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Air & Space Power Journal - Spring 2006

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The Air Force’s Missing Doctrine

How the US Air Force Ignores Counterinsurgency

Maj Kenneth Beebe, USAF*

Considering that the U.S. military has extensive experience in using airpower against insurgents, and that the United States will almost certainly be involved in fighting insurgents and terrorists and will no doubt assist other nations in their own fights against irregular opponents in the future, the lack of attention in military colleges and in doctrine regarding this subject is scandalous. The U.S. Air Force in particular, has tended to ignore and downplay air operations in small wars in its education system and in its doctrine.”1

Many futurists speculate that the era of major combat against a peer competitor is over, at least for the foreseeable future.2 They predict more conflicts at the lower end of the spectrum, the doctrinal territory known as military operations other than war or stability and support operations. After overwhelming the regime of Saddam Hussein during Operation Iraqi Freedom in a fast-paced conventional battle, the Pentagon quickly found itself facing a determined insurgency in Iraq. Indeed, some authors contend that the global war on terrorism is in fact a battle against a global insurgency.3 If this is the type of warfare the US military can expect to see more of in the future, it should look to counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine to learn how to fight it.

Unfortunately, even as it appears that COIN will only become more common in the future, the Air Force has no workable doctrine for this emerging mission area. Writing doctrine, as compared to creating new organizations or buying new weapons systems, costs very little even though it could have the greatest impact. According to retired USAF colonel Dennis Drew, “To a large extent, the Air Force has ignored insurgency as much as possible, preferring to think of it as little more than a small version of conventional war.”4 To prepare for the future, the USAF must shift its doctrinal focus and force structure to include COIN, instead of continuing to focus exclusively on increasingly less likely major conventional operations.

This article examines Air Force COIN doctrine, or the lack thereof. First, it reviews current Air Force COIN doctrine. Next, it looks at what types of issues COIN doctrine can help address. Then finally, this article reviews the case of how the Air Force faced an insurgency in the Vietnam conflict but failed to write, or at least keep, the doctrine.

The purpose of doctrine is to help us prepare to fight present and future conflicts by codifying the experiences of the past. Air Force Doctrine Document (AFDD) 1, Air Force Basic Doctrine, states, “Air and space doctrine is a statement of officially sanctioned beliefs, warfighting principles, and terminology that describes and guides the proper use of air and space forces in military operations. It is what we have come to understand, based on our experience to date. The Air Force promulgates and teaches this doctrine as a common frame of reference on the best way to prepare and employ air and space forces. Subsequently, doctrine shapes the manner in which the Air Force organizes, trains, equips, and sustains its forces” (emphasis in original).5 A military that lacks doctrine for COIN also lacks guidance on how to best prepare and employ its forces or how to organize, train, equip, and sustain its forces in such conflicts. The lack of COIN doctrine suggests that the Air Force deems it unimportant to include—a case of preparing to fight the wars we prefer and not preparing for the wars we are most likely to fight.

Since its early days, the USAF has focused on large-scale conventional doctrine and, later, nuclear doctrine—war at the high end of the spectrum. In the interwar period between World Wars I and II, the focus of emerging Army Air Service and Army Air Corps doctrine was largely on strategic bombardment in an effort to emphasize the need for a separate air service.6 In the decades after World War II, nuclear warfare dominated airpower doctrine. Colonel Drew’s review of Air Force doctrine during the Vietnam period shows a briefly captured COIN doctrine in Army Field Manual 2-5, Tactical Air Operations, Special Air Warfare, March 1967. However, by the mid-1970s the COIN doctrine was nearly gone.7 Unfortunately, as the early days of the Vietnam conflict and present-day Iraq demonstrate, when it is needed the most, doctrine for how air and space forces should be used in COIN is almost nonexistent. The primary role of air and space forces in COIN is to support ground forces or other governments and agencies. It appears that the Air Force tends to neglect situations where it serves primarily in a supporting role.

