In 2014, Air Force Magazine published an article in which the author proclaimed “Airpower has eclipsed land power as the primary means of destroying enemy forces.” More recently, a retired US Air Force general contended that American airpower—properly applied to achieve certain effects—could have quickly destroyed the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in about four months. Airpower-centric arguments like this do not grapple with the thorny questions of what comes after.

Such airpower advocacy does not just emanate from Air Force circles. Retired US Army Gen. David Petraeus and Michael O’Hanlon penned a 2016 op-ed, “It’s time to unleash America’s airpower in Afghanistan,” and followed it up months later with another piece, “Take the Gloves Off Against the Taliban,” where they reinforce their call for a shift towards more airpower. Such arguments rest on rationalistic assumptions about a ground adversary being willing to expose their foot soldiers, vehicles, and bases for opportune aerial bombing. However, these expectations miss the reality that an enemy—and a local population—will not acquiesce solely to the application of kinetic airpower and a limited number of ground troops. Larger numbers of ground forces are needed to maintain an active presence—day and night—if counterinsurgents are to overcome the problem of locals being intimidated and coerced by insurgents. In fact, many American troops will tell you that the Taliban prefer to stage attacks on days with cloud cover or inclement weather, since Taliban fighters know they can achieve near parity in a ground fight without concern that an A-10, drone, or attack helicopter will show up to provide air cover and deny their assault.

More broadly, what many of these airpower arguments miss about the evolution of warfare—especially since World War II—is that destruction accomplishes little. Adversaries typically find alternative modes of survival, to include innovative ways of fighting on, much as Ho Chi Minh’s army did during the Vietnam War. Instead, warfare remains grounded in the time-honored fundamentals of seizing territory and exerting control over populations. Such an observation, that war maintains this historical consistency, was made most cogently by T. R. Fehrenbach in 1963, when he astutely recognized a fact of the US experience in the Korean War:

Americans in 1950 rediscovered something that since Hiroshima they had forgotten: you may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life—but if you desire to defend it, protect it and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men in the mud.

Such an airpower-centric mindset increasingly permeates American strategy toward Afghanistan, as the US military struggles to maintain control. In October 2017, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis loosened the rules of engagement in Afghanistan, to include removing “restrictions that did not allow [the American military] to employ the air power fully.” Unfortunately, such firepower-intensive rules of engagement have not improved the security situation in Afghanistan. In fact, as of September 2018, the Taliban now control or contest about 60 percent of the districts in Afghanistan, the largest swath of territory that the Taliban have controlled since 2001. Taliban control will likely grow even larger given the assassination of Kandahar Police Chief Abdul Raziq, a strongman client that had been able to provide some modicum of security on behalf of the United States. This should leave us wondering: What is the future of American military power and effectiveness in dealing with not only fragile states such as Afghanistan, but also conventional threats emanating from rising, near-pear states? This leaves us with the answer that airpower is an oversold panacea, and landpower (i.e., substantial ground forces) combined with a viable strategy is the only plausible way of achieving US national security objectives.

Operation Allied Force and the Gulf War Hangover

Operation Allied Force (OAF) is traditionally used by airpower enthusiasts as the prime example of airpower deciding a conflict independent of the other armed services. For many airpower planners, the effects-based approach used to decimate Iraqi centers of gravity in the Persian Gulf War justified a similar method in trying to coerce and punish the Serbian government for atrocities in Kosovo. However, such weak induction and hasty generalizations by airpower enthusiasts raise two questions which they must answer, yet seldom do.

First, if airpower won OAF alone, why did it take so long to achieve a decisive victory? The typical response to this question is that NATO-imposed restrictions limited the effectiveness of the air campaign compared to the unleashed force that characterized Desert Storm. The more logical argument is that airpower took so long, not due to self-imposed limitations, but because the developed Serbian economy, rough terrain, and foliage, simply limited airpower’s lethality. Serbian President Slobodan Milošević believed that if he hunkered down, he could simply outlast the barrage.

Next, if the psychological implications of airpower can induce capitulation, why did the slaughter of ethnic Albanians continue—with the genocidal rate actually increasing—for seventy-eight days after the initial strikes took place? In this case, US and NATO bombings only strengthened Milošević’s resolve and that of his army.

