“The hardest wars we fight are not on the battlefield,” Air Combat Command chief Ronald Keys said on August 21, “but the wars we fight in the halls of Congress. They are fought in the Pentagon, they are fought in these programs, to make sure the money is paid and eventually the program is operating.”
Keys was talking about the $500-million A-10C upgrade program that gives the venerable attack jet new sensors and weapons. The A-10 is a fine aircraft and a great help to troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. But if any acquisitions program, even one as cost-effective as the A-10C, represents your “hardest war” as a service at a time when tens of thousands of American servicepeople are risking their lives every day, then your attitudes and priorities are all wrong. And you no longer deserve to be an independent service.
The Air Force wanted new engines for the A-10C, too, but couldn’t afford them. But that’s the service’s own damn fault, and it’s indicative of backwards thinking. The nation’s youngest military service is sinking $200 billion into unnecessary F-35 light fighters when upgraded F-16s would suffice, and God knows how many billions into consistently under-performing space programs. The Air Force bailed out of the potentially revolutionary UCAS killer drone program in order to buy a big new fleet of big new manned bombers for much more money. The service wants to prepare for an imaginary high-tech air war with China instead of fighting the dirty, low-tech wars we’re actually in. Why? Because high-tech superpower showdowns are what the Air Force knows. They’re easy. The low-tech approach to warfare, by contrast, requires patience and smarts, two things today’s Air Force lacks.
Recall that the flyboys recently released an ”irregular warfare manual” to counter the ground forces’ emerging counter-insurgency doctrine. The ground COIN manual calls for people interacting with people to address what are essentially human problems: extremism, terrorism, poor governance. The Air Force manual, on the other hand, advocates traditional firepower over “soft power,” according to excerpts published at Danger Room:
Counter-insurgency operations “often require a large number of security forces in order to protect the population. The effort requires a firm political will and substantial patience by both US and PN [partner nation] governments. Airpower can help alter this equation.”
A sizeable ground force engaged in protracted COIN operations can inflame the populace against the COIN forces and can wear down the political will of the US government and the local populace. Air Force capabilities bring many advantages, including an “economy of force” that enables the US to have a smaller ground force, which reduces the problems associated with a large “footprint” on the ground.
But airpower is neither as precise nor as subtle as advocates imagine. Just this week an errant U.S. bomb killed three British soldiers in Afghanistan. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Afghan civilians died in mis-aimed air attacks in southern provinces this summer, undermining native support for occupying forces. The most precise and effective instrument of warfare remains the individual soldier, despite the Air Force’s vehement claims. Airpower is necessarily a supporting function. Get used to it, Air Force.