The Air Force’s Future Environment: Thinking in New Dimensions

Sept. 1, 1962
“If the military is going to make a valuable contribution to thinking through national security problems, we are going to have to place more emphasis on how we think and the organizational structure with which we think. And that thinking will have to be responsive to the existing environment.”

A clear idea of the future is the hallmark of the man who succeeds, the idea that prevails, the plan that bears fruit.

Predicting the future has never been a simple job and it is becoming more difficult. Change used to come at a leisurely pace; literally, today’s ideas are outmoded by tomorrow’s developments.

In this atmosphere of quick change, it is useful to try to depict the major factors that will affect the Air Force of the future, the things that will shape the environment in which we will have to work as an organization and as individuals within that organiza­tion. So, although I won’t attempt here to draw a precise picture of the future, my thoughts on emerging trends may assist the reader to do so for himself.

I will discuss these emerging trends in three general categories. First I will treat the trends affecting de­fense organization. Then the international trends. And finally the trends affecting our concepts for develop­ing and operating the United States Air Force.

Undoubtedly the most visible factor—and perhaps the most important in terms of long-range impact—has been the trend away from decentralized manage­ment of military problems toward concentration of problems managed in the higher levels of govern­ment. A number of causes have contributed to this trend toward centralization:

Soviet possession of the nuclear weapon has cre­ated widespread fear of the nuclear weapon and the felt need to keep it under close control.

A growing defense budget has impacted more and more strongly on political and economic affairs.

Military policy has become integrated with and is not distinguishable from diplomatic considerations.

Advancing technology has created a need to advance the scientist’s role in military decisions.

And—of principal interest to us in the military—the institution we call the Joint Chiefs was originally de­signed to function in a decentralized system, rather than in the centralized system we have today.

So we find the need to reorient ourselves to the new requirements. We are working to change the JCS and the Joint Staff and to make them more responsive to the needs of centralized management. I hope that we will be successful in this effort.

Hand-in-hand with this centralization of manage­ment, national military strategy has become interrelated to a growing area of nonmilitary problems—the gold-flow problem is an example. So the military staffs and the JCS must extend their military considerations to an ever-broader area of affairs.

So much for organizational problems. Let’s turn our attention now to some of the international factors that will shape our future military environment.

If present trends continue, the nature of our alliances could change significantly in the years ahead. This will have a distinct effect on the Air Force of the future since our military commitments change with our alliances. The growing strength of the European Community could well result in a United Europe. The Common Market is, after all, the embryo of such a structure. It remains to be seen whether or not the United States takes part in that growth as a full part­ner in an Atlantic Community. But that, too, would have a major effect on our future.

Developments such as these could have a beneficial effect on our defense posture. Either a strengthened Europe or a strengthened Atlantic Community will add significantly to the free world’s strength.

The proliferation of nuclear weapons is going to have an increasing effect on our military posture. We have to recognize the strategic consequences of wide­spread possession of these weapons.

Some years ago studies were made to identify the countries that could possibly develop their own nuclear weapons. These studies concluded that several coun­tries would have the necessary resources in ten to fifteen years. And a greater number of countries—a total of ten or fifteen—might have the resources after a slightly longer period. These studies were called the Nth Country Studies, because as each new country was added to the number already possessing nuclear weapons, the possibility of conflict increased by geo­metrical progression. Those studies were made on the basis of the nuclear technology we knew several years ago. Since that time technology has advanced. Today a country would need far fewer and far less sophisti­cated resources to develop its own weapons.

So the Nth Country problem is a serious one. And it is one we are going to have to deal with. In my view, there are three things we can do about this problem:

One, we can live with it by adapting to the changed environment as new nations join the nuclear club.

Two, we can rely on technological advances to off­set the effect of growing nuclear capabilities. I’ll re­turn to this point later in this article.

And three, we can enter into international treaties to control and prevent the growth of nuclear capa­bilities. This brings me to my next point.

Our government is seeking general and complete disarmament under effective international control. We have recently created a federal agency whose mission is to develop the ways and means to reach that goal. The Arms Control and Disarmament Agency is now staffed with about 100 people, and they plan to reach a strength of 200 in the near future. These are dedi­cated people. They are intelligent people. And they bend their efforts to their assignment. I sometimes think we in the military don’t pay adequate attention to those efforts.

