Fed up with unnecessary gold-plated fighter jet programs, the service’s impatience with counter-insurgency and its anti-China rhetoric, back in August I proposed the disbanding of the U.S. Air Force. The air service’s missions could be folded into the Army, Navy and Marine Corps without any loss in national power — and we’d benefit from cuts to Pentagon overhead.
Now Robert Farley over at The American Prospect has taken up the cause, in a new piece, “Abolish the Air Force.” (Subscription required.) To complement the piece, Farley has solicited input from a number of bloggers, including yours truly.
“Does the United States Air Force (USAF) fit into the post–September 11 world, a world in which the military mission of U.S. forces focuses more on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency?” Farley asks.
Not very well. Even the new counterinsurgency manual authored in part by Gen. David H. Petraeus, specifically notes that the excessive use of airpower in counterinsurgency conflict can lead to disaster.
In response, the Air Force has gone on the defensive. In September 2006, Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap Jr. published a long article in Armed Forces Journal denouncing “boots on the ground zealots,” and insisting that airpower can solve the most important problems associated with counterinsurgency. The Air Force also recently published its own counterinsurgency manual elaborating on these claims. A recent op-ed by Maj. Gen. Dunlap called on the United States to “think creatively” about airpower and counterinsurgency — and proposed striking Iranian oil facilities.
“Striking Iranian oil facilities?” That’s exactly the kind of bone-headed chest-thumping that has made the Air Force a liability to U.S. diplomacy, as I explained in my reply to Farley’s piece:
In September Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne brazenly undermined years of careful diplomacy aimed at heading off an unnecessary war with China — all in the name of defending the service’s latest Cold War-style fighter jet.
Defense experts had proposed cutting the planned 1,800-unit production run of the $100-million F-35 light fighter, a plane originally justified to Congress on the grounds that it would cost less than the current $50-million F-16. The F-35 program’s $300-billion budget would be better invested elsewhere, the argument went. But Wynne rejected the proposal: “How big do you think China is?” he said.
As if a fleet of short-range fighters would make any difference if the United States went to war with China. Does Wynne honestly believe that we’ll somehow find ourselves holding territory in China from which to operate these aircraft? Does he really anticipate a ground war on the Chinese mainland?
Of course not. The idea is sheer lunacy. (You think the occupation of Iraq is expensive and bloody? Imagine the occupation of China!) Wynne’s statement was pure rhetoric.
But in the world of diplomacy, rhetoric matters. Note the care with which Navy and Marine Corps leaders have approached China in recent years. Since the low point in U.S.-China relations in the aftermath of the 2001 collision between a Navy patrol plane and a Chinese fighter, our sea services have taken the lead in reaching out to the communist state and industrial powerhouse. Admiral William Fallon, who organized the first exchange of port visits in years and plotted out joint exercises with Chinese forces, has steadfastly avoided painting China as a prospective enemy. And Marine general James Mattis said in Washington this year that China should be a partner, not an enemy – and that we’d best be conscious of the way our words and attitudes influence Chinese behavior.
But to Wynne, our delicate relationship with the world’s future superpower is grist for the military-industrial lobbying machine. His dangerous characterization of China is indicative of deep cultural problems in the nation’s youngest military service. The Air Force’s top priority is buying airplanes. Don’t take it from me. Air Force general Ronald Keys said in August that the air service’s “hardest wars” weren’t in Iraq or Afghanistan, but in the halls of Congress. For the Air Force, global strategy and fighting our current low-tech wars are both secondary concerns. That’s putting the cart way before the horse.
Why the A.F. sucks
Army to A.F.: hands off
Release the gunships, part one
A.F. eyes small gunship
A.F. lacks COIN planes
A.F. “going out of business”