IN the wake of the Mumbai attacks, there was a lot of comment on the possibility of an Indian air strike on Pakistan.
Such surgical strikes, it was said, would ensure that the terrorists receive condign punishment, and would, at the same time, avoid collateral casualties of civilians and non- combatants. This would also ensure that Pakistan did not have any cause to escalate the situation to an all- out war.
Proponents of air power, and there is no dearth of them around the world, would do well to dwell on what it has done in Gaza in the space of 21 days.
According to the BBC, some 4,000 homes were destroyed, 20,000 damaged, 1,300 Palestinians killed, mainly non- combatants, 5,000 injured and 50,000 rendered homeless. Some of this damage was done by Israeli tanks and artillery, but a great deal of it was done by the surgical strikes of the Israeli Air Force.
Now cut to India and Pakistan. On December 24, the Chief of the Western Air Command, Air Marshal P. K. Barbora, revealed that his command, which would be the principal instrument of such a strike, had some 5,000 identified targets across the border.
He was presumably talking of an all out war, which in the India- Pakistan context could be a three- week affair and not merely a punitive strike on terrorist camps. No doubt the targets would be bridges, military staging points, railroad junctions and the like. But you can be sure that such an attack would probably land up extracting a far greater toll of civilian casualties than anticipated.
In crowded South Asia, bridges and rail junctions are almost always surrounded by clusters of shops and shanties, munitions have a way of going astray, coordinates can be wrongly entered into guidance kits of GPS bombs, a facility identified as a military target may be an innocent vocational training school — there are scores of reasons why pin- pointed strikes go astray.
There are more controversial reasons for collateral damage. In today's asymmetrical conflict, militant groups do not hesitate to use civilian shields to mask their activities. There may be an anti- aircraft cannon hidden in a mosque, a rocket- launching facility in a school and so on.
Proponents of air power have, since the very beginning, claimed that it is the most efficacious method of war and that it is capable of quickly breaking the will of a determined enemy. Aerial bombardment strengthened the will of the British and did not seriously dent the German war industry till 1945. However, it was responsible for some serious war crimes such as the deliberate fire- bombing of Dresden and Tokyo, and, of course, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There was no pretence there that the target was not any specific military facility but the entire population.
Advances in technology — laser and TV guided bombs — during the Vietnam war brought forth the contemporary wave of surgical strike enthusiasts. Following Vietnam, the US developed an aversion to taking casualties that would show up on TV screens at home. The idea of launching retribution at enemies from 30,000 ft was attractive doctrinally as well as politically.
The first Gulf war brought this technology to its peak. The US war was essentially an aerial war of more than a month, followed by a limited land campaign. The US had the skies free to itself and used it to decimate the Iraqi army spread out in the desert and prevent it from carrying out any effective counter- attack.
But the US also attacked Iraqi civilian infrastructure, devastating the power, water and sewerage systems, as well as railroad, telecom and port facilities. Nearly 3,000 Iraqi civilians were killed. The most devastating incident occurred when two laserguided bombs destroyed the Amiriyah bunker killing hundreds of civilians. The US claimed that this was also a military centre, but the claim has not been verified to date.
The devastation visited on Iraq thereafter persuaded armies such as those of Serbia, and non- state actors like the Hezbollah and Hamas to alter their tactics. They were better dispersed and, in the case of the latter, they learnt to develop underground facilities, co- located in civilian areas.
The second Gulf war brought out the even greater effectiveness of air power. Iraqi armies were devastated well before they could reach forming up areas for military activities. Iraqi divisions simply came apart under the weight of the aerial assault; of the 3,000 pieces of artillery, Iraq had just 15 standing at the end of the war.
In 2001, the Taliban, too, took US airpower into account and withdrew into strongholds rather than offer long supply lines to be bombed. Yet, with the US air dominance, the Taliban were compelled to flee their camps and see their conventional army destroyed. The Northern Alliance- led ground offensive completed their rout.
Surgical strikes looked clinical and clean from 30,000 ft altitude and neither the nations, nor the pilots connected themselves to the death and destruction below. You could be forgiven if, at this point, you would have declared hosanna— the era of surgical strikes and no- casualty war had arrived. But the high- tech dependent western armies were about to learn their lesson.
The first came when, in the mid- 2006, Israel launched an aerial blitz on Lebanon. Large areas of the country and its capital were devastated, but even the Israelis acknowledged that they had not dented the Hezbollah war- fighting abilities after 34 days of pounding.
Indeed, many see the recent Gaza attack as an attempt by Israel to show that it remains the pre- eminent military force in the region, one that will not hesitate to use war as an instrument of policy.
The second lesson came from Afghanistan itself. Though the US was totally dominant in the air, it lacked boots on ground. Large swathes of the country were left for the Taliban to reconstitute itself.
With its leadership based in sanctuaries in Pakistan, the Taliban was able to re- establish itself and has since been able to expand its sway.
The US has brought in further refinements in its use of air power.
Predator Drones, equipped with airto- ground missiles, have routinely struck targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Because of the stealth of the UAV and the supersonic speed of the missile, attacks are sudden.
The light warhead minimises collateral damage.
However, some strikes have been controversial. In the Damadola attack in January 2006, aimed at Ayman Al Zawahiri, eight men, five women and five children were reportedly killed while the Al Qaeda Number 2 got away. The killings sparked huge demonstrations in Pakistan.
Collateral casualties of air strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan have become a routine affair. President Hamid Karzai has on several occasions pulled up the US and NATO forces for “ carelessness” in their strikes leading to civilian deaths.
Today, if we live in the era of laser and GPS guided bombs, we are also in an increasingly networked world where pictures and accounts of civilian deaths quickly make their way around the world.
Wars, as the Americans learnt in Vietnam, and as the Israelis are learning in Gaza, are often won and lost at the bar of public opinion. One picture of a mother crying over a dead child is enough to shift the tide of opinion and make even the most defensive of operations seem to be barbarically aggressive.
This was published in Mail Today January 22, 2009