No nation can properly refuse to go to an interna­tional conference table to discuss arms-control pro­posals that appear to have been offered in good faith. But think for a moment about the bases on which we can make or accept disarmament proposals.

Generally speaking, we can’t place in jeopardy such military superiorities as we might have. Nor can an enemy. We have to find the basis for an appropriate trade-off of these superiorities if both sides are seeking stability. Consider the difficulties in this case:

On first blush, it appears that an agreement for each of us to scrap 200 missiles of similar size would be an even trade. Yet such a trade might in fact be grossly uneven. It would depend on the value each nation places on its missiles, how they will be used, and their relative importance to over-all strength. That deter­mination involves an assessment of the impact that the loss of those missiles would have on the entire de­fense structure of the nations in question. The said problem applies to any disarmament proposal. So each participant at such a conference is looking for agreements that won’t cause his side to be put at a disadvantage.

We recently tabled a draft disarmament treaty at Geneva. The Armed Forces considered this proposal, participated in its drafting, and made inputs to it. Yet, how much does the average military person really know about that proposal and how much does he really know about the effect its adoption would have on our military posture? For that matter, how much do we really know about just the effect of making the proposal

Arms control and disarmament proposals and counterproposals are going to be a permanent feature of the defense environment. More and more of us are going to have to contribute to these proposals and be aware of their impact. More importantly, we are going to have to develop our recommendations in this area in response to the broad considerations of national strategy and not in the limited consideration of military strategy.

I would like to turn now to a discussion of some of our purely military problems and the environment that will affect our concepts for solving them.

In the strategic field, the heavy stress on making war calculable and predictable has led us to concentrate on a strategic force that can ride out an enemy attack and still strike back effectively. This philosophy—if accepted as a total strategy—would force us to be inflexible by our own choice of weapons.

I have no quarrel with the thought that our strategic forces have to be secure. But if the high cost of that kind of survivability should ever entice us to abandon our ability to destroy opposing strategic forces and to adopt instead the cheaper strategy of retaliating against an enemy’s cities and people, our defensive posture would be seriously affected. Because, in the final analysis, such a single-moded force would create a situation that deters us more strongly than it deters an enemy.

If we were deterred by our own incomplete wea­ponry, we would have lost superiority at the ultimate level of warfare. In this situation, we would be unable to exercise choice or flexibility in any lesser forms of warfare against this enemy. We would have lost con­trol and flexibility because our enemy could have the ability to outraise us in this vital “table stakes—no limit” game.

For these reasons, all of us were heartened to hear Secretary McNamara come out forcefully on this point in June at the University of Michigan. He said that our principal military objective in war should be the destruction of the enemy’s military forces, not his civilian population. That statement went far to clear the air both here at home and abroad. I feel that it has made our deterrent posture much more believable.

Returning to my point about the desire to make nuclear war calculable and predictable, a second prob­lem this kind of thinking causes is that when we overstress our efforts to end nonpredictable nuclear war we are cautious about doing anything that might provoke an adversary. By definition, the building of an offensive weapon system amounts to provocation. Car­ried to its extremes, some people even consider shelters provocative. In this environment, the development of new strategic systems meets strong moral and emo­tional, as .well as economic, opposition.

Third—and perhaps the most dangerous effect of all—this thinking makes us shortsighted about space. I’ll return to this subject when I discuss the strategic problem in space, but now let’s look at the future en­vironment that will affect our limited-war posture.

A great part of the limited-war problem’ is political in nature. The ground rules for ‘fighting, the use of bases, overflight rights—all these and many more play a large part. Therefore, political considerations are always going to dominate our preparations to fight such wars. The fear of nuclear weapons has a marked effect on this problem and will probably continue to have an effect for some years to come.

It is often charged that we in the Air Force expe­dited a rush to place almost sole reliance on the nu­clear weapon for limited wars. This is a distorted view. The Air Force has always recognized that there are many possible situations in which a purely nuclear capability would be inappropriate. We support whole­heartedly the need to improve conventional capabili­ties, and we are working to develop those enhanced capabilities as quickly as possible.

