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Clean Bombs and Dirty Wars: Air Power in Kosovo and Libya

Clean Bombs and Dirty Wars: Air Power in Kosovo and Libya by Robert H. Gregory Jr. Potomac Books, 2015, 326 pp.

Robert Gregory's Clean Bombs and Dirty Wars is based on the author's argument that "without having anyone on the ground . . . bombs merely agitated the enemy, stiffening their resolve" (p. 3). To support this simple assertion, Gregory, a career Army Soldier and scholar, analyzes the application of airpower in two military operations. In addition, he adds a bonus subplot with an Army attempt to mimic the "clean" killing of the enemy--an option that precision weapons, via airpower, provide politicians. Considering that the author addresses his ground officer upbringing in writing about airpower, he makes a solid case for using military operations in a joint campaign to attain political goals. Furthermore, Gregory touches upon defense ideologies, political tendencies, and social differences that were present, or created, during both military actions.

First, the author reviews Operation Allied Force, which one might describe as a world moral crisis corrected by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) diverse military components. This "live" war followed a unique script that played out on the evening news. Politically, this action would not involve a ground campaign because polling numbers suggested that the public would not support it if Soldiers were going to die. To this end, no ground component commander was involved in the campaign.

Gene Merrill McPeak captures the yeoman's work carried out by Allied Force pilots: "Imagine flying over the Blue Ridge Mountains at 600 miles an hour . . . in overcast [conditions] . . . and picking out the right target down there somewhere in the woods" (p. 47). Eventually, a bomb would be placed on a target, and everyone would be happy. Yet, the shelling still continued because the target was a ruse (i.e., the age-old trick of using black telephone poles made to look like artillery). Somehow, locating the artillery and mortars had to happen, and that would come via an add-on ground commander.

At this point, Gregory identifies counterbattery devices as the linchpin needed to make the airpower campaign successful: these "low-tech microphones and high-tech radars" (p. 48) gave the triangulations of active mortar and artillery for return fire. Now, a 96-pound artillery shell may not come close to causing the damage inflicted by a 2,000-pound bomb, but when combined with accurate targeting from the incoming fire radars, it doesn't have to. Indeed, the lack of accurate targeting makes that 2,00--pound high-explosive weapon underutilized. When Task Force Hawk arrived in Macedonia with Apache attack helicopters and American counterbattery radars, someone got the idea that the targeting radars could locate the mortar tubes and artillery locations more accurately then the pilots' eyeballs or the operators of remotely piloted vehicles. This scenario supports the argument that the air campaign first became effective when those same counterbattery radars were linked to the flying artillery of A-10s and F/A-18s circling overhead.

Gregory then goes through a relatively short review of the Libyan conflict. During the uprising against, and then overthrow of, Mu'ammar Gadhafi, the rebels used Internet tools and a crowd-sourced weapons operation and targeting method. Open-source software proved effective, especially when a global following formed to support the rebels' cause virtually on social media. Consequently, the military key of uplinks to airpower and precision weapons were replaced with "teenagers wielding smartphones. . . . Finding the enemy's location . . . and air-ground integration remained as elements of continuity in successful joint operations" (p. 216). Enemies also have access to this level of map detail, nearly unlimited information, and intelligence data on troop strengths and military intentions. Initially, NATO had trouble discerning between pro-Gadhafi and rebel forces, but leaflets, telephones, and, finally, Twitter and Google Earth assumed the roles filled by counterbattery radars more than a dozen years earlier.

On the political side, Gregory skirts the topic, but there are suggestions about what he may be alluding to in terms of shaping events by previous actions. These hints stem from how a First Lady, an assistant secretary of state, and a journalist during Operation Allied Force became experts in military power over the secretary of defense during Operation New Dawn, extolling the virtues of airpower-only operations. Note the contrast with Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, reflected in a statement by President George W. Bush: "When I take action, I'm not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It's going to be decisive" (p. 122). The author makes a very strong case that precision weapons, airpower with no boots on the ground, and a video game approach to military operations are the standard for the future since they pose the least political risk.

Clean Bombs and Dirty Wars should appeal to anyone interested in detailed case studies and in-depth research projects extolling the pros and cons of strategy and politics. But I believe the group that can benefit the most from this work includes White House fellows, congressional aides, political staffers, and anyone involved with politics and the use of the military. The book's principal message is that when politicians use technology to overcome the reality of war's pain and suffering, the effectiveness of the weapons wielded is drastically reduced. Robert Gregory does a fair job of supporting and defending his thesis that friendly ground forces are needed to direct the application of airpower--a tenet that has been around since World War I.

MSgt David J. Grant, USAF
Dover AFB, Delaware


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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