Bombs Away: The Disconcerting Common Factors

Among a rising bellicose chorus there are common and disturbing themes. First is the propensity to advocate bombing any contentious threat into oblivion. The second vital commonality is a total void in personal combat experience by most of these vocal proponents. In fact, few of them have ever served a day in the military. Proportionally, only a tiny minority of Americans have engaged in combat directly.

Thus, failing to comprehend the potentially devastating consequences of the proposed actions, the general public tends to support the most egregious and antagonistic comments. For a large number of them their perception of America's standing in the world is predicated upon the willingness to employ overwhelming military power to resolve any perceived affront.

In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, presidential candidate Ted Cruz stated, "We will carpet bomb [ISIS] into oblivion. I don't know if sand can glow in the dark, but we're going to find out." Given that in many areas ISIS is intertwined with the civilian populace, carpet bombing would incur massive collateral casualties. More ignorance is displayed by the comment regarding glowing sand as this infers he is prepared to employ nuclear weapons.

While such proclamations may appeal to testosterone infused voters, it portrays a level of glibness, naiveté, or political expediency that should be frightening to anyone with an understanding of the qualitative difference between nuclear and conventional ordnance. Too long forgotten are memories of people who experienced the ravagement of atomic warfare or the fearful lingering aftermath of nuclear confrontation that permeated the ethos of our society in the mid-20th century.

Not to be out maneuvered for truculence, Republican Party frontrunner, Donald Trump, has repeatedly addressed the issue of extensive bombing. In November 2015 in Fort Dodge, Iowa Trump, referring to ISIS, stated his plan was to, "bomb the shit out of them." Consciously disregarding the direct implication of war crimes, he also has inferred that he intentionally would put the families and supporters of ISIS at risk as well. Unschooled in recent military and terrorist engagements, apparently he does not recognize proliferation of willing hostages or families taking pride in the suicidal martyrdom of close relatives.

Like Cruz, Trump's spokesperson displayed her complete ignorance pertaining to nuclear weapons. In a 19 December appearance on The O'Reilly Factor Katrina Pearson stated, "What good does it do to have a good nuclear triad if you're afraid to use it?" It's doubtful she would make such a policy statement without her boss's approval and again portends institutional vacuity almost beyond comprehension.

As President Obama rightfully acknowledged in the 2016 State of the Union address, ISIS/ISIL does not constitute an existential threat to the United States. He stated that, "...they pose an enormous danger to civilians; they have to be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence." About a year ago I published a proposal that would destroy ISIS without extensive American involvement. In short, ISIS is a neighborhood fight, exacerbated, if not created, by our Middle East interventions, but with global implications. Some elements can be contained and eliminated, but the underlying issues are invulnerable to bombs for other forms of physical force.

It is one thing for politicians pandering for votes from the ill-informed, emotionally driven, right-wing talk radio audience, but another when WONK (Washington policy-maker) publications make similar claims. This happened when Foreign Affairs, on 19 January 2016, reintroduced an article titled Time to Attack Iran. Again, the issues of aerial bombardment and lack of personal experience are concurrent. Noteworthy is that Foreign Affairs is the journalistic instrument of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations and thus assumed to be more thoughtful.

The article was written by Matthew Kroenig and originally published in 2012. He states, "The truth is that a military strike intended to destroy Iran's nuclear program, if managed carefully, could spare the region and the world a very real threat and dramatically improve the long-term national security of the United States." The article does address issues both pro and con for attacking Iran but Kroenig's off repeated conclusion is that U.S. air power should be employed sooner rather than later. An example of his technological answer for difficult targets is summed up as follows: "the Natanz facility, which, although it is buried under reinforced concrete and ringed by air defenses, would not survive an attack from the U.S. military's new bunker-busting bomb, the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator, capable of penetrating up to 200 feet of reinforced concrete."

