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From a Bridge to Nowhere to Somewhere: Reconsidering Future Air Force Capabilities
Every discussion of a military organization’s future must begin with this question: what capabilities does it require to meet possible strategic objectives in a variety of conflicts?[i] Unfortunately, a recent article suggesting that the Air Force downsize significantly to focus solely on air superiority within the organizational construct of Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) fails to begin this way. It also never addresses what problems the author seeks to fix in the first place. As such, the article provides a smorgasbord of recommendations regarding how to shift capabilities between branches rather than a holistic discussion of how the Air Force’s current organization and responsibilities need to flex and evolve to remain relevant to a military that prides itself on jointness.
The author begins by weakly asserting that debates about airpower continue to follow a traditional path, falling into two camps: those who believe airpower can best be used as a supporting asset and those who insist it should have an independent role. Other than point to a book and an article published five years ago, the author provides no evidence that these camps exist today. Regardless, the author proposes to “reconcile these opposing theories” by simply exchanging some capabilities between the services. A purported theoretical difference thus becomes the basis for a tremendous reshifting of capabilities out of the Air Force into the Army and the Navy, with the Air Force only receiving a few new capabilities in return.
This proposed shuffling of roles and missions fails to accommodate the realities of U.S. military culture and organization. The author ignores the Department of Defense’s creaking bureaucracy, naively envisioning something akin to a spry teenager able to low-crawl nimbly at a moment’s notice. He also overlooks the extent to which U.S. politics, especially Congressional interests, dictate the who, what, and where of U.S. military acquisitions and basing decisions. Military institutions do not have the luxury of pragmatically choosing where they locate themselves, for example. Senators and representatives of Nebraska, Wyoming, and North Dakota will not twiddle their thumbs idly if the Department of Defense acts on the author’s suggestion to eliminate ICBMs from the Air Force.
According to the author, the only justification for the Air Force’s continued existence is the air superiority mission. First, this argument ignores a vast number of other critical capabilities. Air mobility, for example, allows the other services to sustain operations efficiently. Second, the author’s thinking regarding air superiority is problematic. The author wants to give the Air Force anti-aircraft artillery to “shoot down enemy airplanes and ICBMs,” but he fails to mention the Army’s current responsibilities for and interest in air defense or note that the Air Force already has some of these capabilities. Furthermore, the author envisions air superiority as primarily a defensive mission while failing to discuss the need for offensive capabilities to achieve air superiority, as the U.S. has sought to acquire since World War II in a variety of conflicts.
Organizationally, the author wants to pull the air superiority mission out of Air Combat Command and put it in Global Strike Command. The irony of removing it from one organization with a long legacy as serving as a critical supporting enabler and putting it in one whose heritage can be summarized very generally as “the bomber will always get through” is ludicrous. Global Strike Command’s responsibility is to project power anywhere it is needed, not establish the preconditions for projecting that power in the first place.
Having lost its ICBMs and gained some defensive capabilities, the Air Force also gives its bombers and ground attack aircraft to the Army and the Navy, or so the author suggests. This presumably leaves Global Strike Command with a small number of mission-capable F-22 air superiority fighters (the author does not mention the F-35, so it is not clear whether he views it more as a ground attack plane or an air superiority fighter). The author describes such a force within AFGSC as “lean and mean.” One might retort that the result is not lean but malnourished and markedly incapable of anything resembling global strike.
Although it has been repeated often enough to become cliché, it still bears stating one more time: airpower’s greatest strength is its flexibility. This view resolves the purported problem of co-existing theories regarding how best to employ airpower without requiring the DOD to engage in the world’s largest game of twister. Bombers can support soldiers with close air support and they can also fulfill an independent role; the same is also true of fighters.
And, whatever one’s opinion of the F-35 program, the reality is that it is the multi-role fighter of the foreseeable future designed to fill a wide range of roles. Parcel them out to the Army to do ground attack and the Air Force struggles to do much of anything. Alternatively, if one gives the Army the A-10, which is the Air Force’s only real ground attack aircraft, then the Army only has this capability for another twenty years or so, as it is improbable that the U.S. will build a new ground attack aircraft (excluding the possibility of light attack, which is unlikely to occur in significant numbers).
The capabilities of the Army and the Air Force, however, are less important to the author than those of the Navy, an institution he asserts holds a “pride of place in the armed forces.” In today’s U.S. military where a mantra of jointness reigns, such a characterization of the Navy at the expense of the other services is seriously outdated.
The future of the U.S. Air Force should be debated hotly, as airpower is an incredibly expensive investment. But that debate requires more than simply shuffling around a handful of platforms between the services. These discussions must occur within an overarching framework of required future capabilities to maximize the best chance of politicians actually making hard decisions.
The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
[i] I am grateful to Dr. Sebastian Lukasik and Dr. John Terino for their comments on this piece.