This Is Why People Don’t Trust the Air Force With Air Power

A response to Col. Robert Spalding


Last week at Foreign Affairs, U.S. Air Force Col. Robert Spalding III offered a response to my earlier article “Ground the Air Force.” I’d like to thank Col. Spalding for his contribution, and to offer the following response to several of his points.

Colonel Spalding opens with a revealing anecdote:

When ground commanders controlled aircraft, the results were disastrous. As Col. F. Randall Starbuck writes in Air Power in North Africa, 1942–43: “One example, relayed by Gen. [Jimmy] Doolittle, was the incident where a ground commander asked him to provide a fighter to cover a Jeep that was going out to repair a broken telephone line. He refused. The plane that would have wasted its time on that mission shot down two German Me-109s.”

Was the jeep ambushed? Were communications restored? How critical were these communications to maintaining offensive momentum? Did anyone bother to ask? Maybe Doolittle did, and maybe he had good reason to believe that, on that day, one of his planes could catch and kill two Bf109s.

Col. Starbuck doesn’t tell us, and Col. Spalding doesn’t seem to care.
And this, in short, is why some people don’t trust the Air Force with airpower.

Deciding how to use scarce resources is the essence of military decision-making. Every commander will run short of assets, and have to weigh values in order to decide to let some missions go while pursuing others. Air superiority is surely a critically important mission, but so is communications maintenance and ground force protection. Pre-emptively choosing one mission over the others amounts to dogmatism, not decision-making.

And so it’s revealing that a modern advocate of USAF independence chooses to invoke an anecdote that reveals disdain and contempt for the joint fight. I’ve argued that, high-minded statements about cooperation and jointness notwithstanding, the bureaucratic division of air assets from their land and sea partners is inherently antagonistic.

U.S. Army B-17s bomb Germany in 1943. Wikipedia photo

No anecdote could better illustrate the persistence of that antagonism than the one Col. Spalding offers, in which force protection is a priori a “waste” relative to air superiority. And this, in a nutshell, is why the Air Force should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Farley argues that Pentagon planners pushed for an independent air force because they had “misinterpreted the lessons of World War II” to conclude that strategic bombing—massive air raids on enemy cities—represented the future of warfare. But military leaders favored an independent air force because of what they had learned from the North African campaign.
The Pentagon created the air force primarily to correct past failures, not, as Farley claims, based on “faulty conclusions about air power’s future.”

This account does extraordinary violence to the actual history of the founding of the United States Air Force, which has been detailed in numerous historical accounts.

A group of like-minded aviators and air power enthusiasts began agitating for Air Force independence in 1918, and continued their campaign through the interwar period and into World War II. This campaign overwhelmingly focused on the promise of strategic bombing—the use of heavy bombers to destroy enemy cities and infrastructure as a “magic bullet” that could win not only wars, but institutional independence.

This group robustly resisted every effort to force American air power into a support role, to the point of marginalizing the fighter pilot corps because the idea that pursuit aircraft might stop bombers was seen as a threat to their political strategy.

Zealous about promise of air power for national defense, interwar and postwar advocates made claims about the effectiveness of strategic bombing ranged from the optimistic, to the over-enthusiastic, to the outright fraudulent. As has been well documented, the Army Air Force loaded the dice with the post-war Strategic Bombing Survey, guaranteeing a positive result.

I can appreciate why Col. Spalding leaves out this part of the picture; it does not reflect well upon the history of his institution. But to claim that the Air Force gained independence because of concerns about tactical and operational decision-making in North Africa is far more than a stretch of the truth.

Indeed, there is little question that the USAAF allowed the kind of tactical assets most important to the North African theater to atrophy in its pursuit of war-winning, four-engine strategic bombers. Col. Starbuck, in the article that Col. Spalding cites, makes this point repeatedly and explicitly; the fascination of the interwar air force with heavy, strategic bombing left the branch utterly unprepared for the tactical fight.

U.S. Pres. Harry Truman, who staunchly opposed big military budgets, sought an inexpensive path to countering Soviet aggression and deterring a nuclear confrontation. He concluded that nuclear bombers provided the most cost-effective means of doing so. Even if deterrence failed, air power could blunt a conventional Soviet attack on Western Europe.
Indeed, air power became a crucial component of U.S. power during and after the Cold War. Since 1953, no U.S. soldier has died from an enemy air attack. Farley also claims that the U.S. Air Force’s performance in Vietnam laid bare the ineffectiveness of strategic bombing. Yet it was the force’s strategic bombing campaign against North Vietnam that brought the Viet Cong back to the negotiating table.

