Disband the Air Force!


Categorie: Air, Inter-Service Rivalry |

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
Prototypes, please
Army to A.F.: hands off
Release the gunships, part one
Part two
A.F. eyes small gunship
F-35 over-budget
A.F. lacks COIN planes
A.F. “going out of business”


13 Responses to “Disband the Air Force!”

  1. It’s a provocative lede, that’s for sure. Something that always struck me when trying to beat down the Douhet Dons I used to argue with – the Air Force is the bottom of the four services in terms of battlespace endurance and control. If we take the Army’s battlespace to be inland ground combat, the Marines to be littoral shore combat (say, in prep for the army) and the Navy’s battlespace to be afloat, the Air Force is left with ‘the high frontier.’ The problem is that from there, all its missions are support missions for the other battlespaces, where units can sit there are equilibrium and hold on to objectives. Other than orbital and up, if we want to cede space as a battlespace to the USAF.

    Therefore, allowing the USAF to self-prioritize missions is a bit counterintuitive. The USAF mission, as it has always stated, is to gain and hold ‘control of the air.’ This, however, is not a steady state, but (to a degree far higher than the other services) requires a non-steady-state generation effort (sorties) in order to claim control of the battlespace.

    The only way the Air Force can lay claim to a self-contained strategic (goal-seeking in the strategic sense) mission is by following the Douhet school of ‘air power wins wars.’ Only by insisting that strike missions and protection thereof will produce strategic results in the absence of other players can the Air Force then stand at the same level as the other services, whose ‘goals’ can be displayed in the ground their units cover. Even Navy units can demonstrate areas of control around their units which are not dependent on constant shuttling from a faraway base, and those areas extend with some modifications inland past the littoral dependent on the strike cap of the Navy unit – and the Marines aboard, if it’s Alligator Navy.

    Looked at through this lens, the USAF insistence on Douhet strategic goal scoring – and cherrypicking opponents to make their case – is perfectly understandable.

  2. vincente says:

    I hate to bust yer bubble Dave, but Sam Nunn came up with this meme first about 18 years ago.

    I wouldn’t hold my breath.

  3. Edward Stern says:

    Very interesting. As a footnote to the, er, objectively pro-mission attitude of some senior air officers, around 1995 I attended a lecture given by the then RAF Chief of Staff to the military historians lurking around Glasgow University. Brisk and positive, the very model of a modern Air-Major-General. He gave an admirable precis of twentieth century air power, Douhet, Strategic Bombing, Dehousing and Demoralising, a brief and approving gloss of precision bombing during Gulf War 1, which admitted some infelicities (and a high sortie/mission ratio, particularly on them pesky bridges), but it seemed mainly as a foil for the extraordinary and transformative capabilities of the AWACS/JSTARS and PGM kit the RAF were now playing with, how their precision and reaction time, if not putting an end to all wars were at least a new paradigm of air warfare that solved the failings of all previous efforts. Why, if a Tornado can carry two next-gen PGMs and you only need one to hit your target, in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, from a safe, safe non-”hostage-delivery-system” distance, then you only need half a sortie to accomplish the mission!

    All this time I’m waiting for somebody to mention the Amiriya raid. However valid or invalid or advisable a target it was, it was clearly a political disaster even if the strike itself was technically perfectly accomplished. Surely he’s going to mention it, even if only to explain why it won’t/can’t happen again. Nope, still nothing. Eventually I raise a hesitant hand, and citing Amiriyah, suggest that the quality and timeliness of intel might be at the very least an influence upon if not a limitation for this technical splendour.

    “Ah, yes…” (slight frown)”…We did rather shoot ourselves in the foot with that one”. And that was it, next question. His tone was of slight sorrow that it was precisely that kind of irrelevant nit-picking that was preventing people from grasping the beauty of The Vision. He seemed a very, very smart guy, and certainly did a fabulous job of selling the capabilities of his service to the public and, I presume, the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury, and it would seem himself too.

  4. Harvey Boulay says:

    The value of the idea of abolishing the Air Force rests on a more basic notion. That is, that air power was the most overrated military concept of the twentieth century. Pretty much all else follows from this.

