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."

RADM William Sampson and MG William Shafter were so loath to work jointly that they nearly lost the Spanish-American War in Cuba (1898). Gen George C. Marshall disagreed so strongly with Operation Torch (1942) that President Roosevelt had to overrule him in order for the United States to join Britain in fighting the Nazis in North Africa. Gen George Patton publicly advocated allying with the recently defeated Wehrmacht to defeat the Red Army and invade the Soviet Union.

More recently, Gen William Westmoreland convinced President Lyndon Johnson to adopt a “big Army” strategy in Vietnam and refused to modify that approach despite significant evidence suggesting it was failing. Four decades later, Gen David Petraeus convinced both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama that the United States could win the hearts and minds of Iraqis and Afghans by adopting the Army’s counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy and increasing the number of American forces into both countries. It has not taken long to realize that any perceived American COIN victory was pyrrhic. I can continue, but the point is made.

Those interested in studying the options airpower provides would be better served examining Southern Watch (1992‒2003) and Northern Watch (1997‒2003), where prolonged air campaigns contained Iraq and made the ground invasion of Iraq much easier when it finally occurred. Containing Iraq with airpower during these years cost Americans $1 billion per year and zero combat deaths. Invading Iraq ended up costing Americans $1 billion every 4 days and over 4400 American casualties. Air operations in Bosnia (1993‒1995) and Kosovo (1999) also serve as good examples of Airmen offering good advice to President Clinton—even if Wesley Clark disagrees.

The early days of Operation Enduring Freedom (2001 to 2002), when American airpower (often using long-range bombers) integrated with special operations forces and the Northern Alliance to topple the Taliban, present another example of the Air Force’s providing sound operational guidance that accomplished critical US objectives. In 2003, the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom went very well for the United States not only because of Southern Watch and Northern Watch, but also because American airpower and special operations forces (long-range bombers again) joined with the Kurdish Peshmerga to defeat Saddam’s forces in the North. In western Iraq, Special Forces supported the Joint Forces Air Component Commander (JFACC) in destroying regime assets.

Most recently, American airpower enabled Libyan rebels to defeat Muammar Gaddafi (2011). 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.

The reality is that war is a messy affair in which military leaders—who can be neither omniscient nor omnipresent—offer their best advice to political leaders who suffer from the same shortcomings. Farley mistakes each service’s responsibility to provide civilian political leaders with (domain focused) military alternatives with the way in which a service will integrate its warfighting capabilities into a joint campaign after a decision has been made. They are not the same. Senior leaders across the services are very capable at integrating the unique capabilities their services provide into a joint force. The challenge for many observes lacking experience inside one of the services is that they can mistake the differences between Airmen, soldiers, sailors, and marines for an inability to work together.

Aviation Assets vs. Air Forces

As previously noted, Farley mistakes the aviation assets of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps for separate air forces. They do not come close. The limited tactical air assets of the other services exist to support and defend forces on land and at sea. What makes the US Air Force just that is its unique set of capabilities, both tactical and strategic, and its view of the air domain.

For the Air Force, short-range assets often provide intra-theatre support and defense (theatre air superiority) to achieve tactical or strategic effects, while long-range assets often provide inter-theatre power projection (long-range strike, airlift, and aerial refueling) and surveillance and reconnaissance that enable the United States to rapidly deploy national assets to any place on earth—accomplishing tactical or strategic effects. To suggest that these assets should simply be transferred to the Army and Navy would have many negative affects, chief among them eliminating the Air Force’s approach to the command and control (C2) of airpower.

Adopting Farley’s use of counterfactuals, absent an independent Air Force, Army and Navy aviators would certainly have never had the clout—or a reason—to build the fleet of long-range bombers and ICBMs that former Soviet leaders credit with keeping the peace during the Cold War. Nor would the United States have a fleet of aerial refueling tankers to keep Marine and Navy jets operating over Afghanistan; the Navy and Marines do not have their own. Nor would the nation have ever developed the air- and space-based global surveillance and reconnaissance network that currently plays a vital role in all military operations. Each of these capabilities exists because Airmen persistently advocated for their development and then employed these assets for global, rather than simply tactical, purposes.


Robert Farley is by no means the first person to closely examine the roles and missions of the US Air Force. I, too, have taken a careful look at why the Air Force exists, but reached very different conclusions. At a time when defense budgets are under persistent pressure, all of the services would be better served by efforts that improve their ability to effectively and efficiently deliver effects that protect the nation’s interests. Arguing for the elimination of a service may gain someone notoriety, but it does not aid in solving real challenges.

Dr. Adam Lowther is a Research Professor at the Air Force Research Institute.

Image: US Air Force/Flickr.