Air power influence on land campaigns and land battles.

I wrote some about this topic for years, but this time I'll attempt a concise summary. It's just opinion, of course.

It is easy to find folks who believe air power rules over land campaigns and land battles, Brimstone missiles could eradicate entire hordes of tanks, air power provides all-seeing eyes etc. OK; I'm exaggerating a bit.

"Air power" symbol picture (CGI)
Here are my theses:

(1) Air power affects ground campaigns discontinuously
Common practice in face of hostile defences is to assemble strike packages; the most elaborate ones comprise fighters, bombers, tankers, AEW, anti-radar and anti-radio communication components. These components work together to overcome the opposition and accomplish their mission.
There are two drawbacks; these strike packages aren't on station all the time (a husbanding of resources analogous to a Schwerpunkt) and the share of assets actually interfering with hostile ground forces other than air defences may be low, such as 40% for example.

(2) Air power is scarce
Even assuming no hostile fighters and no hostile air defences, friendly air power would not provide continuous support for multiple formations or units in contact at the same time. Some German field manuals advise even battalion leaders that divisional artillery support may be unavailable in combat, being focused on some different (Schwerpunkt or crisis) effort. The same would be true - and even more so - for the theatre-level asset of fixed wing air power. Both the Vietnam War and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan during the last couple years have seen comparably lavish air power support even for mere platoons. 
A platoon leader in a war between great powers cannot expect arrival of air support within 20-30 minutes; he could probably not even expect artillery or mortar support, or any non-organic, non-attached support at all.

(3) It's difficult to predict contacts and engagements
Air power can and needs to prepare for activity spikes in advance, but this 'in advance' represents a time lag and is largely unavoidable. Few combat aircraft could be diverted from one mission to another and arrive within minutes. This causes geographical and temporal mismatches between air power support need and availability.

(4) Air power on deep attack is unreliable
Air attacks without assistance from more persistent observers on the ground have a hard time spotting and identifying targets. This was prominently demonstrated in 1999 and 2001. 

(5) Modern combat aircraft tend to carry few ground attack munitions
Multi-role combat aircraft are fashionable, and they carry a lot: Fuel tanks, air combat missiles, targeting pods, often anti-radar missiles or jammers. And ground attack munitions. The latter become even fewer when tanker aircraft or close bases are very scarce.

(6) Range issues
The combat radius of a modern combat aircraft is rather disappointing even on hi-hi-hi flight profiles. There's little gain over WW2 in this regard. At the same time, modern combat aircraft are very demanding in regard to base services; maintenance, fuel, ammunition, flight safety and also seemingly simple things such as brake chute repackaging.
Austere bases on motorways are feasible, but they would cause a huge drop in sortie rates within days, and dispersed basing may be entirely unsupportable.
This means sortie rates may disappoint and efficiency may be reduced a lot by long distances between battlefield and operational air base.

(7) The true air supremacy is a tank on the runway
Air power may experience a huge drop in effectiveness during theatre-level crisis situations because forward air bases would be forced to evacuate in face of advancing hostile armoured recce and vanguard elements.

(8) Air power may be unable to harvest much benefit from superiority and destruction campaigns
A superior air force (or alliance thereof) may seek to destroy at least vital components of integrated air defences, it/they may attempt to decimate battlefield air defences and it/they may seek to eradicate fighter opposition. All these activities demand great resources for days if not weeks - resources not used to influence the land campaign directly. Such efforts may also be ultimately fruitless, and the superior air power may be forced to maintain caution throughout the campaign, devote much of itself to suppression efforts (see strike packages mentioned before). The Serbs had some clever tacticians in 1999 and achieved this effect even with clearly obsolete or largely non-operational equipment.
Episodes such as the Great SCUD Hunt of 1991 add to this issue with suppression efforts.

(9) 'We' may be partially technologically inferior sometime
The MiG-29 was a huge shock to NATO when East German aircraft were tested and their pilots interviewed. The IRST, the helmet sight, the jamming-resistance of the radar, the agility and the performance of the R-73 (AA-11) missile were unknown or badly underestimated during the 80's. Obviously, others can develop quality military equipment as well.
'We' are having development projects measurable in decades, and production runs measurable in decades as well (save for the F-22). This means we leave huge temporal windows of opportunity for aggressors; years or even a decade of having inferior air power technology for important missions.
'We' are also very much dependent on few key technologies. A hostile fighter with the equipment to defeat the tiny radar of an AMRAAM missile and the jammable infrared seeker of our typical short range air-to-air missiles would defeat almost all Western air combat capability. Both is feasible and actually to be expected of PAK-FA.