Interpretations of OAF and the conflict’s resolution reveal a fascinating dichotomy, which largely predicts how one views airpower more generally. Traditionalists would say that airpower forced Milošević’s hand; yet the threat dynamics of a US/NATO ground invasion carried the day and finally forced him (and the Serbian army) to capitulate and withdraw. Much like Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf War, Milošević made political calculations about the resolve of the United States (and her allies) to commit to the riskier use of ground forces (i.e., landpower).

The Kosovo conflict provided many airpower traditionalists the fodder needed to push airpower narratives of an offensive capability that would transform warfare toward a future absent of land occupation. However, the conflict instead illustrates the self-defeating strategic intent of airpower. Its “effects” are so successful and low-risk that, by its very nature, it leads to a seductive illusion that landpower is not necessary. That illusion, however, fails to comprehend the dynamic nature of adversarial decision making and ability to easily adapt to airpower-centric coercion. Since landpower requires engagement and commitment, political and military leadership need to create the necessary willpower to support landpower objectives. Such purposes can range from attrition to establishing territorial control, all of which should support strategic level goals.

Airpower Enables, but Landpower with a Strategy is Vital

Strategic effectiveness on the modern battlefield in the twenty-first century is centered on the reality that airpower needs landpower to be strategically relevant. Landpower, by contrast, merely desires airpower because it makes both offensive and defensive maneuvers less risky by degrading and disrupting adversarial ground forces. There is a co-dependence between the two, but it is unequal. That fact is perhaps threatening to some advocates of airpower, but it need not be. Airpower’s decisiveness might be in question—domination in the air domain does not equal domination in the ground domain—but its relevance is unequivocally not. Both the kinetic effects and non-kinetic capabilities afforded by airpower can favorably shape battlefield outcomes for landpower.

Against near-peer state adversaries, airpower provides tremendous kinetic power against fixed targets. However, due to contemporary understandings of international law (and what are legal targets), adversaries rarely allow the United States to target critical assets—and the United States and her allies generally refrain from purposely inflicting collateral damage. For instance, during the Vietnam War, the State Department regularly informed North Vietnamese leadership what targets were going to be bombed by the US military so as to avoid civilian casualties. The most airpower can provide in the sphere of military operations against adversarial states is primarily non-kinetic effects—things like ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) and C2 (command and control) capabilities. Moreover, with the development of A2/AD (antiaccess and area denial) weapon systems by potentially adversarial states to detect stealth aircraft and launch accurate, long-range surface-to-air-missiles, the prospect of American airpower achieving anything more than air parity in certain regions is close to being a reality.

In regard to non-state actors, ground forces still have to deal with the same dynamics seen in civil wars since the First Jewish–Roman War, nearly two millennia ago. There are local-level politics that no amount of airpower effects, kinetic or non-kinetic, can supplant or overcome. There might be competition between pro-government soldiers and anti-government fighters taking place seemingly on every street corner and in every neighborhood—and this is the dynamic environment in which both sides are vying for control while the local population tries to hedge its bets, simply seeking survival. In this precarious situation, the armed force that eventually gains control does so because of its ability to better collect intelligence (especially through collaborators and defectors) and discriminately kill adversarial forces (and their supporters and sympathizers). Even attempts to use technology, such as mechanized formation or armored vehicles to protect counterinsurgent forces in such a situation, reduces the ability of counterinsurgents to collect accurate, detailed, and nuanced intelligence, thereby degrading their ability to selectively target and fight insurgents among the population.

The fact that there has been so much American military investment in and emphasis on building the Afghan Air Force with little to show in terms of Afghan combat effectiveness against the Taliban is not an indictment of the Afghan military forces. It is a reflection of a strategic delusion, an illustration of what the United States values in the war effort in Afghanistan—and what the Afghan military is actually capable of. The first deployment of a security force assistance brigade to Afghanistan in early 2018—with the specific intent to develop an effective Afghan National Army—might help the war American war effort to overcome the three common traps of security force assistance missions (politicized, unaffordable, and threatening) in fragile states. There is a moral hazard involved with training and supporting host-nation armies in weak states, because this can lead to a dependency on American firepower without resolving domestic political issues and civil-military relations problems that prevent the host-nation military from being effective and sustainable in the long term. Thus, airpower and landpower need to be further re-conceptualized around the idea of how American military power can be utilized in these two domains. Understanding which explicit effects can be obtained through each is vital in supporting long-term strategic interests, such as nation-and-state building in fragile states (e.g., Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, etc.). Otherwise even air- and landpower effects together become, at best, part of attritional wars that amount to nothing more than a game of whack-a-mole.

