Recently at War is Boring, Patterson School professor Farley proposed eliminating the U.S. Air Force. Air power, Farley argued, is best folded entirely into the Army and Navy as a supporting function. But B-1 bomber pilot Michael Bob Starr countered with his reasons why America does need the Air Force as a separate military branch. Now Farley responds.

I enjoyed reading Col. Starr’s response to my post, and I’d like to thank him for taking the argument seriously enough to make a detailed, well-considered contribution. However, I have two broad objections to his claims.

Two Air Force F-16s train over Japan in February. Air Force photo

This is the institutional structure that the founders fought for, so it’s worth inquiring why they found it important

Col. Starr cautions against measuring the performance of the Air Force against “the most grandiose claims of 20th-century air power enthusiasts.” Appreciating the contributions of our forefathers always requires a healthy sense perspective.

However, the Air Force that we have today is the result of the advocacy of men like Jan Smuts, Giulio Douhet, William Mitchell, Hugh Trenchard, John Slessor, Hap Arnold, Benjamin Foulois and Alexander de Seversky. The arguments they made on behalf of air power, and specifically on behalf of air power wielded through the medium of independent air forces, deserve to be heard, understood and critiqued — in no small part because they won.

The survival of the British Royal Air Force and the birth of the USAF depended upon the work, enthusiasm and advocacy of these founders. If the facts and theories upon which the founders argued for independence turn out to be critically flawed, then it’s worth asking whether the structure they argued for is also flawed.

Interrogating Mitchell and Douhet shouldn’t be the end of an argument about Air Force independence, but it surely needs to be one of the beginnings to the conversation.

Col. Starr might prefer that we forgive “the most optimistic expectations of air power pioneers” in favor of an appreciation of what strategic bombing can do for us here and now. This is fair, but surely it is also fair to evaluate the accomplishments of strategic bombing against what its advocates promised (at the time) was possible.

If the most knowledgeable and committed advocates of strategic air power have a distressing tendency to radically overstate what strategic air power campaigns can accomplish — and the evidence is clear that they do — then it’s worth expressing more than a touch of skepticism about current claims regarding the necessity of strategic bombing capability.

It may be that current advocates of strategic bombing are right where their predecessors were wrong. Or it may be that they simply haven’t had the opportunity to be proven wrong yet.

Finally, we need to ask about the downsides of devoting attention and resources to strategic bombing. There is a deep and growing literature, for example, demonstrating that Air Force shortcomings in the Korean War and the Vietnam War stem directly from an obsession with strategic bombing — the same obsession that won independence in 1947.

In short, reading Mitchell and Douhet goes a long way toward explaining why USAF F-4s and F-105s were unprepared to tangle with North Vietnamese MiG-21s, and why Navy aviators were generally regarded as better air superiority pilots than their Air Force counterparts.

It’s certainly worth inquiring whether the enduring influence of air power’s founding fathers — and the persistent obsession with strategic bombing — continues to introduce flaws into the USAF’s approach to war.

A Navy Super Hornet fighter aboard the USS Nimitz near the Persian Gulf in August. Navy photo

Air power is not the same as the Air Force

Col. Starr focuses on the legitimate, laudable contributions that air power has made to U.S. military efforts. In so doing, however, I believe he mistakes an appreciation of air power with the need for an independent Air Force.

Air Force independence is not the only institutional choice that global militaries have made. The Israeli, Chinese and Russian military establishments, to name a few, have each experimented with radically different institutions. These configurations have had their benefits and drawbacks, just like the current U.S. national security bureaucracy. Even in context of independent air forces, the distribution of missions and equipment is considerably different in the United Kingdom than in the United States.

What this emphasizes is that an appreciation of air power does not require any specific set of institutions. Unfortunately, the conflicts Col. Starr cites do not help us distinguish between how air power might be used by independent and unified air forces.

For example, Col. Starr portrays Libya as a victory for independent air power, a conclusion which would undoubtedly irritate the Special Operations Forces who fought alongside Libyans from Misrata to Benghazi. He does not mention that the USS Florida, a converted ballistic missile submarine, kicked the door open with a barrage of precision-targeted cruise missiles, or that many of the sorties flown in support of that operation came from British, French and American aircraft carriers.

Libya did indeed demonstrate the potency of air power; it just wasn’t about air power as exercised by an independent air force.

Col. Starr also mistakes bureaucratic rules for essential cultural characteristics, suggesting that missions such as global strike, global mobility and air superiority may suffer without an independent Air Force. I suspect that this claim would be extremely surprising to many in the Navy, who have worked hard over the last century to establish an enduring global presence — not to mention the capacity to strike deep within the continental interior.

Indeed, every indication suggests that if the United States conducts military attacks on Syria in the next weeks, it will be with cruise missiles launched from submarines and surface ships. Moreover, the USAF’s commitment to aspects of that global role can be overstated; Col. Starr can hardly be unaware, for example, of concerns inside and outside the Air Force that missions — including most notably air transport and close air support — that require close interaction with the other services are systematically undervalued and under-resourced.

Col. Starr is correct to observe that the Air Force has managed, under conditions of tremendous resource advantage, to maintain air supremacy over various American battlefields since 1953. The Army also understands the value of air supremacy, and can almost certainly be relied upon to pursue its institutional interest by investing in air supremacy assets. The lack of fixed-wing aircraft in the U.S. Army’s inventory today results not from a “pre-World War I mindset,” but rather from the existence of the United States Air Force as an independent bureaucratic entity.

Similarly, the officers and enlisted personnel of the United States Army are sufficiently imaginative to envision what life looks like on the other side of the Fire Support Coordination Line.

In short, the question isn’t “what does the USAF do?” but rather “what does the USAF do that could not be done just as well by the other services.” That list appears exceedingly thin, and the USAF’s performance since independence, especially in missions that require cooperation with the other services, evokes serious questions about how we should structure our military institutions for the future.

Dr. Robert Farley (@drfarls) is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce and the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (forthcoming Spring 2014). He blogs at Information Dissemination, The Diplomat and Lawyers, Guns and Money.

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