Fraudulent Flak

Sept. 1, 2000

In recent months, we have gotten a steady string of letters taking on Air Force people and airpower advocates for saying that airpower can do it all and can win wars all by itself.

That is a curious accusation. The longer you examine it, the more curious it gets.

Go back for several years and check the record. You will find a lot of people who accuse airpower advocates of making such claims. You will find a lot of people who say that airpower can’t do it all.

What you do not find is many airpower advocates actually making that claim.

Who did say it–and was prominently quoted by us–was John Keegan, the distinguished British military historian. He said that June 1999 had marked a “new turning point” in history, when the Kosovo air campaign “proved that a war can be won by airpower alone.”

What made Keegan’s conclusion so newsworthy was his previous view, often stated, about the limited value of airpower.

A second line of accusation is that the advocacy of airpower is needlessly–and unilaterally–provocative.

It’s OK for the Navy to depict itself as the “force of choice” and say that the nation’s first question in time of crisis is, “Where Are the Carriers?”

It’s OK for the Army to bill itself as “the force of decision” and say that land power makes permanent “the otherwise transitory advantages achieved by air and naval forces.”

It was OK when a senior fellow of the Institute of Land Warfare, said that “the recent air campaign against Iraqi forces gained not a single one of the US or UN objectives in the Persian Gulf War. Four days of land combat-aided immeasurably by the air campaign–achieved every goal and victory.”

More recently the same senior fellow said that “the Army has paid a high price for the unfulfilled promises of airpower since World War II.”

Nobody (except Air Force Magazine) objected when an Army general said that “armies are the foundation of nearly all national military forces” and that “air forces and navies are add-ons. … Success or failure of the land battle typically equates to national success or failure.”

For sheer arrogance, consider a crack from a Navy War College person several years ago about the service that “calls itself the Air Force” and the other services which “all had their names before the Wright brothers did their thing.”

The rules are somehow different for airpower. Anything said on its behalf may be construed as arrogant, intemperate, or unfounded.

Let us, therefore, summarize what we have said.

  • In the Gulf War in 1991, the decisive element was airpower. The ground offensive was important and deserving of respect, but it is nonsense to depict it as the decisive element.
  • In Kosovo in 1999, NATO was foolish to announce ahead of time that it would not use ground forces. However, air forces were the only forces engaged, and they were decisive.
  • The Revolution in Military Affairs pivots on stealth, long-range precision strike, and information technology. It introduced alternatives to the attrition model of warfare and the clash of force on force. Aerospace power now bears a larger part of the combat load.
  • Aerospace power has been central in recent operations. The next one, though, may resemble Operation Just Cause in Panama in 1989, in which ground forces were central.
  • The surface forces accept airpower in a supporting role, but they are reluctant to accept it in a supported role. Times have changed. Aerospace power can support surface operations, but it cannot always be consigned to that role. Sometimes it will achieve results independently, or with the surface forces in support.
  • Whoever takes the lead, no operation of major scope will succeed without aerospace power.
  • The nation needs a balanced mix of land, sea, and air forces. We do not believe in single-dimension strategies, and we do not claim that aerospace power will be decisive in every instance. However, US military superiority today is attributable primarily to capabilities in air and space. Aerospace power has become the dominant element in armed conflict.

We have not said that airpower can do it all, nor have we demeaned the contribution of any combat or support arm of the joint force. We have not violated the norms of interservice collegiality, which are rarely invoked anyway except in objection to the advocacy of airpower.

Tradition is a powerful force. Defense policy would never change if old ideas were not challenged. It is important to the nation that the capabilities of aerospace power be understood and recognized.

This is not just an intramural service debate. It spills over to Congress and into the popular news media. If airmen do not state their case, it will not be heard, and the defense program will reflect that.

It is possible that, in wartime, a theater commander will realize, as Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf did in the Gulf War, the potential of aerospace power and take advantage of it.

But if aerospace power is systematically undercut between the wars, that has a damaging effect on the capabilities that will be available when war comes along.