Role of Airpower in COIN Operations

Author Name: Aneeqa Safdar & Ghanwah Ijaz      04 Sep 2021     Airforce

In the past, when it came to COIN or counterinsurgency, airpower was not seen as an ideal tool for operational success. The strategic nature of bombings advocated by traditional airpower theory and the lack of consideration of collateral damage made airpower application in COIN contentious. However, in recent years, this thinking has undergone a rapid change and airpower is being ardently used in COIN operations as a force multiplier to assist ground forces.

Now, airpower plays a significant role in COIN operations given its unique capabilities of flexibility, quick response, extended reach, and precision. The primary tasks undertaken by airmen in such operations include rapid mobility, inter-theater airlift, intra-theater airlift, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and aerial attack. With the capability to conduct search and rescue as well as provide logistics under challenging terrains and with the ability to limit an enemy’s conventional response options, along with denying it the advantage of the initiative, airpower has made substantive contributions to COIN operations.

Historical Use of Air Power in COIN Campaigns

Military forces have used air policing operations for counterinsurgency ever since the arrival of the aircraft. Forces deployed airpower in COIN missions because of its cost-effectiveness vis-a-vis the use of land forces. One of the earliest documented use of airpower in COIN was in 1913 when France employed aircraft against an uprising in Morocco. In 1916, the United States (US) also used an aircraft squadron to capture Mexico’s revolutionary leader Pancho Villa. Ever since, airpower has been repeatedly used in several irregular conflicts by multiple nation-states. Countries as diverse as the former Soviet Union to US, El Salvador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) etc. have demonstrated the effectiveness and essentiality of air power in COIN operations.

Historically, offensive use of airpower has held outright supremacy in the unconventional battlefield. However, COIN operations are a complex form of warfare where besides the traditional tangible military objectives, intangible ones i.e., people’s welfare and support play an essential role in operational success. Although application of overwhelming airpower, while remaining aloof to political sensitivities, may prove to be a makeshift solution, the results often remain inconclusive or may even be detrimental to the real problem on the ground. Literature suggests that as stability operations were not part of the planning and execution phases of the US’ COIN campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, their overall effectiveness remained limited. The failure of US forces to prudently employ airpower, without keeping in mind political and cultural sensitivities, resulted in the US’ strategic failure in both these countries.

Pakistan Air Force (PAF), however, has had unique COIN operational experience. PAF’s role in Swat and erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) operations as part of the War on Terror is a leading example of simultaneously utilizing offensive, defensive, and stability approaches in COIN, thereby, evading their psychological fallout on the public. These operations highlighted the effectiveness of airpower in COIN and were successful given fewer casualties, reduced resistance, and minimal infrastructure damage.

PAF’s operations started with various capability gaps to tackle the diverse threat spectrum posed by insurgents. Nevertheless, PAF updated its inventory and enhanced its operations with night strike capability, persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), expanded precision-guided munition (PGM) capability, etc. to carry out neutralizing missions effectively. Additionally, the Service also modified its training for effective employment with minimal collateral damage. For instance, in Operation al Mizan, airpower was used to provide emergency surveillance and interdiction missions without specialized weapons. However, later in Operation Rah-e-Rast, PAF aptly facilitated the ground troops by destroying enemy ambush sites, supply depots, ammunition dumps, ingress and escape routes, and their training as well as command-and-control centers. Similarly, in Operation Rah-e-Nijat, time-sensitive targeting (TST) was conceptualized, and drones were made part of PAF’s TST ops. The attacks carried out were so rapid that they gave no time to the insurgents to respond giving a competitive edge to the PAF against them. Besides, combined land-air operations and precision air strikes by PAF also significantly brought down the casualty rate of the ground armed forces.

Changing Nature of Insurgency and Future of COIN

Although airpower has shown mixed results in terms of its effectiveness and success in different battlegrounds, policymakers and strategists still consider air ability as a critical component of future COIN operations. Airpower has, and will be, the force of first choice to destroy an enemy’s potential and undermine its ability to wage war. However, with ever-evolving modern technologies and concepts of war and politics undergoing a significant shift, the nature of insurgencies is also changing. The utilization of emerging technologies by insurgents poses a grave threat to conventional military capabilities, and thus, an updated and renewed COIN strategy is imperative.

Akin to how the Information Technology revolution that took the world by storm, proliferation of game-changing technologies and their possession by insurgents will have a substantial impact on the nature of future insurgencies. Already, insurgents use some of most sophisticated methods to target a state’s vulnerabilities to achieve disproportionate effects. The effective deployment of weaponized drones by Houthi rebels in Yemen’s civil war shows how technology will lessen the military power asymmetry between nation-states and insurgent groups. The war in Yemen is also a classic case study of missiles’ use by insurgent groups. Similarly, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) use of rocket and missile attacks against the Ethiopian military is yet another example of growing combat power of insurgent groups vis-a-vis state forces. While these are just two of the many emerging disruptive technologies which have already left a mark in modern-day insurgent warfare, the future is expected to be even grimmer.

As we step into the postmodern warfare era, the technical advancement/know-how of insurgents may become more sophisticated and innovative, challenging the spectrum of military operations, be it at strategic, operational, or tactical levels. If insurgents get their hands on disruptive technological innovations like cyber weapons, Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) etc., another era of change would be ushered in for COIN as a state’s capabilities will be challenged with unexpected means.

In countering such evolving insurgencies in the future, all forces including airpower, will need to apply and integrate new operational capabilities thoroughly. In doing so, airpower may require altering its organizational culture and revising existing COIN frameworks and strategies. It must be acknowledged that unless significant (and perhaps even audacious) steps are taken to integrate new capabilities, the current force structure of air forces may risk losing the present technological edge over insurgents within a decade. Airpower must be expanded in its operational approach, and become equipped with advanced electronic weapons, air defenses, arsenals of precision missiles, etc. to effectively contract insurgents’ growing freedom of action in any conflict.

In this regard, space, and cyberspace based-ISR could also play a significant role by providing better understanding of the operational environment, besides isolating, and interfering with insurgents’ capabilities and defusing their intentions. To complement the physical realm of airpower, cyberspace-based ISR can map insurgencies and minimize the probability of associated physical damage in COIN operations.

To conclude, COIN operations witnessed an upgrade during the 21st Century when militaries updated and equipped their counterinsurgency doctrines to cater for changing geopolitical realities. Years later, we are at the cusp of another paradigm shift. In wake of the impending technological shift in insurgent warfare, airpower would be the first line of defense given its intrinsic link to technology. Anticipating the strategic impacts that disruptive and game changing technologies are going to have on future warfare as well as on insurgencies, military strategists, particularly airpower strategists, should pay adequate attention to them in future COIN doctrines and air operations. New military capabilities that are required to counter impending threats must be factored into future strategies and modernization plans to provide for this operational need.


Aneeqa Safdar & Ghanwah Ijaz are Researchers at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS). This article was first published in Daily NHT. They can be reached at