ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA. — SECRETARY of Defense Dick Cheney had excellent reasons for cashiering the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Michael J. Dugan.
The general had blabbed on the record in great detail about high-level deliberations on how best to wage war against Iraq, should war come. He discussed strategy and listed specific targets; he provided information about Iraqi forces; he revealed that Israel is supplying special missiles for Air Force B-52 bombers deployed in the Persian Gulf region.
The general also declared, in a remark suggesting profound ignorance of the realities of limited war, that ''I don't expect to be concerned'' about political constraints upon air operations. He then took the opportunity to disparage the enemy, calling Iraq's army ''incompetent'' and its air force an ''irritant.'' (Underestimation of enemy strength and will cost us dearly in the Korean and Vietnam wars.)
Nor did the general stop there. By implication he went on to demean the potential contributions of the other U.S. armed services in a campaign to defeat Iraq. He advised that ''air power is the only answer that's available to our country'' in the present Gulf crisis, if U.S. forces are to avoid a bloody land war. He admitted that ground forces might be required to reoccupy Kuwait (one wonders how else to do the job), but claimed that they could do so only after air power had so mauled Iraqi resistance that U.S. troops could ''walk in and not have to fight.''
Air power, he said, offers ''a special kind of psychological impact.'' The only major obstacle to its decisiveness is in identifying ''centers of gravity, where air power could make a difference early on.''
What is one to make of all these pronouncements about air power? For one thing, they are all vintage Air Force. Ever since the court-martial of Gen. William ''Billy'' Mitchell in the 1920s, leaders of the Air Force and its pre-1947 organizational antecedents have made extravagant claims for air power, especially strategic bombing, notwith- standing contrary lessons of actual experience.
On the eve of U.S. entry into World War II, American air strategists had convinced themselves that Germany and Japan could be defeated by air bombardment alone; all that was needed was enough bombers to flatten the enemy's ''vital centers'' -- manufacturing plants, transportation networks sources of energy.
World War II discredited the notion of ''victory through air power.'' Germany in particular proved remarkably resistant to air attack, and its fighter defenses inflicted almost prohibitive losses on British and American bomber forces; the Nazis did not surrender until Germany had been overrun on the ground by massive Russian and Anglo-American armies. Japan was more vulnerable to air attack, but it took almost two years of bloody naval and amphibious campaigns conducted across the Central Pacific before U.S. B-29 bombers could be brought within range of the Japanese home islands.
The Air Force nevertheless emerged from World War II with its faith in strategic bombing unshaken, in part because strategic bombing, with its promise of being an autonomous war-winner, was the only mission that provided a convincing argument for the Air Force's organizational independence. The Air Force's rTC continuing infatuation with manned strategic bombers such as the billion-a-copy B-2 has resulted in chronic underfunding of such things as airlift and close air support capabilities.
Nor did the Air Force's experience in Korea and Vietnam prompt a reassessment. Both countries were non-industrial states with few targets indispensable to their ability to make war. Both countries also staked their military prowess largely on logistically austere infantry able to shield itself from the full effects of superior U.S. firepower by operating mostly at night and by taking full advantage of the cover provided by rugged or leafy terrain and of cooperative local civilian populations.
As such the North Korean and Chinese forces in Korea and the North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong in Vietnam were poor candidates for a decisive air campaign. Pentagon analysts have estimated that the U.S. air campaign against North Vietnam cost the United States $10 in lost aircraft for every dollar's worth of damage inflicted against North Vietnam. These numbers do not of course take account of the hundreds of killed and captured American airmen, or the enormous negotiating leverage U.S. POWs gave the North Vietnamese.
To this day, however, students at the Air University and other Air Force schools are taught that defeat was snatched from the jaws of ''victory through air power'' because of debilitating political restrictions placed on air power by timid or ignorant civilian decision makers.
Air power is, of course, absolutely indispensable to military power as a whole. Air power may not be able to win wars by itself, but try winning one without it. Nor were all the political
restrictions imposed on U.S. air power in Korea and especially Vietnam warranted; many were not. Moreover, Saddam Hussein's military machine is a conventional one organized on the Soviet model, and Iraqi forces in Kuwait have few mountains, no jungles and little in the way of inclement weather to shield them from air attack. Unquestionably, air power remains our strongest single comparative advantage over Iraq.
Caution is nonetheless advised. The notion that air power offers a relatively cheap and painless alternative to other ways of making war should be strongly resisted. The history of Air Force claims for what air power can do has been one of inflated expectations followed by postwar alibis.
Jeffrey Record comments on military affairs for The Sun.