(10) Air power may be allocated for strategic air warfare
Even aircraft can only be at one place at a time, and aircraft on a mission against hostiles' domestic political and economic targets are rather unlikely to help a tank company that's stuck in woodland because infantry blocks a forestry road.

(11) Terrain is still an issue with air power
The prophecies of urban-centric future wars have been heard for decades, but air power is badly restricted in urban battle scenarios. The most relevant urban air power support in recent occupation wars was the availability of attack helicopters overhead, comparable with police helicopters but with weapons of war mounted. This won't be available if the opposing forces are part of an actual army. Even the defeat of infra-red guided missiles and an altitude which protects against 7.62 mm and RPG weapons wouldn't help in face of laser beam rider missiles. Even anti-tank missiles can be very dangerous to attack helicopters. RPGs are merely the short ranged poor man's equivalent.
Also, woodland. Foliage penetrating radars are still not standard, and probably won't become standard any time soon. You cannot identify targets through foliage anyway.

(12) Munitions. Run. Out.
Combat aircraft are prestigious objects. The whole readiness and stocks thing isn't nearly as visible and often neglected. Air power would run out of some modern munitions within weeks during a large-scale air war and other modern munitions would be depleted soon thereafter or disappoint. "Dumb" munitions would come back after weeks and air power efficiency would drop steeply. 
The more profound effect would happen earlier; rationing. Within few weeks, air power would become more restricted in its effect because sometimes targets would be rejected, reserving munitions for higher value targets. The "Hellfire hit on a pickup" scenario from Afghanistan would become rare.

(13) Clever reactions to air power diminish much of its power
It was relatively simple to call all coalition air power to the Battle of Khafji in 1991. It's a coordination nightmare if entire logistical battalions or even only entire tank battalions move dispersedly in packets of only three vehicles each.

(14) Overambitious air power may actually have hurt itself
Air power was capable of limiting road and rail movements to the night during 1944-1945. This may not happen again since night attack capability negated night movement's survivability advantage. Instead, movements may be restricted by whether strike packages have been spotted or not. This leads to very different adaptive behaviour and thus possibly to a much lesser troop and supply movement suppression effect.

(15) Dependence on circumstances
Air power will probably never again be that effective against supply services as when 6,000+ Allied combat aircraft faced an army which counted its in-theatre trucks in the mere thousands and was heavily dependent on railroad services. Nowadays NATO may muster a thousand or more combat in a theatre of war, but might face an enemy having the choice of hundreds of thousands of civilian trucks for the logistical effort.
Air power interdiction efforts may be very much dependent on geographical bottlenecks in the future, as bottlenecks limit the flow of vehicles and air power can make a noticeable dent on this already limited flow. A campaign of attrition against logistical vehicle inventories is likely going to be a fool's errand even in most of the Third World.

There are of course plenty counter-examples which make air power look near-god-like. A few B-2 bomber sorties could have demolished an entire Russian division on a valley road during the South Ossetia War, for example. And the road as well.
I don't feel the urge to write much about these examples because that's what others do. So this blog post doesn't call for re-allocation of budgets from air power to ground power as much as it's meant to push back against a perceived pro-air power bias.



  1. I think you are very limited in your view of how Air Power could influence a war.
    Regarding "terror bombing"
    In 2004, a small scale bombing raid against Madrid Train station killed 191 people and wounded a further 2050.
    Three days later, the government fell, and its replacement bowed to the wishes of the attackers and pulled out of the Iraq War.
    Now, I accept, those bombs were carried in backpacks not jet bombers, but is there really much difference?

    "(13) Clever reactions to air power diminish much of its power
    It was relatively simple to call all coalition air power to the Battle of Khafji in 1991. It's a coordination nightmare if entire logistical battalions or even only entire tank battalions move dispersedly in packets of only three vehicles each."
    At what cost to the ground forces?
    How many of those tank packets will be engaged by tank squadrons and destroyed? How many will just get lost on the way to the rally point and never join the battle?
    If I have 45 tanks and split them in to 15 packets to make a 100mile journey. How long will that take and how many tanks will arrive?

    If we maintain the fallacy that you need 3:1 to win, suddenly my ground forces have gone from needing 135 tanks, to 9 tanks.

