Colin Powell’s “One Air Force”

Sept. 1, 2007

“Roles & Missions”

Gen. Colin L. Powell

Pentagon News Conference

Washington, D.C.

Feb. 12, 1993


In July 1992, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, reprised the clichéd charge that we are “the only military in the world with four air forces.” Bill Clinton, the Democratic candidate for President, echoed Nunn, fretting, “We have four separate air forces.”

The New York Times piled on with, “Who needs four air forces?” This was strong criticism, and the message was clear: The nation’s airpower was snarled in a swamp of service parochialism and wasteful duplication, and also was essentially generic, with no one service having any special claim on it.

It took a while, but reason finally returned on Feb. 12, 1993, courtesy of Gen. Colin Powell. The influential Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had just finished a major roles and missions study, took the opportunity to set the record straight. He expressed strong support for maintaining redundant capabilities as a hedge against surprises. More important, he pointed out something that needed saying: There is “really only one” air force—“the United States Air Force, first and foremost, the best in the world.”

One of those great rhetorical questions is, “Why do we have four air forces, and do we need four air forces?”—the premise underneath the question being, “Get rid of one of them or consolidate them into perhaps only two or only one.” The answer is, “The nation is well served by each one of our services having an aviation component in it.” There is really only one United States Air Force—first and foremost, the best in the world. It dominates the skies and space over any battlefield that American troops may have to step foot on.

Within the Navy, within the Marine Corps, and within the Army, they have taken advantage of the potential of air by putting attack helicopters into the Army, by the Navy being able to project airpower from floating airfields—our carrier force—and by the Marines being absolute masters of using integrated air-ground operations to perform their missions. So the real issue is not getting rid of any one of these. They serve America’s interests well.

Let me give you an example. In early August of 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, I was very, very pleased to know that in that early stage of the crisis the carrier Independence was moving into position and could have launched air strikes should that have been necessary. A few days later then, Air Force airpower started to arrive on scene. And even later, when the Army showed up, its attack helicopters made a major contribution to the ability of the Army to perform its mission. Throughout the entire crisis and through the war itself, Marine aviation demonstrated what it can do working closely with Marine ground power. I am glad that that basket of air capability was available to the President of the United States and to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to General Schwarzkopf so that he could perform his mission. And I’m glad that the Congress over the years has supported this investment in airpower.

The real issue now is not how do I get rid of one of those. The real issue now is how do I make sure we have not overinvested in any one of those? How do I make sure they are truly complementary? How do I make sure that, underneath the four aviation elements, we are not wasting money in the ways in which they are trained, in the ways in which we maintain those aircraft, how we determine the number of aircraft that we need?…

For the last three-and-a-half years the capabilities inherent in Army, Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Air Force have served the nation extremely well. I have faced one problem or crisis after another where I was awfully glad, awfully glad, that somebody had thought hard in previous years to protect the kind of force we have and the kind of capabilities we have. …

I am prepared to receive any suggestions about which service we should “eliminate” or cut in half or let’s go up and eliminate Marine aviation. But my mama did not raise a fool, and there are some issues that I know you’re not going to take on because it doesn’t make sense to take on. It’s not in the national interest to do some of the ideas that are suggested. … I’ll look at anything, but I am not going to apologize for the fact that we are trying to protect a broad range of capabilities to serve the nation’s interests in the future. …

I’m not saying that there are not four packages of airpower. … I’m just trying to make the distinction that they all serve a legitimate purpose. The President has made reference to them, Senator Nunn has made reference to them, a lot of people have made reference to them. The answer to this issue, as I’m presenting it, is that you’ve got to remember the uniqueness of the United States Air Force, and you’ve got to remember why the other services have airpower within them. If you wish to call that airpower a Navy air force, an Army air force, and a Marine air force, therefore four, that’s fine, but that isn’t where the real challenge is. …

It just doesn’t make sense to take a small fleet of airplanes from one service and a small fleet of airplanes from another service, which has larger families of similar airplanes in that service, and merge them together, breaking up a unique capability to put together some ad hoc capability just so I can be able to say I consolidated something. It may have a surface attractiveness, but it is fundamentally dumb.