Is there a viable military strategy for disarming Iran? (Part II)
The lessons of RAF colonial air control and Allied interdiction in World War II lay out a clear blueprint the US could use to disarm our implacable Islamic enemy, the mullah government of Iran.
What is “air control?”
“Air control” was an idea pioneered by the British Royal Air Force (RAF) following World War I to employ the military power of combat aircraft to enforce political administration and restore order when necessary in British colonial possessions. The “Great War,” as World War I was called at the time, had financially drained Britian’s treasury and left His Majesty’s Government with huge financial and military problems. Britain entered the war in 1914 with substantial colonial holdings that subsequently became restive, as the British could not spare forces from the European war to police their far-flung empire. This deteriorating, wide spread political situation was exacerbated when Britain was assigned control of additional territories in Mesopotamia (Iraq), Palestine, Egypt, and Transjordan as a result of the peace agreement ending the war. In view of the need for economy, Air Chief Marshall Hugh M. Trenchard put forward a plan that convinced Secretary of State for the Colonies Winston S. Churchill to use airpower instead of the army to deal with colonial conflicts.
Almost immediately airpower showed itself very useful during 1919-1920 in quelling disturbances in Somaliland, Mesopotamia, and the Indian Northwest Frontier Province (Pakistan). The initial concept in Trenchard’s plan was to use de Havilland DH-9 bomber biplanes to assert British authority in inaccessible tribal areas while the size of the army detachments in the colonies was reduced. As the concept evolved in the various colonies that had been added to the British mandate, RAF commanders were given the sole responsibility of exercising military control, replacing the army in combating indigenous insurgencies.
The RAF air detachments were augmented by highly mobile armored car companies. The typical RAF detachment was composed of eight air squadrons, with approximately 12 aircraft each, and four armored car companies, approximately 24 vehicles apiece. The mainstay aircraft generally were the de Havillands into the 1930’s, while the armored cars were the Rolls Royce Type As on the Silver Ghost chassis with a turret mounting the Vickers 303 Caliber Machine Gun. Depending on the locality, British officer-led native levies provided additional ground force support as needed.
How did RAF air control perform?
The following assessments offered by Lt. Col. David J. Dean and Maj. George R. Gagnon are typical among students of military history.
Perhaps the most important lesson we can extract from this phase of Royal Air Force history is that air power can be shaped in creative ways for effective political results. The methods used by the British to achieve simple solutions were not all that simple, at least as the doctrine involved grew with experience. It took a very sophisticated combination of superb intelligence, communications, and psychological warfare coupled with a judicious application of firepower to achieve the desired outcome: pacification of a troubled colonial area with minimum violence, lasting results, and minimum cost. To design such a program required a flexibility of thinking that was most impressive.
– Lt Col David J. Dean, “Air Power in Small Wars: the British air control experience,” Air University Review, July-August 1983.
Air control is a strategy that uses airpower as the principal military tool to obtain the grand strategic objectives of a nation. An analysis of this strategy reveals that it offers the United States the means to preserve its vital interests through military applications short of war, or if necessary, through the combat application of airpower.
The notion of air control evolved shortly after World War I. The Royal Air Force (RAF) and the British government used it to help administer Britain's colonial empire.
– Maj George R. Gagnon, Air Control: Strategy for a Smaller United States Air Force, Air University Press, 1993.
Both of these officers’ assessments reflect the point of view that was promulgated by the RAF initially in order to carve out and justify a mission independent of the British Army in the post-World War I military drawdown and the accompanying drastic curtailment of service funding. As time worn on, the success of RAF air control of the colonies became service dogma. However, that is not to say the success was untrue, rather the success was not quite as glowing as frequently stated. The primitive aviation technology of the 1920’s and 1930’s had much to do with acknowledged shortcomings like bombing inaccuracy that may have diminished air control effectiveness to a certain extent. But there is no historical evidence disputing the statement: “Air control is a strategy that uses airpower as the principal military tool to obtain the grand strategic objectives of a nation.” Air control did permit the British Government to police remote areas of its empire economically with airpower.
What relevance does air control have in the 21st century?
It was my purpose in my last article to advance a viable military strategy to disarm Iran that avoids the difficulties we have encountered disarming Iraq, such as getting involved in house-to-house counterinsurgency fighting. In fact, I would submit that disarming Iran will alleviate many of the counterinsurgency problems in Iraq and somewhat less in Afghanistan because Iran is the logistical source that continues to direct and sustain the Jihad in Iraq. Iran is the enemy’s center of gravity of the war in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan. In my judgment, destruction of Iran’s military capability to resupply and intervene in Iraq and Afghanistan, followed by the exercise of air control over Iran that ensures the continued disarmament of Iran, will obtain the US’s grand strategic objectives of defeating the Jihadists in Iraq and denying the Iranian mullahs possession of nuclear weapons, as well as cutting into the Jihadist insurgent capability in Afghanistan.
