTOH, the Russians don’t seem to understand that they have not always been the friendliest neighbors to the locals,

        We used to have a State Department who understood all of these nuances. Now it seems they are actually promoting conflict, for reasons they don’t care (or want) to explain. But I’m guessing that (as always) there is some other agenda that isn’t being shared. And usually, hidden agendas usually have to do with money, or the acquisition thereof.

        1. Steve Gunderson

          “The Soviets have always been paranoid about European invaders”

          Russia has been invaded by Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler.

          1. ambrit

            Don’t forget the Khans, and the Knights of the Teutonic Order.
            For both, Eisensteins “Aleksandr Nevsky” deals with both in a quite good film. Propaganda at it’s pre war finest.

    2. animalogic

      Just as an aside, I was absolutely gobsmacked to learn the the turbine engines in the Abram’s tank have NOT been manufactured since the early ’90s. Engines have to be removed and painstakingly reconditioned to keep the US’s main battle tank operational.

  15. washunate

    Thoughtful read, very interesting. I would echo some of the other sentiment going further that air superiority was never what it used to be in terms of its ability to subdue a major hostile foe. It’s mostly a PR myth for the public. The author obviously can’t talk in any operational detail about warplanning concerns (and indeed, may not even have the clearance to be familiar with the details of those concerns), but it seems apparent from the outside at a high level view that actual wargaming exercises show our ability to project air power is rather more tenuous than the public bluster were we to be faced with actual opposition.

    Aircraft are tactical vehicles in support of the larger strategic goal, not magical victory machines. So I very much agree with the author on the tactical point of bringing the warbirds home. I do have a strategic question about that, though. The overarching problem isn’t air power itself, which after all is simply a tool of American foreign policy. The problem is government policy. Is the author calling for a change in that end goal? There’s a lot of talk in this piece about the unique limitations of air power but relatively little criticism of the underlying mindset of interventionism.

  16. David

    If he’s a historian, he should know that the strategic bombing of Germany and Japan is generally accepted to have been a failure – Richard Overy’s recent study pretty much put the last nail in the coffin. Overy notes somewhere that, during the Battle of the Ruhr in 1943 for example, there was a period when more aircrew died than German civilians were killed. He’s also confusing strategic bombing (which has a history of failure) with tactical air support which, as several people have already noticed, has a much better record. Good air-ground coordination using radios and light mobile anti-aircraft systems was the basic reason the Germans beat the French and British in 1940. The latter had good aircraft and good ground forces but poor coordination between them. On the other hand it has to be said that in 1944, with total air superiority and good coordination, the allies still took months to defeat understrength German forces. Airpower is generally overrated.

  17. Steve in Flyover

    Not that my opinion matters that much, being a “tip of the spear” member of the aviation industry for almost 40 years, but IMO we have painted ourselves into a corner with our aircraft procurement strategy.

    -The culling/forced mergers of the military aerospace prime contractors in the early 1990s was a big mistake. It concentrates too much power (political and financial) at Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. Suppose Northrop and Grumman were still independent primes?

    – Likewise, putting all of our procurement eggs into one or two hugely expensive baskets. Lockheed Martin knows that at this point we have no choice except to continue procurement of the F-35. The decision to dump it would be a lot easier if there was an alternative airframe in existence.

    Another problem is that you have created a product you don’t dare export, unless you want to compromise all of that money you invested in “beyond state of the art”.

    Restarting a production line after several years is problematic. When the line stops, so do all of the parts from the contractors. Some of them disappear. Some of them scrap the tooling, which needs to be recreated at huge expense. Some of the parts are just flat obsolete, and wouldn’t exist at all in the civilian world.

    Civilian airframes built in the early 1990s may have significant “life limits” left, but the airplanes are rapidly going to salvage, because many of their “high utilization” components cannot be repaired. Nobody makes the parts to fix them anymore. Like CRT displays. Rapidly becoming unsupportable. Only was to address is an expensive retrofit. So, how much money do you want to sink into a 25-30 year old airplane?

    Buying “foreign” might save some money up front, but it basically supports the aerospace infrastructure in other countries, at the expense of our own. Like automobiles, the money/benefits to the economy aren’t in the few thousand jobs generated in the final assembly process. It’s in all those highly paid engineers that design and test it. (You know, all those guys/gals we can’t seem to find jobs for anymore)

    For all of these reasons, it makes no sense to keep the A-10 going (except as an interim measure). The A-10 is a lot bigger than it need to be, just to carry around a 30mm cannon intended to take out hordes of Warsaw Pact tanks.

    IMO, we should start the RFP process for a NEW design (not license built) A-10 replacement, then pick the BEST TWO proposals for production. Make the top finisher the primary acquisition. If it falters, you will have a backup readily available. If they are both decent airplanes, send the best to the regular Air Force, and the runner up to the National Guard units. (Or let the US Army fly fixed wing combat aircraft again. Preferably with mostly sergeants pilots/warrant officers.)

    Split the annual acquisition based on price. Eventually, one will stand out over the rest.

    And insure that they are both “exportable” A few hundred/thousand export sales really drops the price. Only a handful of countries can afford and have the infrastructure to support state of the art combat aircraft like the F-22 and F-35.

    Picking a paper airplane for production before a “fly-off” theoretically saves money. But my money says that paying for a fly-off isn’t nearly as expensive or risky as advertised, when you compare how the procurement process since 1990 has played out.

    1. Steve Gunderson

      ” If they are both decent airplanes, send the best to the regular Air Force, and the runner up to the National Guard units.”

      No way we can afford two 1.5 trillion dollar airplanes!!

  18. TulsaTime

    An excellent discussion for an excellent article. I approach the subject from a historical perspective, and see the US in the thrall of what they think won the last war. Amazingly, Japan’s loss in the pacific is always attributed to their fixation on major naval gun platforms, battleships, at the expense of aircraft carriers. The US military seems to have repeated the pattern, in it’s obsession with carriers and strategic bombing.

    We have ignored a lot of the other lessons from conflicts past, that pointed in the directions of simple and mundane things. One of the major lessons was that lots of cheap things tend to overwhelm fewer fancy things. There have been repeated lessons about this in rifles (M16 vs AK47). Strategy vs Tactics is another place we ignored what worked. Sinking oil tankers crippled Japan, and shooting up train engines crippled Germany.

  19. Take the Fork

    “The culling/forced mergers of the military aerospace prime contractors in the early 1990s was a big mistake. It concentrates too much power (political and financial) at Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. Suppose Northrop and Grumman were still independent primes?”

    Why would you characterize these as “forced megers”? I don’t know anything about it. Thanks.

  20. equote

    Douglas MacArthur said “In war there is no substitute for victory”. So how do we know if and when we (or they) have achieved victory in the ‘War on Terror’! “Only the guy who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat.” (Jean-Paul Sartre) Professor, tell us how to win, most of us can see we are not winning now.

  21. Reality's Stooge

    Level-headed analysis but I can’t help noticing that like so many other comments on US foreign policy the idea of America as global hegemon that lays down the law and other nations better follow or else… isn’t called into question. Perhaps a bit much to expect from a military man but if US leadership believes in the myth of exceptionalism and the “indispensable nation” that puts them in the same league as ISIS and other groups who believe they have a divine right, duty even, to bend the world to their will and if it takes force and violent death on a mass scale, so be it. That is what worries me most about the current US leadership. It’s up for debate whether they are rational actors and given their eagerness to wage war on Syria and Russia and maybe China it’s not looking good.

  22. Russell

    The way it is supposed to work is that tanks are protected from the air, or destroyed from the air. The Warthog type planes and helicopter gun ships fly low and slow protecting or destroying tanks.
    Tanks take territory.
    So Infantry in Urban Assault Vehicles or following Tanks if not simply moving with Tanks take territory where the enemy is, and then Warthog A 10 types protect or destroy them and are protected further up by fighters that destroy each other so ground can be taken.
    Now there is Hybrid war, which is about isolating tanks by jamming their radio communications nets, meaning A-10 types with pilots who may or may not be able to talk with each other has an affect.
    Pilots who are there with real eyes on the ground are indispensable.
    Infantry by itself has a real hard time of it. Tanks by themselves also have a hard time of it.
    Aircraft by themselves are a show, and don’t have that hard a time of it themselves, but don’t get much really done either.
    So when I hear politicians who are supposed to know what they are talking about call for Air Force work without the work of Tanks I think the politicians are trying to sound tough, but don’t really intend to get anything really done.

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