Between 30 September and 22 October 2015, the Russian air force has led more than 934 sorties in order to bomb forces opposed to the government of Bashar Al-Assad on the ground in Syria (Russian Defence Ministry, briefing 22 Oct 2015).
These strikes are part of an operational strategy, which includes numerous operations of electronic warfare, and an important work of coordination between the Russian military forces, the ground Syrian troops and Iranian political and military forces (“Russian airstrike forcing IS militants out of Aleppo province”, Tass, October 26, 2015).
The whole offensive is accompanied by missile strikes from the Russian Caspian fleet into the Syrian territory (“Russian missiles hit IS in Syria from the Caspian Sea”, BBC News, 7 October 2015).
This offensive reveals to the whole world the renewed Russian air and space power, through a very impressive demonstration of force (Michael Peck, “Shock and awed: Yes, Russia can still wage a war”, The National Interest, November 4, 2015).
In other words, the Russian strikes are a sharp reminder of the importance of mastering what is called “air and space power”, in order to be a meaningful power. Air and space power is the power given to a military institution through the coordination and the reciprocal reinforcement of its air capabilities and its space capabilities, in order to attain and keep operational or, even, strategic dominance.
In effect, from the beginning of the 1990s, the rare military establishments with both military aerial capabilities and military space capabilities have been striving to integrate them and the U.S. has been the most advanced in this field. This integration, from which emerges the “air and space power” tends to create a new kind of strategic dominance (Joan Johnson-Freese, Space as a strategic asset, 2007).
In this post, we shall see how air and space power has been developed by the US in order to reach global dominance, as well as the limits of this approach. In forthcoming articles, we shall see how other powers, especially Russia and China are developing and using this specific kind of strategic power. These analyses will help us understand the different strategies underlying air and space power as well as the state of the current international distribution of power.
The “age of extreme” and the emergence air and space power
The historic sequence started in 1914, and finished in 1991 with the disappearance of the Soviet Union. It ended with the Cold War and has been dubbed the “age of extremes” by the great British historian Eric Hobsbawm (The Age of Extremes, 1994).
The race to the extremes was the result of the investment of the powers of industry in the European wars. One of the consequences was the emergence of air and space power, i.e. the quest for military dominance, first through air, then, through space.
The very notion of air and space power – at the time solely air power – goes back to the First World War, and the first use of warplanes by Germany, France, Great Britain and the United States over the battlefield.
The first biplanes were used for observation, some bombing on the front line and the first fights between planes.
During the 1920s and 1930s, the great powers, including Japan, developed military air fleets and the necessary related industries in less than a generation (David Edgerton, England and the aeroplane, militarism, modernity and machines, 2013), with which they turned the Second World War into the “bombing war” (Richard Overy, The Bombing War, 2013), which apex was the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the U.S. forces.
The scientific, political, technological and industrial effort that fed the development of air power in the U.S., Great Britain, France, Italy and the Soviet Union supported the parallel development of fuel-propelled rockets in order to create missiles.
This effort started in the USSR as early as 1946, just after the war against Nazi Germany. World War II was the most extreme experience for the Soviet people and its political authorities (William Burrows, This new Ocean, the story of the first space age, 1998), as the country had to sustain the loss of approximately 27 million people and immense destructions, before sending its armies to Berlin. During and after this war, Russia and the Soviet Regime developed thus an intense need for security, deemed as a basic life condition (Burrows, ibid).
This added to the already deep existential need for security of this giant country, which, between 1914 and 1941, had gone through the First World War, the Bolshevik revolution, and the civil and international war that ensued, and the Stalinian Terror of 1930-33 and 1937-1938.
In this context, one must keep in mind that, from the Russian–Soviet point of view, the race for space power is thus rooted in a profoundly entrenched need for security, indeed survival, which was far from being assuaged by the Cold War and its nuclear war context (Robert Service, A history of modern Russia, from Nicholas II to Vladimir Putin, 2003).
The Cold war: from air to space power
After World War II, the Cold War became a world political competition system, during which the U.S., as well as the Soviet Union, quickly improved, hybridised and industrialised missiles, bombs, be they nuclear or not, and satellites (Colin S. Gray, “Strategy in the nuclear age: The United States, 1945-1991”, The making of strategy, 1994).
This led the two super powers to launch themselves into the bomber race, the missile race, the satellites orbital space race and the race to the moon.
These races, which were different dimensions of the same political, scientific, technological, industrial and military dynamic were motivated by the strategic will to attain and to dominate the “ultimate high ground” (Burrows, Ibid).
The U.S. took a rapid and important techno-strategic advantage in the field of space power, with the first landing of men on the Moon in 1969, then, starting with the 1983 famous speech by Ronald Reagan, the launch of the space “missile shield” (Frances Fitzgerald, Way out there in the blue, Reagan, Star Wars and the end of the Cold war, 2000).
