The American Interest
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Recapitalizing the U.S. Air Force: Pay Now, Or Pay Later
Published on March 18, 2013

As the U.S. military prepares to enter a period of reduced budgets, the services have endeavored to explain their strategic value to the nation. The Navy has positioned itself as the defender of the global commons and, more broadly, as a “global force for good”; the Army, as a globally dispersed boots-on-the-ground “force for tomorrow”, able to reduce instability abroad. Agree or disagree with these arguments, they are well articulated and offer visions for how the Army’s and Navy’s budgets support American interests.

As the budget axe hovers, however, the Air Force has remained peculiarly silent about the value it brings to U.S. national security. The reason for this is not hard to fathom. Five years ago, the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the Air Force were fired for too vocally defending their service, and subsequently a number of Air Force generals have been dismissed for the same reason. Today, Air Force intellectuals remain gun-shy about publicly discussing the service’s role in national defense in any but the most tactical ways. That’s unfortunate, because the Air Force brings a set of unique capabilities to America’s national defense that deserve careful consideration as the nation ponders what to reduce or remove.[1]

If the Air Force were to candidly describe the value it brings to U.S. defense, the best argument would probably be that it is good at killing. Airpower is very good indeed for killing enemy soldiers and destroying their equipment. Not surprisingly, this argument is seldom voiced in polite company.

At the same time, while the nuclear Air Force (along with the Navy’s nuclear submarines) has always been seen as the America’s ultimate trump card, until the first Gulf War the Army was viewed as the nation’s principal tool for conventional war. After absorbing 54,000 casualties in Vietnam and still losing that war, however, the nation began to question the role of land power on modern battlefields. Although it is hard to remember today, in the decade following Vietnam the United States lost faith in the ability of its military to defeat even obscure Third World countries with a reasonable cost in American lives.

That changed in 1990-91. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Air Force and Navy lost more than 2,200 aircraft to enemy fire, and while U.S. airpower killed thousands of enemy combatants, most bombs struck empty jungle. During the Reagan buildup in the following decade, however, the Air Force dedicated a huge portion of its budget to developing technology and recapitalizing its fleet in order to overcome future enemy air defenses, find targets and place bombs with precision. This technology-heavy strategy was controversial, but the results in Operation Desert Shield and Storm were impressive. While losing only 14 aircraft in combat, the Air Force (along with joint and coalitions forces) destroyed Iraq’s air defenses and then attacked its dug-in ground forces at leisure. At the end of the air campaign, Saddam’s surviving troops largely surrendered without inflicting thousands of casualties on U.S. ground forces.

The notion that airpower could play the main role in conventional warfare was a new concept. When the George H.W. Bush Administration, and later the Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations, came to understand this new dynamic, it changed the way the United States fought. In the space of a few weeks in 1995, U.S. and coalition airpower, supported by Bosnian-Croats on the ground, hammered Bosnian-Serb forces into submission without U.S. casualties. In 1999, U.S. and coalition airpower forced the Serbs to surrender Kosovo without U.S. casualties. In 2001, airpower, special forces and Afghan rebels overthrew the Taliban regime and within a few months placed the Northern Alliance in the capital with only a handful of U.S. troops killed in action. Two years later, Iraq Lieutenant General Raad Al-Hamdani, Commander of the Republican Guard divisions south of Baghdad, noted that when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, airpower killed or caused to desert 85 percent of Saddam Hussein’s ground forces before they came in contact with coalition ground forces. Even in the ensuing decade of insurgency in Afghanistan, airpower was responsible for killing far more combatants than coalition ground forces and for killing many fewer civilians than ground forces.

Besides killing opponents, since 1990 the Air Force has also enabled coalition ground forces to carry out their responsibilities. For the past decade, virtually every U.S. soldier in Afghanistan was transported there by Air Force aircraft. Soldiers in hostile territory know where they are because of GPS supplied by the Air Force, and they know where the enemy is because of Air Force-provided surveillance. They are able to communicate because the Air Force provides communication satellites and ground-based communication networks. Around the world and across the armed forces, fixed and rotary wing aircraft derive their range and persistence from the Air Force’s fleet of aerial refueling aircraft and foreign bases. Without these, the American way of war would be impossible. These support functions make joint and coalition forces many times more capable of performing their distinct defense missions.

Taken as a whole, the unique portfolio of capabilities the modern Air Force brings to the fight has transformed the character of conventional war from the drawn-out, casualty-heavy competitions the United States experienced in Korea and Vietnam to the rapid and low-casualty victories the United States has experienced in conventional war since 1990. While modern airpower has not been able to provide the sort of nation-building forces required to pacify and rebuild countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, it has contributed a great deal to keeping friendly ground forces alive while they have worked to perform these missions.

To understand the contemporary role of airpower on the battlefield, it helps to consider why it was unable to play this role in the past. During WWII and the wars in Korea and Vietnam, airpower suffered from several weaknesses. The most significant was its vulnerability to air defenses. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Air Force lost hundreds of aircraft to enemy fire. This vulnerability greatly diminished the amount and precision of firepower aircraft could bring to bear against targets on the ground. Nearly as important were the difficulties with locating targets on the ground and transmitting that information to aircraft; unguided bombs often missed small and often fleeting targets.

In the years following the Vietnam War, the Air Force addressed these problems through technological innovations, training, and procurement of modern aircraft and spacecraft. Innovations that came out of this period included GPS, communications technology, stealth weapons and modern precision weapons. Reagan’s massive recapitalization program led to U.S. airpower with significant new capabilities. In 1990 airpower was able to disable Saddam Hussein’s Soviet-designed air defenses with only 14 Air Force aircraft lost; in 2003 U.S. airpower defeated Iraq’s rebuilt air defenses with only one aircraft lost. In each case, once the opponent’s air defenses had been overcome, U.S. and coalition airpower was able to destroy ground forces at leisure. In each case, America’s massive advantage in airpower led to swift victory on the ground.


The Geostrategic Value of Airpower

America’s reputation for invincibility in conventional war, stemming from its superior airpower, has led aggressive states around the world to fear using their militaries as an instrument of foreign policy. Potential opponents understand that the U.S. military can quickly determine the outcome of most state-on-state wars. More than that, though, they know that the cost in U.S. lives is likely to be so low that America will be willing to act as long as a postwar occupation is not required. Before the airpower revolution, this was not the case. In 1990, Saddam Hussein argued that attacking Iraq’s million-man army would result in Vietnam-like casualties. Today, no country believes fear of casualties will deter the United States from using airpower. As a result, for the past two decades state leaderships have been largely unwilling to use cross-border violence or threats of violence against the United States or its friends and allies. This fear of conventional U.S. military power has resulted in one of the longest periods of peace among nations in recorded history. Some argue that this phenomenon derives from some inherent normative impulses toward pacification, but this peace is likely to last only so long as America continues to project an aura of military invincibility. That aura will dissipate the first time a country believes that its fighters or surface-to-air missiles can defeat U.S. airpower.

From a great power perspective, the main value of U.S. airpower involves China. For the past two decades the United States has traded with China and otherwise supported its economic rise in the hope that its increasing prosperity would entice it to join the peaceful U.S.-led international system. There have been remarkable successes, but this goal has proved either indeterminate or elusive. Buoyed by sustained and rapid economic growth, China’s defense budget has risen apace, and when the U.S. economy ran into trouble in 2008 China began to rattle its saber against its neighbors. Its recent cyber-probes against U.S. critical infrastructure, confrontations with U.S. military vessels and threats against Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan to resolve territorial disputes suggest a growing willingness to use force.

Like other major powers before it, as China’s military power increases it will probably attempt to use it to exert pressure. It may continue to do so until it faces credible military counter-pressure. If the credibility of America’s defense guarantees to friends in the region declines, the chances of a hot war would increase. China is currently in a period of rapid transition. If U.S. military power can dissuade China’s more bellicose impulses for the next two decades, it is possible, even likely, that China’s growing middle class and aging population will develop the same institutions and habits that have made the use of interstate violence uncommon among other major powers. This peaceful possibility, however, will require a commitment by the United States and its allies to maintain military strength in the Asia-Pacific.


Implications for the Air Force

Looking to the future, the single most significant fact about the U.S. Air Force is that its reputation is becoming increasingly hollow. The technology and aircraft it used to defeat Iraq’s and Serbia’s air defenses hail from the 1980s. They could not defeat modern Russian- and Chinese-built integrated air defenses without significant losses. Those modern air defenses are on sale to countries the United States is currently attempting to deter and may be required to fight. Twelve years of U.S. air operations in the undefended airspace above Afghanistan and Iraq have given U.S. policymakers the false impression that U.S. airpower remains as competitive as it was two decades ago. The truth is that, if pitched into a battle against modern air defenses the Air Force could no longer pull off an Operation Desert Storm. Given current defense procurement trajectories, in future conflicts the United States will face the same choice it did in Vietnam: lose thousands of aircraft or give up commitments to allies.

