Air power not enough to win war
DUBAI - The air campaigns waged by the US-led international alliance in Iraq and Syria and by the Saudi-led Arab alliance have failed to bring about a decisive victory as was the case in the air campaigns the world witnessed during the wars in Bosnia and the Gulf in the 1990s.
This is prompting defence strategists to question whether air power alone is capable of achieving decisive victories, or if the nature of war has reduced its role to ground support only?
Ever since World War I, air war strategists have advocated the notion of victory from the air. But facts prove otherwise, with the exception of the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo when an aggressive air campaign by NATO compelled the Serbs to surrender without a land invasion.
Even in the Kosovo war, many analysts say that it was the credible threat of use of ground forces by NATO accompanied by a successful air campaign that drove the Serbs to surrender.
Nevertheless, due to major breakthroughs in aviation technology and the development of standoff weapons, air forces worldwide gained more relevance and attention in the late 20th century onwards. Nearly half of defence budgets in most countries go to the air force.
So what about the wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen?
Air raids on terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria are taking place without any threat of land invasion. The number of daily raids is too small to make a significant impact on the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) that stretches over one-third of Iraq and half of Syria.
Ground offensives in Syria are led by weak and divided Syrian rebel factions as well as demoralised Syrian regime forces, while in Iraq a sectarian-divided military backed by Shia militias have led scattered, and mostly failed, ground assaults against ISIS.
On the other side, the Syrian regime forces that are outnumbered by the rebel factions have had to rely on their Soviet-era air force to even the odds and avoid an all-out defeat.
The US-led air campaign managed to slightly degrade ISIS capabilities and slow the terrorist group’s expansion but could not defeat the group or even prevent it from launching surprise attacks on its opponents in Iraq and Syria and gain more territory, as in the case in May with the occupation of Ramadi and Palmyra.
Nevertheless, on some occasions when allied air power launched coordinated attacks with ground forces against ISIS, they scored major tactical gains, like recapturing of Tikrit in Iraq and repulsing an ISIS offensive on Kobani in Syria.
In Yemen, a few Arab air forces are waging daily attacks against Houthi militias allied with renegade Yemeni military forces loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Arab alliance is providing support to ground forces comprising resistance militias and Yemeni military units loyal to the current president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
The Houthis and their allies vastly outnumber their opponents on the ground. However, they lack air power, which was neutralised by the alliance in the first week of fighting.
The Arab alliance has managed to enable Hadi’s forces to regain momentum and capture a few stretches of territory in some provinces or at least hold ground in others. The air raids destroyed more than half of the Houthis’ arms depots and affected their communication and logistical capabilities.
Still, the Houthis proved capable of launching cross-border attacks on Saudi forces, even though they were largely unsuccessful. The Houthis even managed to fire a Scud on Saudi Arabia, although the missile was shot down by Saudi anti-ballistic missiles.
The Arab alliance has failed to mobilise a large ground force to act as a credible threat to the Houthis to compel them to surrender. But the Arab air campaign has foiled the Houthi attempt to take over the country, and revived as well as emboldened armed resistance led by Hadi.
Steady airdrops by the allies to Hadi forces have sustained supplies while at the same time the allies attempted to impose an air, land and sea embargo on the Houthis to prevent the flow of arms to them. But there have been reports of Iran managing to break the arms embargo with the help of Eritrean smugglers.
It should be noted that there is an important difference between the Kosovo war and the current wars against ISIS and the Houthis, which is in the nature of the opponent. In the former the opponent was the government of Serbia — a state. While in the latter, the opponents are non-state actors posing as a government.
When the opponent is a legitimate government, public opinion and concerns about national interests matter, but when the opponent is a non-state actor the survival of the group and its ideology and interests are what matter, regardless of public opinion and national interests.
Hence, air campaigns against ISIS and the Houthis can only work if accompanied with credible ground offensives — if diplomatic efforts fail to produce results in the Yemeni case.
Air power is vital to achieve victory, but is not enough alone.