Break from the Past: The U.S. Air Force Needs a New Strategy

Break from the Past: The U.S. Air Force Needs a New Strategy

Aviators need a common vocabulary and understanding of the wild blue to debate how best to configure air forces and deploy them for tactical, operational, and strategic gain.

Here’s What You Need to Remember: Bottom line, the elements of air forces are interdependent just as capital ships, cruisers, and flotilla craft prowling the sea are interdependent.

Students and practitioners of air power desperately need a theorist with the stature of a Carl von Clausewitz, Julian S. Corbett, or Mao Zedong—masters of ground, sea, and irregular warfare, respectively. Aviators need a common vocabulary and understanding of the wild blue to debate how best to configure air forces and deploy them for tactical, operational, and strategic gain. Without that foundation partisans of contending schools of thought about air warfare tend to fling volleys of assertions and counter-assertions at one another. Few have sufficient firepower to convince.

Exhibit A: over at Oriana Pawlyk reports that U.S. Air Force “light-attack” experiments “appear to have lost steam as other priorities have come to the fore.” The service has convened fly-offs of inexpensive propeller- and jet-driven aircraft optimal for “close air support,” meaning airborne bombardment of hostile ground forces. On-call support to armies isn’t an orphan mission for the air force, precisely, but it does tend to rank below glamour missions such as air superiority and strategic bombing in the service’s pecking order.

Which has things backward—as a sage of air power would likely teach. Air forces exist to fight for control of embattled airspace precisely so they can support ground forces and execute other worthwhile missions in friendly skies. Air combat confers the luxury to execute humdrum functions.

Humble aircraft can perform ground-attack duty, which is probably why it excites little passion among air-force magnates. Fighters and bombers captivate them instead. Warbirds assigned to close air support may sortie out hunting for targets of opportunity, or they may loiter aloft awaiting calls for fire from ground-pounders below. Aerial fire support weakens hostile armies and hampers their maneuvers on the battlefield while protecting friendly troops, lending them a firepower advantage, or correcting a firepower mismatch so that few soldiers can stand against many. U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine aviators have spent the bulk of their time since September 11 rendering fire support in theaters from Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria.

Not every such mission demands an aging A-10 Warthog, a flying tank built around a massive Gatling gun, or a pricey fighter/attack jet like an F-16 Falcon or F-35 Lighting II. Hence the recent experiments. Light aircraft could render similar assistance in uncontested or lightly contested airspace, and at far lower cost. The light-attack experiments’ overseers have designated the turboprop-driven Textron Aviation AT-6 Wolverine and the Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29 Super Tucano the prime candidates for the support mission—assuming the service embraces the concept of light attack.

This debate is a curious one. It has raged across commentary pages over the past couple of years, but neither proponents nor detractors of the concept situate it in the context of a larger air campaign—of what air forces exist to do, in other words. Everyone seems to assume close air support must take place in isolation, as though ground-attack planes must confront, withstand, or evade ground fire or hostile air forces all by themselves, with no help from the rest of the air fleet. Advocates stress that light aircraft are small, nimble, and evasive while critics point to the proliferation of advanced surface-to-air missiles to formerly safe theaters and intimate that light attack aircraft would surely perish from ground fire.

Partisans on both sides, then, seem to agree tacitly that attack planes must shift for themselves. They take a wholly passive view. But what sane air commander would expose close-air-support aircraft and crews thus? None, I hope. Commanders would allocate air-superiority aircraft to furnish cover, helping attack planes sporting little capacity for self-defense do their job in a tolerably safe tactical environment. If the area hasn’t yet been made safe for close air support, then the air force as a whole still has work to do. Ground-attack planes shouldn’t be sent forth unguarded.