So, what does Air Force doctrine say about COIN? The current version of AFDD 2, Organization and Employment of Aerospace Power, makes no mention of insurgency or COIN at all.8 The current draft of AFDD 2 includes the definition of support to counterinsurgency from Joint Publication (JP) 3-0, Doctrine for Joint Operations, 10 September 2001.9 However, it fails to present an understanding of what role airpower and space power can or should play in such operations. It does not cover appropriate roles for the Air Force in support of COIN, what relevant effects air and space platforms can create, or how airpower and space power should be organized and employed to support COIN.

Next down the doctrinal chain is AFDD 2-3, Military Operations other than War (MOOTW).10 MOOTW is kind of a catchall phrase in US military jargon which means anything at the low end of the spectrum—in other words not major conventional war or nuclear war.11 AFDD 2-3 mentions support to COIN in the context of foreign internal defense (FID) rather than as a separate doctrinal area for consideration. Therefore, the Air Force doctrine most closely addressing COIN is AFDD 2‑3.1, Foreign Internal Defense, 10 May 2004, but even here doctrine only tangentially -addresses the issue of COIN.

JP 1‑02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 12 April 2001 (amended through 31 August 2005), defines foreign internal defense as “participation by civilian and military agencies of a government in any of the action programs taken by another government to free and protect its society from subversion, lawlessness, and insurgency.” Unfortunately, the term FID largely obscures the fact that the mission area addresses COIN. In fact, the once-popular acronym COIN has largely disappeared from both joint and Air Force literature and has been replaced with the catchall term FID.12 FID’s focus is to provide support to other governments. One problem with this narrow interpretation of COIN is a growing need for US forces to conduct COIN, in their own right, in the fight against global, transnational extremists or in stability operations. In countering a global insurgency, one may find no host nation to support. In Iraq, the government is unable to effectively fight insurgency on its own. Thus, the US military plays a major, direct combat role in COIN rather than a supporting role, as envisioned in FID doctrine. Additionally, in cases like Iraq and Afghanistan, where the supported nation has virtually no air force, the US military may be the only source of air support to indigenous forces. Therefore, doctrine is needed that focuses on airpower’s role in COIN rather than on its more limited role in FID. Unfortunately, the Air Force does not have doctrine to support efforts against COIN other than that published in AFDD 2‑3.1.

At this point, it is worth asking whether the Air Force really needs COIN doctrine. After all, isn’t an insurgency just a scaled-down version of an all-out war? Unfortunately, this attitude is pervasive, and not just in the Air Force. The current battle in Iraq pits determined insurgents against US and coalition ground forces. These forces employ conventional cordon-and-search operations as their primary method of finding and rooting out the insurgents, with armored units patrolling the streets in some areas of Baghdad. But COIN differs from conventional warfare in more than just scale. JP 1-02 defines counterinsurgency as “those military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency” (emphasis added). Military operations must be part of a balanced strategy focused on security and legitimacy. Colonel Drew argues that “insurgencies . . . are fundamentally different from conventional wars in at least five ways.” These differences are time, civilian-military “duality,” tactics, logistics, and centers of gravity.13 As James S. Corum and Wray R. Johnson point out in their book Airpower in Small Wars, “Generally speaking, guerrillas and terrorists rarely present lucrative targets for aerial attack, and even more rarely is there ever a chance for airpower to be employed in a strategic bombing campaign or even in attack operations on any large scale. As a result, it is the indirect application of airpower—that is, the use of aviation resources for reconnaissance, transportation, psychological operations, and communications—that proves most useful14 (emphasis added). Thus, many of airpower’s most celebrated doctrinal roles, such as counterair, air interdiction, and strategic attack are often of marginal use in COIN. For the roles that are truly useful in COIN, such as close air support (CAS), we cannot just blindly apply the doctrine “written within the scope of major theater warfare.”15 Unfortunately, that is the end result without doctrine written specifically for COIN.

What roles can airpower and space power contribute to COIN, or are they simply irrelevant to COIN?16 The lack of doctrine has nothing to do with the lack of airpower’s and space power’s applicability. Some mission areas certainly stand out—surveillance and reconnaissance, battlefield air mobility, communications support, and CAS.17 These are roles mostly in support of the ground commander, whether a special operations force commander or a conventional force commander. The Air Force also can fulfill primary roles in air control and FID programs to train and equip indigenous air forces.18 In fact, Airmen are exercising many of these roles in Iraq and Afghanistan today, but without a coherent doctrine defining the role of air forces in COIN.19 Surely, there is a better way to do business. Now is the time to document the lessons of COIN warfare—in doctrine as well as in tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP).

One issue that sound doctrine should help clarify is what effects airpower and space power can and should have, leading to the types of people and training needed for COIN. Education and training programs for officers and enlisted need upgrading to include consideration of insurgency and the role of airpower and space power in COIN. Training for our intelligence specialists may need to include specific education about insurgents and their operating methods. We should develop TTPs and related training for our Battlefield Airmen so that they can provide the support required by ground forces conducting COIN.20 There may be a need to develop new Air Force specialty codes that specialize in COIN and increase the number of personnel whose duties include COIN.

Decisions on the types of weapons systems procured can and should be influenced by COIN doctrine. Clearly, for the roles delineated above, aircraft optimized for air-to-air combat have far less utility than when deployed in conventional operations against a near-peer opponent. Likewise, systems primarily used to suppress enemy air defenses are of little use, as insurgents rarely have air defenses more sophisticated than optically aimed antiaircraft artillery and shoulder-fired infrared-guided missiles. Aircraft and systems optimized for close support of ground forces are ideal.21 Helicopters and airlift aircraft that can land on short, unimproved airstrips are more useful than transport aircraft limited to large, fixed bases. Responsive and low—observable intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems will provide a high degree of persistence and better effects than systems designed to quickly scan the battlefield for large enemy formations. Weapons also need to reflect the nature of the fight. Weapons with large collateral—damage effects have far less utility than small bombs (smaller than the 250‑pound small-diameter bombs currently being developed). Currently, the Air Force’s only low-yield precision munitions are the AGM-114 Hellfire (from armed RQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicles), 105 mm/40 mm gun rounds (from AC‑130s), and the AGM-65 Maverick (only from the A‑10). Other weapons and systems may also be developed that are relevant to support COIN efforts.22 Without a coherent doctrine for airpower and space power support to COIN, the USAF will continue to fund and buy systems more -appropriate for other types of conflict.

In addition to identifying relevant effects, doctrine should help determine how best to organize air and space forces for employment. For the types of close support needed in COIN, centralized control of air and space forces may not always be best if it is not responsive enough to the needs of the ground commander. Indeed, to make forces more responsive, one needs a high degree of integration at the tactical level—whether for the movement of troops or for the delivery of airborne fires. Doctrine should help determine the best methods for integrating with supported forces, to include which echelons need liaison officers and planners. As one author points out, “Currently we assign air-liaison elements to relatively high ground-command levels, based on the size of the ground unit rather than the need for air support.”23

The lack of relevant airpower and space power doctrine is not due to a lack of experience in COIN—there are many examples of how the USAF and other services employed airpower in the past.24 For example, the US Marines demonstrated the effectiveness of aircraft against insurgents in Nicaragua as early as 1927.25 US forces assisted the Republic of the Philippines in successfully countering the Huk rebellion from 1946 to 1956.26 The United States also assisted the government of El Salvador throughout the 1980s and in 1992 during its civil war.27 Perhaps the most relevant, if not the most recent, example comes from the Vietnam War, where the United States assisted South Vietnam in combating a major insurgency. While care should be taken in trying to draw direct comparisons between the fight in the jungles of Vietnam during the 1960s and the largely urban fighting in Iraq today, the experiences include much to learn.

The United States is unprepared for conducting COIN in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite past experiences in Vietnam.28 Lt Col David Dean, USAF, describes the development of Air Force COIN forces during the Vietnam era.29 In the mid-1950s, while the French struggled to overcome the Vietnamese insurgency, the US Air Force vice-chief of staff, concerned about the relevance of airpower, raised the issue of “whether air forces can do anything other than offer massive retaliatory action in the event of major war.”30 It was not until 1961, however, when President Kennedy directly tasked the military services to develop COIN forces, that the Air Force took action, standing up the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron (CCTS). After additional pressure from the president, the Air Force stood up the Special Air Warfare Center (SAWC) at Eglin AFB, Florida, in 1962, absorbing the 4400th CCTS. The SAWC conducted operations in Vietnam and surrounding countries until 1968, when it was redesignated as the US Air Force Special Operations Forces (SOF). After the Vietnam War, interest in COIN quickly waned, and the Air Force deactivated the SOF in 1974.31 Despite its relatively short life, the 4400th CCTS, SAWC, and the USAF SOF made great strides in developing TTPs for COIN warfare. However, because they developed so much of the TTPs “on the fly,” the SOF was not able to make as much headway as feasible and operated mostly as a conventional air unit rather than a COIN force. In his analysis of the lessons from SAWC, Colonel Dean says, “The importance of doctrine in this case must be stressed. A lack of doctrine and the short time between SAWC’s inception and its first operations are the keys to the problem that resulted in the misuse of this special organization. . . . Entering the counterinsurgency arena without guidance encouraged the use of conventional air power tactics.”32

Unfortunately, Air Force doctrine continues to virtually ignore COIN. The Air Force has made little effort, especially in the recent past, to recognize COIN as a distinct type of warfare, let alone to write the doctrine. While the Air Force did establish a squadron dedicated to conducting FID in 1994, the 6th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) has been largely hampered in accomplishing its mission by difficulties in getting the aircraft and personnel it needs.33 Even if the 6th SOS were fully manned and equipped, and although FID and COIN are related, doctrine and TTPs developed from FID may not be adequate. Elsewhere within AF Special Operations, as USAF colonel Kenneth J. Alnwick argued in 1984, the focus has largely been “away from traditional SOF missions in counterinsurgency, nation-building, and psychological warfare toward special operations behind enemy lines—more reminiscent of the World War II experience than the experiences of the past two decades.”34 So even in the Air Force organization most closely linked to the SAWC and past COIN efforts, there has been little focus on the best way to employ airpower and space power in this environment.

Clearly, a lack of doctrine for COIN warfare presented a problem in the past. Even now, with a major insurgency in progress in Iraq, the Air Force has yet to start writing doctrine for COIN. The Air Force continues to focus almost exclusively on major combat operations or situations where it alone can be decisive. Airpower is being used to help fight insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq. We must capture the lessons learned and write the doctrine that will lead to success in the next fight. Doctrine is essential. It is the blueprint on how to organize and employ airpower and space power—which roles are relevant and which are not, and which effects our Airmen and systems need to deliver. The Air Force has a golden opportunity, while currently engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan and before memories fade, to publish clear, unambiguous guidance about the role of airpower and space power in COIN.

Camp Fallujah, Iraq

*The author, attached to the Joint Information Operations Center, is currently serving as the deputy information officer at II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), Camp Fallujah, Iraq.

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1. James S. Corum and Wray R. Johnson, Airpower in Small Wars (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2003), 4.

2. See for example Thomas P. M. Barnett, The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-first Century (New York: G. P. Putnam and Sons, 2004); Ralph Peters, Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002); or Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Touchstone, 1996).

3. See Grant R. Highland, “New Century, Old Problems: The Global Insurgency within Islam and the Nature of the War on Terror,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Strategy Essay Competition, 2 (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 2003), 17–30,; and Capt Matthew W. Lacy, USAF, “Al Qaeda’s Global Insurgency: Airpower in the Battle for Legitimacy,” Chronicles Online Journal, 16 July 2003, airchronicles/cc/lacy.html.

4. Dennis M. Drew, “U.S. Airpower Theory and the Insurgent Challenge: A Short Journey to Confusion,” Journal of Military History 62 (October 1998): 809.

5. Air Force Doctrine Document (AFDD) 1, Air Force Basic Doctrine, 17 November 2003, 3.

6. For a good discussion of how the theory of high-altitude precision daylight bombardment was developed as part of a four-part strategy defining the need for a service of coequal status to the Army and Navy, see Lt Col Peter R. Faber, “Interwar US Army Aviation and the Air Corps Tactical School: Incubators of American Airpower,” in The Paths of Heaven, The Evolution of Airpower Theory, ed. Col Phillip S. Meilinger (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1997), 183–238.

