Venable on Schinella, 'Bombs without Boots: The Limits of Airpower'

Anthony M. Schinella
Heather P. Venable

Anthony M. Schinella. Bombs without Boots: The Limits of Airpower. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2019. 391 pp. $44.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8157-3241-9.

Reviewed by Heather P. Venable (Air Command and Staff College) Published on H-War (February, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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I once asked a prominent airpower practitioner what he considered to be the most effective use of airpower since Operation Desert Storm and he emphatically referenced Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia. By contrast, Anthony M. Schinella’s Bombs without Boots: The Limits of Airpower tends to undercut airpower’s effectiveness in some places, particularly his revisionist account of Deliberate Force in which airpower appears to play a minuscule role.[1]

Schinella’s reframing of various conflicts serves as an essential counterpoint to more air-centric interpretations of historical operations, providing greater detail on differences between indigenous ground forces than in some accounts. The author essentially argues that ground forces have been more integral to air campaigns than has been acknowledged during operations; he also highlights the need for enough ground forces to serve as peacekeepers after operations.

Schinella, an intelligence analyst, has spent more than two decades serving at the National Intelligence Council. Bombs without Boots features case studies ranging from Deliberate Force in Bosnia (1995) to Operation Allied Force in Kosovo in 1999 and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Two more recent cases include Israel in the second Hezbollah War (2006) and Operations Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector in Libya (2011). He discusses varying aspects of each case in his conclusion, which provides numerous insights worthy of consideration for anyone in the national security community.

One of the work’s recurring themes centers on the unexpected costs of airpower. Airpower’s foundational myth promised to win wars independently. This myth mostly has been shattered. But an enduring and related strand remains: airpower can win wars cheaply and without shedding the blood of one’s own combatants, a point Schinella challenges throughout his work.

Early on, his overarching argument appears to be that seeming “successes” like Deliberate Force and others have been “less elegant in their execution than conventional wisdom may suggest,” with “long-term outcomes” differing greatly from initial objectives (p. 2). He further wrestles with the need to differentiate between using airpower for coercion, which he defines as changing an opponent’s “behavior,” and for regime change, pointing out that airpower quickly loses its coercive power because the “adversary recognizes that it essentially has nothing to lose by continued resistance” (p. 3).

More unique, though, is his insistence that a significant number of soldiers as peacekeepers is required to enforce previously coerced effects. As such, it is critical to recognize that these peacekeeping forces can be even more expensive than the initial investment in airpower. Thus airpower is not as cheap an option as it may seem initially because what happens with “boots” and “international engagement” after the “last bomb falls” is just as important as what occurs during the preceding kinetic portion (p. 159). This investment in peacekeeping explains the greater successes in the Balkans as opposed to elsewhere (p. 300).

From an airpower perspective, this work lacks precision at times. Schinella provides a murky and vague distinction between strategic bombing as supposedly focused on “command nodes, rear-area military installations, and infrastructure” as opposed to “tactical” airpower concentrated on “destroying the enemy’s military forces” (p. 4). By his conclusion, the reader still does not have a clear sense of what he really means by a “strategic air campaign” (p. 302).

Schinella also sets up a bit of a straw man in seeking to take on “conventional wisdom” without establishing that these views exist in the first place (pp. 2, 7, 59, 95), which is important in reference to the essence of his stated thesis regarding airpower getting too much credit. He argues, for example, that airpower must be considered in light of other concurrent actions, such as “diplomatic efforts.” But most works on airpower, even those written by fervent airpower supporters, note these factors as central to the resolution of these case studies.[2]

In the case study on Deliberate Force, which is his most revisionist, Schinella highlights the operation’s extremely limited objectives and insists that airpower had very minimal contributions, namely targeting the Bosnian Serb Army’s artillery threatening Sarajevo (p. 35).[3] He also recounts how what began as an easy way to show “resolve” by using a no-fly zone morphed over the years into something far more complex and costly (p. 12). Still, the use of airpower approximated to only “slightly more than a single high-tempo day of operations” during Desert Storm (p. 37). Meanwhile, indigenous forces on the ground made “decisive” contributions that enabled the Dayton Peace Agreement (p. 41), thus showcasing the “value of highly capable proxy forces” (p. 41).

