Air Power and the Technological Sublime

In the media coverage of the war against Libya, and perhaps in the apparent lack of in-depth diplomatic thought behind it, there is more than a whiff of an idea that lay buried during the implosion of Iraq and the painful rediscovery of the limits of our military power in Iraq: the technological sublime. This is a term for the ‘common feeling of awe inspired by large-scale applications of technological prowess.’

Ambitions visions of technology and a radiant future accompanied President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative and his evolving view of a world where new defences rendered nuclear weapons obsolete.

It was also part of the self-styled Revolution in Military Affairs after the Cold War, with its concept of overwhelming and unchallengeable American power, applied through a lethal cocktail of precision munitions, satellite-guided and panoptic surveillance of the battlespace, and forces orchestrated rapidly and precisely through new means of networking.

This vision took a serious dent as the Global War on Terror degenerated from lightning strikes against adversaries into protracted and draining wars of occupation and resistance, and the gap between military muscle and political outcomes again seemed wider than our technological wonders could bridge. War was ultimately about raw politics, after all.

But consider the words we are hearing about this new campaign. On the one hand, the official name of the initial operation is Odyssey Dawn. If those who invented this term have done their etymological homework, this term suggests the beginnings of a long, circuitous and uncertain journey. That’s a long way from the visions of quickfire offensives into Baghdad.

On the other hand, there is Mark Townsend’s coverage of the campaign, which in its hard copy version is titled ‘Overwhelming display of power unleashed to end Gaddafi onslaught on Libya rebels.’ And he goes on:

State of the art 21st-century weaponry is being pitted against tanks, guns and missiles from the cold war era. Knocking out Gaddafi’s command structure and jamming his military communication networks is likely to happen quickly. Libya’s air defence system is considered antiquated, comparable to the Soviet systems that international forces faced during the Gulf war of 1991, and the Balkans conflict.
In fact, much of Gaddafi’s weapons stock is Soviet-era with his air force thought to include up to 80 operational aircraft based around the MiG-23, which was phased out of Russian service 17 years ago. Ground forces rely on Soviet-era weaponry including T-72 tanks that entered production 40 years ago.

An immaculate campaign emerges here, paralysing a third world enemy’s outmoded equipment from a distance, inflicting…shock and awe?

In fairness, the piece goes on to lay out the difficulties that will be presented to our ranged offensive power by Gaddafi’s forces moving in amongst an urban population, countering our advanced weapons with concealment, the blurring of lines between combatant and civilian, and urbanising a conflict instead of presenting us with exposed terrain. We might not be so overwhelming, in other words.

So we are still awed by the pyrotechnics, but we know from bitter experience what could come next.  And if our display of power from a long distance is less than decisive in tipping the balance, if this conflict is prolonged, if Gaddafi digs in and holds on in his own stronghold, is our coalition prepared for a stalemate and a long haul diplomatic dilemma?

Have our leaders again succumbed to the technological sublime, overshadowing the unspectacular hard work of diplomatic planning in the event that more troublesome scenarios present themselves? Its a time for cool heads, and one of our coolest has just died. Warren Christopher will be missed and mourned- here’s hoping that Libya doesn’t make us miss him even more.