Is air control a viable strategy?
To my way of thinking the principal argument against employing air control is put forth by Dr. James S. Corum as follows.
Air control was never as effective as advertised, and it could not provide answers to the political causes of colonial insurgencies. Except in the case of minor policing, airpower served mostly as a support arm to ground forces. A colonial power in the 1920s could employ such a doctrine on the far reaches of the empire against natives who had no direct contact with parliament or the media. Even then, the RAF’s air-control methods set off a considerable amount of protest from politicians. Basically, one could barely justify air control as a doctrine 80 years ago, and people who advocate an updated version of such doctrine for current US Air Force operations have misread history.
– Dr James S. Corum, “The Myth of Air Control: Reassessing the History,” Aerospace Power Journal, Winter 2000.
Stripped down to the basics, Dr Corum’s observation has a great deal of merit that deserves consideration. Here is the issue: Do Democrat, as well as Republican, politicians have the will to preemptively take action that will permit US airpower to decimate Iranian military capability with a Desert Storm type of “shock & awe” bombing campaign and then continue to restrike targets of opportunity using air control to prevent the Iranians from reconstituting their military capability?
Political will in protecting US national security is the crux issue, not the technological shortcomings of early aviation frequently cited by historical critics of RAF air control as diminishing its usefulness. The viability of air control is a political question, not a technological or military one. The answer to this political question is beyond the scope of this essay. My concern is to lay out a workable military strategy that would disarm the most dangerous Islamic regime in the world today, while not repeating the mistakes that continue to haunt us in Iraq. Sooner or later national security must take precedence over the diplomatic appeasement and politically correct military strategy we currently pursue.
To what extent would RAF colonial air control differ from US air control of Iran?
Obviously there are huge differences in the objectives of RAF colonial air control and US air control of a disarmed Jihadist Iran. While the two military regimes would share the similarities of reduced cost military enforcement using airpower versus ground force occupation and the resulting reduced friendly casualties, the imperial political control of Britian’s subjugated colonial peoples would differ greatly from aerial patrolling using manned and unmanned platforms to seek out and destroy military capabilities deemed a threat to US interests. The British had to consider political compliance and compromise with colonial peoples in executing violence through air control. The US objective of preventing the accumulation of Jihadist military power on Iranian territory would require no Iranian political cooperation, so the exercise of US force need not consider limiting the destructiveness of weapons, except as dictated by American humanitarian concerns.
Sustained air control of Iran would be more like the interdiction campaign over northern France in spring 1944, when the Allied airpower isolated the Normandy beachhead from Nazi logistical resupply depots in Germany, than the RAF bombing of Middle East tribal villages in the 1920’s. During this World War II interdiction campaign, Allied fighter-bombers ranged unchallenged over Nazi-controlled territory destroying anything that would add to Wehrmacht military capability to repel the Operation Overlord D-Day invasion. Gen William W. Momyer summarized the effectiveness of airpower in stripping away enemy military capability as a result of this air campaign.
OVERLORD'S LESSONS: Every major ground campaign through the remainder of World War II was coordinated with an interdiction campaign . . . With the interdiction campaign destroying critically needed supplies, the Wehrmacht was then forced to fall back, or if units stood and fought, their positions could be overrun because of the logistics failure. Regardless of their will to fight, the lack of needed weapons, food, and ammunition made it infeasible for German units to stay in the battle.
From these lessons of World War II, the concepts of interdiction developed: (a) Strike the source of the war material; (b) concentrate the attacks against the weak elements of the logistical system; (c) continuously attack, night and day, the major lines of communication supporting the army in the field; (d) inflict heavy losses on enemy logistics and forces before they approach the battlefield where the difficulty of successful interdiction is greatest . . .
– Gen. William W. Momyer, Airpower in Three Wars, USAF, 1978.
As I have written previously (here, here, here, here, here, and here), the essential elements of war are contained in this equation: WAR = MOTIVATION + CAPABILITY. Forces in the field and logistics to resupply those forces comprise the CAPABILITY in my equation. Therefore, the targets of opportunity in Iran for air control that would parallel the Overlord interdiction campaign would be concentrations of nuclear facilities, Jihadist forces, Jihadist training camps, and their supporting logistics that could threaten US interests in Iraq and Afghanistan. At present the US strategy is to attempt to interdict Jihadist forces and logistics after they have already entered Iraq and Afghanistan. As Gen. Momyer makes clear, this wrongheaded strategy contradicts this lesson learned in World War II: “inflict heavy losses on enemy logistics and forces before they approach the battlefield where the difficulty of successful interdiction is greatest . . .”
What is the conclusion?
The lessons of RAF colonial air control and Allied interdiction in World War II lay out a clear blueprint the US could use to disarm our implacable Islamic enemy, the mullah government of Iran, while avoiding the cost and casualties of a ground invasion and occupation. Will such air control action on our part occasion outrage in the Muslim world and protests from our erstwhile allies? Undoubtedly yes, but any action the US takes to curtail the Jihadist capability of Iran will bring a similar reaction. Therefore, I propose that we use our greatest strength, technological warfare, to counter the existential threat against us, rather than being drawn into asymmetric insurgent warfare where the Jihadists hold an advantage.
My experience and understanding of the logistics inform me that the decimation and continuing suppression of Iran’s military capability would quickly and totally reverse the momentum of battle in the Middle East that is currently running against the US because it would make our warnings to Syria to stop the resupply of the Jihadist insurgency in Iraq suddenly credible. Syria knows that without their Iranian Jihadist patron they would have no possibility of continued defiance of US demands, or those of Israel for that matter, to cease their aggressive actions against US and Israeli interests. The effect would be to immediately cut off logistical support from east and west to both the Sunni and Shia Jihadists in Iraq, essentially placing those Jihadists in the same battlefield condition as the Wehrmacht with their logistics interdicted as described by Gen. Momyer: “Regardless of their will to fight, the lack of needed weapons, food, and ammunition made it infeasible for German units to stay in the battle.” Furthermore, the bold use of American power would also provide incentive to the Saudi Royal Family to redouble their efforts to stop Jihadist personnel and funds from entering Iraq across the Saudi border. Additionally, with Iran out of the fight, resupply to the Jihadists in Afghanistan would be proportionally reduced, easing the situation for US and NATO forces fighting on that front.
Finally, we are left with the question posed by what has become popularized as the Powell Doctrine: what is the “exit strategy?” When will this employment of air control as the primary means of war against the Sharia-faithful Muslims come to an end? Simply put, “it depends” on the course of events in the aftermath of the elimination of our enemy’s military capability to prolong the Jihadist war against us. Whatever the length of commitment that is required to end the current Jihadist war, air control does not involve us in a “quagmire” of counterinsurgency wherein American military personnel are held hostage to suicidal fanatics, as they are at present. Instead of ceding the insurgency battlefield advantage to primitive combatants, the US would be conducting the war using our strongest military asset – lethal technology from the sky which the Jihadists would find impossible to resist or counter.
The fact that our war against the Jihadists would be waged from the air would dramatically scale back the human and financial costs from those we are currently enduring in Iraq while pursuing an ineffectual, manpower-intensive, counterinsurgent strategy. We maintained the “no-fly zone” combat patrols over Iraq for twelve years, but we did not seriously threaten or reduce the threat posed by Saddam Hussein because of restrictive rules of engagement. The difference in an air control scenario over Iran would be that our airpower would aggressively destroy threats as they appeared, whereas the Iraqi no-fly zone patrols were only authorized to return hostile fire. The days of that kind of restraint ended on 9/11. Should we be required to continue air control of Iran for years, the cost is manageable considering the lesson of Iraq.
While I don’t wish to over-sell air control over Iran as a panacea to worldwide Jihad, it would send the important message to the Shari’a-faithful that Allah was not smiling on their Jihadist efforts as the main source of Jihad in the Middle East was ground under the heel of the hated infidel. Those who maintain that the Shari’a-faithful should be “reasoned with,” placated, or be encouraged to reform do not understand Islam. Historically Jihad has only gone into a dormant retreat when it is confronted by an overpowering force that destroys the Jihadist military capability. Air control of Iran could be just that overpowering force in this century, especially if accompanied by psychological warfare measures to portray it as such. It is time to “think outside of the box.” Drastic times require drastic measures.
Colonel Tom Snodgrass, retired U.S. Air Force, is Advisor on Military Intelligence and Strategy to the Society of Americans for National Existence (SANE). Colonel Snodgrass spent 30 years in active military duty. He spent much of his time in the military as a senior intelligence officer and has been an instructor at several war colleges. He is a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran and holds a Master of Arts degree in History and Political Science.
Read more articles in Foreign Affairs, National Defense.
Read more articles by Tom Snodgrass