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New stage of remote warfare further diminishes military accountability

Thousands of boots on the ground have been replaced by multiple deployments of smart bombs that stay under the radar of public debate

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
8 May 2021, 7.00am
Fewer boots are on the ground compared with Iraq in 2007
Mike Pryor, US Army (Copyright-free)

In the black and white TV schedule of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Western drama series reigned supreme. One of the most popular was ‘Have Gun, Will Travel’, starring Richard Boone as a mercenary in the late 1800s. It helped to popularise the role of the lone gunman and boost the US gun rights culture. Indeed, the term, “have gun, will travel” entered the popular lexicon and has been often quoted since.

A recent example was in the latest issue of the US military monthly, ‘Air Force’, the magazine of the Air Force Association, with the title ‘Have Bombs, Will Travel’, which is grimly indicative of a specific trend in US military thinking after two decades of the failed ‘war on terror’.

It concerns a newly developed way of moving planes and bombs rapidly to sudden hot spots if the US Air Force doesn’t have sufficient bombs in place to do what is thought necessary. It is known as agile combat employment and uses what are normally very sophisticated and powerful aircraft in a secondary role as weapons transporters.

In a recent mission, six F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft of the 494th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron flew from the RAF base at Lakenheath in England to Al Dhafra, 30 kilometres south of Abu Dhabi in the UAE. Ferrying operations are pretty standard if a squadron is on the move but usually the planes would be unarmed, with the weapons sent out separately in large military transport aircrafts such as the C-17.

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Loaded to the gills

However, on this occasion the six aircraft were not only armed but loaded to the gills with twice the amount of ‘smart’ bombs usually sent in such situations. This required extra crew skills and logistical support, not least with additional air-to-air refuelling, but it meant that the six planes could, between them, move 72 of the powerful, GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions in a single rapid operation.

This immediately raises the question, why go to that trouble and expense when the US Air Force already has access to bases from Europe to the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia and the Western Pacific?

For the official answer, an article in the defence publication, ‘Defense News’, put it this way: “China and Russia can increasingly hold overseas US bases at risk. To adapt, the Air Force must evolve from its dependence on well-established airfields, or risk yielding an operational edge. Beijing’s asymmetric arsenal includes thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles capable of striking the first and second island chains of the Western Pacific. Moscow also boasts an immense quantity of ballistic and cruise missiles that easily range all of Europe.

“The Air Force is especially vulnerable to these threats because of its reliance on prepared airfields. While the service can overcome some disadvantages with long-range bombers, a war in which missiles knock out American air bases and prevent the ability to launch and recover short-range fighter jets is unlikely to end well.”

The reasoning above contextualises the development of the agile combat employment concept within the US’s long-standing rivalry with China and Russia, but that is too simple a reading. The US has plenty of more reasons to increase its weapon load in the Middle East, when you consider that its wars with Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have all gone badly wrong, and it is withdrawing from Afghanistan as the Taliban sets its sights on taking over the country.

Agile combat employment fills the gap before bigger forces arrive – with the bonus that it can be done quietly and with very little media coverage

Taliban offensives against the Afghan National Army and police have intensified across the country, especially in the hotly contested Helmand Province, which is at the centre of Afghanistan’s opium production. The US Air Force has, in turn, increased bombing raids.

To boost the forces available, two more B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers have just arrived at al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, bringing the number of forward-based planes there to six. All the planes are from the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. According to the Air Force, they are there to “protect the orderly and responsible withdrawal from the country”, which could be read as bombing the hell out of anyone who thinks otherwise.

This kind of operation can be planned in advance since the military knows full well that what is happening in Afghanistan is a full-scale retreat that requires protection. The problem comes when something unpredictable arises and there is a need, at least from a military perspective, to have forces available at short notice. This is where agile combat employment comes in, filling the gap before bigger forces arrive – and with the bonus that it can be done quietly and with very little media coverage.

This new approach raises alarm bells because it is another large step towards remote warfare. Gone are the days of tens of thousands of boots on the ground, progressively replaced by strike aircraft and heavy bombers with stand-off weapons, as well armed drones. These are all part of a wider change to special forces, private military companies (i.e. mercenaries, where the body bag problem doesn’t arise), local militias, cyber warfare and the rest.

And the problem with this remote warfare is that it moves the Western world further down the path towards wars being conducted without any possibility of political oversight, still less of public debate.

Even worse is that the military-industrial complex makes plenty of money in the process, while helping to enhance the false notion that deep-seated revolts can be bombed out of existence. Twenty years of failed wars show otherwise, but those who aren’t interested in learning the lessons from those decades simply look away.

Ukrainian journalists share their stories of war

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