30 March 2010

Airpower in Counterinsurgency

Out of necessity, I've taken a break from drawing parallels between the Iraq War and the Revolutionary War and moved on to something a little different. I'm doing some volunteer work, of sorts, creating a brief information packet regarding the role of airpower in counterinsurgency. Hey, it's what any self-respecting
COINdinista would do, right?

Fortunately, I've been getting some great help from my fellow COINdinistas, such as Mark Safranski and the Small Wars Journal crew. Special thanks to the gang from CNAS, including Commander Herb "Herbal" Carmen--an E-2C Hawkeye pilot, piracy expert, and producer of some of the finest Youtube videos ever.

Another "thank you" goes out to Adam Elkus, my frequent partner in crime, who recommended that I pick up the book "Airpower in Small Wars" by James Corum. After reading it for a day, I've been intrigued by the RAF's experiment in fighting counterinsurgency from the air in Iraq...in the 1920s. Although predating the invention of Sikorsky's helicopter, the jet engine, thermal sights and guided missiles, it still remains an interesting case study for modern air powers attempting to fight insurgencies.

After the end of the First World War, Britain and France suddenly found themselves in possession of much of the former Ottoman Empire, thanks to the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. Britain governed Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), an amalgam country consisting of three former Ottoman states lumped together--the Mosul Province, the Baghdad Province, and the Basra Province. Given the circumstances, it's not surprising that the Kurdish people of the north began to rebel against the fledgling government in Baghdad, which was ruled by a Hashemite.

Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War and Air, needed to subdue the insurgency in northern Iraq. However, following the First World War, Churchill was compelled to fight the insurgency on the cheap. Then, much like now, the air strike seemed to be a popular alternative to a costly ground campaign--airstrikes were was quick, they could deliver tons of ordnance, and best of all, Britain's enemies had little defense against an aerial attack. Thus, the British reduced the number of troops in Iraq, replacing infantry battalions with RAF squadrons, and giving control of the entire operation to the RAF.

Although the airplane proved to be an effective asset--particularly in the reconnaissance and strike role--the British soon discovered that it was not a replacement for ground troops. Indeed, as British troop levels shrank, the Kurdish insurgency only grew--little surprise to anyone who witnessed the Iraqi Troop Surge. It was only after embarking on a massive land campaign, during which infantry forces fixed Kurdish rebels long enough for airplanes to inflict massive losses, was the rebellion finally quelled.

Among the limitations of airpower was the lack of good human intelligence on insurgent positions. Kurdish rebels managed to construct some ingenious overhead camouflage, concealing them from the prying eyes of RAF fighters. Indeed, even in the era of advanced optical sensors, our most advanced aerial platforms can still be deceived by a cunning enemy. Such was the case in the Kosovo War of 1999, when Serbia's effective use of camouflage allowed many tanks to escape the NATO bombing campaign unscathed. It was also the case in the 2006 Lebanon War, when some well-concealed Hezbollah fighting positions were discovered a mere hundred yards away from IDF observation posts.

I also found it interesting to see how the British would use airplanes to reconnoiter the routes ahead of supply convoys headed from Baghdad to Mosul--just as AH-64 Apaches and OH-58D Kiowa Warriors do nearly 90 years later.

I was contemplating posting the final product on AKO, but that would mean my Air Force and Navy comrades would be unable to use it. I might look at experimenting with the whole Google Wave thing. I don't know. Suggestions greatly appreciated.

1 comment:

Boss Mongo said...

One interesting sidebar: Churchill set up the relatively moderate Hashemites (and established Bahrain, Oman, the UAE et al) to act as a buffer against what he perceived to be the pernicious Wahhabism of the House of Saud. So as much as we kick and moan about the insouciance of post-WWI border drawing and king making, sometimes there really was a method to the madness.