How Effective is Air Power in Urban Combat?

August 4, 1998

Comment: #162

Discussion Thread:  #161

In #161, a very experienced fighter pilot, with two tours in Bosnia, took exception to General Wald's claim that air power with precision guided weapons was an effective weapon to employ in urban warfare. The fighter pilot said, " Most pilot reports I've seen CONTRADICT this assessment.  He [Wald] also apparently failed to report that most "precision weapons" are highly sensitive to cloudy weather and terrain (of which there is plenty in Bosnia).  Most pilots I served with do not share the general's opinion and could provide significant and credible evidence to the contrary."

The effectiveness of weapons designed for 3rd generation warfare [fast paced mobile warfare between conventionally equipped national armies] is an open question in the emerging environment of 4th generation warfare [irregular close-quarters combat in suburban/urban where friend, foe, and neutral are intermingled and fighting units may be among gangs or factions within a nation rather than between national armies]. The veterans of 4th generation combat in Mogadishu and Beirut I have questioned about this subject would agree wholeheartedly with fighter pilot's assessment of air power in 4th generation scenarios.

A conservative, pro-military member of the congressional staff (House) also took exception to Wald's universal claims about the decisiveness of precision-guided weapons in the limited bombing operation in Bosnia.

Staffers reaction to Wald's claims in reference to #161: "What that A. F. general says about bombing Serbia is nonsense: it was Operation Storm, the blitzkrieg operation by the Croat Army (with a little help from mercenary retired U.S. officers from MPRI) that collapsed the Serb position in Kraiijna and forced them to come to terms. Also, Milosevic was prepared at that point to sell out the Bosnian Serb political leadership so as to consolidate his own position within Serbia proper. Three years later, he's still running the show. If we start believing the Air Force's fantasy about aerial urban warfare, we run a grave risk of conning ourselves into intervening in Kosovo. Then you'll hear even more whining from the same generals about how these contingencies are draining resources, etc., etc., please send more money."

Unrestricted claims about the revolutionary effectiveness so-called 'smart weapons' illustrate yet another reason why the Pentagon is not adapting to the end of the Cold War and why it has a high-cost modernization program that can not modernize the force and a rapidly deteriorating readiness posture. The military is trying to keep high-cost cold war programs and ideas alive by claiming the weapons and doctrines that were designed to defeat an armored attack by the Warsaw Pact will be just as effective in peacekeeping and the irregular combat of 4th generation warfare in the 21st century. Of course, there is a huge industrial base with a vested commercial interest in perpetuating the arms programs making up the military-industrial-congressional status quo.

On the other hand, our failures in Beirut and Mogadishu should serve as warning about the folly of business-as-usual in a changing world.

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