In 1962, as Pres. John F. Kennedy considered how to respond to the deployment of Soviet missiles to Cuba, the loudest voices for escalation came from the United States Air Force.
Famously, Gen. Curtis LeMay—one of the most effective operational commanders in American history and a veteran of World War II—told Kennedy, “You’re in a pretty bad fix.”
“You’re in there with me,” Kennedy responded.
This was not an isolated incident. Later in the 1960s, the Air Force reportedly attempted to circumvent civilian demands that it increase the safety of its missiles by installing a code system that could prevent launches. The Air Force installed the system, but set the codes to “0000000.”
And in 1964, the flying branch argued that air power could defeat North Vietnam. Air Force planners helped develop Rolling Thunder, a bombing campaign designed to force Hanoi out of the war. The campaign wreaked significant destruction on North Vietnamese economy and society but failed to budge Hanoi’s leadership.
My new book Grounded is all about the Air Force’s deleterious affect on U.S. foreign policy. I invite you to join me for a FireDogLake Book Salon online discussion on March 15, 2014. It’s an open forum—and you’re welcome to disagree with me. Strongly, even.
Foreign policy comes from the collection of organizations that make up the national security state. If you change the constellation of organizations, you change the foreign policy output. Creating the U.S. Air Force amplified a voice within government for fighting short, cheap, decisive wars from the air.
As independent but related bureaucracies, the three military services naturally compete with each other for funding, roles and influence. In a crisis, the Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff contribute advice regarding military options. However, through formal, informal and sometimes public channels, the services also make their preferences known.
Air Force officers not only tend to believe in the decisiveness of air power, they have very good professional and institutional reasons for arguing in favor of air power as a strategic catalyst. Service-oriented viewpoints produce parochialism, the idea that the good of the service and the good of the country are the same.
Demonstrating that air power can, on its own, decisively defeat an adversary and create a favorable political outcome flatters not only the preconceptions of air power advocates, but also promises to generate greater resources, autonomy and influence.
And this leads to problems. Implicitly, air power theory holds that state, society and economy are essentially transparent—and that pushing the right buttons at the right times can force an enemy to bend to your will.
But states and societies react in unpredictable ways to bombing. During World War II, Britain, Germany and Japan persisted under dreadful, long-term bombing campaigns without the people ever fully losing faith in their governments.
The bombing campaign against North Vietnam arguably increased the control of the Vietnamese Communist Party, while the bombing of Cambodia destabilized the country to the extent that the Khmer Rouge could take control.
In Kosovo, the air campaign eventually succeeded—but took much longer and spread to far more targets than initially expected. Even then, the air campaign increased Slobodan Milosevic’s popularity, at least over the short term
No matter how impressive the display of U.S. air power, these campaigns leave the decision to the defender. The failure of the initial strikes inevitably leads to a wider campaign and a quest for more critical targets to “influence” the regime.
And if air power fails, other forms of escalation follow. In Vietnam, Viet Cong attacks against an American helicopter base at Camp Holloway helped feed the argument for more air strikes, not to mention an expansion of the ground war.
The air campaign against Serbia put U.S. and NATO prestige on the line and may well have led to a ground campaign if Milosevic had not capitulated. In Lebanon in 2006, stubborn Hezbollah resistance to the Israeli air campaign helped force the IDF into destructive ground attacks.
Air Force culture has also created problems during wars. The USAF was hardly the only voice in American politics to call for nuclear escalation of the Korean War. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was periodically a proponent. But the early Air Force was most consistent in advocating for escalatory nuclear options against the Communist world.
In 1990, a group of Air Force officers argued that the United States could destroy Saddam Hussein’s Iraq using air power alone, an option that would likely have left Iraq in ruins and Hussein in control of Kuwait. Finally, the focus on independent, decisive effect draws Air Force attention away from its responsibility to support ground troops.
When these campaigns fail, air power advocates repeat the same set of excuses. They claim that the campaign was conducted too gradually to have the necessary psychological impact. They claim that politics interfered and policymakers were either insufficiently committed—or that they wrongly restricted the Air Force from bringing its full weight to bear.
Perhaps most importantly, they claim that technology was insufficient … and that the next war will definitely be different.
The solution is to eliminate the Air Force and fold it back into the Army, the Navy and the Marine Corps. This won’t solve every problem with American foreign policy, but it will remove from the field of play an organization that almost congenitally argues for the effectiveness of cheap, decisive military force.
Reminding policymakers of the true cost of war can, we hope, force them to think more responsibly about the using force to resolve diplomatic problems.