100 years of air power

November 1st was the 100th anniversary of the first use of bombs from powered aircraft. On that day in 1911 an Italian pilot dropped three grenades on Ottoman forces in what was later to become Libya.

By chance, the centenary of aerial bombardment coincided with the conclusion of NATO’s air campaign in Libya, the apparent success of which risks reinforcing a dangerous myth that has been around since the beginning of aerial bombardment: the notion that air power can produce a “clean”, virtually casualty-free war.

Like the Afghanistan campaign of 2001, in which air power and local fighters augmented by U.S. special forces quickly ousted the Taliban government, the ultimate success of the war in Libya remains to be seen. Unlike the Taliban, the Gadhafi regime, like Gadhafi himself, is gone for good. But the final chapters of the Libyan revolution have yet to be written, and the war to remove Gadhafi was in any case far from casualty free.

For the NATO powers participating in the fighting, however, the war actually was casualty free, and thus there is a risk that the myth will be strengthened, leading to an increase in the likelihood that we will find ourselves marching (flying?) off to future conflicts. The Canadian government, which sees in the Libya campaign an opportunity to sell its planned F-35 purchase to a skeptical public, may be especially vulnerable to believing its own myth-making in this regard.

Daniel Swift’s comments on the century-old false promise of air power (“Air Power’s Century of False Promises,” New York Times, 1 November 2011) are well worth reading:

Aerial bombardment is a form of warfare that was designed as an escape from the past. And yet each new conflict is only another episode in bombing’s long history of promises about “cost-free” victory and clean war. For each example of a conflict apparently made easier by air power, there is a counter-example of a war which air power has only served to complicate and intensify…. Bombing is an unpredictable weapon, and perhaps its greatest danger is that, in suggesting an easy conflict, it draws us into wars we might otherwise have avoided. In that way, it is both the symbol of our faith in technology, and the sign of our entrapment in the past.

Tags: Air power, Civilian casualties, Defence policy, F-35, Libya, NATO