All indications are that the Iraq war is becoming so unpopular, that the Americans will have to withdraw sooner rather than later. Then why are they expanding their air bases? By Ashwin Tombat
The US public may want US military forces in Iraq to come home, and the US Congress might vote on withdrawal deadlines, but the US military seems to be digging in for a long stay in the oil-rich country that is today being torn apart by sectarian strife.
The unpopular Bush administration may have realised that it has to bring the troops in Iraq back home sooner rather than later, but it hopes to retain firm control of oil-rich Iraq by a combination of overwhelming American air power and Iraqi ground troops.
Small wonder that the US Air Force is lengthening an 11,000 ft runway at Balad Airbase, and recently moved several squadrons of F-16C fighters and A-10 ground attack aircraft to Iraq.
Word at the Pentagon is that the US intends to maintain six major bases in Iraq in the foreseeable future. In addition to air power, each base will have a helicopter-borne rapid reaction infantry brigade. A brigade normally has a strength of between 3,500 to 5,500 fighting men.
In addition, the US plans to keep the formidable $220 million B-1 bombers within a hour's flying time from Iraq, probably at one of its bases in Saudi Arabia. A B-1 can carry up to 40,000 lbs (18.5 tonnes) of highly accurate and extremely destructive GPS-guided 500-lb and 1,000-lb 'smart' bombs.
The air imperative
Air cover is vital for the effectiveness of the US mission in Iraq. Had it not been for US fighters and AC-130 gunships that can be scrambled at a few minutes' notice, the over-stretched US military in Iraq would have a very hard time, and might even face defeat.
The air force maintains round-the-clock combat air patrols that can respond within minutes to calls from ground forces, and deter attackers with a fusillade of deathly cluster munitions, missiles, and cannon fire. Heavy B-1 and B-52 bombers can take out insurgent strongholds by a rain of deadly smart bombs that can pulversise even the most strongly fortified bunkers.
US units, when attacked, invariably call in air support. A heavy over-reliance on air power is causing civilian casualties to mount sharply in Iraq. Whenever the US claims 100 dead Al Qaeda fighters or Iraqi insurgents, many of the dead are actually civilians. Supersonic fighter and bomber pilots cannot distinguish between guerilla fighters and civilians. Even helicopter gunships find it very hard to tell the 'enemy' from his innocent neighbour.
Consequently, support for the US Iraq mission dwindles by the day in the country it is supposed to be saving. In any case, history has shown decisively and repeatedly that guerrilla forces can be attacked, suppressed, dispersed and depleted by air power, but never decisively defeated.
The alleged 'alliance of the willing' cannot afford to not protect its long and highly vulnerable supply lines against local guerrillas without constant air support. That is one of the most useful lessons it has learnt from the earlier Afghanistan conflict, when the US was arming and financing the very Al Qaeda elements it is now trying to wipe out. Afghanistan's previous invader, the Soviet Union, was defeated mainly because the Soviet military could not protect its long lines of communications.
Technology can fight terror?
US spy satellites can read even license plates from hundreds of kilometres in the sky, through clouds, smoke, rain or foliage. They can track human infrared signatures. And they can feed the information to pilot less unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, which will soon become the new frontline weapon against Iraqi insurgents. For, their pilots are sitting in a Nevada control room, and cannot end up in body bags, even if the aircraft is shot down.
UAVs may seem like an ideal solution, and the present Reapers and Predators may become formidable war machines when equipped with missiles, cannon and bombs, but the US must remember that it has once earlier tried to operate an aerial war that promised zero casualties.
This was in the '70s, when ground troops were withdrawn from active combat in Vietnam, and an electronic-guided war launched from Cambodian soil, after that country's ruler, Prince Sihanouk, was toppled by the CIA-baked Lon Nol. Needless to say, that war, which even saw the use of pilot less planes -early precursors of today's Reapers and Predators - was lost too. As a consequence, not only Vietnam but Cambodia too was lost to the reviled 'Commies'.
The problem for the US is that in aerospace terms it is technologically at least one or two generations ahead of the rest of the world. Russia has the advanced technology and stealth systems, but they are just on the drawing board, as the former superpower cannot afford to operationalise them. China, and India are unlikely to be able to catch up with US military technology for the next 25 years at least.
The US accounts for around 50 per cent of total global military spending. Only Europe can compete with the sole superpower, but it doesn't want to. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, America's air power is unchallenged. Little wonder that the superpower relies so much on its air force. In the last few conflicts it has been involved in, the US Army's main role has been keeping enemy units pinned down, so they can be destroyed by the air force's smart bombs.
So far, this policy has succeeded, mainly because none of the conflicts have been long drawn out. And where the situation has looked intractable - like in Somalia - practical and sensitive US presidents like Bill Clinton have pulled out regardless of how it makes the US look. But with former oil industry executives as president and vice president, and an oil-rich country in their hands, who can say forthrightly that lucre will not overcome lucidity in thinking?