Airpower Fiction and Fact

April 1, 2005

According to a recent New York Times editorial, true combat today almost always occurs “on the ground.” US land forces are “dangerously overstretched,” but the Air Force has “so many people.” An airman spends “only four months out of every 20” on a combat rotation. What he does there is “nowhere near as dangerous or as grueling” as soldiering, so DOD must “lower [USAF’s] recruiting quotas” and bring in more infantrymen.

“Short-range fighters” are another problem. To the Times, they are “dubious Cold War weapons”—particularly the “extravagantly gold-plated F/A-22.” USAF would be better off funding more “unpiloted aircraft,” not to mention “unglamorous” A-10 fighters and C-130 transports. It would be safe to do this because “no one seriously expects” the US to face a major, high-tech foe.

The Times is not the only critical voice. Ralph Peters, a New York Post columnist, wants to scuttle the “nearly useless” F/A-22 and buy a new, Army-friendly transport, “cost-efficient” [sic] bomber, and plain-jane multirole fighter. He would fire every Air Force four-star general (“intellectual relics”) in the place. “We have the wrong Air Force,” he warns.

Well, to paraphrase Mark Twain, we could not feel more convinced if every pundit in New York City were criticizing the Air Force.

Seriously, though, it is amazing what you read in newspapers these days. Ordinarily, the ruminations of a few spitball artists in the press could be brushed off. This time, though, the criticism coincides with a certain diffidence about airpower that has appeared in Congress and within the Pentagon. The Air Force would be unwise to ignore it.

The first thing to say is airmen need no lectures about courage from newspaper editorialists. Whether they are flying combat sorties or driving trucks in Iraq, airmen are engaged in dangerous work. Only a fool would claim otherwise.

The portrait of a lavish, bloated Air Force is strange. The Times piece (“Slimming Down the Air Force,” Feb. 25) reads as if the writer were unaware of USAF’s recent drawdown. In 1986, it had 608,000 active duty troops. Today, the figure is 361,000—41 percent fewer than in the “Cold War Air Force.” Since the Cold War, USAF lost half of its fighter force structure (dropping from 37 to 20 wings) and more than half of its bombers.

Moreover, USAF wants to get even smaller. It has clamped down on recruiting and sheds airmen whenever possible. It has programmed a new, 25 percent cut in the fighter force, but that hinges on getting 381 of those “gold-plated” F/A-22s to replace 800 aging F-15s and F-117s.

In this recent spate of press attacks, one finds indications of two troubling beliefs. One is that future US air superiority can be taken for granted. The other is that the Air Force and Army are locked in a zero-sum budgetary game.

USAF is a “full-service” air force, providing many “products”—airlift, aeriel refueling, communications, airborne command and control, precision attack, close air support, intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance work, and more. Theater commanders want as much of this stuff as they can get.

Yet everything hinges on air superiority, and the nation increasingly seems to think it can get by without new investment in tactical fighters—the basic tools of air dominance.

That is a great gamble. The danger is raised by the proliferation of sophisticated, Russian-designed air defense systems and front-line fighters. The F/A-22 is the only jet sure to overcome the threats in decades ahead, which is why USAF wants it.

“The fundamental fact [is] that air and space will be contested in the future,” warned Gen. John P. Jumper, USAF Chief of Staff. Those who think otherwise are “wrong.”

Secondly, the media act as if the Air Force and Army are engaged in a kind of Darwinian struggle. Its essence is that the battered Army needs more money (for more troops) and USAF’s budget is the main place to get it.

Few disagree that the Army and Marine Corps need more support, given that they are taking big casualties in Iraq. The Air Force, however, is the worst imaginable bill-payer.

For one thing, Iraq will not be the end of war for this nation. The US will need dominant air and space power to hedge against an aggressive China or resurgent Russia—or somebody else.

More importantly, the Air Force offers direct and enormous benefit to the Army itself. As former Air Force Secretary Donald B. Rice once noted, “It’s a tribute to air superiority that the last time an American soldier was killed by air attack was in April 1953.”

Today, airpower protects ground forces not only by warding off enemy air attack but also by destroying the enemy on the ground—a fact made glaringly evident in the Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003.

Given these circumstances, one might even expect senior Army leaders to loudly protest the media cheap shots on the Air Force.

The truth is that the services shouldn’t be traded off against one another, especially when, as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rums­feld recently stated, “This country is perfectly capable of investing whatever is needed to preserve the freedom … and the security and the safety of the American people.”

That statement is irrefutable. Amer­icans should keep it in mind as the budget demolition derby heats up. It is often said that nothing is more terrible to see than ignorance in action. We’ve seen quite a lot of it already, and we fear there is a lot more of it to come.