Magazine | January 28, 2019, Issue

How the Air Force Lost Its Way

A B-2 Spirit stealth bomber (StockTrek Images/Getty Images)
And most of its bombers, too

The United States Air Force has lost its way. It has forgotten what business it’s in, mistakenly believing that its raison d’être is air supremacy while forgetting that the core of its mission is long-range strike. If the nation is to be successful in the great-power competition it finds itself in, the Air Force will need to find its way home and regain its strategic relevance in an environment dominated by anti-access/area-denial systems employed by China and Russia.

The present situation is not unlike the scenario that confronted Apple founder Steve Jobs when he returned to the company in 1997. Building upon the core small-personal-computer market that had characterized the company at its inception, Jobs’s successors had branched out, adding multiple software and hardware lines of operations, with declining results. By the time Jobs returned, the company was two months from bankruptcy. Jobs’s prescription was to cut staff, simplify production back to one basic desktop computer, reduce retailers, and wait. These initial actions stabilized the company and bought time, but Jobs’s lack of action to plot a new course for the company raised questions. One strategic consultant asked him, “So what are you trying to do in the longer term? What is the strategy?” Jobs’s cryptic reply was, “I am going to wait for the next big thing.”

Jobs’s actions when the technology that let him move forward with the iPod and the iPhone became mature demonstrated that he understood the company’s true strategy, which was not building desktop computers but rather making data, information, and entertainment more accessible to the public. Jobs restored his company’s ethos.

The Air Force once understood its purpose with stark clarity. In the first half of the 20th century, air-power advocates continually stressed the importance of bypassing tactical skirmishes and penetrating to the enemy’s vital centers to coerce either the foreign government or its population to submit. Independent air forces in Great Britain and Italy focused their procurement efforts on larger and longer-range heavy bombers. Non-independent air forces, such as the U.S. Army Air Corps, sought the same even as their parent service (the U.S. Army, in the American case) pressed them to buy tactical aircraft and perform direct-combat air-support missions for ground infantry and armor units. This made some sense during World War II, when long-range bombers found themselves in need of fighter escorts to fend off enemy fighters and establish temporary air dominance for the bombers to get through to their targets. But after the war, science and engineering combined to alter circumstances.

The jet engines that came to dominate aircraft design during the early years of the Cold War changed the nature of force employment, as jet fighters no longer had the range to escort the jet bombers of the newly established and very powerful Strategic Air Command to targets inside the Soviet Union. Fighters then became specialized for air-defense and air-dominance missions within a radius of a couple of hundred miles of fighter bases. Strategic Air Command bombers, which numbered in the thousands, soon began to specialize themselves, evolving towards designs that could fly higher and faster in order to penetrate Soviet air defenses. The Soviets responded by building new surface-to-air missiles and high-altitude/high-speed interceptors to rob American bombers of their advantages. It was only at the end of the Cold War, with the introduction of the stealth B-2 Spirit bomber, that bombers regained the upper hand in the U.S.–USSR strategic competition. But by then, the Strategic Air Command had been disestablished, and the Air Force felt that its mission had changed.

The change began during the Vietnam War, in which fighters flying from land bases in South Vietnam were loaded up with bombs to hit land targets in North Vietnam and along supply routes in neighboring countries. The improved accuracy of smaller aircraft carrying lighter loads of bombs and providing combat air support to American ground forces in direct contact with the enemy began to subtly alter the internal culture of the Air Force. The bomber “tribe,” based in the politically powerful Strategic Air Command, had supplied six of the first ten Air Force chiefs of staff, but it began to lose influence within the service to the fighter “tribe.” In the 36 years since Chief of Staff Lew Allen Jr. retired, no bomber pilot has occupied that office, and the Air Force’s inventory of bombers has shrunk from over 10,000 aircraft during the 1950s to fewer than 200 today. Fighter pilots gained ascendency based upon the assumptions of access to bases within range of their enemies, the ability of their supporting tanker force to survive, and the greater importance of air supremacy than long-range-strike capability.

Air supremacy is a straightforward concept. It seeks a degree of superiority over an opposing air force such that the enemy is incapable of effective interference with friendly aircraft or ground and naval forces. This definition of air superiority held for regional wars such as those in Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq (both times), and Afghanistan (where the enemy had no opposing air power to speak of). Air Force theorists also state that air superiority applies to theater campaigns (those that range across an entire region of the globe), enabling larger aircraft, cargo haulers, refueling tankers, and bombers to operate freely — except when they cannot, and that is where the modern United States Air Force lost its way.

Air supremacy is all about fighting a long war. It assumes proximity of air-power units to the front lines and/or to the adversary’s coast. It also assumes that the U.S. will fight the next war the way it has fought small wars over the 70-plus years since the end of World War II — deploying combat and support forces from the United States; gradually building up forces and supplies in theater; “rolling back” adversary defenses to gain air, sea, and ground control; and decisively defeating the adversary’s military in force-on-force engagements. All these assumptions are wrong.

