It’s been a rough couple of years for the U.S. Air Force. The flying branch has squandered billions of dollars on gold-plated aircraft and other weapons it doesn’t need. It has mishandled nuclear weapons. Airmen in the nuclear force have been caught cheating on exams. And then there are the numerous sexual scandals.
At the same time, the Air Force has struggled to remain relevant during the course of two land-centric wars. The Air Force sends strategic bombers to drop bombs on small bands of insurgents. In nearly 13 years of continuous warfare, the flying branch’s most advanced fighter, the F-22, hasn’t flown a single combat mission.
The air service is also unnecessarily bureaucratic, resistant to systemic change and is the most parochial of the armed services. But there’s an even bigger problem—one that calls into question whether the Air Force should exist at all.
This is the focus of a new book by University of Kentucky professor—and occasional War is Boring contributor—Robert Farley. In Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force, Farley argues that the Air Force is redundant. And, he claims, its existence actually hurts American national security.
Now, Farley doesn’t suggest getting rid of air power. Instead, he recommends the Pentagon dismantle the Air Force and hand its missions—and aircraft—over to the Army and Navy.
The modern Air Force began in 1947, when the Army Air Corps, a semi-autonomous wing of the Army, spun off into a separate service.
During World War II, the Air Corps’ planes battled enemy aircraft, flew close support for ground forces and bombed Axis cities.
After the war, it seemed natural to have a separate air arm. It was the beginning of the Atomic Age, and many believed that the next war would be fought with nuclear weapons. These weapons, of course, would be carried by a globe-spanning fleet of Air Force bombers.
There is, Farley agrees, no doubt that air power has truly revolutionized warfare, adding an indispensable third dimension to conflict. No serious government would dare wage war without aircraft.
But the author argues that air power advocates have taken the inverse position—that air forces can win wars by themselves. Not only does aerial bombing keep down friendly casualties, the argument goes, it’s cheaper than rolling out the entire military for a long, costly fight.
History has proved this theory wrong, Farley argues. As the 18th-century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz argued, to truly win a war, an army must take back the enemy’s territorial gains and threaten his homeland.
The Pentagon created the Air Force in order to concentrate air power. But in an age where ground, air, and sea forces complement each other, the Air Force’s stated core missions—strategic bombing and air superiority—do not directly benefit the other services.
Dog in the fight
Tellingly, even after the Air Force’s creation, the Army, Navy and Marine Corps all kept their own air forces. Each service reasoned that it needed its own aircraft—outside of Air Force control—that would be more responsive to their needs.
The things the Air Force needs to do, the other services can do equally well. Any branch can achieve air superiority, a function closely tied to the conduct of ground or naval campaigns. The Navy and Marine Corps both have fleets of highly-capable jet fighters and experience using them. The Army has missiles for securing the air space over its troops.
Grounded argues that strategic bombing, a major justification for the Air Force’s independent existence, has never truly been effective—and its inherent danger to civilians is immoral.
Scrapping the Air Force and handing over much of its equipment to the Army would bring the war-winning elements of ground and air power under one roof. It would eliminate bureaucracy and save money. At least that’s what Farley claims.
Grounded is a controversial book, to be sure. Farley concedes that, barring a major economic or political shock, the Air Force is not likely to go away any time soon.
Sensing danger, particularly in this era of deep defense cuts, a number of air power advocates have already launched a counterattack on the book’s argument. Even Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, has addressed the argument. Spoiler alert—he hates it.
But in the face of shrinking defense budgets and squabbling about how many ships, tanks and aircraft American should have, it’s refreshing to hear a meta-argument on the military.
It’s likewise useful to shake up our conceptions of warfare every once in a while. Grounded does a lot of shaking.