Ever since the dawn of the air age more than a century ago, military strategists have been prone to the delusion that bombing by itself can win wars.
Today the air-power fantasy is that dropping enough bombs on Islamic State jihadists will get the job done in Iraq and Syria. The approach is a bipartisan, indeed multinational, daydream, shared by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, and now by Britain and France as well.
Military history offers little justification for such faith.
As early as 1918, Billy Mitchell, an army general who is regarded as the father of the U.S. Air Force, proclaimed: “The day has passed when armies on the ground or navies on the sea can be the arbiter of a nation’s destiny in war. The main power of defense and the power of initiative against an enemy has passed to the air.”
Mitchell and other interwar air advocates were convinced that bombers, in particular, were wonder weapons that would quickly break the enemy’s will to fight. The influential Italian strategist Giulio Douhet predicted that “normal life would be unable to continue under the constant threat of death and imminent destruction.”
U.S. and British leaders of the 1920s and 1930s invested heavily in developing strategic bombing. As British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin put it: “The bomber will always get through. The only defense is in offence.” Yet when strategic bombing was unleashed in World War II, it didn’t prove nearly as decisive as its advocates had expected. “My Luftwaffe is invincible,” Hermann Göring had crowed, but the Luftwaffe couldn’t bring Britain to its knees in 1940.
“Victory, speedy and complete, awaits the side which first employs air power as it should be employed,” said Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris, head of Britain’s Bomber Command. But even when the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Forces combined to unleash their bombers on Germany, they didn’t produce speedy victory. Germany managed to increase industrial production under bombardment.
The limits of air power were revealed again in Vietnam. No one was surer of air power’s centrality than Gen. Curtis LeMay, the cigar-chomping chief of Strategic Air Command. “If we maintain our faith in God, love of freedom, and superior global air power, the future looks good,” he said. LeMay advocated bombing North Vietnam “back into the Stone Age.” The U.S. dropped more bombs in the Vietnam War than in World War II, but North Vietnam prevailed anyway.
Lately there have been echoes of LeMay in statements by Mr. Trump, who vowed to “bomb the s---” out of Islamic State, and by Mr. Cruz: “We will utterly destroy ISIS. We will carpet-bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.”
Mr. Cruz’s veiled suggestion that he would use nuclear weapons on Islamic State, or ISIS, was a macabre touch but hardly practical. Aside from the fact that the U.S. has a strong interest in maintaining an international norm of no nuclear use, what would the target be? ISIS doesn’t have an industrial infrastructure or tank armies in the desert that can be eliminated. The jihadists are mixed among the people they terrorize, and killing civilians is likely to create more terrorists than it eliminates.
The only places where U.S. air power has worked against ISIS so far has been in battles such as Sinjar and Kobani, where effective ground forces, chiefly made up of Kurds, were also involved. This confirms the lessons of the Gulf War, Kosovo, Afghanistan and the Iraq war: In all those conflicts, American air power was decisive only when used in tandem with effective ground forces, whether belonging to the U.S. or local proxies such as the Kosovo Liberation Army or Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance. Bombing by itself—like 42’s 1998 airstrikes on Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan—achieved little.
Predictably, where the U.S. has bombed ISIS without effective follow-up on the ground, the results have been negligible. The Pentagon claims to have killed 23,000 ISIS fighters, yet estimates that ISIS forces remain at around 20,000 to 30,000—roughly where they were before the bombing started. This suggests that ISIS is able to replace fighters as quickly as they are killed, just as the Viet Cong were able to do in the 1960s.
There is a case for ramping up air power against ISIS, but that would require sending tactical air controllers into battle to accurately call in airstrikes, which President Obama so far has refused to do. Even then, destroying ISIS would require effective ground forces, and given the inability of the U.S. to mobilize enough effective proxies in either Syria or Iraq, it looks increasingly likely that the U.S. will need to provide at least some of the troops itself. Polls suggest that a majority of Americans now support using ground troops against ISIS. But President Obama again ruled out this option in his national-TV address on Sunday night, saying: “We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war.”
No one wants “a long and costly ground war,” but just as in the past, air power alone won’t win this war. Any administration strategist or presidential hopeful who pretends otherwise isn’t serious about achieving victory.