Despite extensive travel and an illustrious start to his academic career, Kroenig's personal experience level in combat approaches zero. Based on the entire content of his article, we must assume that he has bought into the notion that intense, accurate bombing missions can achieve the objective of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. While the U.S. Air Force currently is the best in the world, there are significant limitations on their capabilities. Securing territory is one of those. Another is accurately and definitively assessing damage to underground targets.

There should be no doubt that if the proposed bombing mission were undertaken, a ground invasion would be essential. Any such operation would be fraught with danger and bear an exorbitant cost. Remember that Iran has a population over 80 million and is three time the size of Iraq. It has a large, formidable military with 545,000 active duty and over 1,800,000 active reservists. It is estimated that they have 1658 tanks, 1,315 armored fighting vehicles, 1474 multiple launch rocket systems and over 2000 other artillery pieces. Any ground fight against that array of forces would be horrific.

Bombing Iran was ill-conceived in 2012, but intervening events make the proposal anachronistic if not ludicrous. In 2012 Iran had considerable military might but the nuclear proliferation sanctions were in place thus degrading the country's capabilities. Based on Iran's compliance, those sanctions have been lifted and 50 billion dollars in frozen assets released. In addition they are now free to sell oil on the open market. While the US still has sanctions against Iran pertaining to human rights and terrorism, other countries do not. Iran now is viewed as a potential lucrative market, especially in Europe and China. For example, consider the French business incentive with Iranian plans to buy 114 new passenger airplanes from Airbus.

Establishing coalitions currently is a hallmark of modern US intervention. Operations including Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom (Iraq) and Inherent Resolve (ISIS) all were comprised of coalitions designed to incorporate as many countries as possible. Obviously the disincentives for most countries to join in volitional conflict with Iran would be extremely high. A possible exception might be Israel. For them the political cost would be enormous not to mention geographic complications based on their contiguous nations. Kroenig did correctly note the opponents of his bombing proposal stating it could likely trigger a far larger war in a region already plagued by destabilization.

Persia has always been complex and it is wrong to characterize it as a monolith entity. There is considerable internal dissention and it has been described as "a country at war with itself." While hardliners rule Iran today, there are many people, especially younger cohorts, who actually like the US and want more access to Western culture. Eventually they will inherit leadership of the country. The one sure way to stop that from happening is armed intervention against their country. If we force them to choose, they will support the current regime and we will have created new generations of anti-Western zealots.

Importantly, the all-inclusive costs of such an intervention should be considered. Foremost there are the casualties on all sides. Then the fiscal realities would probably make the expenditures for the recent wars pale by comparison. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost 2.4 trillion dollars and with follow-on expenditures the total likely will hit six trillion dollars. Initiating the "military option" for Iran could easily double that figure.

Geopolitically such an attack would be disastrous. Billions of people already believe that America is an obstreperous bully that uses its military and economic power to coerce smaller nations or even invade them. Bombing Iran without active provocation would exacerbate those sentiments with catastrophic implications lasting decades.

In the cases cited there are common factors. First is the tendency to employ bombing missions to solve intractable problems. Second is the inexperience of those people making the proposals to drop bombs. None of them have ever been in combat nor do they comprehend the real life consequences of those actions. What is worse is that they refuse to listen to advice of experts with combat experience. During the 28 January Republican debate, Ted Cruz doubled down on his carpet bombing proposal. That, despite knowing of Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Paul Selva's congressional testimony stating carpet bombing would never be part of our strategy against ISIS.

There are cogent reasons why nuclear weapons have not been employed since WWII. With the advent of weapons of mass destruction belligerents have deliberately shifted away from wars of annihilation and chosen engaged in limited wars or surrogate conflicts with asymmetric tactics. For half a century Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) successfully prevented the use of nuclear weapons. Iranian Assured Destruction can do the same should their leadership choose to break the treaty and they acquire nuclear weapons. Their most hardline leaders have proven to be quite hostile and aggressive but they are not suicidal.

And a final factor; while airpower is an essential tool in combat, since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it never has been the terminal element in any conflict. In the end it is always boots on the ground that insures the objectives are met. They are American treasure that should not be sacrificed for political egos.