Michael Byers, Globe and Mail, 23 October 2014
“Our pilots cannot do their jobs from 15,000 feet!” the retired Air vice-marshal exclaimed. “We need our Harriers down low where they can see the enemy.”
It was March, 1999. The Air vice-marshal was speaking at Oxford University; the Harriers were subsonic jets favoured for ground attack missions by the Royal Air Force and U.S. Marines. And NATO leaders had just ordered their pilots to bomb Serbian paramilitaries in Kosovo while staying safely beyond the reach of their guns.
Three months, thousands of precision-guided bombs and a ceasefire later, the paramilitaries drove most of their armoured vehicles out of Kosovo. NATO had destroyed bridges, houses and even a train, but few actual military vehicles and even fewer militiamen.
The lessons of the Kosovo campaign apply to the air operation in Iraq today. Supersonic fighter jets are of limited utility against enemies who hide their military vehicles, blend into local populations, and travel by foot or civilian cars.