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Ted Cruz locked onto the phrase “carpet bombing” on the campaign trail and repeated it in the most recent Republican debate. He presumably means heavy, concentrated, tactical airstrikes such as those used in the First Gulf War. In popular imagination, these were also decisive in the Second Gulf War, the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the 1995 NATO bombing campaign in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the 1999 campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In other words, he probably means a massive concentration of tactical airstrikes against all C3 targets (command, control, communication) and against enemy logistics and operational forces.
It’s true that the air rate of sorties (one craft, one mission) against ISIS has been very low compared to those campaigns. It seems that Cruz envisions using air power alone to destroy ISIS by accelerating the tempo of strikes. For some reason, he’s confused the phrase “carpet bombing” with this idea. Perhaps he saw it on a documentary somewhere.
In the last debate, Wolf Blitzer immediately assumed he was talking about area bombing — the use of heavy bombers during the Second World War to smash enemy cities. The technique was first used by the Germans, based on the theories of 1920s air warfare advocates such as the Italian general Guilio Douhet and the American general William “Billy” Mitchell. Anyone who wants a grim laugh should read Douhet’s book, The Command of the Air. (He vastly overestimated the amount of damage a ton of bombs could do, among many other mistakes.) But at the time, air force generals really thought he was onto something, and the idea that wars may be won through airpower alone has long gripped military planners and still grips popular imagination.
Area bombing like that conducted during the Second World War would be truly impossible to conduct in this day and age. Short of using nuclear weapons, it’s hard to imagine how bombing assets could be sufficiently concentrated enough to permit such a heavy strike. And it would be a clear war crime under the 1977 amendment protocol to the Geneva Conventions.
I’m certainly among those who believe the area bombing campaigns were not a complete waste of lives, in that they significantly shortened the course of the Second World War. But that’s another discussion, and that wasn’t really “carpet bombing,” either.
Wikepedia’s definition of carpet bombing appeals to the Medimex dictionary:
Carpet bombing, also known as saturation bombing, is a large aerial bombing done in a progressive manner to inflict damage in every part of a selected area of land. The phrase evokes the image of explosions completely covering an area, in the same way that a carpet covers a floor.
I don’t think that’s quite the correct definition, either, so I’ll clarify. Carpet bombing is the use of heavy bombers and a strategic or operational-level weapon — the type needed for area bombing — to support tactical operations. For example, the Strategic Air Command’s B-52s, originally designed to deliver nuclear weapons, were modified to carry conventional high explosive bombs for use against Viet Cong sanctuaries.
Let’s define some terms: tactical, operational, and strategic. “Tactical” refers to achieving limited, short-term goals. We need to take that town tomorrow. We need to bomb this artillery unit. We need to achieve a breakthrough. Tactical airpower.
“Strategic” planning is the way wars are won, from the planning of a campaign to deployment, and even in the design of weapons over the course of a war.
“Operational” describes all the plans that derive from these — plans that bridge the gap between the tactical and the strategic.
The first successful use of carpet bombing — that’s to say, massive bombing, concentrated in a narrow and shallow area of the front, and closely coordinated with advance of friendly troops — came at the end of the Tunisia campaign in 1943. The best examples of its successful use come during Operation Totalize at Caen during the Normandy battles. This was spearheaded by the Canadian Army, using the newly-built Armored Personnel Carriers that were later to dominate the battlefield. The Germans had been stubbornly preventing a northern breakout. Hundreds of British tanks had been destroyed trying to punch out of Caen. German 88 mm anti-tank guns had clear lines of fire over great wide fields, holding off all daylight attacks. Under the cover of night, using a carpet-bombing force, the Canadians were able to break out and cover the ground.
The RAF had spent years developing effective techniques for night combat, but were not very proficient in attacking during the light of day. Using the same carpet-bombing techniques during the day proved ineffective. After a short drop that killed Allied troops, the use of carpet bombing was suspended for the duration of the war. The bomber barons were happy to return to what they thought was the real mission: area bombing cities.
The Korean war was the heyday of carpet bombing. The United States quickly gained control of the skies and began bombing anything that moved. Curtis Lemay, commander of the Strategic Air Command, later claimed that the US killed at least 20 percent of the North’s population during the conflict. The truth is they bombed everything they could: rails, roads, and supply centers. Despite all of this, the North Koreans adapted and managed to keep their armies supplied along the 38th parallel.
The last true use of carpet bombing was in Vietnam. A group of 28 B-52 bombers were retrofitted to support tactical strikes. Their heavy bombs would fall on the jungle, clearing out large areas upon which helicopter forces could land.
They were also used in a tactical role, but were much less effective. It took them several hours to fly from Guam to get on station. Often they would bomb targets only to find the enemy had already left the area. This happened so often it caused the National Security Agency to investigate.
The Soviet Union didn’t often have as many bases as the United States from which to monitor communications, so they had set up a fleet of “fishing trawlers.” Outside, they looked like commercial craft. Inside, these were packed to the rivets with intelligence gear. The NSA worried that the Air Force’s sophisticated communications gear had been cracked by the Soviets, meaning the SAC’s bombers were in danger of being intercepted, or worse, sent conflicting orders.
The NSA team arrived on Guam and quickly determined that they needn’t fear the worst: The problem was much simpler. Since the airmen in Guam knew they were in a rear area, they didn’t bother to use operational security, and they broadcast all information in the clear. The Soviet trawlers took that information fed it back to Moscow; from there, the Viet Cong were tipped off about when the bombers would arrive, their fuel loads, and other insights that helped them to pinpoint where the B-52s would strike.
Suffice to say, no, Ted Cruz doesn’t want to nuke Raqqa. He seems to want to use heavier air strikes to win. But that won’t defeat ISIS. It’s a classic air power delusion. Militarily speaking, the only way to defeat them is with ground forces supported by airstrikes.
If the North Koreans could supply their armies even as Curtis Lemay bombed everything that moved for two years, it should be obvious that bumping up the pace of sorties won’t remove ISIS.
Until this president or the next grasps this — and speaks the truth to the American people and their allies — you may assume he or she has no serious plan to dislodge them.Published in