Dr. Robert Farley recently wrote that America does not need the Air Force. His argument rests on two assertions: that Air Force missions are insufficiently distinct from the Army and Navy to justify an independent organization, and that the existence of a separate Air Force renders America’s military “insufficiently flexible to negotiate the modern security landscape.”
Paradoxically, if the criteria for organizational independence are to have a distinct mission set and to promote flexible national security options, then the Air Force has the strongest claim to existence of all the military services. America needs a strong Army and Navy, and it most certainly needs a strong Air Force. What America does not need is more defense analysis stuck in a pre-World War I mindset.
Dr. Farley’s argument reduces the Air Force mission to an extraordinarily narrow subset of what the U.S. Air Force actually does for the nation: providing organic support to ground and naval forces.
At the dawn of aviation, many leaders held a similarly limited view of this new weapon. Clinging to this perspective, however, conveniently ignores more than 100 years of maturity, resulting in a caricature of the Air Force that is easy to dismiss—especially when compared to the most grandiose claims of 20th-century air power enthusiasts. As a more intellectually honest alternative, I would invite Dr. Farley and other readers to consider the full complement of current Air Force missions.
While the organic air arms of the Army and Navy provide local support, only the Air Force provides the nation with global vigilance, global reach and global power—the ability to see, supply or strike any point on the planet. This global mindset is unique among the services, and springs from the speed, range and flexibility of air and space power.
Armies may be global at the institutional level, and navies global at the fleet level and higher, but air forces are global at the tactical level of the individual operator. Employing military force at hundreds of knots (at a minimum) naturally fosters an outlook in the airman that spans far more geographic area than one typically finds in the soldier, sailor or Marine.
The ability to provide these global effects rests on the execution of five core missions, the same missions the Air Force was assigned at its inception in 1947. These enduring missions are air and space superiority; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; rapid global mobility; command and control; and global strike.
While the Air Force can and does execute all five missions for the benefit of surface forces, they are often at their most potent and useful to national policy makers when the Army and Navy are not involved.
Under the protection of air superiority provided by the Air Force, no American soldier has been killed by enemy air strike since 1953, and generations of Army and Navy strategists have enjoyed the uniquely American advantage of planning their campaigns with no consideration for being attacked from the air.
However, the successes of Operations Northern Watch, Southern Watch and Deny Flight—not to mention the continued consideration of no-fly zones in Libya and Syria—demonstrate that policymakers also have high regard for air superiority in the absence of ground forces.
Likewise, as much as the Army and Navy value intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for the ability to see over the next ridge or beyond the horizon, information and data from regions of the world where there is no American ground presence is even more vital for national leaders, providing eyes and ears that can detect aggression or emerging humanitarian crises.
Similarly, rapid global mobility can certainly move ground forces to unexpected hot spots. Yet mobility, especially air refueling, also forms the foundation for the nation’s ability to respond to natural disasters and project decisive combat power before most surface forces are able to show up. Command and control provides similar agility and flexibility for the nation. It is the very glue that allows the effective execution of air, joint and coalition operations, enabling the repositioning of combat power between theaters in a matter of hours and concentrate where it is needed—something that would not be possible if air assets were relegated to tactical support of surface forces.
Defending strategic bombing
Global strike, in the form of strategic bombing, attracts particular criticism from Dr. Farley. While early strategic bombing campaigns often failed to meet the most optimistic expectations of air power pioneers, bombing itself still has great strategic value—particularly when the commitment of ground forces is politically untenable or before such forces can be brought to bear.
As Dr. Michael Auslin and others have reasoned, armies and navies can and should perform all these missions in direct support of their own forces, but only an air force can effectively conduct them on a global scale. Anyone who argues that this capability doesn’t constitute a distinct mission set merely betrays his or her ignorance about the missions in question.
The mitigation of such ignorance, ironically, is what motivated calls for an independent Air Force commanded by airmen in the first place.
And because America has an Air Force with a distinct mission set informed by a global perspective, the leaders of our nation have policy options at their disposal that would otherwise not exist. For example, only the Air Force can deliver timely aid in response to a humanitarian crisis in remote or austere locations or conduct precise, sustained bombing campaigns at intercontinental distances.
Critics often argue that strategic bombing is ineffective compared to “boots on the ground,” but this is false choice. It would be more realistic, particularly in the foreseeable future, to compare the effectiveness of bombing versus doing nothing. During the Libya crisis, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 specifically prohibited the use of foreign armies, and yet air power completely decimated the Libyan Air Force and denied critical war supplies to Qaddafi’s forces by destroying a large weapons cache.
Our nation deserves—and our leaders demand—a full range of military options to provide for the common defense, including those that can only be offered by globally oriented airmen.
The Air Force further enhances the nation’s strategic versatility through the inherent flexibility of air power itself. The platform that can destroy tactical forces in support of the Navy can attack strategic targets a continent away on the next mission. Such flexibility provides a strong hedge against uncertainty, and offers an advantage that is only more pronounced when defense resources are declining.
As Dr. Auslin pointedly argues, the Air Force offers unique capabilities that are unlikely to be replicated in either the Army or Navy if the Air Force were dissolved. This can be seen in the asymmetric nature of inter-service reliance. All significant land and sea operations rely on the Air Force conducting its core missions in support, whether it’s air superiority, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, global mobility and air refueling, or merely communication and navigation. (As an aside, this makes the Air Force arguably the most joint service.)
But some air operations—like the aforementioned delivery of humanitarian aid or striking in the interior of another continent—can be conducted without any support from the Army or Navy, which causes understandable anxiety in an era of shrinking budgets.
If the key characteristics of an independent service include focusing on a distinct set of missions and enhancing the flexibility of America’s military in order to better negotiate the modern security landscape, then the U.S. Air Force is actually in pretty good shape.
I’m not as sanguine, however, about the future of military advice rooted in pre-World War I perspectives.
Michael Bob Starr, an Air Force colonel, is a B-1 bomber pilot with more than 600 combat hours over Afghanistan striking strategic targets and conducting close air support on behalf of soldiers, Marines and coalition forces. The views presented here are his own.
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