Can you tell the difference between the before-the-bombing building and the after-the-bombing building in the picture above? It’s cool if you can’t, because, honestly, the coalition could have spared itself the effort. Blowing up a building with no one in it is not a great way to spend taxpayer dollars.
In one of the best scenes of 1997’s pro-space fascism movie Starship Troopers, a horde of alien “Bugs” are careening through a desert canyon, looking, presumably, for human limbs to chop. Having stupidly launched a ground invasion of the Bug homeworld earlier in the movie and been butchered for their pains, the humans have finally relearned that it would be rather nice to have air support.
Wooooooohoooooo! Yeah, baby! Nuke ’em and kill ’em and leave ’em all dead! That is, more or less, the layman’s sentiment when it comes to bombing some enemy too poor or too dumb to have decent anti-aircraft.
Alas, no state has ever crumbled from the might of a bomber
There’s a raw power in being able to drop a bomb on an enemy from way, way up high. Our collective imagery of carpet bombing is pretty much what’s seen above. We assume, and it’s rather rational on the face of it, that because there are Big Booms, it stands to reason that there is Much Death, followed by Such Collapse.
But such thinking fails to take it account what makes a state, and how rarely air campaigns have ever broken them.
Geopolitics vs. tactics – geopolitics is a glacier and tactics are using a stick of dynamite
Geopolitics is more a description of conditions – how big a place is, how many people it has, etc. Tactics are the little bits by which a war in won – how a group of soldiers behave on the battlefield, and the way they use their weapons.
The bombing scene above shows a tactical victory – a large horde of bugs was wiped out with no losses to the humans. The following scene shows that tactic’s shortcomings when the Bugs start coming up out the ground and setting people on fire.
There was a very simple problem with the bombing run: Bugs could, and did, hide underground, and were safe from attack.
And what happened in Starship Troopers is not all that far off from what’s happening with the Islamic State.
To the mother of all air battles! The Battle of Britain, and why if even had Hitler won, it still wouldn’t have broken Britain
The summer 1940 air battle over Britain is often seen as a turning point in World War II. The UK eventually won the fight, but even if it hadn’t, that would not necessarily have been fatal. The air campaign was launched by Hitler for the same reason politicians the world over have used air power – to get a big thing on the cheap. The big thing was either a surrender or an armistice from Britain. It was on the cheap since he didn’t have to mobilize a massive seaborne invasion to get it.
Alas, geopolitics did not favor such a thing coming about. Great Britain’s ability to be a great power has always hinged on its isolation; it doesn’t have to have a large army because it’s an island. While Hitler was able to use his air force to pummel other land-based countries while his ground forces swarmed over their defenses, he could not do so with Britain. Instead, he hoped that sheer terror would break the British. He was wrong; his air campaign could not kill enough British to get the level of terror needed.
Later in the war, the Allies tried to do the same to Germany. While they rained death on cities like Dresden, Germany’s war production actually went up. Like Britain under the onslaught, no bombing campaign ever did break Nazi Germany.
Go on to every other major conflict, and air power is used to supplement armies rather than replace them
In Korea, the Americans hoped to bomb the Communists into submission, but failed; only the U.S. army kept Seoul from falling back into their hands. In Vietnam, Operation Rolling Thunder was supposed to break North Vietnam’s will to fight, but whoops, nobody told them bombing the jungle wouldn’t win a war! During the Iran-Iraq War, the War of the Cities was meant – by both sides – to just scare one another’s citizens shitless so they’d stop running off to die needlessly at the front. And, once more, it didn’t work.
One of the most dramatic uses of air power was in 1991 in Iraq. There the coalition pounded the Iraqi army and state with all the awesome might that made for great news broadcasts. But Saddam did not withdraw from Kuwait, even under that onslaught. Only with the ground invasion did the geopolitical situation truly change.
You can bomb a house, but it still ain’t yours ’till you step on it
In all of these above cases, the geopolitical reality was only a bit affected by an air campaign. A bomber can wipe out a factory, an oil rig, a tank line, etc., but it has yet to destroy a state. That’s because a state is, by its very nature, able to replace its lost bits almost as soon as they’re gone. Kill a bunch of soldiers, and new conscripts are pulled from some village; blow up a factory, and the state learns to bury equipment underground.
More than that, the logistics of an air campaign are different from a ground war. Soldiers on the ground are there 24/7. They enter a village and don’t leave it. But an air attack occurs sporadically; even the most dedicated air campaigns can’t keep up a 24/7 schedule for long.
So air forces can make big boom booms and kill loads of Bugs, but they must eventually return home to refuel and rearm. During that time, enemy forces can – and do – regroup, rebuild, and find a way to avoid being bombed the same way again.
Often, politicians hope beyond hope that with enough bombs from the sky, they’ll force a population to overthrow a state
That was the strategy behind the long air campaign against Saddam in the 90s. It didn’t work. During a bombing, people are so scared they’re running around trying to keep from dying and have no time to organize a revolution. After a bombing, the people in the strongest position to rebuild and reorganize are those in the state itself, not the would-be revolutionaries who are supposed to blame the state for bringing about the bombing campaign to begin with.
Which is why the air campaign against the Islamic State won’t work, and why, to defeat it, someone will have to send in an army
Kobane in Syria was saved partially because the air campaign launched by the allies helped kill enough Islamic State fighters to tip the balance in favor of the city’s defenders. But it could never have been saved by air power alone. Air power supplemented the sway in favor of the Kurds, but without Kurdish fighters there in Kobane the city would have long been lost.
Within Iraq, there’s still something like an army that takes orders from Baghdad. With time and training, it may be able to push the Islamic State back to the Syrian borders. This is the army the West is pinning its hopes to, but its record is not impressive.
Even should Iraq get sorted, there still lies the problem of Syria. There, no one faction is strong enough to conquer the Islamic State. To defeat the Islamic State, someone must invade.
Who that will be remains to be seen, but no one should kid themselves that this war won’t escalate
Because the Islamic State threatens the world’s oil supplies, because it refuses to accept the international order as constructed by the West, and because it could potentially try to cause chaos further afield with terror attacks, ignoring the Islamic State is not an option. The problem remains political; the citizens of the coalition must be shown that air power alone won’t work, and that settling Syria’s civil war is imperative for a permanent victory. That will take time and repeated demonstrations. Creating the tipping point for public opinion to support some kind of invasion, whether that’s by Turkey, Jordan, the Arab League, the United States and its NATO allies, or some kind of combination will require story after story about how the Islamic State is not weakening in the face of air power.
That’s very likely to happen; even if they are defeated in Iraq (and that remains a big if), the Islamic State will still have a base in Syria. The road to Damascus is the road to peace, but it will be a long time before we can all agree on that.