The Role of Airpower in the Iraq and Afghan Wars

Much of the reporting on the Iraq and Afghan Wars focuses on the ground dimension. This is the most direct form of combat, produces the most casualties, and involves the most serious political problems. The fact remains, however, that Iraq and Afghanistan are air wars as well, and wars where airpower has played a critical role in combat.

This briefing presents summary data on the patterns in the air side of the conflict. It provides detailed tables and charts showing the patterns in the use of airpower, and the role fixed wing aircraft have played in strike missions, close air support, logistics and resupply.

The combat data are particularly important because they show that both the Afghan and Iraq Wars have been true AirLand battles, and that combat airpower played a major role during the surge in Iraq and in dealing with the resurgence of the Taliban after 2004.

The role of air power would be even clearer if unclassified breakouts of helicopter sortie and combat engagement data were available. Rotary wing aircraft have played a critical role in supporting combat missions, secure transport, and close air support. In fact, it seems likely that the sortie patterns shown in the following charts would more than double. Certainly, the fact that fixed and rotary wing aircraft have become key partners in what is an AirLand battle in both wars would be far clearer.

These data also do not fully reveal one of the most important patterns in the use of airpower in both wars, although they do show how cautious the US and its allies have been in using heavy munitions. There are no counts of the numbers of attack sorties that had to be canceled because of the risk of civilian casualties and collateral damage, and the munitions data do not show the emphasis put on limiting the size of munitions or altering the aim point to reduce civilian casualties and collateral damage when attack missions were carried out.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy