Bombs Without Boots: The Limits of Airpower

  • Published

Bombs Without Boots: The Limits of Airpower by Anthony M. Schinella. Brookings Institute Press, 2019, 391 pp. 

Bombs Without Boots is a timely study of modern airpower, its ability to coerce, and its uses and shortfalls. Anthony M. Schinella, a national intelligence officer with the National Intelligence Council, brings 25 years of experience to bear while examining five post-Cold War conflicts that saw Western militaries rely heavily on airpower to achieve various objectives. The result is a mix of history and strategy that significantly adds to the debate of airpower capabilities and limitations. 

The book delves into Operation Allied Force in Bosnia, Kosovo, the opening months of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Israeli actions in Lebanon (2006), and Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya to see how well the modern Air Force succeeds in achieving military and political aims. He quickly explains and then demonstrates that the level of success depends significantly on whether the respective military is willing to commit ground troops to a campaign, or barring that, if there are capable proxies available to fight on the ground and then secure the peace afterward. The result is a compelling argument of how airpower rarely works well in a vacuum, and that proper ground forces and airpower serve a symbiotic relationship where each strengthens the other’s attributes. In the end, he lays out a list of six criteria that military leaders and policy makers should consider before starting a war that is to rely on airpower and the use of proxy forces. His list is not exhaustive but serves as a good starting point for discussion. 

The book is a useful contribution to airpower strategy, but it does have limits. The case studies involved are useful for determining air strategy for small wars against less capable enemies. There is little discussion of what to do in situations where enemy forces have safe havens to retreat and regroup, an often-noted problem for airpower during Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan after 2002. Also, the strategy may not serve well when considering actions directly against a peer adversary. While these topics may be beyond the scope of the author’s original study, they deserve consideration when determining the efficacy of airpower. 

That being said, operational and strategic air planners should pick up a copy of Bombs Without Boots. It goes a long way toward understanding the conflicts covered in the case studies and can add significant insight into potential conflict in current hotspots like Iran or Venezuela. There is definitely room in the ever-changing airpower debate for Schinella’s ideas. 

Maj Ian S. Bertram, 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."