How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
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.
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.
Supporters of the air force used the relatively new concept of strategic bombing to buttress their case. Strategic air power focuses on destroying enemy cities and infrastructure to pre-empt long, high-casualty land campaigns. In the early stages of World War II, air power devotees argued that strategic bombing of the German homeland would make it unnecessary to open a second front in France. In the end, the punishing bombings of cities such as Dresden killed nearly half a million civilians but failed to compel a German surrender. Even so, the army air force managed to trade on the notion that its bombing campaign had been decisive and that future, possibly nuclear, warfare would require a bomber force entirely unfettered from army commanders on the ground. The widespread acceptance of this idea ultimately led to the air force’s independence.
The creation of the force concluded one bureaucratic battle but spawned many more. The new service immediately squabbled with its older siblings, helping to kill the navy’s first super-carrier, the U.S.S. United States, in a dispute over the most effective way to deliver nuclear weapons. The air force, however, managed to win funding for the B-36 Peacemaker heavy bomber, a slow-moving behemoth that never saw combat and was abandoned less than a decade later. The first 20 years of air force independence saw many more bitter conflicts with the army over responsibilities for transport, helicopters, and close air support.
The battles were most pronounced during the war in Vietnam. Initially, the air force had been bullish on its prospects for beating North Vietnam into submission through a bombing campaign. But the air force soon discovered that bombing was not enough to win, and that it lacked the appropriate training and equipment for dogfights against a determined adversary. U.S. fighter aircraft, which were designed to hunt and kill large, slow Soviet bombers, couldn’t keep track of North Vietnam’s small, quick interceptor aircraft. The air force had made the mistake of thinking that any war worth fighting would inevitably escalate to a nuclear conflict. The navy, which still took conventional conflict seriously, did much better. For example, for every one of its air combat losses in the 1972 Linebacker operations, the air force shot down two North Vietnamese fighters. The navy, on the other hand, enjoyed a 6:1 ratio of kills to losses.
The situation improved after Vietnam, as the cult of the strategic bomber waned and air force officers looked more realistically toward the future. In 1991, the army and the air force collaborated brilliantly in the Gulf War to limit the Iraqi army’s mobility. Even victory, however, bred disagreement. Some within the air force argued that the ground campaign against Iraq had been unnecessary, and that precision bombing alone would have forced Saddam’s government to collapse. Meanwhile, the army maintained that the mobility and fighting spirit of the Iraqi army’s best units had survived the air campaign, necessitating their destruction through traditional armored maneuvers -- including the army’s famous “left hook” attack that met, and defeated, several Republican Guard and Iraqi army heavy divisions in the desert to the northwest of Kuwait. Later, air force boosters wildly overstated air power’s role in the complex ending of the Kosovo conflict.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, the army and the air force eventually performed well enough together, but neither conflict required flashy strategic air power. Instead, sophisticated air force bombers were relegated to such duties as striking small groups of Taliban insurgents -- a task later carried out by drones. Indeed, the Pentagon limited the air force to carrying out missions that its founders would have considered abhorrent, including reconnaissance and flying artillery. And as the demands of these conflicts recede, the partnership will probably unravel once again, with peacetime service prerogatives returning to the fore.
Despite its name, the U.S. Air Force has never held a monopoly on American air power. In fact, the United States has at least five air forces -- the army, navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard aviation divisions and the air force (you could also count the air assets of the CIA). Thus the question of whether the air force should exist depends on the role air power will play in the future -- as a decisive force in its own right, or as a means of supporting other forms of military force.
At least for the foreseeable future, the United States is likely to keep its military focused on two major missions: fighting international terrorism and balancing Chinese military power in eastern Asia. Both aims will require air power to play a supporting role in operations on land and sea. Joint operations sound appealing and workable in theory, but parochial concerns continue to guide the air force’s procurement and doctrine in practice. Its leaders still conceive of air power as an independent, decisive force, and will cling to that vision in the face of any efforts to push the services into closer partnership.