7. Drew, “U.S. Airpower Theory,” 823.

8. AFDD 2, Organization and Employment of Aerospace Power, 17 February 2000.

9. AFDD 2, “Organization and Employment for Air and Space Operations,” topline coordination draft, ver. 8G, 10 January 2006.

10. AFDD 2-3 will be rescinded when the next version of AFDD 2 is published, with no planned replacement. E-mail exchange between the author and Mr. Bob Poyner from the Air Force Doctrine Center, Maxwell AFB, AL, 4 February 2005.

11. MOOTW may be replaced by the US Army terms stability operations and support operations in future editions of joint and Air Force doctrine. Army Field Manual (FM) 3-07, Stability Operations and Support Operations, February 2002, replaced FM 100-20/AF Pamphlet (PAM) 3-20, Military Operations in Low--Intensity Conflict, December 1990.

12. COIN finds itself in doctrine addressed as part of FID, which is itself a subset of MOOTW. Could we obscure it any more completely?

13. Drew, “U.S. Airpower Theory,” 810–11.

14. Corum and Johnson, Airpower in Small Wars, 8.

15. AFDD 2-1.3, Counterland, 27 August 1999, for example, states, “Although this document is written within the scope of major theater warfare (MTW), the basics of counterland apply equally as well to the application of aerospace power against surface forces in more limited contingency operations” (v).

16. Thomas R. Searle, “Making Airpower Effective against Guerrillas,” Aerospace Power Journal 18, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 13–14. Dr. Searle points out that the Army’s 3d Infantry Division released its attached air support operations squadron after the fall of Baghdad because neither division leadership nor Airmen knew how airpower and space power could contribute.

17. The mobility mission most certainly includes responsive helicopter lift of troops, a role which the Air Force has almost completely given up.

18. Large parts of Iraq are sparsely populated yet contain vital infrastructure such as oil pipelines and power sources. Aircraft have shown the ability to patrol and control large areas in the past, freeing up ground forces to work in more densely populated areas. See, for example, Corum and Johnson, Airpower in Small Wars, chap. 2.

19. The doctrinal shortcomings are compounded because of a dearth of information available at the operational level. Air Force Doctrine Center Handbook (AFDCH) 10-01, The Air and Space Commander’s Handbook for the JFACC, 16 January 2003, includes no discussion about the role of airpower in COIN. The focus clearly is on major conventional conflict.

20. For information on Battlefield Airmen, see Air Force Policy Directive (AFPD) 10-35, Battlefield Airmen, 4 February 2005.

21. While not necessarily advocating a specific set of weapons systems (effects are the key), aircraft such as the AC‑130 and A-10 are highly effective in this role—the psychological effect of these weapons systems in action is also great. The use of bombers and fighter aircraft may certainly also be effective, as well as unmanned armed systems such as the RQ-1 Predator.

22. See, for example, Searle, “Making Airpower Effective against Guerrillas,” 5.

23. Ibid., 4.

24. Corum and Johnson, Airpower in Small Wars. This book is a fantastic survey of how airpower has been successfully and not so successfully employed in past small conflicts.

25. Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 238–39.

26. Corum and Johnson, Airpower in Small Wars, 110–38.

27. Ibid., 327–49.

28. This is not to say that only the Air Force was unprepared for countering an insurgency in Iraq. The Army has largely had to (re)learn, “the hard way,” to conduct COIN.

29. Lt Col David J. Dean, The Air Force Role in Low-Intensity Conflict (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, October 1986).

30. Ibid., 87.

31. Ibid., 87–98.

32. Ibid., 99.

33. Lt Col Wray R. Johnson, “Whither Aviation Foreign Internal Defense?” Airpower Journal 11, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 66–85. Granted, since Johnson wrote this article things have improved, but the overall capability remains limited.

34. Col Kenneth J. Alnwick, “Perspectives on Air Power at the Low End of the Conflict Spectrum,” Air University Review 35, no. 3 (March–April 1984): 17–28.


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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