The Essence of Airpower

July 1, 1985
I am very proud of every issue of Air Force Magazine — proud of the people who produce it, write for it, and ensure its consistent quality. Therefore, when asked recently to pick the three most substantive articles in Air Force Magazine over the past five years. I was hard put to select just three, but I did. My picks are “Why an Air Force?” an “end-of-tour” interview with Gen. Lew Allen, Jr., Chief of Staff, US Air Force, which appeared in the July 1982 issue; “The GHQ Air Force” by John L. Frisbee in September 1983; and “Indivisible Airpower” by Gen. Bennie L. Davis in march 1984.

Having made these selections. I was immediately struck by the attraction I have to articles that deal with the essence of airpower and aerospace technology; i.e., the potential for unlimited global access — access for any purpose, in peace or war. These articles emphasize how important it is for the United States, as a nation with pervasive global responsibility, to exploit this aspect of aerospace technology. Also, they urge programs to ensure that the people of the United States understand the implication of having such global access and the hazards of not having it!

General Allen described AFA’s future requirements as twofold. The first requirement is to make sure that the public is reliably informed and “doesn’t slip back” into the fractured, piecemeal approach to our strategic aerospace capability that has marked our actions in prior years.

Secondly, he charged AFA to emphasize and explain to our nation why we have an Air Force, what is unique about an Air Force, and what its role is in modern combat — in short, how best to exploit the singular ability of airpower for global access, in keeping with our global responsibilities.

In writing about our “GHQ Air Force” in the mid-1930s, John Frisbee explains the purposes and actions (and the frustrations!) of Lt. Gen. Frank Andrews as he fought to develop and strengthen the inherent capability of our fledgling airpower — to centralize the control of long-range airpower and break the pattern of a fragmented, randomly trained organization, cast in the mold of a ground force auxiliary. Pointedly, those of us who are distressed by today’s fiscally mandated “buy” of only 100 B-1Bs and fifty or fewer MX missiles for Strategic Air Command will find ironic similarity with the 1938 directives to the Air Corps (reflected in the FY 1940 budget) that disregarded General Andrews’s operational requirement for 244 long-range B-17 bombers and required the Air Corps to ask for no more than the forty B-17s then on order!

Finally, the trenchant “Indivisible Airpower” article by Gen. Bennie L. Davis disabuses us from using such phrases as “Strategic” and tactical” to type aircraft and equipment, accurately explaining “strategic” and “tactical” as relating to missions, not equipment. He emphasizes the flexibility, responsiveness, and versatility of aerospace power, if properly developed and balanced. He explains the importance of access in terms of global power projection — the “strategic reach” of long-range missiles and multipurpose combat aircraft for a variety of complementary missions.

Having reviewed these selections, I recognize that some will brand my choices as reflecting the parochial views of an airpower crusader. Others will say that my views are prejudiced and colored by my tours in Strategic Air Command. Neither assessment is accurate, and I hope that this month’s issue of Air Force Magazine, which deals with current strategic concepts, offensive and defensive — bears me out. While it may be far from simple to meet, I see our future military challenge as being relatively straightforward: We must not fail to maintain an effective deterrent to nuclear war, and we must convince the Soviet Union that any potential military aggression will not succeed and cannot be expected to profit them.

Our task is to build and deploy sufficient reconnaissance systems, command and control facilities, and offensive and defensive weapon systems to ensure global access for our vital national purposes while denying the enemy such access for doing us grievous harm. Anything less is not enough. If the quantity and quality of our weapons systems prove inadequate to put at risk the primary military forces of a potential enemy, then we will be forced to achieve deterrence by an immortal strategy that threatens only noncombatant population and counter-value targets.

And in carrying out our task, we cannot afford to be too cute, clever, or analytically exact in our view of what it takes to achieve our objectives. If we do not succeed in this strategic imperative, nothing else we do will count for much. Professor Eugene Rostow quotes a great historian of the Roman Empire explaining why Rome fell: “They lost their nerve!”

On guard, America! Our long-range strategic posture and force structure are not fit subjects for incessant logrolling, penny-pinching, and political niggling.