  5. [...] Because the discussion is rather lengthy, here’s a “table of contents” to guide readers through the roundtable: David Axe: There’s nothing the Air Force does that the other services don’t do better. Jason Sigger: Transform the Air Force, don’t abolish it. John of OP-FOR: The Air Force does need to change, but not that much. Robert Farley: On collateral damage and restructuring. Michael Goldfarb: The Air Force hasn’t outlived its usefulness yet. Robert Farley: On bureaucracies, and the use of air power in “the Surge.” Sharon Weinberger: What about the Air Force’s assets? Robert Farley: The Navy can handle it. Jason Sigger: Allocate military funds on a priority, need-based approach? Ain’t gonna happen. Robert Farley: Optimistic about the Navy’s capabilities. David Axe: Re: Optimistic about the Navy’s capabilities. Jason Sigger: The Navy does not want to be the Air Force. John of OP-FOR: The role of ICBMs. Michael Goldfarb: Who would provide the best oversight of big-ticket weapons? Robert Farley: On Apaches, ICBMs, and the procurement question. Jason Sigger: On sharing joint cargo aircraft. John of OP-FOR: JCA is a reason to ditch Key West, not the Air Force. Michael Goldfarb: But what will tomorrow’s wars look like? Robert Farley: If China is your problem, then you should be more, not less, willing to close the doors on the Air Force. Noah Shachtman: The bottom line: The Air Force has an identity crisis. [...]

  6. [...] The point being that the Air Force’s institutional imperatives push it towards air supremacy and strategic bombing, strategic roles which have substantially diminished in an era of low-intensity conflicts, while diminishing its effectiveness in what is now its primary mission, supporting the other branches during such conflicts. Interesting article, followed by a roundtable here. Robert notes that an Air Force General has published an Op Ed calling for the “creative” use of air power in political/counterinsurgency, and proposed bombing Iranian oil facilities — which one participant calls, “exactly the kind of bone-headed chest-thumping that has made the Air Force a liability to U.S. diplomacy.” [...]

  7. Ryan says:

    Just because we currently have a lack of problems suitable for the Air-Force to handle doesnt mean that we always will. The airforces strategic capability is indespensable, and sorry to burst some’s bubble, but the Navy CANT handle it. This is cleary defined when it come to big bombers: Where in the world can you fit a bomber on an aircraft carrier that is only a few times larger? Insurgency-type conflicts are what we’re currently doing, but I doubt that is what warfare will be about forever. None besides the airforce can hope to fully fill the aircforces position, and it would be a horribly haphazard plan to even try.

  8. TheDeadlyShoe says:

    Nonsense. Even if you think strategic bombing is the shit, the Army Air Force did it just fine during WWII.

  9. [...] Lately I’ve spilled a lot of electrons bashing the U.S. Air Force for being strategically blind, bureaucratically inept and addicted to tech for tech’s sake. But could I put together an air service any better? [...]

  10. [...] “China will not be our biggest future enemy but our most important ally,” Thomas Barnett, he of “Pentagon’s New Map” fame, writes in the latest GOOD Magazine: A significant portion of our national-security establishment wants desperately to cast China as an inevitable long-term threat. Why? Part of it is simply habit, as most who argue this line spent the bulk of their professional lives in the Cold War and just can’t imagine a world that doesn’t feature a superpower rivalry. For those who need to fill that hole, China is the best show in town, because its military buildup allows these hawks to argue that America must buy and maintain a huge, high-tech military force for potential large-scale war with the Chinese. [...]

  11. [...] The U.S. Air Force is in trouble. We knew this even before the service’s senior leaders were fired this summer in an unprecedented move. But the men tapped to replace sacked Chief of Staff General Michael Moseley and Secretary Michael Wynne have quickly identified, and promised to fix, most of the service’s major problems. General Norton Schwartz and Acting Secretary Michael Donley have, for the first time in years, given us reason to be hopeful for the future of U.S. air power. Among their priorities, according to statements made at the recent Air Force Association conference: [...]

  12. [...] To be clear, the prof isn’t really talking about battefield jointness, where soldiers call in Air Force air-strikes and Marines ride in Navy amphibious ships. He’s talking about “role and missions” jointness at a higher level. In other words, Sapolsky believes it’s a good thing that we have three separate, full-spectrum air forces: the Navy’s, the Marines’ and the Air Force’s. But the prof implies we need to go a step further. If one service’s air force proves better than the others, raid the competitors’ funding and give the cash to the superior branch as a way of rewarding success. Great idea. And by that thinking, it’s time to starve the Air Force of funding for tactical aircraft and boost Navy fighter programs. And maybe give the Army and Military Sealift Command more funding for transport and amphibious ships, at the Navy’s expense. And grow the Marines for counter-insurgency missions while shrinking the Army. (Photo: me) No Comments so far Leave a comment RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI Leave a comment Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong> [...]

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