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Document created: 1 September 2007
Air & Space Power Journal- Fall 2007
|Editorís Note: PIREP is aviation shorthand for pilot report. Itís a means for one pilot to pass on current, potentially useful information to other pilots. In the same fashion, we use this department to let readers know about items of interest.|
Lt Tim Larribau, French Air Force*
On 11 September 2001 (9/11), four American commercial airliners were hijacked by 19 fanatical Muslim terrorists. Three of the planes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. The fourth crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside. Everyone remembers the dreadful images of this new form of warfare that has locked the world in a gruesome fight against a very inventive breed of international terrorists.
Many people have commented about the tragic events of 9/11. According to one widespread idea, Western-style warfare, based largely on aviation, space, and high technology, is no longer effective against these new threats. Infantrymen and other ground-minded soldiers can indeed find attractive the idea of going back to a more traditional style of warfare based on human intelligence and close combat with an enemy smart enough simply to refuse to engage in Western-style warfare. This idea relegates air forces and airmen to a supporting role in the broadest sense of that term, bringing to the forefront the personal qualities of infantrymen who will confront this new nontechnological, but nonetheless effective, threat. However, we can consider the 9/11 attack not only from the terrorist perspective but also from an air-warfare perspective. Considering the attacks in this manner, we must acknowledge that the principles of aerial warfare remain a forceful reality and that, as in 1918, we must start by winning the air war in order to have hope of prevailing on the ground, even if the air war has taken an unexpected turn.
On 9/11, most journalists and commentators saw only the human tragedy that was occurring and perceived few of the reactions it would trigger. However, some people spoke of airliners transformed into manned flying bombs. For military aviators, this notion has a heavy meaning. It is indeed from this perspective that we must consider the 9/11 attacks.
Unable to launch conventional military weapons against their targets, the terrorists commandeered commercial airliners, camouflaged as disoriented civil aircraft until the point of impact. Apart from the fact that they were indeed civilian airliners filled with passengers, we must understand that the terrorists succeeded in flying four powerful bombs in US airspace and that three of them reached their designated targets unimpeded by Americans. The power of these bombs derived from the aircraft’s impact speed and fuel capacity. Burning aviation fuel attains temperatures of several thousand degrees, lethal for any infrastructure or building, let alone human beings.
The hijacking of the airplanes, the time it took authorities to understand that a serious problem existed, and the absence of procedures for handling this situation generated a particularly strong sense of surprise. Even if they had known of a terrorist attack within their airspace, Americans could not imagine its nature and therefore could not adapt and respond adequately.
In terms of air warfare, the first lesson learned concerns the fact that Americans really did temporarily lose air superiority, with tragic consequences. During several dozen minutes, the US military and civilian air authorities found themselves in a state of uncertainty and, at best, in an inadequate defensive posture. Just a momentary loss of air superiority proved enough to cause terrible losses.
A dear concept to airmen (often accused of dogmatism on this matter), air superiority therefore remains the decisive element of large-scale military action, even if it must confront heretofore unexpected aspects. Air superiority assumes more importance than ever as we now recognize some nonmilitary, indirect ways of challenging an enemy’s airpower. These insidious new ways no longer require a large-scale aerial confrontation, as in the Battle of Britain, but lend themselves perfectly to asymmetric conflicts.
Today everyone accepts the fact that since the end of the Cold War, the airpower of Western countries—first of all, that of the United States—remains impervious to any challenge by a conventional strategy and sizable air force. The United States possesses extensive aerial experience and pursues sustained technical and doctrinal developments in this field. Its alliances and military cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and especially the Israeli Air Force help maintain and renew this status. Furthermore, since Russia and China do not represent severe threats, no entity today possesses sufficient aerial and military means to challenge America’s airpower. Any terrorist group or rogue state, therefore, can use aerial hijacking quite effectively as an asymmetrical mode of action.
Therefore we must no longer view the hijacking problem as only a terrorist action that concerns the civilian population but as a direct assault on the air superiority we claim to keep over our skies and air routes. A hijacker seeks to seize air superiority in a temporary but irreparable way, and we must vigorously oppose this seizure of control, regardless of the hijacker’s ultimate intentions. To the extent that hijackings take on a military dimension, the Air Force should undoubtedly think about the problem and work with police and homeland-security services to provide authorities with adequate solutions and procedures.
Because each civil aircraft is susceptible to becoming a piloted bomb, the struggle for air superiority begins very early with passenger control and close monitoring of airline companies, airport zones, and the companies and people who work at airports. Airline flight crews must also become more than mere pilots and flight attendants. They must be cognizant of the military dimension of hijacking. Perhaps we must also modify the recruitment and training of flight crews to incorporate a true military-defense aspect aboard airliners. Most transatlantic vessels of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries carried companies of soldiers—ancestors of modern-day marines—in charge of police duties on board the ship and of its military defense in case of attack. These vessels also carried enough weapons and munitions to enable the sailors themselves to participate in the defense of their ships. Likewise, airline flight crews must be able to mount a coherent response to a hijacker’s attack.
Obviously, nothing can absolutely prevent a well-prepared terrorist group from taking control of an aircraft. Religious conviction or ideological fanaticism, coupled with lengthy paramilitary training and meticulous military preparation of the operation, can produce a level of efficiency that will prove hard to counter with only flight crews and technical personnel instead of security professionals. We have indeed considered placing armed and trained security agents, such as police officers or marshals, on board, but this solution alone will not suffice. For terrorists, the presence of a security agent represents nothing more than an additional factor to integrate into attack planning, and they can certainly envision countermeasures to the agent’s predictable reaction.
The key to resisting an airplane hijacking lies in gaining time and multiplying obstacles that can delay hijackers who attempt to seize control of aircraft. Reorganizing duties inside the aircraft by pairs, small groups, and, finally, by the entire commercial flight crew should permit personnel to implement a graduated series of specific procedures and responses to provide enough time to inform authorities about events and take at least elementary measures in coordination with competent authorities. A recurring series of obstacles, both human and procedural, becomes equally dissuasive because it forces assailants to lengthen their preparation time and multiplies their risks.
Sadly, we must also anticipate the case in which hijackers still manage to take control of an aircraft in flight. The lessons of 9/11 leave very few choices about which course of action to take. Even the temporary loss of air superiority can have dreadful consequences on many levels. Hijackers must never enjoy freedom of action in the air, no matter their intentions. Because of the very short response time, we must put rapid procedures in place either to force the plane to land as quickly as possible or simply to shoot it down. This way of thinking does not give much priority to passenger life and well-being, but we must not allow an uncontrolled or hijacked airplane to fly at will in our skies.
In the case of aircraft hijacking, as in conventional warfare, we must gain and keep air superiority. If we lose it, we must spare no sacrifice or effort to recover it. The Battle of Britain, the Yom Kippur War, and 9/11 all show the necessity of maintaining air superiority at any cost.
Once they had acquired freedom of action in American airspace, the terrorists executed their prepared plan of simultaneously attacking four targets on the US east coast. The choice of these targets gives food for thought in that it corresponds to familiar concepts of Western air strategy. The first two aircraft hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center—business buildings that housed numerous banks and financial enterprises. Located in the business district of New York City, America’s economic and financial capital, the towers were surrounded by hundreds of similar structures, not far from Wall Street’s famous New York Stock Exchange, which exerts a leading influence on Western and world economies.
The third plane hit the Pentagon, the huge, legendary military complex that holds the Department of Defense; Joint Chiefs of Staff; headquarters of the US Air Force, Navy, Army, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard; and hundreds of departments and operations centers essential to the leadership and management of the US armed forces as well as the defense of US interests worldwide.
Many people have speculated that the fourth plane, which crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside, targeted either the White House or the Capitol in Washington, DC. The former, the American equivalent of the French Palais de l’Elysée, is the home and workplace of the president of the United States—head of the federal government, responsible for national defense and foreign affairs, among other things. The White House therefore houses the highest-level American policy maker. The parliament building of American politics, the Capitol contains the House of Representatives and the Senate—two chambers that represent the American people, charged with controlling government actions and legislation.
We could easily add the initial victim of the attacks as a fourth target—the population. By definition, terrorism assaults civilian populations to create fear and lead to actions guided by fear. Although no aircraft specifically targeted residential areas, the terrorists obviously planned to inflict a massive human toll. In sum the terrorists took aim at (1) the economic structure of the United States and perhaps world commerce, (2) the military leadership, (3) the political organization, and (4) the civilian population.
Thus partitioned, this target list resembles not only the classifications designated by several air strategists, but also some events in the history of air warfare. The first to write about the psychological effects of subjecting civilian populations and large cities to strategic bombing, Italian general Giulio Douhet asserted that massive, murderous air attacks on the civilian population could shake the democratic legitimacy of a government. During World War II, the Germans applied this theory against cities in Great Britain, as did the British against German cities—although the two events failed to prove the theory because neither produced the intended destabilizing effect.
Consequently, we could deem the action against the civilian population perhaps the least pertinent of the 9/11 scenarios; however, this case does not reflect a classic air attack but a terrorist assault by aerial means. With the train bombings of March 2004 in Madrid, Spain, we saw how terrorism can have a destabilizing effect on a nation’s democratic life if it occurs during an electoral period. An attack on the scale of 9/11 during such a time could directly affect democracy and, therefore, a nation’s policy.
The choice of the three other targets clearly relates to the doctrine of strategic paralysis and systems analysis of an enemy. A larger-scale, successful strategic attack on a nation’s economic structure as well as military and political leadership can deeply transform the nature of a conflict. The terrorists’ clear intent to decapitate the United States politically, militarily, and economically heralded a new era in terrorism. Previously, terrorist attacks could be characterized as either publicity stunts for the benefit of the news media or very limited intimidation operations. The events of 9/11, though, featured acts of war with strategic aims, and those in Madrid only confirm this new kind of terrorist action.
Despite its tactical success and the shock it induced in world opinion, the 9/11 attack yielded only very limited long-term results. Although often compared in its suddenness and death toll to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, 9/11 differed in some major ways. Out of the 300 aircraft that hit Pearl Harbor, the Japanese lost only 29, which means that the main tool of the attack emerged nearly unscathed and could, eventually, renew the assault or conduct another relatively soon afterwards. From a human point of view, the Japanese naval airmen returned to their carriers fortified with new experience, ready to fight again in other battles and thus sustain the long-term war effort. Only the absence of strategic vision on the part of the Japanese military leaders prevented them from better exploiting their initial success.
Conversely, the 9/11 terrorists chose a course of action that definitively precluded any renewal of the attack. Their conquest of freedom of action in American airspace was as brief as it was sudden, and the aircraft selected for the attacks were destroyed. Furthermore, the attack systematically killed the hijackers, who obviously could no longer profit from their training, experience, and motivation. Al-Qaeda thus lost the time invested in their recruiting, training, and infiltration. The terrorist organization’s leaders therefore had to forgo the services of these highly qualified personnel and begin the recruiting and training cycle anew.
A military operation, whether for information collection or combat, undeniably gains quality and usefulness if it survives intact as a unit and participates in a coherent series of diverse operations that can perpetuate its success. Therefore, after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese could envision a landing on the Hawaiian Islands or any other exploitation of their tactical success that would certainly have made the Pacific war much more difficult for the United States. The tactical success of a suicide terrorist attack carries within itself the seeds of strategic defeat because the motivation, training, specialized intelligence, and courage of the terrorist are lost, along with the surprise effect of his attack. Loss of motivation and training is compounded by the absence of experience brought back and shared with the organization, which harms the terrorists’ cause over the long term.