Both China and Russia have noted how effectively the United States has fought its wars over the past 50 years and have invested in a new series of sensors and weapons that seek to push American forces back from their shores. Broadly grouped under the label of “anti-access/area-denial” systems, these radars, satellites, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and submarines all seek to ensure that U.S. power-projection forces cannot reach their vital political, economic, and military centers. Because of these investments, most of America’s most recent weapons systems, including all three variants of the new F-35 multi-role fighter, will be unable to reach Chinese or Russian targets. There will be no proximity to “front lines” — not that it matters, as there will be no front lines. The next battlefield will be fluid and spread out over vast areas. Moreover, both legacy fighters and just-fielding F-35s are already vulnerable to modern integrated air- and missile-defense networks. The enemies get a vote, and they have cast it. As Steve Jobs might say, anti-access/area-denial is “the next big thing.”

The United States, according to both its National Security Strategy and its National Defense Strategy, recognizes that it has returned to a multipolar world and is aligned against at least two great powers (there may be more in the future). In a multipolar world, one must assume the worst, and the worst includes conflicts with two or more powers simultaneously in different theaters. The United States lacks the resources to fight large wars on two fronts, as it did during World War II. If the nation is forced to war with great powers, it must draw upon the lessons of the past and strike early and decisively at the political, military, and economic centers of its opponents, striving for a short campaign (but preparing for a longer one). Therefore, it will need weapons that can span the distances imposed by the enemy’s anti-access/area-denial systems.

These were the lessons that the United States learned in World War II. No one set out to fight a 44-month war from 1941 to 1945. That wasn’t “the plan.” The plan was to capture territory and advanced bases until power could be projected against the enemy’s vital centers in Germany and Japan and compel their surrender. It took 44 months, and the development of the atomic bomb in the case of Japan, to do so. When World War II ended, the Army Air Forces understood these lessons, and when the U.S. Air Force was established in 1947 and the Strategic Air Command thereafter, the long-range bomber and the long-range strike mission lay at the center of their culture. But then regional wars and the end of the Cold War happened, and the Air Force forgot what business it was in. It got into short-range fighters and fought small, short-range wars.

Today the Air Force has fewer than 200 long-range bombers to strike distant targets, but it also has over 2,000 short-range fighters that would be hard pressed even to come close to targets in a great-power war. This ratio must be reversed, and fortunately there is a way to do it.

The B-21 Raider bomber is about to enter production. It is a successor to the 20 stealthy B-2 Spirit bombers built at the end of the Cold War. The B-21 has the capability to span the distances imposed by anti-access/area-denial technologies while its stealth design largely shields it from detection, and it can carry enough ordnance within its bomb bay to hit the enemy hard. As things stand, the Air Force plans to purchase 100 of the new bombers over the next two decades. That procurement rate should be accelerated, and the number of aircraft acquired should be doubled, at least.

While the build-up of the B-21 is under way, the Air Force should take several other steps to bolster its long-range striking power: re-engining and upgrading the venerable B-52 heavy bomber; modernizing the stealthy B-2 and keeping it flying into the 2040s (the Air Force currently plans to retire it prematurely as soon as the B-21 begins to field); and procuring a far deeper magazine of precision, stand-off missiles (i.e., those that can be launched from out of range of enemy fire). When someone asks how to pay for these investments, one need only mention the 1,700-plus new short-range fighters that the Air Force plans to buy.

In the movie The Founder, there is a scene in which Harry Sonneborn, then a corporate executive with Tastee-Freez, tells Ray Kroc, “You don’t realize what business you’re in. You’re not in the burger business. You’re in the real-estate business.” With that one insight, a distillation of a business model that ensured a steady rental income from franchisees by controlling strategic real-estate locations in growing markets, Kroc built McDonald’s.

Someone needs to let the leadership of the Department of Defense and the Air Force know what business the nation requires them to be in, rather than the one that they want to be in. Flying short-range fighters is fun, and it worked during an era of weak opponents, but it’s not going to get the job done during this new era of great-power competition. Strong civilian leadership has detailed a clear strategy; now strong civilian leadership must impose force-structure changes to execute that strategy. The great thing is that, unlike McDonald’s, the “business model” won’t be new to the Air Force. Rather it will be like Steve Jobs’s turnaround of Apple, in which he took the company back to its roots and initiated an age of unprecedented growth. Long-range strike is the Air Force’s historic core mission. It is time for the Air Force to accept it again.

Jerry Hendrix is a retired U.S. Navy captain, an award-winning naval historian, and a vice president with the Telemus Group, a national-security consultancy.

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