The interdependence among the components of an air force has gotten lost in the debate over light attack, not to mention quarrels over the proper mix of stealth and non-stealthy aircraft in the inventory, methods for integrating unmanned vehicles alongside manned planes, and on and on. A robust aviation theory would illumine these exchanges of point and counterpoint. It would explain how the segments of an air arm work together for combined effect, and in the process it could help collapse the silos separating communities within the U.S. Air Force. In short, air-power theory would offer a point of departure—enriching future deliberations about force design, tactics, and operations.

A century into the air age, few would dispute the importance of aviation to military operations. And yet at the Naval War College our main text on air power remains the Italian general Giulio Douhet’s Command of the Air. Douhet’s treatise dates to 1921. While it remains the best available guide to air-power theory a century hence, few would rank Command of the Air alongside timeless works like Clausewitz’s On War, Corbett’s Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, or Mao’s On Protracted War.

Chronological age isn’t the problem with Douhet’s writings. Age is good. We read far older works with our students each term when sojourning through martial history and theory. The trouble is that Douhet wrote too soon, when military aviation remained in its infancy. Think about it. Only in 1903 did Orville and Wilbur Wright take to the skies above Kitty Hawk, NC, ushering in the era of heavier-than-air flight. The first military aircraft, another brainchild of the Wright brothers, debuted in 1909. Command of the Air thus debuted a mere eyeblink into the age of military aviation.

This is no slight to Douhet. Somebody has to be first to say something meaningful about a new topic, and all honor to those with the courage to do it. But twelve years supplies too little history to plumb. A century on we should temper our enthusiasm for findings about air warfare distilled from the First Balkan War (1912-1913) and World War I (1914-1918), when rudimentary planes first dueled one another and ground forces. That’s far too sparse a storehouse of data to yield insights of enduring value.

Do a thought experiment. Military thinkers would lampoon the idea that some scribe could have written the definitive treatise about land warfare within a few years after cavemen first lobbed stones at one another, or about naval warfare in the seventh century B.C., after triremes from Corinth and Corcyra collided in history’s first recorded sea battle. The notion that Douhet uttered the final word about air power is likewise laughable.

This is doubly true because Command of the Air is less a work of strategic theory than a manifesto on behalf of an independent air force. Douhet sought bureaucratic goals as much as he sought to enlighten airmen about the nature of their profession. In short, Douhet had baggage to tote that didn’t encumber fellow theorists. Clausewitz felt little need to prove that armies should exist, Corbett that navies should ply the oceans, or Mao that guerrillas and other irregular fighters should bestride the field. These seers could get on with explicating strategy. To my mind this element of special pleading sets Douhet’s writings apart from—and on a lower plane than—rival classics.

Until some writer does pen an authoritative treatise about air power, though, why not conscript sea-power theory as a substitute? The analogy between water and sky is inexact but serviceable. Julian Corbett delineated the phases of sea combat, and he broke down navies into their constituent parts while explaining how those parts should interact with one another. First, naval commanders could dispute enemy “command of the sea” if they headed the weaker force. They could balk the stronger foe by various stratagems while building up sufficient strength to seize the offensive. Once strong enough, second, they could venture a fleet battle. Depending on the scale of their victory, they would wrest partial or complete, temporary or permanent control of important waters from the antagonist. “Permanent general control” of the sea constituted the gold standard for Corbett.

And third, they could harvest the fruits of maritime command after winning it. The victor could guarantee friendly use of the sea lanes, bar seaways to antagonists, land troops on foreign shores, or otherwise project power inland from offshore. In so doing naval forces would help win the war on land—which, Corbett hastened to assure readers, is where wars are won. After all, people live on dry land. It only makes sense that great matters of state are decided through terrestrial combat.

To accomplish all this Corbett urged fleet designers to partition the navy into “capital ships” fit to battle hostile heavy ships; “cruisers” that were light and cheap enough to build in bulk to police seas scoured of enemy ships; and “flotilla” craft that might or might not be armed and, like cruisers, could be constructed in large numbers to perform the routine administrative errands all sea services must perform. Striking a balance among these ship types was central to fleet design.