Target selection for 9/11 may have seemed impressive since the terrorists eschewed subway stations or parking lots in favor of elements essential to the functioning of their adversary; however, target selection actually reflected a certain naïveté because all the targets were only links in a global system, and their destruction would not have brought down the whole system. The US defense establishment is not entirely centralized inside the Pentagon, and other command centers could no doubt have maintained the continuity of American defense. Likewise, a successful attack on the White House or Capitol would not have brought down the government because constitutional procedures fill the gap left by a deceased president or members of Congress. Finally, destruction of the World Trade Center would not cause the infinitely complex US and world economic structures to collapse. However, we must not overlook the negative effect of these attacks on the world economy or even on the US economy. In terms of economics, air transportation clearly suffered the most from these attacks.
The events of 9/11 therefore mark the emergence in air-warfare strategy of a form of asymmetrical confrontation that allows eluding and surprising conventional airpower. Asymmetrical confrontation is a relatively new notion in military strategy. The traditional military forces of the great powers attained very high levels of competence as a consequence of successive conflicts in the nineteenth century, the two world wars, and the indirect confrontations of the Cold War. This military strength obliged weaker nations or organizations to avoid direct, traditional confrontations that would quickly sweep them away. Terrorism against civilians and gaps in military capabilities, guerilla warfare, black markets, and illegal trafficking therefore represent modes of action that evade traditional military power that has proven too ponderous to respond adequately. The principle of proportional response to attacks, contained in the rules of legitimate defense, also forbids disproportionate military reactions. Moreover, the perpetrators of these asymmetric attacks are generally civilians hidden among the civilian population as well as the social and economic fabric of a society, a situation that demands perfectly targeted and measured military reactions to avoid disastrous collateral damage.
The wars of decolonization during the second half of the twentieth century show clearly the difficulty of countering these new modes of action, especially when they are associated with determined political action or, as in the Vietnam War, if they blend with conventional military actions. The Vietminh’s ability to lead an exhausting and psychologically unsustainable guerilla war while knowing how to inflict classical military defeats at opportune moments contributed significantly to French and American defeats. Asymmetric conflicts become very dangerous when, guided by a strategic vision and a well-defined policy, they cause sustained destabilization through conventional and nonconventional courses of action. Therefore, asymmetric warfare poses a substantial challenge to conventional forces, who must adapt to these new hit-and-run warfare methods without giving up the full range of their conventional capabilities.
In aviation terms, asymmetrical threats are quite new. Hijacking and short-range attacks by surface-to-air missiles against civilian aircraft offer only a glimpse of the potential ways paramilitary groups might affect aviation. Today, our reactions to these predictable or potential asymmetrical uses of aviation are at best vague and clumsy. The systematic barring of certain objects such as nail clippers or Swiss Army knives, while ordinary nylon string, pens, or credit cards might prove more dangerous, betrays a degree of feverishness among public authorities, who remain in a frightened defensive stance. Similarly, the restrictive security measures that France imposed on leisure and commuter airlines in the last few years might appear excessive, showing that it does not have a clear understanding of the threats. Civil, military, industrial, and leisure aviation authorities should make a serious effort to find a new asymmetric approach to air warfare and to counter possible threats from the air. National defense, according to the French Constitution of 1958, remains the concern of all citizens, and now more than ever, every aviator—whether professional or amateur—must embrace the role of air and territorial defense by aerial means.
These new modes of asymmetrical war have not rendered air warfare obsolete, but we must adapt and find new asymmetric courses of action that transcend traditional airpower thought. We no longer need sustained air superiority to conduct significant air wars, but losing control of the sky, even for a few minutes, can have terrible consequences. More than a question of techniques or means, we must augment known doctrines with a different approach to air warfare, and we must study that new approach and understand it as terrorism reaches a truly strategic level.
Because we obviously do not yet fully grasp these new facts, the Western powers remain in a defensive posture that is as uncomfortable for air passengers and airlines as it is for the authorities. However, we must react quickly and effectively by regaining not only the initiative but also an even more complete mastery of the skies, as well as the use of yet unknown means to maintain air superiority.
*The author, who trains French Air Force reservists in Bordeaux, France, formerly served as an aide to the French Joint Chief of Staff for Operational Planning at Creil, France.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University
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