Abolishing the air force looks, at least in the short term, unlikely. Creating the air force required backing from powerful political coalitions in the public and the uniformed military. Although many in the Pentagon and Congress are concerned about the dwindling defense budget and the risks of strategic drift, they have yet to seize on the idea of abolishing the air force as a potential solution to either problem. Folding 690,000 personnel and 5,500 aircraft into the other services would also represent a tremendous bureaucratic and logistical challenge.
Nevertheless, the prospects for reform in the medium and long term are not altogether bad. It would undoubtedly be difficult to reintegrate the air force into the other two services. But the current security system is in need of reform in other areas, too, for it reflects a series of post-9/11 kludges on the existing Cold War bureaucracy. There are good reasons to consider such a wide-ranging reorganization, given the current economic situation of the United States and the emergence of complex strategic threats in the Middle East and eastern Asia.
And now is the right time. The United States is in the midst of a strategic shift away from traditional priorities in Europe and the Middle East toward new ones in the Pacific Rim, a move that will force the navy and the air force to work more closely. That the public has recently become even more disenchanted with the national security bureaucracy suggests that proposals for significant reforms, including reorganizing the air force, might meet less political resistance than they have in the past. And although Republicans and Democrats are loath to work together, most everyone knows that defense spending is unsustainable at its current levels. To be sure, the upfront cost of dissolving the air force into the army and navy would be immense. But it could very well save billions in procurement and administrative costs down the road, as projects such as the Next Generation Bomber come under greater scrutiny.
Moreover, although such major reforms to the national security sector are rare, they are far from unprecedented. The National Security Act of 1947 completely reorganized the security bureaucracy after World War II. The Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986 improved the incentives for joint preparation, changed the roles of the service chiefs of staff, and established a new set of organizational priorities for the armed forces. Finally, the reforms of the post-9/11 era, halting and incomplete as they were, nevertheless created a new executive department (Homeland Security) and redistributed a vast number of key responsibilities.
Taking on the air force would likely prove too politically costly for an American president to attempt anytime soon. It may be possible, however, to reduce the air force’s role in some critical missions without upsetting the larger Pentagon system. For example, funding the next generation of the so-called nuclear triad -- land-based missiles, aerial bombers, and submarine-launched missiles -- will pose a tremendous budgetary challenge. During the Cold War, the triad provided a strong nuclear deterrent, as destroying all three legs in a first strike would have been nearly impossible. But maintaining the triad will require huge investments in each of its three legs, all of which are now growing old. Next-generation heavy bombers could cost upward of $800 million apiece, and new SSBN-X nuclear submarines would probably cost around $6 billion to $8 billion each.
Historically, the triad has been bound up in inter-service politics, with the air force taking up ballistic missiles only to prevent the army and navy from monopolizing them. With all three legs of the triad aging, and without a strong strategic rationale for maintaining all three, the Pentagon should give some consideration to retiring the bomber and land-based missile elements. This need not be a controversial undertaking: the air force’s interest in the nuclear mission has diminished over the years, and readiness and professionalism in the nuclear force have consequently declined. Since the United States no longer faces tens of thousands of Soviet nuclear warheads, the shift to a post–Cold War nuclear force structure is long overdue.
Similarly, analysts should study the feasibility of shifting particular air force responsibilities, such as those in outer space, to the other services. Given that the army and navy already fly huge numbers of drones, relieving the air force of the burden of operating unmanned vehicles could open space for technological and tactical innovation.
So there are two possible futures. In one, the air force maintains its independence, still clinging to the idea that air power can win wars on its own, but tighter budgets would exacerbate destructive conflicts between the navy and the army. In the other, the air force abandons the dream of having its own unique strategic value in favor of close cooperation with and support for the other two services. The process of eliminating the air force would be slow and halting. But the United States has enacted reform of this scale in the past, and there is no reason it cannot do so in the future.