In Praise of Aerial Bombing

Why terror from the skies still works.

Sven Torfinn
Sven Torfinn

Ever since the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey cast doubt on the efficacy of aerial bombardment in World War II, and particularly after its failure to bring victory in the Vietnam War, air power has acquired a bad reputation. Nowadays, killing enemies from the skies is widely considered useless, while its polar opposite, counterinsurgency by nation-building, is the U.S. government’s official policy. But it’s not yet time to junk our planes. Air power still has a lot to offer, even in a world of scattered insurgencies.

Military aviation started off splendidly in 1911, when the Italians pioneered aerial bombing in Libya. But since then it has often been a great disappointment because the two overlooked conditions of success in 1911 have been absent: the barrenness of the Libyan desert, which allowed aviators to see their targets very clearly, and the total lack of an enemy air force or anti-aircraft weapons that could interfere with their attacks.

Through all the wars since, the 1911 rules have held. Aerial bombing works very well, but only if the enemy must move in open, arid terrain and has no air force or effective anti-aircraft weapons. These conditions emphatically did not apply to World War II until the very end. And Vietnam was full of trees, as well as brave men: hence the failure of tactical bombing in the south, while the strategic bombing of the north was strongly resisted and there were too few good targets anyway.

But the supposed lessons of Vietnam have clearly been overlearned. Back in 2006, while the Israeli Air Force was bombing down its target list in Lebanon, assorted experts were almost unanimous in asserting that the campaign would fail. As a defiant Hezbollah continued to launch rockets into Israeli territory day after day, the consensus was seemingly proven right. And because television and photographers in Lebanon kept feeding pictures of dead babies or at least broken dolls to world media while withholding images of Hezbollah’s destroyed headquarters and weapons, Israel was paying a very high political price for its bombing. In any case, it was running out of targets: There were only so many bridges and viaducts in Lebanon. Even its friends could only regretfully agree that Israel seemed to be failing.

But that is not at all how it turned out. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah admitted immediately after the war that he would never have ordered the original deadly attack on an Israeli border patrol had he known that Israel would retaliate with such devastating effect. Before the 2006 war, Hezbollah launched rockets into northern Israel whenever it wanted to raise tensions. Since the Aug. 14, 2006, cease-fire, Hezbollah has rigorously refrained. Whenever rockets are nonetheless launched, Nasrallah’s spokesmen rush to announce that Hezbollah had absolutely nothing to do with it. Evidently, Israel’s supposedly futile bombing did achieve its aim.

Nevertheless, less than three years later, during Israel’s systematic campaign of aerial bombing during the Gaza war, the same doubters repeated their assertions — only to be proven wrong again. As in 2006, many civilians were killed and injured in the bombing, and not only because of accidental proximity: Hamas commanders worked to maximize civilian casualties on their own side, routinely launching rockets from apartment courtyards to provoke artillery fire, in order to raise the political costs for Israel.

These costs were real. And the 1,300 Palestinian civilians killed suggest why airstrikes can never be called "surgical." But when the 1911 rules apply, such tactics can at least achieve material results. In 2008, 3,278 projectiles from Gaza landed in Israel, including 1,553 rockets. Last year, the total went down to 248, making 2009 the most peaceful year Israel has enjoyed in recent memory, with no suicide bombings and only 15 Israelis killed by all forms of attack.

What about Afghanistan? Do the 1911 rules work there? The expert consensus again seems to be no. And yet the Taliban, for all their martial virtues, are still a few centuries removed from having an air force capable of engaging U.S. fighter-bombers — which fly too high for hand-held anti-aircraft weapons — and even in that most mountainous of countries, Taliban fighters must cross open, arid terrain to move from one valley to the next.

Most unfortunately, having so often greatly overestimated air power in the past, the United States is now disregarding its strategic potential, using it only tactically to hunt down individuals with remotely operated drones and to support ground operations, mostly with helicopters, which are the only aircraft the Taliban can shoot down. Commanding Gen. Stanley McChrystal, understandably concerned about the political blowback from errant bombings widely condemned both inside and outside Afghanistan, has put out the word that air power should be used solely as a last resort. He intends to defeat the Taliban by protecting Afghan civilians, providing essential services, stimulating economic development, and ensuring good government, as the now-sacrosanct Field Manual 3-24 prescribes. Given the characteristics of Afghanistan and its rulers, this worthy endeavor might require a century or two. In the meantime, the FM 3-24 way of war is far from cheap: President Barack Obama is now just about doubling the number of U.S. troops by sending another 30,000, at an average cost of $1 million per soldier per year, to defeat perhaps 25,000 full-time Taliban.

The better and much cheaper alternative would be to resurrect strategic bombing in a thoroughly new way by arming the Taliban’s many enemies to the teeth and replacing U.S. troops in Afghanistan with sporadic airstrikes. Whenever the Taliban concentrate in numbers to attack, they would be bombed. This would be a most imperfect solution. But it would end the costly futility of "nation-building" in a remote and unwelcoming land. Eventually, after trying everything else, Obama will probably get there.

Edward Luttwak is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace.