The Spine

The Mystique Of Air Power


The chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Dan Halutz, the ramatkal, has resigned in advance of the report of the special commission studying why the Lebanon war ended so ... well, let's be generous ... ambiguously. Doubtless, other heads will fall. This is a time of testing for the IDF, and a time of clarification. The brass in the Israeli military had become haughty, leaving the mid-level officer class resentful and justifiably so.

In any case, this Spine is not about developments in Israel. It is about the meaning of Halutz's resignation for wider military strategy--or, rather, the conclusions that should be drawn from it. Halutz was, I think, the first chief of staff of Israel's high-powered and technically advanced military to come from the air force. The second Lebanon war showed that air power is simply incapable of achieving what counter-insurgency war fare requires. That is to say, it cannot defeat many small, highly mobile, and strategically scattered units from the air. There are intrinsic limitations to even the most devastating results of air power. We saw this first in Vietnam, again in Iraq, and latterly in Lebanon.

The only way to defeat guerilla warriors is to meet them on the land which they have pacified. This means a great number of troops, highly trained and technologically will-equipped and well-protetced, backed by tanks and tankists and long-range artillery. But there is no substitute for ground soldiers. They are the ones who can capture territory, hold it and secure it.

That is why, in Israel, at least, the ramatkal never came from the air force but rather generals who came from a paratrooper background or special forces experience, with some time in the tank service or in intelligence. Ever since John Kenneth Galbraith wrote the survey of allied bombing in Germany, people, serious people have been trying to unhorse the mystique of air power. It's an understandable mystique. The other side pays in casualties. But, if the enemy is a force like Hezbollah, which frankly values human life cheaply (after all, their casualties become immediate martyrs), there are always fighters to be put into battle.

Air power still is relevant in modern warfare. But it won't at all replace the foot soldier.

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