If you care about the future of the Air Force in irregular warfare — basically, in an era where manned air combat is less relevant than at any other time in the Air Force’s history — you have to read Air Force Capt. Daniel Magruder’s Small Wars Journal essay, and it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to read my Washington Independent post on Magruder, either. To get far far nerdier, it’s worth comparing Magruder’s essay to Maj. Gen. Charlie Dunlap’s controversial monograph Shortchanging the Joint Fight?, about which you can still strike up a vigorous debate with counterinsurgents who wonder what Dunlap was up to.

In a masterpiece of poststructural narrative, Dunlap may or may not be a counterinsurgent and his monograph either brings the Air Force into the era of counterinsurgency or executes a precision strike upon it. You really can debate this forever. To be both brief and fair, Dunlap argues that air power has more application in complex counterinsurgency operations, including urban combat, than conventional understandings of counterinsurgency appreciate, and his big example is how technological advancements make precision-guided munitions more accurate in killing insurgents with minimal collateral damage than artillery. (THIS IS HIGHLY DEBATABLE AND I AM NOT ATTEMPTING TO ADJUDICATE THE DISPUTE THX.) Air Force intelligence assets and cyberwarfare expertise also get short shrift in COINdinista bibles like FM 3-24, and that’s a point that’s aged well in the nearly two years since Dunlap wrote his treatise now that the COIN crowd has lined up behind the "full-spectrum operations" concept.  

But then Dunlap hacks away at counterinsurgency principles. He says that human intelligence is overrated. He says that using U.S. ground power to protect a population from an insurgency is ultimately unsustainable — that’s something most COINdinistas agree with, by the way; the argument, Smiths-like, is How Soon Is Unsustainable — and inexplicably contends air power can fill the gap. He says that exploiting the "psychological impact" of U.S. airpower is key, while not giving much effort to considering that airpower scares the shit out of civilian populations. As a result, counterinsurgents wondered if Dunlap was really saying COIN itself is unsustainable and we should all just go back to outmoded styles of warfare that just happen to favor massive Air Force budgets. (THIS IS HIGHLY DEBATABLE AND I AM NOT ATTEMPTING TO ADJUDICATE THE DISPUTE THX.) There was a brief Kumbaya moment when Dunlap co-authored a gauzy, insubstantial beef-squashing piece with John Nagl on SWJ ("[America’s] enemies ought to beware. And update their wills.") but it as awkward pairing as anything on the Judgment Night soundtrack.

Anyway, Magruder’s piece raises no such ambiguities. He accepts the relevance of irregular warfare to the current U.S. defense posture and then asks how the Air Force can make itself relevant to that. I can’t imagine it was the easiest piece for an airman to write — he conspicuously mentions how many of his service’s chiefs of staff through the years have been fighter pilots — but it’s a bracing and intellectually thorough essay. (I AM NOT SAYING DUNLAP’S WASN’T THX.) Like Dunlap, Magruder argues that there’s a place for the Air Force in counterinsurgency, but the only place that their specific arguments converge is over the value of unmanned aerial vehicles like Predator drones. It’s worth noting that Magruder is a captain and veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, while Dunlap is a two-star general from a different generation, so that inevitably colors both their perspectives, despite the bullshit that Jeff Sessions wants to sell you. 

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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