March 29, 2011:
The current air campaign in Libya has raised questions about the effectiveness of just using air power to obtain a victory. In the past, starting in World War II, there have been numerous occasions where air power was overrated, and later found to be much less effective than first thought. However, this has not been the case in North Africa, especially Libya, and the Middle East in general. The lack of forests and other cover provides a perfect opportunity for airpower, especially aircraft equipped with smart bombs (GPS and laser guided) and targeting pods (which enable pilots to tell if people are carrying weapons, day or night, while flying 6,500 meters/20,000 feet high) to do whatever they need to do, and do it quickly. All the NATO aircraft are doing is denying the Kadaffi forces the use of the 1,800 kilometer long highway that follows the Libyan coast, and connects the towns and cities where 80 percent of Libyans live. This has proved to be decisive, as warplanes destroy government tanks and artillery, allowing the lightly armed rebels to move into the urban areas, link up with local supporters (usually the majority of the population) and chase away the remaining government troops. Sometimes the pro-Kaddafi forces offer sustained resistance, but as long as the rebels have that air cover, the Kaddafi forces are cut off and doomed.
But in other parts of the world a major problem remains. Intelligence capabilities are often still not up to the task of accurately measuring the impact of the bomb strikes. This process is called BDA (Bomb Damage Assessment), and has been the weak link in air force operations for the past seventy years. An example of this was seen most recently during the 2003 Iraq war, where the attempt to kill senior Iraqi leaders failed, because there was insufficient information on where these guys were. Same story in 1999 in Kosovo. The air force thought they were destroying hundreds of Serb armored vehicles. But the Serbs were good at World War II era deceptions, and it was later discovered that only a few dozen vehicles were actually hit. The people on the ground, given something to hide under, and a bit of training on how best to do it, can still deceive all those warplanes.
But this is North Africa, where military aircraft have been a decisive weapon for nearly a century. While geography usually works against air power (the BDA problem), in North Africa, especially Libya, it doesn't