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What Can Air Power Achieve? From Rolling Thunder to Odyssey Dawn

With his recent decision to launch Operation Odyssey Dawn, the code name for the airstrikes against Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, President Obama joined a long line of American leaders who have chosen air power as a tool of foreign policy.  But the use of air power without clear objectives has rarely proven an effective choice.  And, unfortunately, the lack of clear objectives is exactly what we are seeing today.  Obama has repeatedly stated that Gadhafi must go, but then he quickly adds that the international military action led by the United States seeks only the more limited objective of establishing a no-fly zone.

Gadhafi's repeated assaults on civilians prompted the international action.  His sustained assault on east Libya rolled back many of the rebel gains and threatened to consolidate his grip on power once again.  Since then, the United States has attacked, but Obama has yet to specify how the cruise missiles fired into Libya or a no-fly zone will oust Gadhafi or whether the United States is prepared for Gadhafi to stay.

As the bombardment continues, the lessons of past failures should be remembered, for the history of U.S. air assaults that lacked clearly defined and attainable objectives does not bode well for the current campaign.

In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson launched operation Rolling Thunder, a bombing campaign against North Vietnam.  As historian Mark Clodfelter has shown in his book The Limits of Airpower, Johnson was never quite sure what those air assaults should or could accomplish.  Though he hoped that Hanoi would abandon its support of insurgents in the south, Johnson misjudged the resolve of North Vietnamese leaders.

Like Obama, Johnson viewed air power as an attractive way to wage war thousands of miles from American shores.  But the Johnson administration soon learned, painfully, that an air campaign would not halt the guerilla war on the ground in South Vietnam.  The political goal of the Johnson administration to preserve a stable South Vietnam could not be accomplished by air strikes alone.

Though President Obama's decision to intervene in Libya may be warranted, the mission's undefined objectives should concern the public and policymakers alike.  The president has repeatedly stated that U.S. policy seeks Gadhafi's removal, but while a no-fly zone may destroy Gadhafi's ability to attack his own people from the air, it alone cannot defeat him.

Moreover, just as Rolling Thunder signaled a U.S. commitment to South Vietnam, so Odyssey Dawn will likely be read as a pledge of support to anti-Gadhafi forces operating in and around Benghazi.  Those fighters will surely be bolstered by the international community's response.  But how far will we support them?  Will U.S. forces offer logistical and military assistance to the rebels in order to force Gadhafi out?  Like Rolling Thunder in Vietnam, Operation Odyssey Dawn will not bring about a conclusion to the hostilities in Libya.  Getting Gadhafi to step down would require far more than what the use of air power alone can provide.

In the past several decades, air strikes and no-fly zones have sometimes achieved their goals when those goals were clear, specific, and attainable.  But just as an air campaign was ill suited to combat guerilla war in South Vietnam, so the establishment of a no-fly zone in Libya will not force Gadhafi from power.  This gap between the desire for the Libyan leader to go and the limited military objectives must be reconciled.  As the United States should know by now all too well, the use of military force without clear objectives can have disastrous consequences.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.