Beware a Hollow Air Force
If we intend to maintain American military dominance abroad, the U.S. Air Force cannot be relegated to a supporting role.


Michael Auslin

As the youngest of America’s military branches, the Air Force has sometimes suffered from an inferiority complex. Despite the popular images of the glamorous fighter jock or steel-nerved bomber pilot, Air Force personnel are well aware of their lack of traditions comparable to the Halls of Montezuma or John Paul Jones.  

Perhaps this relative lack of pedigree has resulted in fewer champions for the Air Force on Capitol Hill. Whatever the reason, today’s budget restrictions are hitting especially hard at the American military’s air arm. If the 2012 budget doesn’t contain funds for some major programs, the Air Force’s future will look even grimmer than it does now. If it loses the political battle at home, the Air Force may one day find itself losing the battle in the skies. That would be a grievous blow to America’s global power and ability to defend its interests and friends. Luckily, the new Congress can reverse the trends of recent years, even if the Defense Department refuses to do so.

In many ways, the Air Force is a victim of its success. During the Cold War, it was inconceivable that the United States could deter or contain the Soviet Union and its proxies without an overwhelming air-power advantage. From the iconic Strategic Air Command to the gritty Tactical Air Command, from missileers to homeland-defense squadrons, the Air Force provided an iron umbrella over America’s global interests. In doing so, it shaped the nature of modern warfare while driving technological change that spread around the world. Some of the stunning joint creations of the Air Force and America’s defense industrial base, such as the U-2 and the SR-71 Blackbird, will likely never be repeated.

The apotheosis of U.S. air power came in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when the air war against Saddam Hussein’s million-man army reduced his forces to a shadow of their former selves, and allowed the U.S. Army and Marines to win the ground war in just three weeks. The Air Force by this time had perfected what one former general calls the “pillar of fire”: It achieved air dominance by collecting intelligence and using long-range bombing to control the enemy’s skies, and also provided full tactical support for ground troops engaged in combat.

Yet 1991 was the year the Soviet Union collapsed, and U.S. airmen suddenly found themselves nearly alone in the sky. Ironically, the demands on them only increased. After Desert Storm, the Army took a break from major overseas campaigns until Afghanistan in 2001, and the Navy (which also lost its only peer with the fall of the Soviet Union) began to focus more and more on simply maintaining its global presence. The Air Force, however, was tasked with enforcing the no-fly zone in Iraq until 2003, and it shouldered the entire burden of the 1997 Balkan campaign. If peace could not be kept without boots on the ground, the ground could not be secured without help from the skies.  

Coincident with these burdens, the Air Force failed over the past decade in some very public ways that cut into its credibility and made it a target in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. Since the closing of the Strategic Air Command in 1992, the Air Force has struggled with numerous problems in its nuclear mission, most shockingly when four hydrogen bombs were mistakenly flown cross-country in 2008 without anyone being aware; many believe this made it easier for Secretary of Defense Gates to sack the service’s secretary and chief of staff, who earlier had clashed with him over the future of the Air Force’s fighter program. A procurement scandal in buying new tankers resulted in the decision’s being taken out of the hands of the Air Force. And delays and cost overruns in the fleet’s marquee F-22 fighter program provided the political rationale for slashing the final buy from 750 planes to just 187, a fraction of what is needed to make an effective force.

For these reasons and others, the Air Force today risks becoming just a support service to the rest of the military. Since 2001, the Air Force has increasingly wound up fighting solely as an airborne artillery arm. It is expected to ferry troops to the theater of action, keep them supplied, provide real-time intelligence to ground-combat operations, maintain surveillance, and provide close air support when needed. All of those are crucial roles that only U.S. airmen can play, but the force itself cannot be structured to carry out only those missions. The Air Force must keep the “pillar of fire” lit, or all presumptions of U.S. presence and military campaigning will be thrown in doubt.

What has been lost among civilian leaders, and perhaps even within some parts of the Air Force itself, is the understanding of strategic airpower’s role in carrying out U.S. national-security policy. Given the distances involved in defending America’s global interests and upholding its responsibilities, the Air Force is by necessity the first responder in most cases, be it disaster relief or regional conflict. It must have the planes and bases it needs to carry out this role; if properly equipped, it can prevent crises from spreading and give the U.S. footholds that might be too expensive to attain later. It can reach where other military services cannot, and can inflict the most severe damage on an enemy with minimal risk to the U.S. forces involved.