An F-15E Strike Eagle receives fuel from a 100th Air Refueling Wing KC-135 Stratotanker during an aerial refuelling mission over the Atlantic Ocean on September 10, 2012
Courtesy Reuters

Robert Farley (“Ground the Air Force,” December 19, 2013) is so far wide of the mark that he brings to mind the difference between the miss-by-a-mile bombs of World War II and the precision-guided bombs of today that fly through windows. The defense establishment is certainly in need of new ideas. But getting rid of the U.S. Air Force will do nothing to make the Pentagon more efficient or effective. In fact, such a move would do grave damage to our national security. 

Farley argues that Pentagon planners pushed for an independent air force because they had “misinterpreted the lessons of World War II” to conclude that strategic bombing -- massive air raids on enemy cities -- represented the future of warfare. But military leaders favored an independent air force because of what they had learned from the North African campaign: When ground commanders controlled aircraft, the results were disastrous. As Colonel F. Randall Starbuck writes in Air Power in North Africa, 1942–43: “One example, relayed by General Doolittle, was the incident where a ground commander asked him to provide a fighter to cover a Jeep that was going out to repair a broken telephone line. He refused. The plane that would have wasted its time on that mission shot down two German Me-109s.”

The problems in North Africa were so significant that U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt actually revamped the chain of command at the Casablanca Conference in 1943, just as the Allies agreed to ramp up its bombing campaign against German cities. U.S. General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz became commander of all air forces in North Africa, charged with carrying out two missions that still belong to the U.S. Air Force: defeating enemy air forces and supporting ground campaigns. After the change in command structure, the German military leader Erwin Rommel noted: “Hammer-blow air attacks . . . gave an impressive picture of the strength and striking power of the Allied air force.” The Pentagon created the air force primarily to correct past failures, not, as Farley claims, based on “faulty conclusions about air power’s future.”

Farley criticizes the U.S. Air Force for waging bureaucratic battles against its sister services. But those battles were inevitable as the nation turned toward a Cold War strategy. In spite of the country’s war weariness in the aftermath of World War II, the newly formed air force grew quickly -- and for good reason. U.S. President Harry Truman, who staunchly opposed big military budgets, sought an inexpensive path to countering Soviet aggression and deterring a nuclear confrontation. He concluded that nuclear bombers provided the most cost-effective means of doing so. Even if deterrence failed, air power could blunt a conventional Soviet attack on Western Europe. Indeed, air power became a crucial component of U.S. power during and after the Cold War. Since 1953, no U.S. soldier has died from an enemy air attack. Does it really matter, then, that increases in air force budgets left the other services feeling bruised? 

Farley also claims that the U.S. Air Force’s performance in Vietnam laid bare the ineffectiveness of strategic bombing. Yet it was the force’s strategic bombing campaign against North Vietnam that brought the Viet Cong back to the negotiating table. Farley also glosses over air force successes in Kosovo, which because no U.S. ground troops were involved, demonstrated the immense value of air power in the post–Cold War era. Although some analysts argue that Kosovar fighters were a de facto ground force, those fighters would not have survived without help from the air. Once the air campaign focused on hitting regime targets, air power alone created the conditions that persuaded Serbia to negotiate. That does not mean that air power is sufficient to win every war. But in Kosovo, it was.

Farley believes that the United States would be better off without the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and bomber legs of the nuclear triad. This has been a frequent argument since the end of the Cold War. Some believe that when the Soviet Union dissolved, the threat of nuclear weapons ceased. This assertion neglects the fact that China and Russia are both modernizing their arsenals. In fact, Russia intends to rely heavily on its nuclear arsenal for future self-defense.

Farley claims that he wants the U.S. Department of Defense to save money by eliminating the air force’s two legs of the nuclear triad but evidently does not realize that they cost less than three percent of the overall DoD budget. Neglecting cost, the bombers provide the only visible demonstration of U.S. will. This fact necessitated the use of B-2s to show resolve when North Korea was threatening nuclear attacks on the United States earlier this year. Furthermore, ICBMs are the United States’ most cost-effective nuclear deterrent and provide the most strategic stability.

Farley’s recommendation for the other services to assume responsibility for space and remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) shows a profound misunderstanding of current U.S. Air Force capabilities. While RPAs get the most attention, the air force’s real contribution is behind the scenes: It has built an enormous worldwide collection and fusion network. The air force fuses and analyzes terabytes of data each day to provide actionable information to the warfighter. Its relentless commitment to speeding the “find, fix, track, target, engage, assess” process means that there is no service better postured to manage this global kill chain.

Farley’s analysis also fails to properly contend with the future. U.S. President Barack Obama’s commitment to a pivot toward the Pacific requires some capabilities that only the U.S. Air Force provides; its global focus makes it supremely suited to deal with the vast distances in the Pacific region. Massing troops in such a vast area takes time. The air force can do it in hours.

Farley concludes his article by arguing that the air force has become an unnecessary anachronism. Yet it has built the most sophisticated worldwide network for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in the world, quickly ramping up to more than 60 around-the-clock Predator/Reaper drone patrols, all to support troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since the conflict in Kosovo, U.S. soldiers and Marines on the ground have come to rely on air force eyes overhead at all times. Troops in combat can expect their calls to be answered in minutes if not seconds. Air force medical evacuation teams are able to reach critically injured troops within a “golden hour.”

Finally, the air force also plays a central role in maintaining some of the nation’s most critical infrastructure and most basic military capabilities. Every 90 seconds, an air force plane takes off to deliver cargo somewhere in the world. Air force satellites keep U.S. forces alerted to everything from the weather to nuclear detonations. Most important, the air force, unlike the other services, can strike any target on earth within a matter of hours or minutes depending on the location. The air force provides precise command and control over all of these activities -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week. No other nation possesses such capabilities. In short, air power provides the United States with an irreplaceable asymmetric advantage over its foes, and an independent air force is the key to maintaining it.

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  • ROBERT S. SPALDING III is a 2013-14 Military Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and, most recently, Vice Commander of the U.S. Air Force’s 509th Bomb Wing based at Whiteman Air Force Base.
  • More By Robert S. Spalding III