Let’s You and Him Fight

June 1, 1994

If you went by press reports (some of them written by people who weren’t there), you might believe that Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, USAF Chief of Staff, declared war on the Navy at an Air Force Association symposium February 18, the overt act being an attempt to grab a mission-projecting “presence” overseas–that supposedly belonged to the Navy.

Among those believing it, apparently, was Navy Times (which wasn’t there either). Its editorial page proclaimed that “presence is a piece of America floating just 100 miles off shore, armed with nearly 3,000 tons of aviation ordnance and 53 combat aircraft.” That force can “strike within minutes,” the editorial said, adding that “carrier-based strike jets have been used for various operations 79 times since the early 1970s, while Air Force bombers have been called on five times.”

Following are some observations about this from one who was there–me–and who, for the record, also has a history of recognizing the value of naval airpower. To begin with, it was obvious from the context of what General McPeak said that he was talking primarily about how the Air Force has changed its own operation as it pulls back from many of its fixed bases overseas.

He said the capability to respond to global crisis from Stateside bases in less than a day is “a new form of military presence.” That is undeniably true. The capability was demonstrated on the opening night of the Persian Gulf War, and the Air Force now practices “global reach” missions to points in the Mediterranean, the Pacific, and southwest Asia on a weekly basis.

“Presence” is–and always has been–a shared mission. Part of it is performed by the two or three carriers the Navy keeps deployed. The larger part of presence, however, is Army and Air Force units stationed or operating abroad. The tempo of Air Force overseas operations has seldom been higher in peacetime. Since the Gulf War ended in April 1991, the Air Force has flown more than 200,000 sorties in Somalia, Bosnia, and Iraq. Fifty-two Air Force satellites in orbit add another dimension of presence.

Furthermore, the Air Force will participate this year in international exercises in or near some fifty areas of potential conflict. That is a particularly useful form of presence. Granted, Air Force presence is not always minutes away, but neither is naval presence. When the Gulf crisis broke loose in 1990, for example, the closest carrier was Independence, on station in the Indian Ocean. It took three days to reach the Gulf.

The job does not stop with presence. The next task is crisis response, and if a regional aggressor of any consequence starts rolling in earnest, fifty-three aircraft flying off a carrier deck will not stop him. Arrival of additional carriers can help, but most of the air campaign-including the preponderance of attack on difficult, high-priority targets-will depend on the range, penetration, and versatility of Air Force bombers, fighters, and specialized combat aircraft. Without tankers and airlift, nobody much is going anywhere.

None of this is said in disdain of naval airpower. Carriers are not only important for presence but also definitely useful to have on your side in a fight. As the Air Force Association’s Advisory Group on Military Roles and Missions said last year, landbased and seabased airpower are complementary rather than competitive. Sad to say, Navy­Air Force competition has been a fact of life for fifty years. Over the past decade, both services have recognized that modern warfare is a joint proposition, but partisans on both sides maintain the feud. It could be a function of my particular sensitivities, but it seems to me that substantially more of the parochialism has been from the naval enthusiasts.

When the services attack each other, both tend to lose. People looking for plausible excuses to cut defense do not have to invent stratagems if they can rely on partisan military experts to do the job for them.

The politicians are in a bind. They have cut the military so much that the projected force may be insufficient to cover the strategy. To make matters worse, the defense budget is underfunded to cover the forces projected. The federal deficit is $200 billion and expected to start rising again by the turn of the century.

As it does every spring, the Congressional Budget Office has brought forth a list of ideas to reduce the deficit. As always, CBO says it is presenting options, not recommendations, but as a practical matter, CBO’s unendorsed “options” are frequently seized upon as opportunities and the disclaimers conveniently forgotten. The options on this year’s list include the elimination of two Air Force wings (supposed savings, $1.8 billion) or two carriers ($6.8 billion savings). There are plenty of people who would delight in exercising both options.

It ill behooves us to help them in this endeavor by intramural mudslinging or overreaction to invented or imagined provocations. We can agree, certainly, on the value of “a piece of America” floating offshore–but let us also recognize the effect on would-be aggressors worldwide when they know that heavy hitters from Barksdale or Whiteman can be overhead by suppertime.