Why are we asking this question now?
The Israelis have overwhelming air superiority in the current conflict in Lebanon and their formidable air force is equipped with the latest and most hi-tech warplanes, missiles and bombs. Yet a huge number of civilians have been killed and maimed without significantly impairing the fighting ability of Hizbollah. The Israeli attacks have caused widespread anger among the Lebanese people and, at the same time, won admiration for Hizbollah within the wider Arab world as a force standing up to the might of Israel.
When did aerial bombing begin?
The use of projectiles against the enemy goes back through history, and was much in evidence in prolonged campaigns such as Rome's Punic Wars. But the first bombing from an aircraft took place on 1 November 1911 when an Italian airman Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti threw a Haasen hand grenade down on a Turkish camp at Ain Zara in Libya. No one was injured and little damage was done, but the lieutenant earned his place in history.
The second aerial bombardment took place on 16 October 1912 during the Balkan wars when a Bulgarian warplane dropped a larger device on a Turkish position in Edirne. The first attack on civilians was when two German Zeppelins dropped 24 high-explosive bombs in East Anglia on 19 January 1915.
Is aerial bombing a successful tactic?
General Giulio Douhet, one of the founding theorists of aerial warfare, held in the 1920s that "To conquer the command of air means victory, to be beaten in air means defeat ..." His modern proponents have held to the same doctrine, insisting that laser-guided missiles and bombs can "kill" large numbers of enemy personnel, armour and naval vessels.
The ultimate example of aerial strikes that led to the enemy capitulating is of course the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the authorisation of which, said President Harry S Truman, was no "great decision". The firebombing of Dresden, incinerating civilians, is also said to have significantly sapped the morale of the German public. Another bombing, that of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, is seen as an early example of the savage destruction of a civilian target; but it also illustrated the air domination enjoyed by the nationalists - thanks to the German and Italian Condor legion - which was such an important factor behind Franco's victory.
On a temporary tactical basis, the surprise Japanese raid on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 removed the US Navy's battleship fleet in one stroke as an obstacle to Imperial Japan's southward expansion. Soon afterwards Japanese planes eliminated much of the US air force in the Philippines and a Japanese army was ashore in Malaya.
Again, on purely tactical levels, the air campaigns by the US-led coalition in the first and second Gulf wars were successful in dismantling conventional Iraqi forces. However "shock and awe" was anything but the complete formula for winning the war, as is shown by the savage and raging insurgency in the country.
Or is it a tactic of failure?
Aerial bombardment can be judged to be a failure if it neither inflicts significant damage on the enemy's military nor weakens the will of its population to resist. This indeed has been the lesson through much of the past.
In 1940 Hermann Goering promised Adolf Hitler that the Luftwaffe would destroy both the RAF and Britain's infrastructure, and thus pave the way for an invasion. Members of the German military hierarchy as well as senior Nazis also held that prolonged, pulverising bombing would turn the British public against the war, and force Churchill's government to sue for peace. Neither transpired. Robin Higham, the eminent British air power historian, has pointed out that mass bombardment was such a new phenomenon that the concept of its bringing people to their knees was just a guess. The military had not taken into account the sheer strength of people's will to resist. Twenty-five years later, US Air Force general Curtis LeMay declared that his aircraft could bomb "North Vietnam back into the stone age". The Americans dropped 5 million tons of ordnance on the country, more than twice the amount used in the whole of the Second World War. The ferocious use of air power became one of the main tactics of the US in Indo-China, with strikes on Cambodia and Laos as well as Vietnam. However, the war ended in defeat for the US, again because the civilian population showed immense fortitude and refused to abandon their support for their fighters.
Does precision bombing make a difference?
The use of air power can look spectacularly successful in the age of television with the military releasing images of supposedly pin-point strikes. It is only afterwards, sometimes a considerable time later, that reality emerges. Nato's bombardment of Serbia and Kosovo was portrayed by military chiefs and politicians as a resounding success. However, Nato was forced subsequently to admit that the damage caused to the enemy was but a fraction of what had been claimed. US and British warplanes, it transpired, had bombed cardboard cutouts of tanks and plastic sheetings resembling bridges.
Israel finds itself drawn into an asymmetric conflict against against well-armed and well-trained fighters operating on ground of their own choosing. Air power against such an adversary requires detailed intelligence, which appears to be lacking. Some of the Israeli air strikes have been woefully off target, with television pictures going around the world of the mutilated bodies of women and children, injured Red Cross workers, dead UN observers and blasted homes.
Eitan Haber, a respected Israeli military commentator, has said: "This is neither the time nor the place in the middle of serious fighting. But when this is all over the IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] is going to have to take a good look at itself."
Is aerial bombing the best way to wage war?
* It can keep ground engagements to a minimum and thus prevent the conflict from spreading
* Employing proper targeting and laser-guided bombs, air strikes can take out enemy positions with little collateral damage
* It has the advantage of causing immense damage to the enemy with minimal losses of one's own forces
* If targets are not hit precisely - and they rarely are - it can lead to horrific civilian casualties
* It is a new form of 'gunboat diplomacy', used by the West to bully others with the threat of massive firepower
* Because it seems like an easy option, governments are more likely to go to war than if they had to risk the lives of ground troopsReuse content