Ground the Air Force

Revising the Future of Flight

The "boneyard" at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, November 2012 (Val Gempis / U.S. Air Force)

The United States needs air power, but it does not need an air force.

In fact, it never really did. The U.S. Air Force, founded in 1947, was the product of a decades-long campaign by aviation enthusiasts inside the U.S. Army. These advocates argued that air power could not achieve its promise under the leadership of ground commanders. With memories of the great bombing campaigns of World War II still fresh and a possible confrontation with the Soviets looming, the nation’s would-be cold warriors determined that the age of air power was upon them. But it wasn’t. Advocates of an independent air force had misinterpreted the lessons of World War II to draw faulty conclusions about air power’s future. 

Their mistake produced a myriad of problems. Modern warfare almost invariably demands close cooperation across air and surface units. In naval operations, all of these assets -- submarines, surface ships, and aircraft -- belong to the same service. In the case of the army and the air force, however, the component parts end up being divided -- or needlessly replicated -- by separate bureaucratic organizations, each with its own priorities. As a result, the services tend to plan operations and procure equipment based on their own needs rather than those of the military as a whole. When they ask lawmakers for funding, moreover, they tend to concentrate on missions that they believe they can accomplish on their own. Finally, during wars, the services often struggle to cooperate by scaling the bureaucratic walls they constructed in peacetime.

With the benefit of hindsight, the United States should fold the U.S. Air Force back into its two sibling services, the army and the navy. Done properly, such a reform could improve military readiness, cut mounting and unsustainable defense costs, and refocus the Pentagon on preparing for the fights of the future.

FAMILY FEUDING

More than anything else, the creation of the U.S. Air Force after World War II sowed conflict between the U.S. military services. The air force had (and continues to have) a particular preoccupation with autonomy. Its boosters argued that air power would realize its full potential only if liberated from the parochial attitudes of ground and naval officers, who did not appreciate the ability of independent air operations to win wars. 

Register Now
Non-Subscriber
Register now to get three articles each month. Join us as a paid subscriber and get unrestricted access to all of Foreign Affairs, including on our iPad app.
Please note that we will never share your email address with a third party. Read our privacy policy.
Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis