Airmen of the 34th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron prepare to launch an F-35A Lightning II on March 9, at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. Senior Master Sgt. Ralph Branson
Photo Caption & Credits

Editorial: Go All In

Feb. 19, 2021

Decisions have consequences. Planning inevitably means making choices, and while some choices can be revisited later, the cost is almost always greater after the fact.  

Case in point: The F-35 Lightning II. All who fly this exceptional stealth jet extol its virtues. But critics rage over its sustainment cost. The engines run so hot the special coatings on their turbine blades are burning off, creating a sudden and severe shortage of F-35 engines.  

The F-35 was originally supposed to have an alternative to the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine, but the Pentagon canceled it, even though it had cleared all its technical hurdles. Now, if we could rewind the clock, we’d choose differently.  

Similarly, then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates chose to cut short the purchase of F-22s because he deemed the jets too “exquisite” for dropping bombs on insurgents. This, too, was shortsighted. Within a decade, the National Defense Strategy would identify China and Russia as the chief threats to U.S. interests around the globe, and stealth platforms like the F-22 as critical to countering that threat. By then, however, it was too late to buy more F-22s. Now, we face a yawning gap between the force we have and the force we need. 

It should not have taken longer to defeat the Islamic State group in the desert than Germany and Japan in World War II.

We didn’t build enough B-1Bs or B-2s, either, which is why we’re still flying B-52s from the dawn of the jet age. We didn’t build enough C-17s and even though they’re the most flexible of transports, there’s no way to build more. The Air Force waited too long to develop and buy a new tanker and though the KC-46 issues will eventually shakeout, the lack of alternatives makes the wait even more galling.  

There are tactical and strategic implications for these past decisions. One problem is that war games are fungible. Maintenance problems can be imagined away. Those assumptions come back to haunt you when breakdowns leave commanders short of airplanes in combat.  

War strategies, too, must be examined with hindsight. A new report from the RAND Corp. examines the role of air power in the campaign against the Islamic State group in Syria, or ISIS. “Air power was indispensable to defeating ISIS,” the report declares, but the authors accept the strategic limitations imposed on the war planners and accept them as inevitable. Unaddressed is the central question: Had air power been used strategically, would it still have taken longer to negate a self-proclaimed caliphate in the desert than it did for the Allies to defeat Germany and Japan in World War II? 

The United States went into the war against the Islamic State group with at least one hand tied behind its back. President Barack H. Obama “wanted a limited liability, limited risk approach,” the RAND authors say, yet the strategy relegated air power to a secondary role: providing close air support to a proxy ground force. In fact, this continued the failed strategy that proved indecisive in Iraq and Afghanistan. The only difference is that this time they didn’t commit large numbers of U.S. Army or Marine forces to the fight.  

Even as the study notes “the physical caliphate was ISIS’s center of gravity, as control of territory was critical to the group’s strategy,” it accepts without question that “strategic air strikes against ISIS’s oil business and its cash reserves … were a small part of the overall air operations.”  

There’s the rub: If strikes had been designed for strategic effects, this war would not have dragged on for five years.  

To learn this lesson, we must ask the right questions. We won World War II because, despite political divisions, we were fully committed to victory and our leaders demanded unconditional surrender—no matter the cost. We stalled in Korea and later gave up in Vietnam because leaders lacked that commitment to win.   

Today, as we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we must ask ourselves if we haven’t experienced the same thing over two decades of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unlike Vietnam, the public doesn’t blame our troops for the failed military strategy. But like that war, presidents from both major political parties have taken turns as commander in chief without changing the central strategy or outcome.  

What if we had taken a different tack?  

Rand acknowledges that constraints on air power and the lack of air power expertise at the top of the command chain were issues, but the authors decline to speculate how that might have played out differently. Instead, they assert that a lack of targeting intelligence kept commanders from making better use of air power early in the war because so little was known about the Islamic State group.  

Here, Operation Desert Storm offers a worthwhile comparison. In those days before ISR drones, timely overhead intelligence was nonexistent. Yet our strategic air campaign delivered victory in just 43 days. If only Rand had compared these two conflicts. Then we might have learned something.  

Against ISIS, the United States waged war on the cheap. The air campaign flew less than one third as many sorties in the opening weeks against the Islamic State group as it did in the 1995 air campaign against the Serbs in Bosnia. We lacked effort. From August 2014 to July 2016, we averaged just six U.S. strike sorties per day. Finally, our fear of civilian casualties reached an illogical extreme. We held off on attacking the ISIS oil distribution network for 15 months out of concern that targeting ISIS oil trucks was uncivilized, because the drivers were simply trying to earn a living. Yet that unconscionable delay allowed $700 million to flow into ISIS coffers, funding their slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians.  

Yes, decisions have consequences. The failure to effectively use air power to rapidly achieve strategic effects ensured the campaign against the Islamic State group would be yet another long, slow war against a lesser foe.  

Analyzing what happened next can certainly highlight things the Air Force can do better next time. But the bigger question—the one our national and military leaders must reckon with—is this: How can we use air power to achieve greater results in less time? Had we done so Syria, we might have destroyed the Islamic State group in a matter of months, not years.