Obama – America’s First Air Power President

Even the strongest proponents for the uses of air power rarely claim that action in the third dimension can win a war by itself.  This is ironic, considering that the earliest air power theorists had nowhere near the technology or capabilities that todays air forces have, and yet they believed an air force could finish a war before the army was even mobilized.  Guilio Douhet felt that the bomber and the nation-state had made ground forces irrelevant. If you break the nations will through mass terror-bombing, you can force an enemy to capitulate, easy as that. However, the limited effectiveness of the strategic bombing campaigns of World War Two proved these theories wrong.

Along the way, while presidents used air power, none relied exclusively upon it.  North Korean aggression was met with troops, the same in Vietnam.  The Cuban Missile Crisis contained a contingency plan for both a bombing campaign, and a land invasion, but it was sea power that performed the relevant military maneuvers.   Reagan intervened with air power in Libya, but also ordered invasions and Grenada and Panama with boots on the ground.

The post-Cold War era saw troops deployed to stop Suddam Hussein Bill Clinton may have ordered a pro-longed bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia in 1999, and short ones in Iraq, Sudan, and Afghanistan, but in the former it has been argued that it was the threat of ground invasion that led to the end of the conflict, and the latter three were meant to be punitive, not as a strategy for future operations.

President George W. Bush, meanwhile, responded to the 9/11 attacks with not just punitive invasions but occupations and a desire to remake the Middle East into a democratic haven.  This was impossible without boots on the ground, and the importance of air power was at a low ebb.

But, President Obama has brought in a new renaissance of air power.  While it is hard to believe that Obama has poured over the works of Robert Pape, Colin Gray, Gulio Douhet or John Warden, and developed through these the Obama Doctrine, he has been the first president to rely almost exclusively on air power to obtain American goals.  President Obama famously ramped up the drone campaign against al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen.  This allowed him to continually attack terrorist leaders while remaining to be seen as the president who did not commit any more American troops.  Libya was a campaign performed exclusively through air power, and again we see in Iraq a refusal to send troops to stop ISIS. The Kurds – supplied through American airlift capabilities – are the primary kinetic means Obama is utilizing to fight ISIS. 

One of the few ways that America is reassuring its Eastern European NATO allies against Russian incursions, is through increased air patrols over the Baltic states with American fighters, and AWACS and JSTARS overflights constantly monitoring the Ukrainian situation.  It can even be argued that Obama’s lasting legacy, the SEAL raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, was an operation with air power at its heart: without the air capability to get a SEAL team in and out of Jalalabad, it is extremely unlikely the raid would have taken place.

Clearly Obama is taking this route because of his desire to not get American troops involved in another war, especially in the Middle East.  Air power allows him to intervene while keeping American casualties to a minimum.  It also allows him to sell his interventions as humanitarian, as Libya and Iraq show.  The United States will strike quickly if there is the potential for a humanitarian crisis (with, of course, the major exception of Syria).  In policing the world through air power, Obama has created a policy that is largely popular at home with the electorate.

However, though hard for an air power advocate to admit, the historical record shows that air power alone does not win wars.  It can be the largest factor in destroying an enemy army, especially when there is such a discrepancy in ability such as in Desert Storm, but when the enemy is so non-reliant on traditional centers of gravity like power grids or communication nodes, there is only so much air power can achieve.  However,  bands of guerillas fighting in the desert are much harder to find and engage without boots on the ground, as France in Mali has discovered.

In becoming the first president to rely almost exclusively on air power for military engagement, President Obama has gotten himself into a trap that was thought to be debunked 70 years ago.  Despite the importance of air power, the most important factor is the man on the ground with the gun.[1]

[1] Colin Gray“The Continued Primacy of Geography,” Orbis. (Spring 1996), 257.

Mathew Preston – MA student