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The air power delusion
June 29, 2014 - Harry Eagar
Some people -- well, at least 2 people, John McCain and Nouri al-Maliki -- believe that airplanes are an effective counter to a committed insurgency using guerrilla tactics.
A lot of reporters also seem to think reflexively along these lines, and if you add in the word "drone," they completely lose any sense of proportion.
The little ISIS force that is marching through Iraq the way Sherman marched through Georgia doesn't have any drones, helicopters or airplanes. Apparently, not even much in the way of artillery, either antiaircraft or conventional.
The phantasmogorical Iraq national army does have helicopters, planes and artillery. What it doesn't have is any reason to fight. According to the Washington Post, Maliki said:
“ 'If we had air support, none of this would have happened,' Maliki said in a BBC interview Thursday."
As recently as Saturday, Maliki's so-called government was claiming success for its assault to retake Tikrit. It is regrettable that no reporters are with ISIS, so it is hard to tell what is going on but by Sunday it appeared that that recapture of Tikrit was as imaginary as Iraqi national unity.
"On Sunday, the militants claimed they had repelled an Iraqi government counteroffensive against the city of Tikrit, which fell under Islamic State control more than two weeks ago.
"The operation marked a major test for the Iraqi military as it tries to reverse the insurgent gains, but it appeared that the attempt to recapture the city had failed.
"Ground forces backed by helicopter gunships launched a three-pronged pre-dawn attack on the militant stronghold of Tikrit on Saturday, but residents and a tribal leader said militants from an al-Qaeda breakaway group had repelled the troops’ advance, rigging roads into the city with explosives. "Residents said the insurgents, who have been assisted by local anti-government groups, were still in control of the town center on Sunday. State television had claimed to have cleared Tikrit of militants on Saturday."
It isn't 1940 any more, the novelty of attack from the air is gone. Soldiers without air cover don't panic and run away; they know what to do.The dumbest Muslim sectary understands what John McCain doesn't: Air power is not the decisive element in violent conflict.
(In one of those stories that are small in themselves but revealing of huge changes, there was an interview with a Marine Corps officer who had been mistakenly attacked by an A-10 [flown by the Air Force] in Afghanistan and then again in Iraq. He told a reporter: "If I cannot have Marine air cover, I don't want any at all.")
That's why wars fought by orderly formations of uniformed soldiers, linked in straightforward logistical networks, are so rare these days. And, as we saw in South Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq, the orderly formations usually get beaten, no matter how big their air forces, when opposed by a dedicated guerrilla.
In places as varied as South Sudan, Colombia, Uganda, East Timor and Namibia, forces without planes, armor, artillery, radios, uniforms, MREs or even rucksacks have either prevailed or fought massively armed, modern governments to a standstill.
Did we learn nothing in Vietnam? Most of the Washington apparat did not.
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