A new Charlie Dunlap article! I’m excited.

First, some backstory. The Air Force is trying to figure out what its role is in an era of ground conflict, close air support and unmanned aerial vehicles. For a quick and probably incomplete overview, see this post of mine, which contrasted a widely-read monographed penned by Dunlap, a two-star Air Force general, with some thoughts from a young Air Force captain who served in Afghanistan, Daniel Magruder. It was a debate between someone who said that ground combat ought to adapt itself to the Air Force’s way of warfare and someone who said that the Air Force ought to adapt itself to ground combat.

Anywhoo, Charlie is back for more. His argument is that the Air Force’s concept of “airmindedness” — “an attitude that focuses not upon any one dimension of military power, but rather aims to holistically leverage America’s technological advantages across multiple domains, especially (but certainly not exclusively) in air, space, and cyberspace. At its core, it unapologetically tries to substitute machines for the bodies of young Americans whenever possible” — is relevant for Afghanistan. He writes:

Doubt me? Consider that Operation Allied Force, an “airminded” solution to what was then one of the formidable challenges in NATO’s history, is all but forgotten. Different from Afghanistan? Sure, but maybe not as much as some think.

In fact, the official Pentagon description of Operation Allied Force sounds amazingly similar to what we see in contemporary Afghanistan. It insisted, for example, that Kosovo was not a traditional military conflict but rather one where the enemy used “indirect means.” These means included, the report said, not only hit and run tactics against coalition forces, but also terror tactics against the helpless Muslim population.

Like today’s Taliban, the Serbs sought to “exploit the premium the alliance placed on minimizing civilian casualties and collateral damage” by dispersing “themselves among civilian populations” and then engaging in a “disinformation and propaganda campaigns.”

I dunno, there really do seem to be critical differences with Afghanistan. The Serbs had a political center of gravity — Belgrade — where NATO could drop bombs until such a time that they said to pull back from Kosovo. What’s more, it’s, to be generous, debatable how much the bombing impacted Milosevic’s decisionmaking. When the Russians ultimately told the Serbs to put an end to their Kosovo ravages, a product of diplomacy more than the bombing,  the Serbs capitulated. That’s not to minimize the role of the bombing, since without it the objective would not have been achieved, just to put it in context.

The broader point, however, is that these conditions don’t apply in Afghanistan. Even if we accepted that we ought to conduct an air campaign in Afghanistan, ignoring the effects that the inevitable civilian casualties have on such a war, where would we set our targets? Lashkar Gah? Kandahar? North Waziristan? Charlie makes a good case that airmindedness can contribute significantly to a supporting role in Afghanistan, but not that it can contribute to a central one. What I’m waiting for is the case for airmindness’ utility to a population-centric strategy. Give me that, and I’m on board. Without it, we’re back to Capt. Magruder.

Still, I can’t help but notice Dunlap’s jibe at Gen. Petraeus:

[A]n “airminded” approach does not equate with “Air Force”, per se, but rather reflects a philosophy that seeks to avoid the bloody close fight.

Shots fired! Anyone who’s heard Petraeus talk is familiar with his description of the “brotherhood of the close fight.”

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman