by Gerald J. Hickman, Col, USAF (Ret)

During the long struggle for control of Iraq, our most powerful combat arm is kept on the shelf. During a recent five-day period, considered typical by those who follow such things, the U.S. Air Force expended one guided bomb and one anti-personnel weapon.

During the same week, the Air Force flew some 30 to 50 “close air support” sorties daily. A sortie is one flight by one aircraft. The problem with these missions is that all too often they return to base without firing a shot.

Reporting on a recent Baghdad fight, one media account read “…insurgents began moving to the rooftops in order to shoot at the armored U.S. attack vehicles on the roads below. “To deal with the gunmen on the rooftops, rather than fighting for control of entire buildings, the Americans called in the Apaches and F-18s.

“The neighborhood is densely packed, making it difficult to strike targets from the air, and the fighter jets were used to make a ‘show of force’… in an attempt to frighten the gunmen from the rooftops.  “For more than an hour… the fighter jets could be seen sharply dropping below the cloud cover, swooping dramatically low over the neighborhood’s roofline and then pulling up steeply and zooming out of sight in the sky.

“Meanwhile the Apaches attacked the insurgents’ positions, unleashing a barrage of fire that rocked the neighborhood for hours.”  Rather than using airpower to destroy enemy positions, we have turned instead to light infantry. In doing so, our soldiers have been required to fight an enemy with roughly equal weaponry – while giving him the additional advantage of surprise.

Time and again we have seen news reports that show U.S. soldiers and marines attacking enemy positions. From the cover of homes, offices, and even mosques, enemy gunmen have killed and wounded Americans. While our men and women with handheld weapons cross open ground to force their way into enemy-held positions, U.S. airpower has for the most part remained on alert – often circling above the action below.

When Congress reviews the conduct of U.S. military operations in Iraq, it should ask why airpower hasn’t been used more? Is it to prevent civilian casualties? Is it to win the “hearts and minds” of a people already rife with dissidence? Whatever the reason, young Americans are paying for it with their lives. Someone, perhaps members of Congress, should ask if the governing doctrine is worth the cost.

By employing light infantry almost solely, we seem to have limited guerilla warfare to firefights with handheld weaponry. Even when helicopters are called in, they lack the knockout punch afforded by the Air Force. Instead of firing at individuals on rooftops, as the helicopters do, the Air Force could quickly destroy the building they occupy -and the insurgents with it.

As the long struggle in Iraq continues, a tough question should be asked: Are the lives of civilians -located in close proximity to enemy gunmen– more important than those of our own soldiers and marines?  Common sense dictates that greater use of airpower should be employed to destroy enemy-held positions and the fighters within them.

The destruction of al-Qaeda leader Zarqawi demonstrated the potential of airpower in guerilla warfare. It was an Air Force plane striking with guided weaponry that leveled Zarqawi’s hiding place -and him with it.  Departed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was the alpha and omega of Defense planning throughout his time in office. Apparently, he failed to appreciate the potential shown by al-Zarqawi’s elimination.

More troubling even than the apparent decision to sideline our most powerful weapons is other current Defense Department thinking about them.   Not only is the thought in some Defense circles that only massive numbers of light infantry units can effectively combat insurgencies -there is also the troubling idea that future wars will be confined to insurgencies alone.

Under such a scenario, our air superiority now and in the future would supposedly be of little value.  Although little noted by the American public, Rumsfeld presided over a literal dismantling of the U.S. Air Force -which some Defense officials reportedly claim has no enemy left to fight.

During his presidency, Calvin Coolidge showed equal myopia. Complaining of even miniscule military spending, Coolidge famously asked, “Why can’t we just buy one airplane and let the aviators take turns flying it?”   The failure of both Coolidge and Rumsfeld to recognize that times change would be humorous, if not so dangerous. Only enormous exertion and incredible outlays of funds produced the aircraft that made victory possible in World War II.

Great as they were, the aircraft of that conflict were low-tech. Because of that, it was possible to generate a large air fleet in a relatively short time.  Today, airmen face different problems. Surface-to-air missiles and other defensive systems would make short work of WWII aircraft.

Fortunately, the U.S. Air Force has been able to outpace defenses, but the development of the high technology required takes years of intensive research and development. No longer can we as a nation turn to Rosie the Riveter to crank out useful warplanes by the thousands.

To meet the threat of now unknown future enemies, the Air Force of necessity must constantly prepare. The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) seeks to do just that — to look 20 to 30 years ahead.   Reasonably, the QDR is subject to change -but some changes are simply unreasonable. A recent decision by Rumsfeld to reduce spending by the Air Force by yet another $120 billion was not reasonable.

The decision is based on twin notions, both wrong. First, the claim that the Air Force no longer has an enemy to fight assumes no emergence of one in future warfare. Coolidge’s naiveté proved the fallacy of such thinking. Secondly, the idea that only light infantry is appropriate for battling insurgency is demonstrably shortsighted -as shown by the removal of al-Zarqawi. 

Perhaps with the departure of Rumsfeld, the Pentagon ship will right itself. More likely, it will take a determined Congress to make that happen. Already we hear some officials calling for massive increases in light infantry. Payment for the additional ground force would come from further cuts in airpower funding.  In considering the matter, Congress should keep in mind that airpower is by far our most powerful weapon. Failure to use it in Iraq does not change the fact.

Airpower provides cover for surface forces, enabling both land and sea elements to operate without fear of aerial assault. Beginning in World War II, our land forces have been able to concentrate on enemy positions without also having to defend against air attack. Meanwhile, our enemies have faced a two-dimensional threat.

Among other targets, Air Force guided weaponry not only can take out buildings and bridges, but also command and control centers, ships, landing craft, radar and missile sites. Gunships firing thousands of rounds of cannon fire per minute can blunt a massed assault within moments, cut communications lines, assure the destruction of ground forces, and carry out many other missions.

Bombers can demoralize and destroy an enemy army before land battle begins -witness the two wars in Iraq, and the one in Afghanistan. Nor should we forget that it was airpower alone that won the war in Bosnia -and quickened the surrender of Japan.  Even though Billy Mitchell long ago demonstrated that a bomber could sink a battleship, doubters of airpower have constantly challenged its worth. Such challenges seem now to be on the ascendancy.

Most of today’s Air Force aircraft are aging. The F-15, a superb example of previous- generation technology, has never been defeated in aerial combat. Yet the latest Air Force fighter, the F-22 has outdone the F-15 in every mock battle to date. Regrettably, orders for all but a handful of the new fighters have been cancelled.

The F-35, an even later fighter, has literally been shelved. Some R&D continues, and a few prototypes have been ordered.  To pay for the few advanced aircraft and other weapons systems that our nation needs, the Air Force has had to reduce force. The $120 billion dollar cut in its budget meant the immediate release of another 40,000 people. Combined with the thousands released over the past few years, the Air Force has been cut too deeply.

If the budget-induced cuts weren’t already too deep, Rumsfeld required the Air Force to provide thousands of airmen to serve with the Army as light infantry in Iraq. Every dollar for their equipment, training, and six-month rotation is paid from the already-depleted Air Force budget.

When the U.S. Navy won its glorious victory in the Battle of Midway, the turning point of WWII in the Pacific, its pilots sank Japan’s aircraft carriers. Japanese troop ships carrying an overwhelming force were still waiting to hit the beaches when the carrier battle ended.

Wisely, the Japanese admiral commanding decided to withdraw. “To attempt to land our forces without air cover would have been suicide,” he said.  As a nation, we must not countenance fallacious thinking about the use of airpower in present and future wars. We must not allow further dismantling of American airpower -the most powerful weapon in our arsenal.

Editor’s Note: Colonel Hickman is Vice President/Congressional Relations of the San Jacinto Chapter of the Air Force Association. The chapter has 1,100 members in the Houston area. Colonel Hickman, who logged some 6,500 flying hours during his Air Force career, including those flown during the Vietnam War, is also a contributing editor to

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