    1. The Spanish cabinet fell because it was a bunch of liars. Besides, it was replaced. The state as a whole was practically unharmed. It had an allergic reaction to being poked once, though.
      It's an ages-old principle that sometimes marching dividedly and fighting unitedly is superior to staying together all the time.
      Extreme dispersed marches are actually being discussed and analysed as a potentially much safer and much quicker way of moving troops and supplies. This is evident from RAND work, literature on logistics since the 90's and so on.

      Your idea of tank combat is also off; if 9 tanks truly faced 15 packets of 3 tanks (because they didn't unite in time unintentionally), the nine tanks would have horrible odds. Three groups of 3 tanks are much, much more likely to surprise a group of 9 tanks than the other way around (more than three times as much) in first contact.
      3 tanks can easily annihilate 3-6 tanks in an ambush, so the 9-tank group can expect to fail spectacularly.
      On the other side, 3 vehicles is a common size for armoured recce; with one staying behind, so even if 9 tanks surprised a group of 3, this would give away the 9-tank team's location.

      But of course, I was actually only writing about marching in packets, not about fighting in packets. That's a different story.

    2. Some more about the "I think you are very limited in your view of how Air Power could influence a war." part:


    3. "In 2004, a small scale bombing raid against Madrid Train station killed 191 people and wounded a further 2050.
      Three days later, the government fell, and its replacement bowed to the wishes of the attackers and pulled out of the Iraq War."

      Dear lord, some seriously revisionist history going on here! The government fell, because they blamed the attack on domestic ETA without any proof, since this rubbish was politically opportune, as opposed to considering a Muslim extremist-source, which of course was politically inconvenient, as perceived blowback to their Iraq-policy, for which they had drawn severe criticism before.

      Furthermore, the major opposition party had made it a policy-line to withdraw troops long before that event, it wasnt the trigger, just another convenient cause not to waste time doing it. They didnt even have to "sell" it, as the Spanish population was massively against the whole Iraq-adventure anyway.
      That all this happened within three days was due to the fact, that general elections were scheduled then, not because some bombing led to social order falling apart. The fact, that democratic structures were in working order is actually a small testament to everyone generally staying level-headed (esp considering Spains still recent past).

      The government sealed their fate on re-election with one of the biggest displays of incompetence and deception induced by ideological bias ever, they got what they deserved.

      Really, if you have to make up such "facts", perhaps a bit of reflection on what your own ideological bent is good for, would be in order?!

    4. So your arguement is that had the incumbants "told the truth", they would have won?

    5. We will never know, as the polls were unreliable.

      My point is that there's no evidence suggesting that the bombing on its own would have changed the government or (thus) policy.

      The government was yanked from its offices because it was a bunch of liars, the incident merely provoked them to show this trait off once again.

      There were a couple domestic terror bombings during the last decade and none really changed who's in power or government policies other than provoking more state aggressiveness against terrorists.

  2. Some things become quite clear. Sven is no advocate of aviation supremacy, ground attack aircrafts and naval aviation.
    He is a strong advocate of medium tanks, armed scouting vehicles and heavy armed infantry.
    Looking at the structure of the German armed forces, this is much closer to their practice than US practice.

    Many suggestions stem on great part from the believe that interventions are fruitless efforts and its about deterring another great power from making war.
    What if the military has to be built for interventions?
    Wouldn't the aviation heavy approach of the United States or Israel trump?
    These airforces are instrumental for taking the fight to the enemy, especially Israel has little ground to yield and money to spend.

    1. Where exactly did you get that "heavy armed infantry" thing from?

    2. It's your posting about multipurpose guns organic to infantry.

    3. Infnatry has several levels and several levels of heaviness at the same time.
      A German old school infantry regiment '43 had 120 mm mortars, 50 mm AT guns and 75 mm infantry guns as regimental fire support. Meanwhile the battalions had only crew-portable equipment and the companies only man-portbale equipment. The individual soldier finally may have had a rifle, some machinegun ammo belts, a few hand grenades and a helmet only.
      Was this "light" or "heavy"? It sure was capable of using light infantry tactics, but also had heavy punchers organic at higher, still "infantry branch" level.

      Multipurpose concepts merely strive to save redundant weight and personnel while meeting the requirements which others meet with specialised tools. It's a trade-off between specialisation and savings which needs to be determined again and again and again because there's no one rule which fits all cases.

    4. I notice that you fixate on the topic of infantry weapons while ignoring the main thrust of the comment here, which is that an aviation-heavy organization is more suited to interventionism. I think it's evident from the posts on Defense and Freedom that SO doesn't support interventionism - which kind of answers your own question, Anonymous. If there's no perceived need for it then there's no value to having it.

