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Air Power in the New Counterinsurgency Era: The Strategic Importance of USAF Advisory and Assistance Missions

Air Power in the New Counterinsurgency Era: The Strategic Importance of USAF Advisory and Assistance Missions by Alan J. Vick, Adam Grissom, William Rosenau, Beth Grill, and Karl P. Mueller, RAND Corporation, 2006, 206 pp.

The prescriptions for Air Force policy delineated in Airpower in the New Counterinsurgency Era offer some unique insight into the role of airpower in an enduring and elusive mission set but fall short of capturing a truly strategic vision for the service’s policy makers. The team of authors brings a wide background of specialties, including expertise in strategic defense policy, special mission aviation, and force planning. However, in reading the manuscript, one walks away with the notion that Grissom’s background in special operations played the pivotal role in the reaching the limited conclusions of the study. Namely, that the USAF should expand its aviation advisory and assistance capabilities to nascent governments as set forth in the mission of the 6th Special Operations Squadron.

Written in response to the Air Force’s dilemma of proving its relevancy to the ground campaign in Iraq, the study is parochial and offers a simple solution with which the Air Force can answer its critics. As such, the book provides little extra analysis to the insurgency debate. More interesting in the work is the manner in which they arrived at their conclusion for USAF policy. Perhaps more so than they intended, the prescriptions set forth by the authors make an assumption regarding US grand strategy. In the discussion as to how much of a threat an insurgency presents to US interests and the ability or inability of the United States to influence insurgent forces, the authors quickly jump to the notion that the “wars of today” are and will be intrastate conflicts that should be dealt with in a precautionary fashion by existing military forces. The chapter devoted to grand strategy reaches a conclusion that precautionary support to countries potentially facing an insurgent threat is cheaper, requires fewer resources, and helps to establish legitimacy much more effectively than the remedial strategies employed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The authors do suggest that precautionary support to nascent governments may not always work or be feasible and, thus, waffle in their conclusions by stating that the United States cannot eschew the military capabilities required for more conventional support. However, the overarching theme makes an assumption that has since been proven inconclusive.

Written in 2006, the RAND study predates the current debate in foreign policy circles regarding the weight of effort that counterinsurgency capabilities should carry in defense force planning. As current wars wind down, there is much to debate regarding the role of the military in future foreign policy issues. There is some limited discussion about a whole-of-government approach to fighting insurgencies, which attempts to find a way to utilize all instruments of power in boosting the legitimacy and governance capacity of threatened governments without relying on the military to play “whack a mole.” This line of thinking would place the military in a more conventional role and leave the softer policing and training actions to other government agencies. Unfortunately, the book fails to expand on this concept and leaves the reader feeling like RAND is what it is—an Air Force oriented think tank.

An experienced military or civic leader reading it now likely views the discussion in the first half of the book as general knowledge and a baseline framework that has been accepted by the international community. The insight provided in these chapters succinctly and clearly emphasizes that the only true means of defeating an insurgent threat is to empower the government in question to attain effective governance of its people. The main points are that the legitimate forces must fully comprehend the insurgent threat, build legitimate state capacity, control the population who sit on the fence and may be convinced to support either cause, and, finally, keep the use of force to a minimum. Without much discussion as to whether the military is the proper institution to apply these truisms, the book then turns to the question of the Air Force’s role in attaining victory against an insurgent force.

The team devotes its analytical power to dissecting the nature of the advisory and assistance mission executed by the 6th Special Operations Squadron. By taking somewhat arbitrary expectations of future insurgent threats, they argue that an expansion of the people and resources available for this mission will allow the Air Force greater ability to execute precautionary strategies on a global scale. By emphasizing this mission set and making it an institutional priority through increased promotions, opportunities, and nurturing the expertise of these advisors, the Air Force can play an ongoing role in the counterinsurgency environment.

While the authors come to a practical solution to a problem facing Air Force planners, they fall short of providing strategic guidance. Focusing on such a small scope allows a quick answer to a big question, but the better question would be what institutional capacity is required of the entire US government in overcoming insurgent threats.

Maj Russell S. Badowski, USAF

"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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