CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — THE United States will place greater stress on air power in future regional, non-superpower military conflicts, such as the one just fought in the Persian Gulf, say senior United States Air Force officers and defense policy experts. This means that US strategic military thinking for the last 40 years - massive conventional and nuclear response to any Soviet threat - has undergone a major change. Military analysts, historians, and top Air Force officials, meeting at a conference on the future of air power sponsored by Tufts University in Medford, Mass., last week, are already using the lessons learned in the Gulf conflict to prepare for the battlefield of the 21st century. Although the recent war has overwhelmed the popular imagination with visions of near-omnipotent US air power, there is no clear public understanding as to how this way of waging war will replace previous war-fighting strategie s.
The US should not underestimate the tremendous victory in winning the cold war, says Williamson Murray, professor of European Military History at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, who spoke at the conference. But the imperative to deter the Soviets ``muddied'' the waters as to ``effective use of US air power,'' he says. The Gulf war ``let us use air power imaginatively, intelligently.''
``To the extent that range and accuracy no longer pose constraining factors'' in waging war, the US faces a whole new paradigm in its use of air power, says Robert L. Pfaltzgraff Jr. of the Fletcher School of International Studies at Tufts. Indeed, the US may be on the threshold of realizing the as-yet-unrealized promise of air power envisioned by the maverick 1920s air-power advocates Italian Gen. Giulio Douhet and American Gen. Billy Mitchell, says Edward N. Luttwak of the Center of Strategic and Inte rnational Studies in Washington.
But, lest anyone think that new abilities to wage war from the air make the US invincible, Dr. Luttwak cautions, ``The US should not be tempted to overplay or underplay air power as a consequence of the Gulf war.'' The value of air power goes down as wars become less intense, he says. Desert wars are high-intensity, with clear, decisive battles. This is not true for guerrilla wars in mountains or dense jungles.
A first question for policymakers is this: Will large forces still be deployed in Europe and Asia? If so, this fact already defines much of the Air Force mission, say defense experts.
Though it is still too early to digest all the lessons from the Gulf war, on one issue there is near-unanimous agreement. For the next 20 to 30 years, offensive technologies will rule the battlefield, despite the Patriot missile's successful operation against the Scud. Whoever possesses them can get at a foe's entire command and control operation and industrial infrastructure, regardless of hardened bunkers, according to Col. John A. Warden III, deputy director for warfighting for the US Air Force (USAF ).
Two trends in the last decade complement current nonnuclear offensive predominance, says Gen. Larry D. Welch (Ret), former chief of staff for the USAF from 1986 to 1990. There is an increased willingness on the part of the US to commit overwhelming numbers of forces to potential regional conflicts. This allows the US to ``control the level of violence,'' he says, and ``we can assure swift success.'' This has almost become operational policy, he says.
The second is the quantum increase in the effectiveness of air power, General Welch says. ``Air power is particularly well-suited to American preferences for quick and decisive actions'' leading to final victory on the ground. Air power allows policymakers to act so that a foe will expect ground operations to ``be preceded by substantive air-power projections,'' he says. He points to the speed of airlift and deployment of forces by air in Grenada, Panama, and the Persian Gulf.
One clear lesson from the Gulf war is that we should ``stop talking of [near Earth] space as if it was separate,'' Luttwak says. ``The ability to control space as part of the seamless web will be no less important than control of air space over land and naval theater of operations,'' Pfaltzgraff says.