Thursday, December 08, 2011

My review of Martin Van Creveld's The Age of Airpower

At a time when India is on a major drive to develop one of the most powerful air forces by the year 2020, this study questions the utility and the logic of air power in modern warfare


WITHIN a matter of weeks India is expected to take a decision to buy 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). The original approval was for aircraft worth $8.52 billion, the current estimate, for the aircraft will be either the Eurofighter or the Rafale, could be twice that sum. And if the rupee behaves the way it does, the figure could be even higher.
 The MMRCA will be India’s frontline fighter only for two years and then it is expected to be supplanted by the Russian fifth-generation fighter, which, too, India plans to acquire in numbers. Whether or not the country can afford what will easily be one of the most powerful air forces in the world by 2020 is another matter.
 And if we go by what Martin Van Creveld, one of the world’s leading military historians, has to say, we may be simply throwing good money away. Air power, argues this original and authoritative study, has never lived up to the billing given to it by its proponents who have been carried away by the image of the men who fly the superb aerial fighting machines.
 Instead of being carried away with the technological wonder of aerial machines, Van Creveld has measured air power in terms of military effectiveness in relation to the other services, as well as where it eventually counts — against the enemy.

Ironically, the principal object of air power hubris is the United States, whose air force is by far the most powerful in the world. In 2002 it overwhelmed Iraq with the “shock and awe” of its air force. It did wipe out Saddam Hussein’s forces, but it unleashed another adversary — the guerrilla — who has never quite been vulnerable to air power.
The problem, as Van Creveld demonstrates in a survey that begins with Italians throwing hand grenades at Libyan guerrillas in 1911, and ends with the ongoing war in Afghanistan, is that air power either delivers too little, or too much.
It is too little when it fails to interdict the North Vietnamese supply lines to the South in the 1960s, or to check the Taliban with drones and round-the-clock surveillance in Afghanistan. And it is clearly too much when it wipes out entire cities, as in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in that fateful August of 1945.
His claim is not that airpower was never effective. But that in the historical perspective, it has already peaked in World War II, when, as he points out, “no large-scale military operation that did not enjoy adequate air cover stood any chance of success.” With the spread of nuclear weapons, the ultimate threat of total destruction that air power could bring, itself became absurd, because it created a situation where both the attacker and the attacked would be obliterated.
 The problem in fighting the wars of today is of a different kind. The rise of the global media has made strikes against cities and civilians a taboo. Despite the super-accuracy of UAV-borne missiles, there are civilian casualties.
 According to US figures, 2,157 Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders and cadre have been killed in drone strikes in the tribal regions of Pakistan, as against just 138 civilians since 2006. But as anyone familiar with the issue knows, the propaganda value that the Taliban have got from these “collateral” deaths has been enormous. The fact is that there is no such thing as a surgical strike, especially not in crowded Asian environments.
 The IAF may be still growing and buying top-of-the-line fighters as though the country’s treasury is bottomless, but other air forces are, as Van Creveld points out, in decline. Take America’s F-22, the world’s best fighter (though grounded at present because of an embarrassing little glitch). The original plan was for the US to acquire 750 aircraft, but the number was first lowered to 648 and then successively to 442, 339 and 277, till the previous US Secretary of Defence decided to terminate the programme at 187. The Eurofighter, too, is going that way, especially now that the European economies must retrench.
The issue is not that the aircrafts are not good — they are first-rate — but whether or not the expense involved in buying and maintaining them is commensurate with the kind of missions they will be involved in.
At the end of the day, there is a genuine need for leaders to balance their needs with their budgets, as well as stay focused on the outcomes. Armies, as Van Creveld points out, are still needed to conquer and pacify enemy territory, and navies remain the best means of carrying heavy loads across long distances and projecting power abroad.
Mail Today November 27, 2011

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