A C-17 Globemaster III at Baghram Air Base gets loaded for a Joint Precision Airdrop Delivery System of 40 bundles of humanitarian supplies to a drop zone in Afghanistan, on Jan., 14, 2008.
"Enhancing Full-Spectrum Flexibility: Striking the Balance to Maximize Force Effectiveness in Conventional and Counterinsurgency Operations"
Author: William D. Anderson, Jr., Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, 2008-2009
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
With the United States currently engaged in difficult and taxing counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, renewed emphasis has been focused upon the country's capabilities and priorities vis-à-vis this type of warfare. Within the military, the Air Force has been especially and increasingly criticized for being too enamored with a Cold-War era conventionally minded force structure and for not shifting aggressively to meet the threats of COIN-style conflicts that many predict will be pervasive throughout the Global War on Terror.
This paper addresses the conceptual capabilities and limitations of air power in COIN in order to illuminate how the Air Force can leverage the distinct asymmetric advantage that air power presents across the spectrum of conflict. This asymmetry is founded upon a clear U.S. superiority in air power capabilities combined with the unique flexibility inherent in air power. An understanding of air power's efficacy in COIN, measured against conventional requirements and capabilities, will inform decisions on appropriate force structure and employment.
Conceptualizing the generic strategic mindset of insurgent ‘doctrine' is indispensable before a relevant discussion of the effectiveness and limitations of air power can be undertaken. Chapter 1 offers a brief examination of the nature of insurgencies so that the reader can understand the framework and broad assumptions from which the discussion will proceed. If COIN operations come to represent the greatest challenge to U.S. interests in the future, as many suggest they will, changes in Air Force programs and structure must also be predicated on whether or not air power by its nature can be fashioned into an appropriate response. Chapter 2 seeks to understand the conceptual limitations and capabilities of air power in COIN operations in order to determine potential seams of using weapons developed for conventional contests in an irregular role. Chapter 3 examines the fundamental premise that COIN operations will be more frequent and critical than conventional operations, and introduces factors that may mitigate a repetition of current resource-intensive COIN operations. Chapter 4, the concluding chapter, presents broad recommendations regarding implications for force restructuring based on the findings of the previous chapters.
The basic conclusion reached is that weapon systems should continue to be developed largely based on the most critical perceived (generally conventional) requirements, but that the application of air power should be guided by officers with a much greater understanding of COIN as well as other military operations across the spectrum of conflict. This approach will ensure that the Air Force is best prepared for the most critical and existential threats, for which it is most uniquely decisive and relevant. Given the political nature of counterinsurgency, air power should be seen as a critical factor in military operations, but not in itself decisive in defeating an insurgency.
The final recommendations of Chapter 4 are 1) Understand and accept the relevance of air power in COIN and conventional warfare, 2) Neither focus on nor neglect COIN-specific requirements in future development, 3) Better educate officers on the operational and strategic levels of warfare across the spectrum of conflict, and 4) Return to beginning with strategy and operational art to address military quandaries. Leveraging inherent flexibility and with only modest investments in COIN-specific capabilities, air power can be a more consistent and effective contributor to COIN campaigns when directed by airmen who are educated and trained to employ it in a spectrum-appropriate manner.
The views expressed in this academic research study are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. government or the Department of Defense. In accordance with Air Force Instruction 51-303, it is not copyrighted, but is the property of the United States government.
Statements and views expressed in this memo also do not imply endorsement by Harvard University, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
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