As the allies enforce the No Fly No Drive zone over Libya, once again we are hearing commentators repeat the cliches about the limits of air power. As of March 27th US, French and British air power has achieved the destruction of Gaddafi's air force and the neutralization of much of his army and navy. The rebels have not only consolidated their positions but have also retaken several towns that they had previously lost.
Gaddafi is now using what has become the classic political response to airpower: propaganda claims that innocent civilians have been killed, combined with the use of real or imaginary "human shields." Deliberately putting innocent civilians next to military targets is, according to the Laws of Armed Conflict, a war crime, Not only that, but it is recognized that civilians themselves have a responsibility to stay away from military targets during wartime.
Western leaders have shown themselves reluctant to allow their air forces to use their full power, or to use their airpower thoroughly to finish off defeated foes. The best example of the last problem was in 1991, when the George H.W. Bush administration failed to destroy Saddam's Republican Guard on the so-called "Highway of Death." . This left the Iraqi dictator with a force with which he could repress his own people, and also enabled him to stay in power for more than another decade.
In 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, the US was able to use its airpower effectively in Afghanistan, sending in small special-forces teams that could work with local allies to locate and target Taliban forces. The combination of GPS satellite navigation positioning technology with satellite communications and occasionally laser-guided weapons opened the way for the US to drive the Taliban from power.
At the time, the Taliban tried to play up supposed American strikes on civilian targets to discredit the US, but the operation was over before any sustained political impact was felt. In the first phase of the 2003 Iraq operation, events moved equally fast. Saddam was unable effectively to repeat his famous 1991 "Baby-Milk Factory" ploy -- when the dictator's press agents had taken a gaggle of international journalists to a supposed "Baby-Milk Factory" that the US claimed was a center for the development and manufacture of biological weapons.
On March 26th 2011, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that "We do have a lot of intelligence reports about Gaddafi taking the bodies of the people he has killed and putting them at sites where we have attacked." This statement is, so far, the most forceful effort by the US to push back against this "innocent civilian" propaganda technique. Gates's words will be challenged, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) should expect to be asked to prove Gates's contention.
The way this story is handled by the OSD and by the rest of the Obama administration is of extreme importance.
If the OSD and the administration can satisfy an inherently skeptical and hostile press that the Libyans manipulated corpses the way Gates said they did, it will push the world media to be less credulous of such claims in the future. If the OSD cannot effectively support this contention, then it will be easier than ever for dictatorships and terrorist groups to neutralize US airpower with propaganda about imagined civilian casualties.
No one, certainly no one in the US military, has ever claimed that a bombing campaign can be carried out without any loss of innocent human life. Yet the use of airpower is essential if America is to be able to prevail at an acceptable cost of both life and treasure for itself. From the point of view of America's enemies, forcing the US to curtail the use of air superiority by propagandistic means is a "no brainer." It is a sad commentary on the mental state of America's national security leadership that it has taken this long for someone of the stature of Robert Gates to point that out.