It’s not obvious which bombing campaign Col. Spalding is referring to, or which set of negotiations he’s referencing. The National Liberation Front, a.k.a. Viet Cong, of course always wanted to be at the negotiating table—this was consistently part of the dispute between Hanoi, Saigon, and Washington.

U.S. Air Force F-4 fighters refuel over Vietnam. Wikipedia photo

Since Rolling Thunder is widely recognized within the Air Force to have been a hapless, destructive failure, I can only assume he means Linebacker II, a brief bombing campaign designed primarily to convince Saigon, not Hanoi, to return to the table.

Although Linebacker II did serve to break a brief pause in negotiations in late 1972, the cost was terrible. USAF losses incurred during Linebacker II were so high that the United States would not have been able to carry on for very long had Hanoi and Saigon not temporarily relaxed their intransigence.

The broader point of invoking Korea—where Chinese and North Korea MiGs cut apart flights of B-29s while the Gen. Curtis Lemay kept the B-36 Peacemaker in the bullpen because of concerns over its vulnerability and fragility—and Vietnam is that, despite claims that an independent Air Force would optimize U.S. air power, what we got were clunky fighters that were outclassed by their cheap Soviet counterparts, lumbering bombers that could not avoid either Surface-to-Air Missiles or interceptors, and unimaginative targeting doctrine that failed to compel the enemy to do much of anything.

Its appreciation of “air-mindedness” and the nuances of strategic air power notwithstanding, this force was clearly incapable of achieving the political and strategic goals of the civilian policymakers of the United States. But that was then and this was now; why talk about history?

First, because Air Force defenders are happy to (selectively) talk about history; good for the goose, good for the gander. Second, because if the basic logic of independence—that granting the USAF independence would produce an effective strategic tool for the national use of air power—didn’t work in 1950, or in 1965, then there’s no obvious reason to think that it works today.

Farley also glosses over air force successes in Kosovo, which because no U.S. ground troops were involved, demonstrated the immense value of air power in the post–Cold War era. Although some analysts argue that Kosovar fighters were a de facto ground force, those fighters would not have survived without help from the air. Once the air campaign focused on hitting regime targets, air power alone created the conditions that persuaded Serbia to negotiate. That does not mean that air power is sufficient to win every war. But in Kosovo, it was.

A different way of phrasing Col. Spalding’s point is that during the Kosovo War, the United States and the entire weight of the NATO alliance was thrown against Serbia, a small, rump state that lacked the military capability of a single one of its opponents, and that fought with weapons a generation behind those of its foes.

This small, weak, divided nation nevertheless managed to resist the combined air power of the West for three months, until it was deserted by its allies, its critical territory was overrun by insurgents, and it faced the very real prospect of a ground invasion.

Phrased thus, the decisive impact of air power looks rather less impressive.

A U.S. Air Force F-16 takes off for a mission over Kosovo. Air Force photo
Farley believes that the United States would be better off without the intercontinental ballistic missile and bomber legs of the nuclear triad. This has been a frequent argument since the end of the Cold War. Some believe that when the Soviet Union dissolved, the threat of nuclear weapons ceased. This assertion neglects the fact that China and Russia are both modernizing their arsenals. In fact, Russia intends to rely heavily on its nuclear arsenal for future self-defense.

Debates over cutting one or more legs of the triad have recurred since the end of the Cold War for two reasons. First, the threat of nuclear war has diminished dramatically.

Second, the expense of developing the next generation of each of the three legs of the triad has grown onerous. One need not believe that “the threat of nuclear weapons ceased,” to think that the U.S. nuclear force structure requires significant reform, especially as our ICBMs, bombers and ballistic-missile submarines age.

In approaching these reforms, it’s undoubtedly best to take a fresh look, especially given that the Triad was as much a result of service in-fighting as a rational strategic choice.

Such a review is particularly necessary given that it has become apparent, over the last decade, that the Air Force itself has lost interest in its nuclear arsenal; a long series of incidents, from a nuclear weapon-laden B-52 taking off from Minot to the recent set of revelations about unpreparedness and unprofessionalism amongst missile crews.

A cynic, or a recently retired Secretary of Defense, might suggest that the USAF no longer sees its nuclear assets as a serious bureaucratic bargaining chip.

And so, given that the Air Force itself no longer seems to take its nuclear responsibilities very seriously, it might behoove us all to rethink how the United States ought to approach nuclear deterrence, especially in context of a threat environment radically different than the one that existed in 1963.

Neglecting cost, the bombers provide the only visible demonstration of U.S. will. This fact necessitated the use of B-2s to show resolve when North Korea was threatening nuclear attacks on the United States earlier this year.

