The U.S. Air Force For Dummies: Part II

February 25, 2014 Topic: Defense Region: United States

The U.S. Air Force For Dummies: Part II

"If achieving one’s strategic objectives is the measure of success, no other service can claim a post-Cold War record of success that matches that of the US Air Force."


With Robert Farley responding to my critique of his Foreign Affairs article, “Ground the Air Force,” our ongoing debate on the pages of the National Interest serves a useful purpose in the larger discussion concerning the roles, missions, and structure of not only the Air Force, but the US military as a whole. Just as with his initial article, it seems Dr. Farley has offered an incomplete picture of airpower and is uneven in his criticism of Air Force leadership.

However, before addressing the specific issues raised in Farley’s latest piece, I first wish to return to his original article and the recent work of Walter Pincus of the Washington Post and Chris Preble of the Cato Institute. All have advocated for the elimination of the bomber and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) legs of the triad. These “nuclear minimalists” deserve a specific response.


The Minimalist Plan

With President Obama advocating an ever smaller nuclear arsenal, critics of the triad see blood in the water and are misguidedly circling around the bomber and ICBM legs of the triad like hungry sharks in the belief that they will soon have an easy kill. Strategic experience dictates otherwise. Thus, it is time to turn the tables on minimalists and let the predator become the prey.

In short, minimalists advocate a submarine-based nuclear monad and wish to remove all of the (76) remaining B52-H and (19) B-2 stealth bombers from nuclear service—making them conventional weapons only. They also seek to decommission the nation’s (450) ICBMs. Minimalists, as a group, largely urge a nuclear deterrence strategy that relies solely on 12—not even the current 14—Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). They recommend maintaining 6 SSBNs on constant at-sea alert while 6 submarines are in port or dry dock.

Silver Bullets

If the United States were to adopt such a policy, America’s ability to effectively deter current and future nuclear adversaries would decline precipitously for several reasons. First, deterrence relies on convincing adversaries that the risks involved in an attack far outweigh any potential rewards. The way to achieve the desired psychological effect on an adversary is best captured by the equation “capability plus will equals credibility.” Moving to a nuclear deterrence strategy that effectively depends on 6 deployed submarines undermines American credibility because it both reduces capability and undercuts will.

Second, the bomber leg of the nuclear triad contributes to deterrence in a very important and distinct way. Since ICBMs and SSBNs are, by design, hidden from view they are poor tools for signaling American resolve should an adversary begin to escalate toward conflict. Within the modern arsenal, the bomber fleet is best equipped to perform such signaling. For example, contrary to popular belief, effective signaling on the part of the USAF “won” the Cuban Missile Crisis, not the US Navy’s blockade. Let me explain.

While President Kennedy was considering options for Cuba, Strategic Air Command (SAC) deployed large numbers of its long-range bombers, loaded with nuclear weapons, to Air Force bases in the Southeast, where they sat wing-tip to wing-tip for the Soviets to see. This act of resolve, along with the naval blockade, sent a very clear message to the Soviet Union: (capability + will = credibility). Absent the movement of SAC bombers, the Cuban Missile Crisis might very well have turned out differently.

Third, ICBMs raise the cost of an attack on the United States, since an adversary must accurately strike and destroy hardened ICBM silos to prevent a counter-attack. Rather than increase instability, as detractors suggest, ICBMs reduce the risk of an attack by dramatically increasing the requirements for success, which has a stabilizing effect. We should not make it easier to become a nuclear peer of the United States, yet moving to a monad would do just that.

Fourth, if the minimalists have their way, America’s adversaries would be well aware that they could destroy SSBNs in port or drydock by a conventional strike against the naval bases at Kings Bay, GA, or Bangor, WA, for example. Furthermore, contrary to what many Americans may believe, Russia and China are developing advanced sea- and space-based submarine detection capabilities that may one day enable them to detect, track, and sink the nation’s at-sea SSBNs. In fact, the United States has itself been perfecting these capabilities since the dark days of the Cold War. Thus, encouraging our adversaries to focus their efforts on anti-submarine warfare by moving to a monad could mean, in essence, that a conventional strike on two bases and a small number of torpedo hits could potentially (though not probably) destroy the entire US nuclear arsenal.

The point in offering this analysis is not to attack the sea-based leg of the nuclear triad, which is vital to the nation’s security, but to highlight that each leg of the triad has distinct strengths and weaknesses that the other legs of the triad complement. It was not dumb luck, pure politics, or happenstance that led to the development of a nuclear triad five decades ago: much careful thought lay behind its creation.

Increasing American vulnerability and decreasing American capability does not represent a strategy for success in the 21st century any more than the Washington Naval Treaty did in 1922. Deterrence works when the United States credibly convinces its adversaries that an attack on America will fail to accomplish its desired objectives and that massive retaliation will inevitably follow. Any other approach to deterrence is doomed to failure.

Relying on “minimum deterrence” places the American people at greater risk, not less. A vulnerable nuclear arsenal consisting of a dozen submarines—the end result of such a strategy—illustrates sharply what is at stake in the coming years as decision makers are bombarded with studies advocating the elimination of the bomber and ICBM legs of the nuclear triad. Such advocacy should be seen for what it is: naïve and ill informed. Contrary to the minimalists’ claims, submarines are no silver bullet, but the combination of submarines with the bomber and ICBM legs of the triad constitutes the nation’s silver buckshot, which no nation has challenged in five decades. Thus, when pundits promise to save billions of defense dollars by eliminating two legs of the nuclear triad, Americans should heed Laocoön’s warning to “beware of [minimalists] bearing gifts.”

Domains as Divisions of Labor

Rather than seek to counter every point Farley makes, let me focus on three. While Farley clearly acknowledges the existence of the space, air, sea, land, and cyber domains, he seems to believe that only the land and sea domains merit independent services. This view is largely consistent with that of the commander of the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), Gen Robert W. Cone, who recently said, “While human beings transit air and transit sea, they live on the land . . . and so your strategic outcomes are going to take place on the land.” To suggest that the air, space, cyber, and sea domains are simply environments that humans occasionally transit shows a stunning lack of understanding of operational warfighting.

Farley’s argument that because the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps have air assets, they therefore each have an air force is simply incorrect. If we were to carry Farley’s logic (the Air Force is just duplication) to its natural conclusion, the Navy should be eliminated as well, since the Army has its own ships. Thus, because the Navy is a duplication of the Army, we obviously should turn over all naval assets to the Army so soldiers can better employ them for land operations. An independent Navy just enables sailors to focus on defending the sea lines of commerce and communication, which does not really matter; right? Marines will, of course, become soldiers, who will undoubtedly serve the nation better in their new service—eliminating their irritating focus on amphibious operations.

This is, of course, an absurd idea. The Army’s navy has a very different purpose and set of assets than the US Navy. The same is true of Army, Navy, and Marine air assets and the US Air Force.

Perhaps a more useful approach is to examine how our greatest adversaries have organized their militaries in the age of manned flight. The Nazis had a separate Army, Navy, and Air Force, as did the Soviets. The Russians then continued this practice, keeping each service separate. The Chinese, currently our greatest competitor, also have an independent Army, Navy, and Air Force—despite their common names. The real question regarding China concerns where the country is focusing its military development. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is shrinking in size and influence, while the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) are making dramatic strides in operational capability and influence within the Central Military Commission.

Military Counsel

Farley’s mischaracterization of facts from past conflicts has little relevance to the US Air Force of today. As a counterweight to his examples of Air Force leaders offering bad advice and making poor strategic decisions, I can offer numerous examples of Army generals and Navy admirals doing the same. A few examples should make my point.