A critical difference between Deliberate Force and Allied Force is that Kosovo did not feature a proxy ground force capable of opposing the Serbian military (p. 46). In essence, Allied Force represented a case of “strong airpower and a weak proxy” (p. 94). Still, as in many of the operations, NATO quickly ran out of targets in the first few days (p. 195). Here Schinella returns again to the costs of airpower, arguing that the percentage of sorties actually doing ground attack was just over 25 percent, with the remaining aircraft in supporting roles to enable that kinetic effect (p. 88).

The chapter on Operation Enduring Freedom, by contrast, highlights how indigenous ground forces and airpower worked to reinforce each other, enabling what neither could accomplish alone. This conclusion is not new. But, with his focus on ground forces, the author provides more details and nuance to make the case that the United States must be prepared to cede “control over what happens on the ground” to some extent in future operations (p. 159). He also points out that the US found itself being used as a proxy itself by tribes seeking to advance their position at the expense of other tribes (p. 159).

Schinella’s assessment of Enduring Freedom leans a bit toward the contradictory. On the one hand, he assesses it as a “brilliant military victory” (p. 156). On the other hand, he points out that the dazzling speed of the operation resulted in more of a “coup than a military defeat.” As such, it effectively “exile[d]” the Taliban rather than then destroyed it, which fundamentally shaped the operation’s long-term strategic outcome (p. 156).

The chapter on Enduring Freedom focuses mostly on context and operations through Tora Bora in the winter of 2001, with roughly fifty pages of text. By contrast, the operations of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Operation Anaconda (which gets a single paragraph), and the resurgence of the Taliban receive only four pages. It is unclear why Schinella chose to frame the operation this way. But, more importantly for his argument, Schinella points out how under-resourced ISAF was, receiving less economic aid per capita than Bosnia, Kosovo, and even Haiti (p. 154).

Israel’s campaign against Hezbollah in 2006 shows how a primarily air-only operation can transition into a joint one. But simply adding ground forces does not produce a solution if a government advances unsound political objectives.

In evaluating the campaign’s outcome, Schinella suggests that Israel may have deterred future conflict, although he recognizes it also harmed its reputation (p. 222). Either way, he returns to one of his key arguments to state that one reason for relative peace between Hezbollah and Israel since 2006 is the higher number of peacekeepers per hundred square miles than in almost every other case discussed: Southern Lebanon received more than thirty per square mile compared to less than two in Afghanistan and eleven in Kosovo (p. 210).

This trend did not continue in Libya, where the failure to invest in ground forces to stabilize the nation after the bombs stopped falling resulted in many early advances being lost. Airpower had contributed significantly, such as in targeting the government’s “heavy weapons advantage” and command and control. It also allowed for more time to improve proxies’ capabilities (pp. 298-99). But it could not provide lasting stability.

Schinella seeks to provide a balancing ground perspective to more air-centric narratives, and he deftly avoids going too far in the other direction for the most part. He points out in regard to the Israel campaign, for example, that the failure of the air campaign does not “necessarily imply that a massive ground campaign would automatically” have been more effective (p. 218). Likewise, he explains that airpower has an advantage against a concentrated opponent. Then, if an opponent disperses, airpower begins to struggle. At that point, though, a proxy force on the ground has a better chance of defeating the smaller groupings of one’s opponent. As such, there is an important “synergy” that results whether an opponent is concentrated or dispersed as long as proxy forces meet certain conditions.

This work not only provides valuable case studies, but it does so within an overarching framework that is compelling and mostly objective. Bringing these various operations together is an important service to students of military history, novices and experts alike, who should gain an enlarged perspective of the joint employment of air and ground capabilities.


[1]. For a competing perspective, see Robert C. Owen, “Operation Deliberate Force, 1995” in A History of Air Warfare, ed. John Andreas Olsen (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), 216-23.

[2]. For example, see Benjamin Lambeth, NATO’s Air War for Kosovo: A Strategic and Operational Assessment (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2001), xiv. Also see Owen, “Operation Deliberate Force, 1995,” 203 and 222-23. In this more air-centric book, for example, Owen acknowledges long-standing debates between whether the air offensive or ground offensives had more decisiveness.

[3]. For a different account, see Owen, “Operation Deliberate Force, 1995,” 216-23.

Citation: Heather P. Venable. Review of Schinella, Anthony M., Bombs without Boots: The Limits of Airpower. H-War, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020. URL:

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