We made the mistake of watching some Aspen Institute foreign policy luminaries (including ex-secretaries Madeline Albright, Condoleeza Rice, and Bob Gates) and then parts of the Sunday talking head shows. We’ve also read the Post and the Times on the pinprick airstrikes in Iraq, stories that seem to agree that they were made for the domestic political effect. (“We didn’t want another Benghazi.”) In time-honored Harvard-Yale-Georgetown Masters of the Universe™ fashion, these war-experts-from-the-campus-quad either endorsed or criticized the Obama policy of tiny strikes, as a fancied means for bringing the parties to the negotiating table, that Happy Hunting Ground of all diplomats.
We’re here to pickle off some precision-guided practical truth on that.
Here’s what bombs from the air can do:
- Kill people.
- Blow things up.
That’s about it. And to achieve that limited potential, they need to be dropped exactly on the people and things you intend to kill or blow up. Otherwise, they’re just wasteful fireworks, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Here’s some of what they can’t do:
- Kill specific people (unless there are friendly and reliable eyes on the ground).
- Send a message. No one ever successfully “sent a message” with bombing, unless the message was: “Bang. You’re dead.” You can send that message — if you have eyes on the ground targeting the bomb. Any other message you were trying to send is as likely to get across as the messages for the enemy that the ordies scrawl on the bombs. That is, not very.
- Weaken the resolve of those under the bombs. Yeah, that’s why England folded in 1940, Germany in 1944, the Norks in 1951, and the DRV in 1967. Oh, wait… looks like bombing stiffens resolve, except for the people it physically makes stiffs out of. Seriously, if some foreign air force blew up your house and killed your family, would you (1) Japan is the exception, and they still had to be nuked twice after some fire-bombings that made the nukes look mild, on top of years of sub-blockade starvation.
- Take and hold ground.
Over and over again, the lesson has been, bombing without eyes-on recon, terminal guidance, and eyes-on post-mission BDA, is wasteful and ineffective. For example, in the 1999 bombing of Serbia, the US killed — over and over again — obsolete jets wheeled out of museums, and broken-down tanks hauled into bait positions. What was lacking? This:
If we don’t have terminal guidance teams on the ground in Iraq, these missions are being set up for failure. If we do have them, and only give them two or four carrier strike fighters a day on a one-pass-and-haul-ass limit, we’re not going to succeed. We get that the President does not want to encourage Maliki, whose sectarian score-settling is a big factor in the current collapse of his country’s defense establishment.
Then, there’s the question of what we’re risking.
ISIL (the enemy on the ground, even if Obama can’t bring himself to admit that the Kurds are friendlies) has modern AA weapons, and the F/A-18, the only arrow remaining in the Navy’s quiver, is no less vulnerable to AA gunfire and SAMs than its Vietnam and even Korean War counterparts. (It’s actually slower, on the deck with stores, than the Vietnam era F-105). So, if we keep exposing them we’re going to start losing them.
That means: remains of pilots, or live pilots, in ISIL hands, whether as hostages (given the big payoff the Taliban got for holding deserter Bowe Bergdahl, certainly a possibility) or as stars in a single episode of JihadTube each. Normally, SOF take responsibility for personnel recovery, but it’s very, very different to do without some kind of footprint on the ground, and it’s a rare PR that goes off without losing at least one helicopter, potentially compounding the problem.
Now, we have no doubt that the Navy and Marine strike pilots will fly whatever missions they get — that’s what they do. But sending them on symbolic, ineffective pinprick strikes, and exposing them to a high risk of capture, is not good policy. That it’s being done to “send a message” to Maliki (and that the message is the amorphous, “you need to form a unity government and be more diplomatic and inclusive”) is extremely troubling.
Bottom line: for bombing to be effective, we need CCTs, JTACs or equivalent on the ground calling the strikes. (True story: in the early part of the war — remember, the part we won? — nobody sweated who had and didn’t have credentials or ticket punches. When we got friendly fire, it came from an Air Force ETAC and Air Force aircraft commanders who had all the requisite qualifications. But now, you gotta have a ticket punch). For bombing to be effective, there needs to be enough of it to kill lots of the enemy and break all his favorite toys. For bombing to be effective, it needs to be targeted by junior officers and NCOs on the groundwho can lay the Mark I eyeball on the enemy and direct the money shot all the way down, not by some committee of drones who attended all the right schools and never felt the chafe of a uniform collar.
Ineffective bombing is worse than no bombing at all. And that’s what we’ve got, so far.