Death from Above

At a recent conference in Beit Hatotchan on urban warfare, Major General Sami Turgeman of the Israeli 36th Armored Division announced findings from Operation Cast Lead in 2008.-9 One of them struck me as rather surprising, considering other counterinsurgency/military operations – that “the Air Force is more accurate in urban warfare.”

Now granted, that is in comparison with Israeli armor, but nevertheless it rings a bit hollow. Even with air strikes in at historical highs in October, it was deemed necessary to deploy tanks to southwest Afghanistan. Tankers were naturally thrilled, and one wrote of the new firepower available to bring to bear:

Currently, most American military vehicles are equipped with remote optics systems,  which are useful for urban fire fights at short ranges but do not offer the depth necessary to fight effectively in southwestern Afghanistan. However, tanks offer optics systems that dwarf the traditional capabilities of an infantry carrier…and, oh yeah, these days each tank can acquire targets clearly in excess of four times as far.

So perhaps it’s not a zero-sum case of tanks or planes, but rather using both in areas of relative superiority. Still, returning to the IAF, Gen. Turgeman “explained that the solution for urban warfare is stronger cooperation between air and ground forces.”

There are an unbelievable number of problems facing aviation as used in urban warfare, be it counterinsurgency or conventional operations. Israel has begun to slightly shift the focus of even their conventional ops to a more population-centric (read: media-friendly) approach, but more air power is absolutely not the way to go about it. Even discriminate aerial bombing and air strikes pose a great risk of collateral damage, and most definitely does not look good on camera.

This is, of course, what I wrote my dissertation about, albeit in the case of Aden (I’ve been holding off on reprinting the whole article here while I try to get it published). But here’s a relevant passage:

While the RAF enjoyed great success up-country in the Aden Protectorate, both independent and in support of ground operations by both the FRA and the British Army, that success was useless when compared with the insurgency’s shift to urban centers, and when the political situation of Aden is taken into account. Both in terms of the use of airpower and the overall relevance of it, politics are hugely important. The potential fallout from misapplied air strikes and civilian casualties was and remains immense, as Britain learned to its detriment. Furthermore, even if airpower is used responsibly and with minimal collateral damage – such as during the Harib raid – interpretation is everything, and when Yemen claimed 25 civilian casualties resulting from the raid, Britain could neither prove nor disprove the figure, despite the near-certainty of its untruth. Obviously, the use of airpower both before and during the insurgency had to rely on precise targeting and weapons systems to avoid further alienating the local population and inflaming world opinion, but regardless of the truth, it was all too often that Britain found its reputation in tatters due to an air attack of any kind.

So while the Israeli Air Force may indeed have improved its relative accuracy, it ultimately doesn’t matter. Air power, however skillfully employed, does not win hearts and minds.