To avoid returning to Vietnam-era casualty rates in the air and on the ground, the Air Force will need to make several painful changes. First, since the end of the Cold War, pundits have argued that fifth-generation stealth fighters and bombers are no longer needed. As a result, with the exception of 187 F-22 fighters, the Air Force is flying approximately the same fleet it had when the Berlin Wall came down—but with far fewer airplanes. Much of the existing fleet has exceeded its lifespan by decades. The cost of maintaining obsolescent aircraft is high. Many aircraft no longer fly or are too battered to fly in combat and require immense sums to maintain. Even many airframes that are in good shape could not be used against modern air defenses without heavy losses. Future national security depends on the United States finding the will to save money by decommissioning aircraft that can no longer perform and investing in aircraft that can.

As aging aircraft are taken out of service, the Air Force must modernize with F-35s and a new bomber. The F-35 is not a perfect plane, but it is the best option available, and its joint and international nature will give the United States significant advantages. It’s even more important for the Air Force to procure a new stealth bomber capable of withstanding emerging detection technology. Most of the U.S. bomber fleet is currently made up of B-52s that were built more than five decades ago. Arguably, these aircraft are the most important kinetic platform for modern conventional war, and unless a new bomber comes online soon, the country will lose one of its most important military capabilities.

Beyond replacing its aging inventory with modern airframes, the Air Force must increase its technology investment. The pace of change in science and technology is breathtaking. Cyber weapons have become as important on the battlefield as kinetic armaments. Improvements in robotics for unmanned systems are becoming as important as pilot training. Munitions can now be brilliant, persistent and semi-autonomous. At the same time, the complicated tradeoffs between stealth, maneuver, detection and data processing change from year to year. There’s no prize for second place. The time when America’s factories could out-produce potential competitors is long past. If the United States cannot develop better technology, it can’t compete in future military contests.

At the geostrategic level, the United States must also energetically reconsider its force posture. Inertia has led America to keep too large a footprint in Europe and now in the Middle East. Meanwhile, it has too few forces in the Pacific, and particularly too few air bases there. If the United States intends to discourage China’s flirtation with military coercion, it will require more bases, and also delicate diplomacy with the regional players currently nervous about Chinese expansion. Agreements with these regional actors should involve signing dual-use agreements for airports and building rapidly expandable bases that become operational during crises. America’s current airpower basing posture in the Pacific invites preemptive attack and doesn’t befit the goal of dissuading China from threatening or using violence in the region.

Whatever else it does, the Air Force must re-evaluate both its current strategy and strategy-making process. For the past two decades the United States has faced no significant external threat. Predictably, during this period procurement and posture strategy have often fallen to budget-programmers rather than military strategists. For the past five years, decisions about Air Force procurement have regularly been made by non-Air Force budgeters who sometimes lack even basic knowledge about the role of airpower in defense. Defense policy is a stool that requires a strategy leg alongside its budgetary and political influences. This leg is underrepresented in the Air Force today. Congress originally granted the Air Force independence from the Army so that it could advocate for new air-centric solutions to pressing problems. Until the Air Force rejoins the debate being carried out by the rest of the defense community, it will be abandoning its reason for being. More importantly, it will greatly increase the risk that the United States will find itself losing lives and wars because it has squandered the geostrategic advantage of air and space power.

[1] On January 24, 2013, Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey announced the repeal of the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule that banned women from serving on the front lines in combat units. While the repeal was a significant change for the Department of Defense as a whole, it will require few changes for the Air Force, where women have been training as fighter pilots since 1993 and serving as combat pilots since 2001. Only a handful of special operations positions will be affected. Even if the repeal does not make much practical difference for Air Force women, it will likely improve morale by giving a nod to the fact that the women in America’s armed forces have been risking their lives in combat for many years and now will no longer be artificially restricted from competing for the frontline positions most likely to lead to promotion to higher ranks.

Richard B. Andres is professor of national security strategy at the U.S. National War College and senior fellow and the Institute for National Strategic Studies. The opinions conveyed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense or other government organizations.