A fairer statement of the Air Force position on limited war would be that we feel that the alternative to early use of nuclear armaments in limited wars against forces large in manpower is to maintain ex­ceedingly large forces in-being. If a decision were made to develop and maintain that magnitude of forces, we of course would support it.

Most of the confusion surrounding limited war seems to me to spring from confusion as to how we would fight such wars. Perhaps it would be more accu­rate to say that there is confusion on how we would fight such wars against forces that would employ nu­clear weapons and against forces that have no recourse to nuclear weapons. These are separate problems, and they are being treated separately. Certainly there is a vast difference between capabilities here.

We can expect nuclear-capable forces to be sophisti­cated and to have modern weapons. Forces without recourse to nuclear weapons, on the other hand, can be expected to have conventional weapons and less sophisticated tactics.

So to my mind the first problem in limited-war planning is to have a clear understanding of what weapons and what tactics are to be used against which op­ponents.

The use or nonuse of nuclear weapons is a gov­erning factor in the size and composition of limited-war forces. And it is a major factor in planning limited-war tactics. It seems clear that you need more forces to fight without nuclear weapons than with them, be­cause it is patent that you can deliver more firepower with nuclear weapons than with nonnuclear ones.

It is also obvious that you must plan tactics differ­ently for nuclear and for nonnuclear war. The principle of mass is applied on the nuclear battlefield with weap­ons. Mass is applied on the nonnuclear battlefield with forces. If you intend to fight with nonnuclear weapons, you must assemble a great many forces. Yet if you plan to retain the option to use nuclear weapons, those concentrated forces would be a handicap be­cause they themselves would present an enemy with a critical nuclear target.

There is still another major problem presented by the consideration of whether or not to use nuclear weapons in a limited war.

In war, each side tries to achieve military domi­nance. When two nuclear-capable military forces are in combat, even with high-explosive weapons, the overriding priority for destruction is the opponent’s nuclear-capable forces. This is true because nuclear weapons are far more effective than high explosives, and, until the enemy is disarmed of his nuclear weap­ons, he may decide to use them preemptively to gain an irreversible military dominance. So, in limited non­nuclear war, each opponent risks losing his nuclear capability all at once by preemptive nuclear attack. Or he risks losing it over a period of time by attrition. In nonnuclear war the side with the fewer forces suf­fers the effects of attrition first.

If you had quantitative superiority, it would be to your advantage to fight a nonnuclear war and let your opponent lose his tactical nuclear capability by attrition.

When both forces are nuclear capable and one side enjoys an overwhelming quantitative superiority, the smaller force in a nonnuclear contest will eventually lose its tactical nuclear capability for the simple but often overlooked reason that nonnuclear war is essen­tially a contest between production and attrition. And a fact of life that we must live with is that modern tactical air forces—land-based or sea-based—are simply too expensive to stockpile or to mass produce in ad­vance in quantities sufficient for a World War II scale of operation.

We have to appreciate the economic and political difficulties facing the President as he addresses the twin problems of nuclear and conventional war. Both he and the Secretary of Defense have stated publicly that we would retain the option to use nuclear weap­ons in a limited-war situation. And it is important that we continue to understand this point in our planning.

We are working hard to solve these problems that must be solved if we are to field the flexible and effec­tive limited-war capability the President requires. Yet at the same time I feel that there is a growing aware­ness here at home and among our allies that these points I have mentioned are urgent and must be dealt with.

Our ability and determination to resist aggression with whatever force is necessary have all but closed the limited-war avenue to the Communist. They have forced him to select a lesser form of violence as his ploy. I think it is important to remember, however, that he could always return to large-scale limited wars if that kind of war ever again presented him acceptable risks.

I want to talk now about a lower form of violence—counterinsurgency. I think it’s a fair guess that we will be involved in this business for some years to come. Unless, of course, ways can be developed to close this avenue of aggression by means of an international con­stabulary. This is always a possibility. And it is one I don’t think we should overlook, even though there are many problems to be overcome.

Nevertheless, our forces are still charged with this national mission and we are getting on with the job. I look for the traditionally superior US capabilities to develop rapidly.

