Time for a new Army Air Force

Airpower has played a key role in warfare since its development in the 20th Century, evolving into an indispensible component of American military prowess. However, airpower advocates have long been overly enthusiastic about the revolutionary aspect of airpower to affect the course of warfare and the rightful place of aircraft into the overall battlefield construct. The controversy between airpower as a strategic or tactical weapon systems has recently become even more entangled as highly sophisticated and accurate sensors and weapons delivery systems allow airplanes to fulfill capabilities envisioned by advocates like Douhet and Mitchell. Like naval forces, the role of air forces in America’s current conflicts involving primarily ground force intensive counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations have created a continuing debate about what our future Air Force should be in terms of force structure and missions. This debate will likely continue as Iraq and Afghanistan wind down and critical decisions must be made about expensive platforms, the role of manned and unmanned aircraft and how the Air Force fits into America’s overall defense way forward. Recent technological developments as well as changing mores of warfare combine to bring into question the very utility of a separate Air Force.

In the aftermath of World War I, militaries throughout the world sought methods to overcome the power of defensive trenches and machine guns and restore offense maneuver to warfare. Air forces seemed to offer a revolutionary weapon that could replace traditional armies and navies by taking the war directly to a country’s industry and population. Giulio Douhet, in his treatise The Command of the Air advocated a strong, independent air force composed of what today would be termed strategic bombers to quickly reduce the opponent’s cities to rubble “The complete destruction of the objective has moral and material effects, the repercussions of which may be tremendous…we need only envision what would go on among the civilian population of congested cities once the enemy announced that we would bomb such centers relentlessly, making no distinction between military and non-military objectives.” [1] Douhet and other strategic bombing disciples made no distinction between civilian and military targets as most military men understood that industry and economic output was crucial to modern war making. [2]

The majority of air power thinkers between the world wars emphasized strategic bombing and were loath to consider the role of providing close air support (CAS) to ground units or what today would be termed interdiction air strikes-preventing supplies and reinforcements from reaching the battlefield. Most airpower enthusiasts were very static in their thinking about technology and did not consider the inevitable development of aircraft carriers, anti-aircraft guns, radar, and even the proximity fuse as all militaries not only prepared to use their air forces offensively, but to defend against air attack. It would be inevitable that networks of pursuit planes, spotters and centralized command and control tied together by radio would be developed by every country. The fact that Douhet did not consider this shows how parochial his views were on air power. [3]

Ironically, World War II showed the essential enabling role of aircraft on the battlefield supporting ground troops while highlighting the limitations of strategic bombing. Although Douhet was correct in his thesis of the importance of gaining air superiority over an enemy, the technical limitations on payload, ranges and accuracy of even the best bombers of the day made daylight strategic bombing questionable, particularly given the serious losses inflicted on German bomber fleets over Britain in 1940 and the Allied bomber force over Germany in 1943-1944. The only truly indisputable contribution of the U.S. 8th Air Force in World War II was to draw the Luftwaffe into a war of attrition that ground it down prior to the D-Day invasion. [4]

Although the USAF became an independent service after World War II, the role of airpower in warfare has continued to evolve in unexpected directions. The advent of nuclear weapons was the ultimate enabler of Douhet’s theories and the case can be made the atom bomb prevented a costly and terrible invasion of Japan. However, the shear destructiveness of nuclear weapons brought renewed thinking on the morality of bombing civilian populations after World War II. [5]

Today, the continued utility of an independent Air Force is questionable. Although air power continues to be an important component of military power, there will never be another strategic bombing campaign like World War II. Even though aircraft, sensors, and weapons have achieved capabilities only dreamed of by Douhet and his American counterpart Billy Mitchell, general revulsion of indiscriminate area bombing has produced very restrictive rules of engagement and targeting criteria. The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Lebanon in 2006 also show the limitations of airpower in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism missions where our enemies deliberately hide among civilian populations to avoid air strikes. In addition, the over reliance of Western militaries on airpower as a substitute, rather than a compliment to ground forces has been interpreted by some adversaries as a weakness. This idea that Western militaries seek to avoid casualties and collateral damage has given our enemies even more reason to hide weapons and fight from mosques, schools, apartment buildings and hospitals. [6]

However, close-air support and interdiction have become even more critical to overall military power as air forces have assumed a de facto role of “flying artillery” long dreaded by the disciples of Douhet. The U.S. military’s development of the AirLand Battle doctrine in the 1980s shows the integration that I believe makes the case for the Air Force to become the Army Air Force once more. As U.S. forces become smaller and more expeditionary, with fewer overseas bases from which to stage massive armadas of aircraft for Desert Storm type prolonged air campaigns, the role of long-range strike missions can be assumed by either naval aviation or even new models of Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs). This will leave the Air Force to concentrate on providing CAS in those situations where ground forces are in battle. This CAS role will more than likely be assumed by more sophisticated, longer endurance unmanned aircraft, especially as air defenses become more automated and lethal. The current Joint Strike Fighter could, in fact, be the last manned fighter aircraft produced by the United States as the political liability of shot down and captured aircrew is replaced by the plausible deniability of drone attacks. [7]

Although airpower remains a critical military force, it is no longer a singular war-winning weapons. Integration with ground forces and the ability to fight in a joint environment make the need for an independent Air Force more questionable.

[1] Giulio Douhet, "The Command of the Air," in Roots of Strategy: Book 4, ed. David Jablonsky, 262-407 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1999), 294.
[2] Douhet, 330-336.
[3] David Jordan, James Kiras, David Lonsdale, Ian Speller, Christopher Tuck and C. Dale Walton, Understanding Modern Warfare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 194-198
[4] Jonathan House, Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2001). 168-178
[5] Jordan, et.al., 73-77
[6] Ralph Peters, Wars of Blood and Faith (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2007), 239-241; Charles Dunlap, "Making Revolutionary Change: Airpower in COIN Today," Parameters (U.S. Army War College), Summer 2008: 52-66.
[7] House, 250-259; Peter Singer, Wired for War: The Future of Military Robots, August 28, 2009, http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2009/0828_robots_singer.aspx (accessed November 8, 2010).