Airpower and Our Power

When the war began in early October, no one knew how long
and difficult it would be, and many pointed to the Russians' failed invasion of
Afghanistan as a warning that the enterprise could prove to be a disaster. Two
months later, as I write, the Taliban regime is in its final death throes in
Kandahar, and the war itself--or, at least, the Afghan phase of it--may nearly be
over. Although the curtain has not yet come down, it doesn't seem too early to
explore why the war has progressed so fast and what it means for us and the
world.

Contrary to cautionary opinions in the early fall, it's now evident that
the Taliban were in much worse shape politically and the United States in much
better shape militarily than was generally supposed. War often clarifies the true
condition of a regime. Before the fighting began, some observers did argue that
the Taliban government had little popular legitimacy after years of oppressive
rule and, therefore, that the American campaign would not meet the opposition the
Soviets faced. The crumbling of Taliban support has now amply confirmed this
view. It took only the Northern Alliance's victory in Mazar-i-Sharif to set off a
popular explosion that within a few days brought down the Taliban in 90 percent
of the country.

But it is the other side of the story, the increase in American military
effectiveness, that may hold the most important political implications. The
Taliban may have thought that they were about to fight the last war--their war
against the Soviets--but American military capabilities have advanced far beyond
what Russia or even the United States could deploy a decade ago. Writing about
the "new American way of war" in The Washington Post, Thomas E. Ricks
recently pointed out that the past decade has seen a dramatic increase in the
military's ability to hit long-range targets with "unprecedented precision ...
relying as never before on gigabytes of targeting information gathered on the
ground, in the air, and from space."

The Gulf War gave the world a preview of this form of warfare. But while
precision-guided bombs received enormous publicity during that conflict, they
represented only 10 percent of the total dropped. The cost at that time ran about
$1 million per cruise missile, and incompatible information systems and other
problems prevented the military from getting the full benefit of new technology.

The systems that were then in early development have now matured. In
Afghanistan, 90 percent of the bombs are precision-guided; the "cost of
precision" has fallen to $18,000 per bomb; and electronic coordination has
greatly improved. Pilotless planes ("drones") can now monitor the enemy and
deliver bombs without exposing Americans to enemy fire. The result is a
significant increase in airpower that, as Ricks suggests, may transform not only
how America fights its wars but also how it thinks about them.

And there's the dicey part of the change: Will the triumph of American
war-fighting technology make war so easy for us that military force seems more
attractive than the messy and uncertain tasks of diplomacy?

Make no mistake about it: We are better off with smart bombs than
with dumb ones. It is a good thing that increased airpower is bringing the war to
a rapid conclusion, thus far with relatively little loss of life to our soldiers.

Although a single civilian death is too many, it is also a good thing if
better targeting of weapons reduces the number of civilian deaths and injuries.
(Perhaps after the war, we will learn whether this is actually what happened.)

And it is a good thing, too, if pinpoint bombing deters rogue governments that
may now decide the risks to their own survival are too great to provide refuge
for anti-American terrorists.

The danger lies ahead, and it lies within us. An easy victory in Afghanistan
could mislead us about the prospects in Iraq. Perhaps Saddam Hussein's regime
would be no more capable than the Taliban of thwarting American airpower. But
since there is no opposition army in Iraq comparable to the Northern Alliance, we
would have to put a more substantial force on the ground and be prepared to take
more casualties. Moreover, major elements in the international antiterrorist
coalition would not go along with an extension of the conflict. We may not need
their military backing, but if the objective is rooting out terrorism, we surely
need the full support of their intelligence, police, and banking authorities.

Most important, we risk sacrificing the advantage of the world's sympathy and
cooperation that we have enjoyed since September 11. And in a war against
terrorism, while airpower is mighty, occupying the moral and political high
ground is mightier still.

One day the precision-guided weapons that we now monopolize will find their
way into enemy hands. The complex information systems required for the new
warfare may enable us to dominate it for a while. But the trend in technology
toward lower cost will inexorably put such weapons within reach of more
countries, perhaps even of terrorists. I wish I were more confident that the new
way of war offered us indefinite security, but more likely it has only bought us
time, if that. In the long run, we need international cooperation and the art of
diplomacy to live in a world that still harbors people we don't like and who
don't like us.

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