Here again we have a problem that has political, cultural, and economic overtones. When a friendly coun­try asks for our help late in the second or guerrilla phase of a Communist takeover operation, we go in at a severe handicap. The Communist has been at work perhaps as long as ten or twenty years in the first phase alone, infiltrating the population and becoming a part of it. Our job at this late time is to prevent the takeover from entering the third, or formal military operation, phase.

This is no simple job. It can’t be done by traditional means. We in the Air Force are verymuch immersed in this job and with the other military services we have a responsibility and a capability for doing it that is second to none.

When we organized the Special Air Warfare Center at Eglin AFB, Fla., recently, we took stock of the Air Force people and talents available for counter­insurgency. I assure you our supply is adequate. After all, we have been conducting air-ground operations now for more than twenty years in World War II, the Philippines, and in Korea. And we are assisting in the training of South Vietnam forces. During that time many of our people learned how to live and to fight a fleeting and concealed enemy under the most primitive conditions, improvising as they went along. We have a veteran corps of air commandos who operated all over China, Burma, and Southeast Asia during World War II. For years we have been training crews in the hide-and-seek tactics of escape, evasion, and survival in the jungle or desert or in the heart of enemy territory. We have learned communications and intelligence-gather­ing techniques, and tactical intelligence is the control­ling factor in counterinsurgency operations. And we have an unsurpassed wealth of experience in coordi­nated air-ground action all over the world. All of these talents and the people who own them are priceless re­sources for the counterinsurgency effort.

So as long as the United States stays in the counter­insurgency business, you can be certain that the Air Force will play an important role in that effort. This, too, will be part of our future environment.

I stated that I would return to the strategic and the Nth Country problems and the environments in which we would have to solve these problems. I mean to do that under the general heading of military space capa­bilities. Certainly space is a strategic factor, and cer­tainly technological developments in space have the potential of rendering Nth Country problems obsolete.

An idea that is impeding military space progress is one to which I have spoken publicly on several occa­sions. This is the idea that nuclear weapons are the ultimate weapons. This concept assumes that no weapon can ever displace the nuclear weapon—ex­cept a more powerful or different form of the same weapon.

People who believe this say that there are already enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world and they say that this abundance of weapons is intolerable. Most of the arguments for arms control, the stalemate theories, and the minimum-deterrent theories derive from this basic idea.

Most important to us, the development of military capabilities in space is viewed as a way to widen the area where nuclear weapons can be used. This idea, perhaps more than any other, causes some people to worry about and to question the need for the develop­ment of military space capabilities.

Now I don’t think the nuclear weapon is the ulti­mate weapon man will ever devise. And I don’t think the one that replaces the nuclear weapon will be the ultimate either.

Tomorrow’s weapons may employ entirely new and nonnuclear principles of operation. For example, we are still acquiring greater understanding of the prin­ciples governing focused energy. And, eventually, we may see these developments lead to focused-energy weapons.

The energy directed by such weapons could travel across space essentially with the speed of light. This would be an invaluable characteristic for the inter­ception of ICBM warheads and their decoys. And, if a new generation of armaments operating in space could neutralize an aggressor’s ICBMs, warfare as we have known it would be outmoded by the advance of technology.

The neutralization of ICBMs by a system deployed aboard a maneuvering space vehicle is no irresponsi­ble escalation of an arms race.

People who say that we have an unstable military environment say that because they feel the offense has overwhelmed the defense. A weapon such as I have described would return that offensive-defensive bal­ance. And it would move the world into a new era of warfare. More importantly, it would move the world into a new era of preventing war. Assuming, of course, that it was in the proper hands.

In the environment I have described, one big ques­tion looms in my mind: Who is going to think through security problems in the years ahead

History writes clearly. Victory does not always go to the strongest and the bravest. Victory—since the time of David and Goliath—often goes to the nation that is best able to think.

That is the challenge that lies ahead for us.

If the military is going to make a valuable contribu­tion to thinking through national security problems of the future, we are going to have to place more em­phasis on how we think and the organizational struc­ture with which we think. And that thinking will have to be responsive to the existing environment.

If we fail in this task, we will be reduced to function­ing as custodians of military resources. And the na­tional strength will be reduced proportionately.