Air Power in the New Counterinsurgency Era

The Strategic Importance of USAF Advisory and Assistance Missions

by Alan J. Vick, Adam R. Grissom, William Rosenau, Beth Grill, Karl P. Mueller


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Often treated by Americans as an exceptional form of warfare, insurgency is anything but. Spanning the globe, centuries, and societies, insurgency is quite common. Given the threat insurgency presents to U.S. interests and allies around the world, the importance of counterinsurgency is no surprise. However, history has shown that insurgencies are rarely defeated by outside powers. Rather, the best role for outsiders is an indirect one: training, advising, and equipping the local nation, which must win the war politically and militarily. And while counterinsurgency might seem to be a task most suited to ground forces, air power has much to contribute. These facts combine to suggest that advising, training, and equipping partner air forces will be a key component of U.S. counterinsurgency efforts worldwide. The authors note that, if the Air Force is to participate in these tasks, it will need to make counterinsurgency an institutional priority, developing the capabilities of its personnel both as advisors and trainers and as combatants, as well as developing the necessary institutional support structures.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    The Evolving Insurgency Challenge

  • Chapter Three

    The Challenge of Counterinsurgency: Lessons from the Cold War and After

  • Chapter Four

    Grand Strategy and Counterinsurgency

  • Chapter Five

    A New Framework for Understanding and Responding to Insurgencies

  • Chapter Six

    The USAF Role in Countering Insurgencies

  • Chapter Seven


  • Appendix A

    States Afflicted by Insurgency

  • Appendix B

    Estimating Manpower Requirements for Advisory Assistance

"'Air Power in the New Counterinsurgency Era' delivers far more than the title implies. In the best tradition of RAND studies, this work combines theory, model development, and policy applications for developing counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy writ large and for improving USAF COIN capabilities specifically… 'Air Power and the New Counterinsurgency Era' is a work of critical importance for the USAF's senior leadership and the rank and file. It offers a prescient analysis of COIN warfare and strategy and provides trenchant recommendations for enhancing the Service's capability in the Long War against Islamic extremism."

- Joint Force Quarterly, 1st Quarter 2008

"[This monograph] has much to offer the reader concerning COIN. The authors spend a majority of their time clearly defining and categorizing insurgencies, detailing COIN principles, and discussing grand strategic options for COIN. They advocate a 'new' strategy of 'precautionary' COIN—very limited military intervention at the earliest stages—as the most cost-effective means of combating insurgency… A case study on El Salvador's insurgency and an examination of considerations in the development of COIN capabilities highlight important issues for US military planners: that smaller footprints and closer contact are often preferable, that the host nation must win the political as well as military battle, that military restraint is a virtue, and that airpower offers important capabilities."

- Air & Space Power Journal, Summer 2007

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The research described in this report was sponsored by the United States Air Force and conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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