      I would also suggest a quick study of Israeli wars. Note instances where modern air defences have precluded the effective use of the IAF and how the Israelis were able to preserve themselves in the face of that, through the use of mechanized combat elements.

    5. The post was meant to highlight bias of this blog (Sven asked for such input some time ago) and this was done.

      Israel and Singapore are two examples of countries that need intervention capabilities for self-defence. Singapore should make that most obvious.

      America is much bigger than Singapore and it is debatable whether their latest brand of interventions were necessary or worth the money. OK, they are on a steep learning curve, because it's the first time a Cold War ended and someone wants to do the mopping up before China bounces into empty old trenches.

      Like the good article about encirclement, interventions are different kinds of animals. Some interventions can NOT be considerd wars of choice and Singapore and Brunei prepare for such acts in self-defence.

      Israel ran up against unexpected trouble with fixed enemy air defences, an utter intelligence failure. Fighting wars measured in days, they did not have the capability to prepare any other reply but ground assault. With better intelligence it would have been a modern EW test.

    6. I don't think Israel's best bet is to keep the Arabs down - not in the long term. Instead, I think they should use the current Arab weakness to let the hate run out of steam over one or two decades and then reconcile.
      As UK and France should have done with Germany in the late 20's, instead of keeping it weak (a strategy which turned ugly when it became unsustainable).

      Singapore doesn't need intervention capabilities either; it needs a fine ASEAN integration and a military capable of pushing forward immediately during a conflict with Malaysia. And they agree with me on both.

      Nobody would claim being able to strike at London and Paris would be an essential national defence strategy requirement for Belgium, right?

    7. The different animals of intervention.
      Israel does intervene in neighbouring affairs.
      Israel has a military that is meant to fight not on home turf, but from home turf.
      Same goes for Singapore, from their home turf they could fight all neighbouring nations as required.
      This capability for power projection enables to intervene. It's not the same as interventionitis, an illness of constantly meddling somewhere via armed forces.
      It would benefit this blog if a line would be drawn between capability for power projection and intervention for positions of global prestige and power. One is a tool, the other a use.
      Belgium might want this tool, but under what circumstances would they use it?
      Having a tool is not the same as misusing it.

    8. I don't recall that occasionally bombing neighbours was called "intervention" anywhere but by "Anonymous" here.

    9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lebanese_Civil_War#Israeli_invasion_of_Lebanon

  3. Some other people have reached similar conclusion with Sven about airpower being scarce and too expensive.

    "“It reduces the burden on airpower and it could save your larger munitions for strategic targets,” Laski said."
    From Boeing to US Army.
    I usually do not intervene with comments in articles about tactics because your analyses leave almost nothing to add. Nothing useful I mean.


    This is just an add confirming the validity of your analysis.

    Plus :


    Of course Air force is very important. But in a real conflict , not in police actions to hunt down annoying natives , it is too small and too expensive to use in high intensity actions - detailed in article.
    The fact that armies specialized in hunting down natives in colonial enterprises like the Polish one make a move towards heavy land hardware or replacing Tac Air with various types of long range missiles is a sign on changing times.

    (I have noticed a funny fact.
    Poles are pretty proud of their colonial actions. It seems that the brave Polish people likes military invasions and occupation duties when they are the perpetrators. Only when the are at the receiving end of an invading army do the Poles become peace loving and invasion averse. Who might have thought about that.
    Looks like they are sensing something :
    The aim is to pursue a defense policy that will “not exceed Polish capacities, Polish interests and Polish needs,” Komorowski said.
    “[We want to] end an overzealous, reckless ... expeditionary policy of sending our troops to the other side of the world," dear president discovered ”.
    The level of hypocrisy is shocking. To me at least.)


  4. I'd like to add that:
    1) The mere rumour of the presence of a MANPADS missile in the area is enough to curtail ISAF-A air operations in Afghanistan. This has to do with the political importance attached to aircraft. If we lose one it's a huge coup for the Taliban and other armed militant elements in Afghanistan because the Anglo-American military world has invested so heavily in the idea of airpower being the Invulnerable Hand of God. Imagine how shit it would be for us if the Taliban or other OMF managed to capture the aircrew as well as down the aircraft.

    2) There's a recent historical example of the curtailing of operations because of a shortage of munitions; following the attacks against Gaddafi's Libya, we had some major orders placed for replacement weapons because we'd expended our (when I say our, I mean participating NATO nations) warstocks with a low intensity war in Afghanistan and something like two weeks of intensive bombing effort in Libya.