DEFENDING AMERICA
David H. Hackworth
March 8, 1994

U.S. AIR POWER: A TIGER IN THE SKY AND A KITTEN ON THE GROUND

&hibar; U.S. Air Force General John Loh gave me a burst over my column when I said air power wouldn't work in the Balkans. The general got into a Mach-2 tailspin, using phrases like, "diatribe denigrating air power," which forced this old grunt to the dictionary. He asked "Have you forgotten how Japan was defeated in World War 11?", implying The Rising Sun was sunk by air. I wish someone would have pointed this out in 1942: all those marines, soldiers and sailors who fought from Guadacanal to Iwo Jima could have chilled out and enjoyed the show.

I'd be the first to admit Loh's pilots who blew the four Bosnian Serb fighters out of the sky last week, his guys that fought over Iraq --along with the Navy and Marine crews -- are the best top guns in the world. They've got the courage, skill and hardware that make them unbeatable in aerial combat.

U.S. air power can control the sky over the Balkans or anywhere else in the world. But air power won't rule over ground targets in the Bosnian three-way Civil War. The machines that won in the sky won't hack it in a close air support (CAS) role. They fly too high and too fast, are too thin-skinned and can't stay over the target area long enough to figure out the lay of the land or the score between the good guys and the bad.

I could tell plenty of war stories to make my point, but this tale from the Gulf should do: when a Green Beret Team called on air to blast an Iraqi bunker in the open desert, four A-10s rolled in with missiles, iron bombs and cannon fire for about an hour and missed that Mack truck-size target. After the strike, an NCO and I were bitching about why CAS doesn't work; suddenly, two more A-10s dropped a pair of 500 pound bombs within our perimeter, not 500 yards away -- because the pilots got our well-marked position mixed up with the target 2,000 yards away. The few A-10s left on active duty are the only airplanes in the U.S.A.F. specifically designed for CAS and the state of the art "mud fighter" in 1994.

The threat of using NATO air is keeping the truce in most of Bosnia, but this doesn't mean the killing will stop. Sure, it'll reduce the use of artillery for awhile, but it won't stop the snipers, mining and mortar attacks. The fanatics will revert to guerrilla warfare as they did against the Germans during WWII, where every seventh soldier ended up on a stretcher. German air supremecy couldn't stop the slaughter down on the ground.

At the end of WW11, my regiment experienced the same kind of hit-and-run attacks along the Italian/Yugo border. The Jugs would act up, Truman would threaten to use bombers, the raids would stop, and the cycle would start again as soon as Truman eased up. This pattern went on as regularly as payday for the four years I was there.

The zealots of former Yugoslavia behave like incorrigible kids who can't accept boundaries. They push to the limit, get smacked, and then, count on it, they bust out of their playpens shooting again. During WW 11, they kicked the hell out of each other, while beating the Germans, and they'll continue the current holocaust until Bosnia's "Heart of Darkness" runs its course. Nothing will stop the killing in the Balkans until they're out of blood, bullets and revenge.

Two major lessons from the Vietnam War, where the U.S. flew more sorties and dropped three times more bombs than all of WWII, were: don't get involved in someone else's civil war; and air power doesn't work against a fanatical ground opponent.

I would never bad mouth our brave pilots, whom I admire as a grunt who's watched them risk their lives for us guys on the ground. But I'll continue to blast the brass when they overstate capabilities. If air power is as good as Loh says, why do the Marines and Army still keep CAS helicopters to support their groundpounders?