Defeating an Insurgency by Air

tags: ISIS, ISIL

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience. He is the author of "America's Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam."

In the past couple of party nomination debates of 2015, the subject of bombing ISIL has come up several times. It seems that the candidates are determined to outdo each other in tonnage dropped and destruction wrought. I am not aware of any systematic analysis of the effects of airpower on an insurgency (which in itself is a significant observation). My gut reaction is that air power is just part of the equation.

The airplane was first invented in 1903. They were first used in war in 1911 and starting in 1915, the airplane went through an incredible development as a weapon of war. World War I (1914-1918) established the airplane as a weapon in war and World War II (1939-1945) showed just how much death and destruction it could produce.

The airplane was first extensively used as a counterinsurgent tool by the United States in Nicaragua in 1927-1933, where it played a major role. Using de Havilland DH-4 biplanes, they provided reconnaissance against the insurgency led by Augusto Sandino and provided air support for the U.S. Marines. Augusto Sandino actually declared war against the United States in June 1927, an early case of an individual or head of a revolutionary movement declaring war on a country. Sandino served as the inspiration for the Sandinistas of the 1970s and 1980s, a Nicaraguan insurgency movement that is still a major political party in Nicaragua. At the Battle of Ocotal on 16 July 1927, the Sandinistas suffered over 150 people killed and wounded. This fight included five DH-4s armed with machineguns and four 25-pound bombs conducting dive bombing attacks in support of ground troops. As a result of this slaughter from the air and ground, the Sandinistas never did massed attacks again.

Since that time, there have certainly been well over 100 insurgencies that involved air power (we have not put together a master list). I am struggling to try to think of a single insurgency that was defeated by airpower, primarily defeated by airpower, or even seriously undermined by airpower.

Two cases do come to mind. First is Vietnam, which has the distinction of being the perhaps the bloodiest guerilla war ever. It also has the distinction of being the counterinsurgency effort that used the most airpower and dropped the most bombs. Certainly airpower played a major part in the war, with the helicopter almost becoming the symbol for the war (like in the opening scene of the movie Apocalypse Now). Clearly airpower played a big part in halting the 1972 offensive by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC). Still, we all know the final results of the Vietnam War. It is certainly not a case of an insurgency being defeated by airpower.

The second case was the initial U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, where we provided airpower to an insurgency. I would have to think long and hard to find another case of an insurgency having any significant air power. In this case, we started bombing government targets in Afghanistan on 7 October 2001. This process continued for almost four weeks, resulting in the quote from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on 9 October 2001 “We’re not running out of targets, Afghanistan is!” We then switched our air support in early November to providing more direct support for the tens of thousands of allied insurgent forces in the north, with the Afghani Army collapsing quickly. On 14 November, the “Northern Alliance” marched into Kabul and by the middle of December they had effective control of the entire country. Although the Taliban dominated government had folded and the Taliban was on the run, they have since returned to carry on an insurgency in Afghanistan. Again, this is certainly not a case of an insurgency being defeated by airpower, as the airpower actually supported the insurgency. It also shows the limitation of a pure air campaign vice one in support of ground troops.

So, we are left to state that we cannot think of a single insurgency that was defeated by airpower, primarily defeated by airpower, or even seriously undermined by airpower. Perhaps there is a case we are missing. It is probably safe to say that if it has never successfully been done in over a hundred insurgencies over the last hundred years, then it is something not likely to occur now.

Read entire article at Mystics & Statistics (Dupuy Institute)

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