Leadership: Army Reality Versus Air Force Reality


March 9, 2007: The current debate in Israel, over military strategy used against Hizbollah last year, brought out an old, and ongoing, debate between armies and air forces. For thousands of years, it was the army that called the shots when it came to military strategy. Even nations with large navies, let the generals have the final say. There have been a few exceptions, mainly powerful island nations like Great Britain. But for the vast majority of nations, it was generals, not admirals, who had the last say.

When air forces appeared 90 years ago, they were seen as a support service for the army and navy. But air force commanders soon developed other ideas, especially the one that "wars could be won from the air". World War II was supposed to be a test of this theory, but the results were inconclusive. At least that's what the careful examination of the effects of strategic bombing revealed. These studies, especially the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS), were embarrassing to the air force generals. But the arrival of the atomic bomb in the last weeks of the war seemed to give the air force a power that could not be denied. That was not the case, especially when the nukes were delivered by ballistic missiles, against which there was no defense. Nuclear weapons were so powerful and intimidating that they brought an unprecedented period of peace between the major powers. There were still wars, but not really, really big ones. These little wars were non-nuclear.

So, about two decades into the nuclear age, the air force get interested in conventional warfare again. This time, the air force thought it had a decisive weapon in the form of smart bombs. These were actually developed and used, with success, at the end of World War II. But now the U.S. Air Force had laser guided bombs. Very accurate, but very expensive. By the end of the century the price had come way down, and the air force believed it was now the dominant service. This is the attitude that got the Israelis in trouble last Summer. That all began when, for the first time, an air force general became Chief of Staff (head of the Israeli armed forces.) He went along with air force plans to crush Hizbollah from the air. But here the Israeli air force fell into the same trap that had gotten the U.S. Air Force into so much trouble over the years. Despite the best efforts of Israeli intelligence, Hizbollahs efforts to secretly build bunkers in southern Lebanon were largely successful. The Israelis knew Hizbollah was fortifying the areas along the Israeli border, which Israel abandoned in 2000 (in an effort to bring peace to the area). Israel knew something was going on, but depended largely on aerial reconnaissance (jets, UAVs and some spy satellites) to identify what Hizbollah was doing. Based on this intelligence, the Israelis worked out plans for they would deal with Hizbollah, via air and artillery attacks, if war came. War did come last July, and it was quickly discovered that Israeli intel had missed many of the bunker complexes. These were then discovered, with some difficulty, by Israeli ground troops.

Blame it all on BDA (Bomb Damage Assessment). This is the business of figuring out what to bomb, and what the impact on the enemy is after you bomb. The problem, of the guys in the air getting fooled by the guys on the ground, began during World War II. This was when air forces used large scale aerial bombing for the first time. Right after that conflict, the U.S. did a thorough survey, of the impact of strategic bombing on Germany and Japan. It was discovered that the impact was far different from what BDA during the war had indicated. The air force vowed to do better next time. But as experience in Korea (1950-3), Vietnam (1965-72), Kuwait (1991) and Kosovo (1999), Iraq (2003) and Lebanon (2006) demonstrated, the enemy on the ground continued to have an edge when it came to deceiving the most energetic BDA efforts. The only proven technique for beating the BDA problem was to have people on the ground, up close, checking up on targets, while the fighting was going on. The Israelis did not want to do this, because of the risk of some of their commandos getting killed or captured, and because the intel and air force people were sure that they knew what Hizbollah was up to down there.

But there's another problem. The army and air force have a different outlook on planning and risk. The air force sees warfare as a much tidier, and predictable, affair than does the army. In this respect, the air force and navy are closely aligned. Both are technical services, who are used to exercising more control over their forces than do army generals. The army sees warfare as more unpredictable, and has adapted to that unpredictability. The Israeli army generals were skeptical of the air forces ability to take down Hizbollah from the air, and the army guys proved to be right.

The same debate has been going on in the United States for some time. At the moment, the air force is laying low. There's a war on, and the army is doing most of the work. Moreover, the relationship between the army and air force has been fundamentally changed by the introduction of micro (under ten pounds) UAVs, and GPS smart bombs. The army has thousands of micro-UAVs in action, giving every infantry commander his own air force, at least as far as air reconnaissance goes. The smart bombs have restored faith in close air support, but there still has to be an air force officer, in the form of a ground controller, around to call it in. And the troops have noted the pilots and their bombers are way up there, out of gunfire range. Down below, the army is running the war, just calling on pilots to push a button (and release a smart bomb) from time to time.

An Israeli army general has taken over the Chief of Staff job again, and the Israeli air force is rethinking its "victory from above" doctrine. The airmen and sailors still believe that warfare is more predictable, than do their army brethren. But, for the moment, the army is running the show, and it's the army reality that everyone has to follow.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close