Conclusion: Airpower Needs to Enable Ground Forces

Airpower is inherently an enabling force. Airpower advocates have long argued that it can generate strategic effects absent landpower. As with many contentions, this is correct if the context is set tightly. More importantly, non-kinetic airpower (e.g., intelligence and signals collection) provides tremendous value to all military branches and allies seeking to target important nodes in criminal, insurgent, or terrorist networks and also against adversarial states.

OAF represents the most recent example of airpower failing to achieve the desired effects of capitulation from an adversarial state with a developed infrastructure and economy. Only under the perceived threat of a ground invasion did Milošević finally conclude that his efforts would fail. Ultimately, there is an indisputable feature of survival concerns seen in most weak state contexts, where coercion throughout all the domains is the surest way to achieve strategic goals.

There is inherent virtue in advocating for greater “jointness” between all branches in all the different domains, especially given the current strategic context—the United States having been sobered by the elusiveness of clear-cut victories in Iraq and Afghanistan and the post–Cold War “unipolar moment” seemingly over as the United States faces a revanchist Russia and the continued rise of China. But separate from this, there is a simple truth: airpower ultimately needs landpower to remain strategically important. Landpower can operate without airpower, if ground commanders can accept a higher level of risk. Airpower without landpower or strategic purpose is just bombing to win, without actually winning.

Luckily, American and allied ground forces have been able to operate—for decades—under the presumption of the air domain being dominated by friendly forces achieving and maintaining air supremacy. The more complicated aspect of this relationship has been trying to convert tactical victories in the short term into successes at the strategic level in the long term. Perhaps American over-reliance on airpower—by political leaders—is precisely why the US military struggles to achieve national security objectives abroad. As Dr. John Farquhar suggests, “Airpower has to be used within a comprehensive political strategy; airpower alone, especially kinetic air strikes, cannot substitute for sound policy.”

While there might be some merit to discussions about relying on airpower to achieve certain effects to defeat adversaries, such as the Islamic State, this short-circuits the primary center of gravity in most underdeveloped countries: state formation. If one takes a long view of history, then it might have been strategically wise—in terms of state-building objectives—that the US military reluctantly engaged in a minimalist fashion (i.e., with advisers, fire support, air support, etc.) in supporting the Iraqi Army against the Islamic State. The reluctant American approach forced politicians in Baghdad to move beyond their corrupt survival strategies (e.g., patronage, coup-proofing, etc.), thereby allowing Iraqi military forces to operate with maximum combat effectiveness. Thus, numerous domestic political issues that had fueled Sunni grievances, which begat Islamic State momentum in the first place, were resolved by the existential threat posed by Islamic State fighters getting within eight miles of the Baghdad Airport in October 2014.

Airpower cannot resolve the political dynamics that distort state building, but the presence of ground troops can serve as a third-party enforcement mechanism when political relations break down between various factions. Much like the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo has maintained a sizeable presence of troops in Kosovo since 1999, perhaps American policymakers need to accept a similar strategy in Iraq. Deploying a similar type of US-led international peacekeeping force in Iraq might be needed for several decades so as to prevent future Iraqi political factionalism and military fragmentation. A long-term engagement could institutionalize trust between various factions in the Iraqi government and security organizations, allowing the US military to eventually pull out without worrying about the Iraqi government or military collapsing.

Thus, while many will keep arguing for the unleashing of airpower to maximize combat effectiveness, we should be wary of such suggestions. We need to ask tougher questions about how airpower will support landpower efforts to stabilize and secure weak states throughout Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Answering these questions will be central to whether the United States wins or fails in these efforts. Regardless, landpower will remain a critical ingredient in American strategic success.


Jahara “FRANKY” Matisek completed his PhD in Political Science in the spring of 2018 at Northwestern University, on the topic of creating strong African armies and how weak states redefine military effectiveness. He is an officer in the US Air Force, an assistant professor in the Military and Strategic Studies department at the US. Air Force Academy, and a non-resident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point.

Maj. Jon McPhilamy is an instructor in the Military and Strategic Studies department at the United States Air Force Academy. He is a graduate of the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or any of the institutions with which the authors are associated.


Image credit: Master Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald, US Air Force