Smart Bombs and Sepoys

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The US Air Force Rules the Skies

by Eric Margolis by Eric Margolis

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WASHINGTON — The capital may be buzzing with talk about the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, but the US Air Force appears to be planning for a long stay in Mesopotamia and Central Asia.

The USAF is reported to be expanding its air bases in Iraq, including lengthening a second 11,000-ft runway at Balad Airbase, a nerve center for American air operations. There are persistent reports from the Pentagon that the US intends to keep four to six major military bases in Iraq, each with a powerful air component, and a 3,500-man helicopter-mobile, rapid reaction infantry brigade. Other US operating air bases in Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Pakistan, and Central Asia are being steadily improved.

Bush Administration hawks hope to retain control of oil-rich Iraq, and sharply decrease the number of US battle casualties, by using American air power and Iraqi troops. Iraqi "native" troops, or "sepoys," as the British used to call its local mercenaries, will do all the dirty work on the ground and keep the populace under control.

US air power and infantry will only intervene when Iraqi sepoys get into trouble. This is precisely the same formula use by the British Empire to rule Iraq after World War I. Winston Churchill even authorized use of mustard gas by the RAF against rebellious Kurdish tribesmen — and troublesome Pashtun tribesmen on India’s Northwest frontier.

The US Air Force recently moved new squadrons of advanced F-16Cs fighters and workhorse A-10 ground attack aircraft to Iraq. Powerful B-1B heavy bombers have been repositioned from remote Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to the Gulf.

The $220-million-each B-1s can carry up to 41,000 lbs of bombs. Their deadly accurate GPS-guided 500-lb and 1,000-lb bombs have inflicted heavy casualties on resistance fighters and, inevitably, civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thanks to amazingly accurate targeting, the USAF is now developing a new small, low blast radius 250-lb bomb specially configured for anti-guerilla operations in civilian areas.

Without US fighters, B1s and B-52s heavy bombers, and AC-130 gunships constantly flying top cover, over-stretched US infantry in Iraq, and US/NATO forces in Afghanistan, might very well face defeat. Western forces could not protect their long, vulnerable supply lines and small, scattered outposts against local guerillas without immediate, intensive air support.

Deprived of constant air support, US and NATO bases in Iraq and Afghanistan would become little Dienbienphu’s: surrounded and isolated, like the infamous French field fortress in the Vietnamese highlands, under heavy bombardment, and forced to rely on always insufficient air drops of munitions, supplies and reinforcements.

Afghanistan’s previous invaders, the British and Soviets, were primarily defeated by their inability to protect their long lines of communications. During World War I, a British army in Mesopotamia met the same fate at Kut after the Turks cut its supply lines to Basra.

By contrast, the mighty USAF maintains 24-hour combat air patrols that can respond within minutes to calls from ground units, directing devastating cluster munitions, smart bombs, and cannon fire onto attackers. When the Soviets occupied Afghanistan, the Red Air Force’s response time to attacks by mujahidin on Russian ground units was often as much as 30—60 minutes, by which time the attackers had escaped.

Consequently, assaults on US and NATO ground units are near suicidal affairs. So Iraqi and Afghan resistance forces have adopted as their weapon of choice roadside bombs command detonated by a single fighter from a safe distance.

US and NATO units, under mounting attack, are increasingly calling in close air support and bombing runs. This over-reliance on air support is causing civilian casualties to mount sharply in Afghanistan and Iraq. Guerilla forces can be suppressed and dispersed by air power, but not decisively defeated. Israel’s shocking failure to defeat Hezbullah guerillas in southern Lebanon last year by air attacks was a graphic example.

Whenever the US and NATO claim "100 dead suspected Taliban" or "50 dead Iraqi insurgents," many are actually dead civilians. There is no way fighter and bomber pilots flying at over 300 mph can distinguish between un-uniformed fighters and civilians. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the general rule is to attack any groups of men numbering more than two or three, and, as the old line from the Vietnam War went, "let God sort them out."

The US has also developed reconnaissance capability of formidable capacity and coverage. US satellites can read license plates through clouds, smoke, rain or foliage, and track human infrared signatures. Drones, U-2 spy planes and a fleet of electronic warfare aircraft provide unblinking, 24/7 "eyes in the sky" over almost all of Afghanistan and Iraq. The flood of data from all these sensors is consolidated and distributed to field commands or shared with HQ units in what is called "actionable" information.

The US Air Force has become to the American Imperium what the Royal Navy was to the British Empire, the source of its might, and means of power projection.

While the Royal Navy ruled only the waves and littoral regions, the USAF can today reach and strike any point on the globe with devastating accuracy, speed and force. It is the mightiest, most technologically accomplished military force in history.

In fact, the USAF, with its new stealthy F-22 and upcoming F-35, are now so technologically advanced, they are at least 1.5—2 generations ahead of the rest of the world.

Russia has advanced technology and anti-stealth systems on the drawing board but cannot yet afford to deploy them in sufficient numbers. Russia, China, and India are unlikely to catch up with US military technology for the next 25 years — if ever.

The US accounts for 50% of total global military spending, and is simply too far ahead for any other powers to catch up — unless some radical new military technologies suddenly emerge that neutralize or make obsolete today’s advanced weapons systems.

Only Europe could compete militarily, had it the will, which it does not. In fact, America’s air force and naval aviation have enjoyed near absolute air superiority since 1943 with only temporary challenges during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

The USAF also has the US military’s smartest, best educated, and most forward-thinking officers. The US Army’s thankless role — and I say this as a former Army infantryman — has become to pin down enemy units so they can become targets for the USAF’s smart bombs.

Today, the only real challenge facing the US Air Force comes from its old enemy, the US Navy, which is determined not to let the flyboys blitz its budgets and steal all the glory.

Eric Margolis [send him mail], contributing foreign editor for Sun National Media Canada, is the author of War at the Top of the World. See his website.

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