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Do We Need "Airminded" Options for Afghanistan?

As the senior leadership of the US government struggles to determine the best strategy for Afghanistan, it seems that America's body politic assumes that some permutation on Army General Stanley McChrystal's plan represents the only possible "military" option. Yet is that really the way it needs to be?

Of course, anyone who has followed the discussions of national security strategies over the past few years knows that the ground-centric perspective overwhelmingly dominates. By "ground-centric" I mean a view of warfare that generally defaults to putting young Americans in harms' way in close proximity to a hostile force or population.

Such a narrow view can be incredibly costly. World War I generals, stymied by trench warfare, repeatedly threw ever greater numbers of troops into bloody frontal assaults against the then new way of war defined by the machine gun. Inexplicably, such thinking still echoes today among those who persist in seeing the solution to every military problem as simply a question of how many "boots-on-the-ground" to pour on it.

How do land force commanders use the troops they get? An Army colonel told the New York Times last winter that they were employing U.S. soldiers as "Taliban magnets" to draw enemy fire. An Army lieutenant put it more bluntly: "Basically, we're the bullet sponge."

That is how "groundminded" leaders are waging war in the 21st century. By contrast, an "airminded" methodology rejects, among other things, using America's sons and daughters as "bullet sponges."

That said, an "airminded" approach does not equate with "Air Force", per se, but rather reflects a philosophy that seeks to avoid the bloody close fight. It welcomes the opportunity to create kinetic and nonkinetic effects from afar. For sure, it typically does involve some number of ground forces - albeit none as "bullet sponges."

Actually, "airmindedness" is more of an attitude that focuses not upon any one dimension of military power, but rather aims to holistically leverage America's technological advantages across multiple domains, especially (but certainly not exclusively) in air, space, and cyberspace. At its core, it unapologetically tries to substitute machines for the bodies of young Americans whenever possible.

Regrettably, even though "airmindedness" might save lives and resources, official policies continue to marginalize and discourage it. For example, in the just-released "joint" doctrine on counterinsurgency, discussion of the possible "air contribution" is limited to just three-and-a-half pages in a 249-page document.

Various civilians and retired officers have outlined what are, in effect, airminded approaches to counterinsurgency, but only a few uniformed officers offer airminded analyses. Unfortunately, even if a comprehensive "airminded" strategy were developed, it is unlikely it would get a serious look in a military establishment infatuated with ground-centric strategies.

Doubt me? Consider that Operation Allied Force, an "airminded" solution to what was then one of the formidable challenges in NATO's history, is all but forgotten. Different from Afghanistan? Sure, but maybe not as much as some think.

In fact, the official Pentagon description of Operation Allied Force sounds amazingly similar to what we see in contemporary Afghanistan. It insisted, for example, that Kosovo was not a traditional military conflict but rather one where the enemy used "indirect means." These means included, the report said, not only hit and run tactics against coalition forces, but also terror tactics against the helpless Muslim population.

Like today's Taliban, the Serbs sought to "exploit the premium the alliance placed on minimizing civilian casualties and collateral damage" by dispersing "themselves among civilian populations" and then engaging in a "disinformation and propaganda campaigns."

Yet despite the complex challenges of what current literature defines as "irregular war," Allied Force's air-only operation purged Kosovo of genocidal Serb troops in a matter of mere months - and did so with no loss of life among NATO forces. That's a solution NATO can only dream about today.

But if something like the Kosovo crisis erupted today, would any consideration be given to an air-only solution? In my view, the answer is easy: Absolutely not. The only issue that would be talked about among defense glitterati would be how many tens of thousands of U.S troops would be required for some sort of ground invasion and occupation.

Beyond Kosovo, there is also a collective amnesia about the early "airminded" successes in the current fights. Recall that airpower, along with tiny numbers of Special Forces soldiers, drove the Taliban from power in a matter of weeks in 2001. Moreover, it was airpower - alone - that reduced the Iraqi military to a quivering shadow early in 2003.

Even the much-heralded success of the 2007 "surge" in Iraq was actually much about airpower. Despite popular but mistaken assumptions that a "softer" ground-centric approach won "hearts and minds," the facts are that violence was only suppressed when the killing power of a five-fold increase in airstrikes was brought to bear.

The public - not to mention the President and other senior leaders - need to hear alternative voices and opinions. To do so requires answering Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy's call for "creative, provocative, and independent-minded" officers.

Unless and until uniformed officers are encouraged and empowered to produce "airminded" alternatives - however unwelcome they may be in today's defense establishment - the range of "military" options offered will never be what they might.

The competitive analysis of differing views is the way the armed forces of a democracy ought to work. Surely our troops deserve better than "bullet sponge" strategies.

Dunlap is an Air Force major general. These are his personal views.

Comments (4)

Officer Jones:

As a currently-serving Army officer that has been to both Afghanistan and Iraq, I must respectfully disagree with the author. To think that air power alone will quell the deep-seated issues that caused the civil war in Iraq and the centuries-old conflicts in Afghanistan is to ignore the facts. The facts are that the Afghan people are sick and tired of having airstrikes kill innocents along with the Taliban/Al Queda targeted. No war has ever been won by air power alone; it takes Soldiers and Marines on the ground to actually quell any conflict. In the case of a counter-insurgency, the strategy currently adopted by the US in Afghanistan, a troop-centric approach is what is required. Were the strategy simply one of counter-terrorism, troops on the ground would still be required.
The author refers to less than 100 Green Berets and air power defeating the Taliban in 2001; this is true, but the Taliban were a government in power that occupied clearly-identifiable fortified positions and were fighting a more traditional ground war against the Northern Alliance. Today's conflict is an insurgency and locating targets for planes to bomb is the task of people on the ground. The author refers to Iraq's surge and identifies the five-fold increase in air


Using soldiers to "draw fire" is a stupid tactic and any commander that bases his doctine on such on a routine basis needs to replaced immediately.

During the Gulf War we had JSTARS flying overhead, capable of tracking ground forces. Where are they now?

We certainly need to modernize our tactics, even more than upgrading our equipment.


I don't see "air-minded" as air-only. History has proven that trying to use air-power alone has never worked.

I believe the author is suggesting we broading the tactics and strategy to include more dimensions, including more air-power. Especially bringing the higher technology tools to bear. That I agree with. Vietnam-era tactics of trying to draw out the enemy are as bad an idea now as they were back then.


War is more than just soldiers fighting, it involves that AND politics, economics, and culture. While I support this surge, we should first focus on what are the problems that the average Afghan has and do our best to solve them. Also we should go and understand the problems that the Taliban has and help those that decide to lay down their arms and join a free Afghanistan.

The opinions expressed in this article and the SitRep website are the author's own and do not reflect the view of

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