Having had the opportunity to visit an aircraft carrier during my research, I discovered that such vessels are not, in fact, invisible. The United States military has multiple means for intimidating or deterring a potential adversary. For example, the decision to steam the USS Nimitz and the USS Independence into the South China Sea during the Taiwan Straits Crisis of 1996 is widely credited with defusing tensions.

Perhaps more to the point, military assets do not require the words “USAF” on the body in order to intimidate. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union used Tu-95s (operated by the Soviet Air Forces) and Tu-142 (operated by the Soviet Navy) interchangeably in order to visibly demonstrate Soviet presence and will.

In the unlikely event that aircraft carriers prove insufficient to intimidating small, weak countries like North Korea, B-2s, B-52s, and B-1Bs under U.S. Army or U.S. Navy command can surely do the job.
Farley’s recommendation for the other services to assume responsibility for space and remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) shows a profound misunderstanding of current U.S. Air Force capabilities. While RPAs get the most attention, the Air Force’s real contribution is behind the scenes: It has built an enormous worldwide collection and fusion network.
The Air Force fuses and analyzes terabytes of data each day to provide actionable information to the warfighter. Its relentless commitment to speeding the “find, fix, track, target, engage, assess” process means that there is no service better postured to manage this global kill chain …
Finally, the Air Force also plays a central role in maintaining some of the nation’s most critical infrastructure and most basic military capabilities. Every 90 seconds, an Air Force plane takes off to deliver cargo somewhere in the world. Air Force satellites keep U.S. forces alerted to everything from the weather to nuclear detonations.
Most important, the Air Force, unlike the other services, can strike any target on earth within a matter of hours or minutes depending on the location. The Air Force provides precise command and control over all of these activities—24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Contractors prepare a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 drone for a patrol over Afghanistan. Air Force photo

Col. Spalding mistakes a bureaucratic decision for an intrinsic organizational quality. If there were no Air Force, the burden of building a worldwide collection and fusion network would have fallen to the other services, which would have built similar institutions of data collection.

If the Air Force disappeared tomorrow, the Army and Navy would have the same need for that information, and would reproduce USAF capabilities—probably with former USAF personnel.

Similarly, there is nothing so special or complex about “air-mindedness” to make a service appreciate the need of transport, intelligence and long range strike. The most important assets the United States has for “reaching out and touching someone,” Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA, both use the Air Force primarily as support—a relationship that could easily continue with either the Army or the Navy.

Farley’s analysis also fails to properly contend with the future. U.S. Pres. Barack Obama’s commitment to a pivot toward the Pacific requires some capabilities that only the U.S. Air Force provides; its global focus makes it supremely suited to deal with the vast distances in the Pacific region. Massing troops in such a vast area takes time. The Air Force can do it in hours.

Colonel Spalding once against mistakes “air power” for the “United States Air Force.” The assets necessary for the Pacific Pivot can be shifted to the Army and the Navy. Indeed, given the intrinsically joint nature of naval-air operations in the Pacific, it makes little sense to retain the artificial bureaucratic divide between the services.

Perhaps more importantly, the Army will have more than enough incentive to maintain and improve upon air transport assets recovered from the Air Force.

Farley concludes his article by arguing that the Air Force has become an unnecessary anachronism. Yet it has built the most sophisticated worldwide network for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in the world, quickly ramping up to more than 60 around-the-clock Predator/Reaper drone patrols, all to support troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Since the conflict in Kosovo, U.S. soldiers and Marines on the ground have come to rely on Air Force eyes overhead at all times. Troops in combat can expect their calls to be answered in minutes if not seconds. Air Force medical evacuation teams are able to reach critically injured troops within a “golden hour.”

The United States Air Force operates some 300 drones, while the United States Army operates several thousand, and would operate more if not for the latest in a long series of nasty turf fights that left drones in Air Force control.

The Air Force operates many of the best-known drones, including the Reapers and Predators that conduct a strategic air campaign in Pakistan and Yemen, but has never been at the forefront of technological or doctrinal development.

With respect to the golden hour, the Army lacks the capacity to conduct its own medical evacuation in fixed wing aircraft because of the Johnson-McConnell Agreement of 1966, which forbade the Army from operating such aircraft as the C-7 Caribou.

After the Vietnam War the USAF discarded these assets as quickly as possible. There is little reason to believe that the Army would do worse with such a mission, and much reason to believe it would do better.

As for the Marines, they have so much confidence in the Air Force’s commitment to support that they’re mortgaging the future of the organization on the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter and the MV-22 Osprey.

Every culture needs its myths and platitudes, its own origin story that explains how it fits into the world. Military organizations are no different. Nevertheless, it would be best if, for purposes of this conversation, we took time to move beyond those myths and platitudes.

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