While, during the 1990s, Russia was going through a political, economic and social quasi-collapse, the U.S. launched their “revolution in military affairs”, which drove the integration of air, space and ground power (Martin Van Creveld, The transformation of war, lessons of combat, from the Marne to Iraq, 2006). In military terms, this decade saw the Russian military being dramatically downsized, while the U.S. military became a globally dominant techno-system, able to project U.S. power from the Homeland to the Middle East, and to modernize itself in order to be able to use space and air power to protect ground troops (Van Creveld, ibid).
The rapid pace of this “revolution in military affairs” (Arquila John and David F. Ronfeldt (eds.), In Athena’s Camp: Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age, RAND Corporation, 1997) was driven by many actors, among them the Department of Defense US Space command, which was united with the Strategic command in order to gather together space observation, and command, control, observation, and communication capabilities with cyber capabilities and nuclear command and control.
It is worth noting that in January and February 1991, the U.S. military implemented a massive offensive against the Iraqi army, which was occupying Kuwait, through the systematic use of air power, previously developed for the possible war against the USSR, while space capabilities were “only” used to monitor the battlefield and enhance communications.
This made possible the famous Operation Desert Storm, which ended with the “one hundred hours offensive”. That operation allowed the destruction of half of the Iraqi army with very few ground battles. One of the consequences was a staggeringly low-level of U.S. casualties, with only 146 troops killed, 35 among them being victims of “friendly fires” (Trainor and Gordon, The General’s war, 1995).
The strategic meaning of air and space power
Then, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq was the massive moment for the unveiling of the U.S. air and space power. The famous “shock and awe” strategy, devised in order to attain “rapid dominance” (Oliver Burkeman, “Shock tactics”, The Guardian, 25 march 2003), was based on the coordination of space, electronic, and air capabilities with ground forces.
It created a “dome” of planes, missiles, artillery, and information, which was used to destroy the Iraqi troops and to protect the U.S. forces, while the latter were quickly advancing on Baghdad (Gordon and Trainor, The Endgame, the inside story of the struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, 2012).
In other terms, the satellite systems, the air force and the ground forces were immersed in multi-layer information feeds, which helped coordinating the strikes against the Iraqi forces, and thus reduced greatly any direct contact between the U.S. forces and the Iraqi forces during the invasion phase.
The concept can be deeply attractive from a political point of view, because it raises the hope that war could be waged while avoiding the grisly social and political costs it necessary entails (Valantin, Guerre et Nature, l’Amérique se prepare à la guerre du climat, 2013). However, the departure from Iraq in 2010, currently the absence of strategic progress of the coalition in Syria and the consecutive destabilisation of the entire Middle East, show the limits of this thinking (Hamit Bozarslan, Révolution et état de violence, Moyen-Orient, 2011-2015). The U.S. military was defeated in Iraq by the enduring guerrillas, both nationalist and jihadi, and by the financial and political costs of the war (Joseph Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes, The three trillion dollars war, the true costs of the Iraq costs, 2008), which cancelled the advantage initially given by the air and space power.
The “shock and awe” space and air U.S. strategy implemented in 2003, or the drone operations favoured by the U.S.-led coalition in Syria (Thomas Watkins, “Russia’s air war in Syria is a game changer for US: experts”, AFP, October 14, 2015) are based on the same principle, which is to minimise as strongly as possible the interaction between the U.S. forces and the enemy, through its transformation into a powerless target (Jeremy Scahill, Dirty wars, the world is a battlefield, 2013).
This is done in order to maintain a “safe distance” between the power that strives for dominance while refusing direct contact with the adversary. However, it now also comes with the understanding by the adversary (in this case, the different Syrian guerrillas, as well as the Islamic State) that this strategy can be turned into a profound weakness, by seeking contact and accepting to be killed in combat.
In other terms, from the American’s point of view, air and space power is a necessary tool for today’s military dominance. However, this may only be true until air and space power reaches what Luttwak defines as the “paradoxical moment” (Strategy, the logic of war and peace, 2002). Then, despite the huge, industrial capabilities that support it, air and space power becomes a tool not of dominance, but of vulnerability.
What now remains to be seen is if this logic will apply to the Russian military use of air and space power in Syria?
To be continued,
Jean-Michel Valantin, (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.
Featured image: U.S. Air Force E-3B Sentry airborne warning and control system crew members prepare their aircraft before taking off from an undisclosed location for a mission in support of airstrikes against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant targets, Oct. 1, 2014. The crew members have been a part of the recent missions taking place in Iraq and Syria, controlling coalition aircraft to assist in eliminating ISIL targets. U.S. Air Force Central Command photo. Public Domain.