Sunday evening 60 Minutes aired a segment titled Inside the Air War. The correspondent was David Martin, whose biography includes the fact that he served as a naval officer during the Vietnam War. The piece concluded with the following exchange and commentary:
On the day we watched the B-1 strike, that same bomber was sent to check out a report of a single ISIS sniper firing from the top of a building.
Weapons officer: The weapon will time out directly in between the two buildings.
This captain was one of the weapons officers in the cockpit.
David Martin: B-1 bomber.
Weapons officer: Yes sir.
David Martin: All that technology.
Weapons officer: Yes sir.
David Martin: All that fire power. One sniper down on the ground.
I thought the captain’s next words were right on target:
Weapons officer: Sir, I think if it was you or me on the ground getting shot at by that sniper we would take any asset available to make sure we were no longer getting, you know, engaged by that sniper. So, if I get a call and they say they’re getting shot at, and there’s potential loss of friendly life, I am absolutely gonna drop a weapon on that sniper.
It’s clear that Mr Martin was channeling the Vietnam experience of heavily trained pilots flying multi-million dollar airplanes, dropping millions of dollars of bombs on the Ho Chi Minh trail, trying to stop porters carrying supplies on their backs and on bicycles. I understand that concern and I share that theme. However, I’d like to offer another interpretation.
The ability to dynamically retask in-air assets is a strength of American airpower. This episode involved retasking a B-1 that had already completed its primary mission. By putting that asset to use again, it alleviated the need to launch another aircraft.
By the time the B-1 arrived overhead the sniper was gone.
Weapons officer: What we did, however, find though was a tunnel system. So, in this case we dropped weapons on all the entry points that were associated with that tunnel.
Six 500-pound bombs.
Weapons officer: It was actually a perfect shack on the target.
This could be interpreted as a failure, because the sniper wasn’t killed. However, in another example of retasking and dynamic intelligence, the B-1 was able to destroy a tunnel system. This again prevented the launch of another aircraft to accomplish that new mission.
These are features of the 60 Minutes story that were not conveyed by the on-air narrative, but which I observed based on my Air Force experience. It doesn’t change the strategic questions concerning the role of airpower in theatre, but it is important to recognize the flexibility and dynamism offered by these incidents.