Can airpower win small wars? (Military Essay)

Can airpower win small wars? (Military Essay)


Can Airpower Win Small Wars?


Synopsis: From the advent of strategic bombing to using auxiliary airpower in operations other than war (OOTWs), the use of airpower in military operations has changed since the invention of heavier than air flight by the Wright brothers. Does airpower still remain primarily an instrument of conventional warfare? In this regard, is airpower sufficient or even necessary to win `small wars’, especially if the `hearts and minds’ are what matter in such irregular conflicts, and particular in an age where `victory’ seems increasingly difficult to define and achieve?

Word Count:

The original essay requires 3,000 words. We wrote a sample 1,600 words piece for this.

Writer’s Comment 

This military piece requires in-depth understanding of numerous terms such as ‘small wars’, ‘airpower’, ‘hearts and minds’ and even what it means to ‘win’. All these terms have to be sufficiently explained in the essay in order to score well. Less skilled writers may miss out on what it means to win in small wars.


The face of warfare has changed progressively along with technology through the years. Within the last century alone, warfare has undergone rapid transformations, encompassing land, sea, and, since the invention of the airplane, sky.  The use of air power in military operations heralded a new era in warfare, allowing armies to devise and implement novel strategies to gain advantage over adversaries. Air power is seen to be one of the most important weapons in an army’s arsenal, permitting greater flexibility and geographical reach (Thorn, 2007). However, some authors, such as historian Martin Van Creveld contend that air power has outlived its utility due to the ever-changing nature of warfare (Van Creveld, 2011). Recent conflicts, such as the 2006 Lebanon War, and the 2008 Gaza War seem to corroborate this statement, illustrating the insufficiency of air power in irregular wars. This essay seeks to examine the necessity and limitations of air power, and will discuss the effectivity of utilizing air power as an instrument of war, particularly in irregular conflicts where victory seems to be an elusive concept.

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The role of air power in military operations has grown exponentially since the invention of heavier than air flight by the Wright brothers. Air power began humbly with the hot air balloon, which provided military with greater ability to look out for and spot enemy artillery, but which also presented problems with control and direction. The invention of the airplane offered a solution to this drawback, and gave the added advantage of speed. Military forces subsequently developed this novel technology into military airpower, greatly influencing the outcome of future wars and conflicts.


The intelligent use of air power seems to be vital to a combatant’s survival and victory in warfare. Garden (2002) lists the advantages and necessity of air power in achieving victory: it permits extensive exploration and aerial reconnaissance, offers defense against enemy attacks, upsets the operations and supplies of the adversary, and serves as a way to eliminate enemy targets that prove challenging to ground forces. For instance, air power was a formidable weapon in World War Two. It was used not just as a means for defense, but also as an offensive strategy, as demonstrated by Japan’s tactical surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.  Moreover, strategic bombing – the targeting of vital ground infrastructure such as radar stations and command centers through airborne bombing – exacerbated the adversary’s loss and disrupted enemy supply lines, dramatically turning the tide of war.


However, while air power has been established to play a vital role in a nation’s and combatant’s offense and defense, it is not without its limits. The recent 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon clearly illustrates the limits of air power, particularly in the field of “small wars”, or irregular conflict. Irregular conflict, which comprises 90% of all current and recent warfare, refers to non-conventional conflict waged between two disproportionately empowered adversaries, a regular and an irregular force (Kemsley, 2007). In this instance, the 34-day Israel-Lebanon war was fought between the Israeli Defense Force, a regular force, and Hezbollah, a Lebanese terrorist organization. Israel – a nation-state out powering Hezbollah particularly in terms of air assets – launched a war on Hezbollah, depending heavily and almost solely on air power and strategic bombing (Yung Peng & Lim, 2011). Despite its heavy and consistent use of air power, Israel had difficulty restraining the onslaught of Hezbollah, and was unable to disarm the organization.


This highlights the seeming inadequacy of using air power alone as the primary instrument of conventional warfare. In its reliance on air power, Israel, in the 2006 war, failed to integrate the strong use of ground forces, thereby undermining and weakening the extent of their air strikes. Moreover, Hezbollah mounted an impressive ground guerrilla-type warfare, which further weakened the strategy of Israel to rely on air power. Israel thereby demonstrated that the use of air power in irregular conflict, solely and without supporting ground and naval forces, is insufficient in achieving a convincing and decisive victory (Yung Peng & Lim, 2011). On the other hand, during the 2008 Gaza War, Israel effectively integrated land and air forces, winning itself operational victory; this further supports the view that air power alone as an instrument of warfare is insufficient.


Some critics say that air power is not merely insufficient in irregular conflict, but it is unnecessary. Yung Peng and Lim (2011) describe heavy consequences for the use of air power, such as an extensive amount of collateral damage. Air power in irregular conflict, often waged in a densely urban area, causes widespread destruction and suffering even with the use of precision munitions. Israel came under intense scrutiny, and suffered global backlash and criticism for their air strikes. Air power critics opined that massive ground war could have allowed Israel to reach the objective of war more successfully, while producing a cleaner, less destructive outcome with less civilian casualties (Arkins, 2007). The failure of Israel to win the war against Hezbollah weakened their legitimacy in conducting their wartime operations and appears to support and vindicate the anti-air power view (Yung Peng & Lim, 2011).


Air warfare seems to suggest heartlessness in an age where battle is waged not merely physically, but also in the hearts and minds of people watching the battle around the world. In today’s world, any act of war, no matter how small, distant, or significant can be and is covered and transmitted around the world. In effect, for any given contemporary conflict, two battles are waged simultaneously. The first is a physical battle with gunfire, mortar, and missile; the second is a battle of narratives, where public perception can be won by convincing and compelling the audience to believe in the benevolence, transparency, honesty, and competence of a combatant (Kemsley, 2007). Regular and irregular opponents engaging in contemporary irregular warfare must strategize not only to win the physical battlefield but also to win the battle of narratives. Winning the latter legitimizes a combatant’s operations, helps establish campaign authority and supports and furthers a combatant’s political objectives, which is the underlying reason for war in the first place.


The use of air power and the resulting casualties from air operations and air strikes may do little to defend a combatant in the public eye. On one hand, air power might help a military force gain more ground through the use of strategic bombing and air strikes. On the other hand, the use of the same, resulting in extensive civilian casualties, might be poorly justified in the public eye, disproving an army’s benevolence and losing public trust. A combatant may win the physical battle while losing the battle of narratives. Israel’s massive air power war against Hezbollah is an example of this: Israel mounted air strikes that were militarily valid, but resulted in high collateral damage in Lebanon, solidifying the victim status of Hezbollah (Kemsley, 2007). This intensified public sympathy for the terrorist group and lost Israel its campaign authority, painting it as a tyrant, and undermining its political objectives. In this instance, Israel won tactical victory, but lost strategic victory, and the 2006 Israel war against Hezbollah was deemed a failed one. Victory, in this light, seems a more elusive concept than ever.


In an irregular conflict, air power minimizes the risk to a military’s own forces, but high collateral damage to the opponent loses it the battle of public perception. The same effect between Israel and Hezbollah can be seen in the small war between the United States of America and Vietnam, where the latter nation mounted massive air strikes against the smaller nation. Again, although the United States of America was able to achieve tactical superiority, it was unable to achieve strategic victory, and in the end, the U.S.A withdrew its military from Vietnam (Garden, 2002). The humanitarian aspect in a modern war is clearly one that cannot be ignored or isolated. Therefore, military forces in today’s age must be seen as acting with restraint and precision in order to win the war on public perception.


It can be seen from the above essay that air power alone is insufficient in winning small wars. Although air power offers great advantages in terms of speed, flexibility, offense, and defense, military air power has its limits. The effective use of air power needs to be supported and furthered by a strong and integrated ground and naval force, as evidenced by the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah and 2008 Gaza War. Furthermore, the conflicts in Israel and Vietnam highlight the problematic use of air power in irregular conflict, resulting in widespread devastation in urban areas and extensive collateral damage. The strategic use, then, of air power in irregular conflict is imperative: precision, restraint, and minimal collateral damage results in legitimacy and greater public trust. This achieves for a military force not only tactical victory, but also strategic victory, which is of equal importance in modern warfare. Air power is vital in warfare, but it may be beneficial for nations and military engaged in future conflict to carefully consider the nature of modern warfare and strategize how air power fits into this narrative.

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