Ground crew members ready an F-117A stealth fighter aircraft for its next mission during Operation Desert Storm. Chief Master Sgt. Don Sutherland via National Archives
Photo Caption & Credits

Editorial: What History Tells Us

Jan. 25, 2021

We have been studying history and relearning old lessons. This is never easy. January’s riot at the Capitol and the second impeachment of a single sitting president were unique, yet the discord and division that preceded them is not. 

Three decades after Operation Desert Storm, it is easy to forget that Americans were hardly united about committing to that conflict. Some 183 representatives in the House and 47 in the Senate voted against authorizing military force to compel Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait. The House and Senate both had solid Democratic majorities, yet Republican President George H.W. Bush won bipartisan support for the campaign. 

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George Santayana, philosopher

Having recently vanquished the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and still licking wounds from failure in Vietnam, many Americans were loath to become mired in a conflict someplace else. But once the bombs started falling, once the works of stealthy F-117s, laser-guided bombs, and other modern marvels of Cold War weaponry went on display, the tide turned. 

It took just 1,000 hours to crush the capacity and will of the Iraqi army. The U.S. Air Force led a 38-day coalition air assault. When that was done, the Army and Marines swept in to complete the destruction, a 100-hour maneuver to chase the already diminished and defeated Iraqi force home to Baghdad. 

Here was America’s strategy laid out in plain sight: a technologically superior force that didn’t have to match up in numbers because its capabilities were so vastly superior, its speed, range, and reach so overwhelmingly greater, its forces so much more professionally trained, that the fight was no contest. The Iraqis outnumbered the Americans 535,000 to 415,000 at the start, and still they never had a chance. 

America, however, embraced the wrong lesson. Rather than see this one-sided victory as vindicating the nation’s sacrifices over the decades—a decisive victory at the cost of fewer than 150 Americans lost in combat—Congress doubled down on defense cuts and an even bigger peace dividend for winning the Cold War. 

In 1992, a seemingly invincible President George H. W. Bush, having built a 35-nation coalition to win the Gulf War and among the best prepared politicians ever to assume the presidency, was defeated by Bill Clinton, the former governor of Arkansas, whose campaign coined the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid.” Clinton promised to cut defense spending and did—by more, in fact, than even he had imagined. 

Air Force Magazine reported in May 1993 that the defense budget would decline (after accounting for inflation) by 42 percent between 1985 and 1997. As The New York Times editorialized, this was acceptable because “U.S. weapon systems are unrivaled, so production of new tanks, planes, and ships can be put off for a decade or more.” 

Hare, meet tortoise. Putting the brakes on future weapons development bought time for Russia and China and diminished America’s ability to wage war, both in military fighting power and industrial might. Our defense and aerospace industries suffered massive consolidation, as rivals chose to combine rather than go out of business; engineers looked to Silicon Valley rather than aerospace as the best places to work; planned production of our most advanced, lethal, and effective weapons—the systems that delivered the greatest deterrent value to our nation—were cut short. 

Deferring national defense investments are like deferring maintenance on your house. You may be able to get another year out of that roof, maybe two. But wait too long and you’ll have to replace plywood and trusses, not just shingles. That’s why the Air Force is now spending billions to keep its B-1B bombers flying. Purchased in the 1980s, they weren’t designed or built to last so long, but their successor, the B-21, won’t arrive for another decade. At this writing, it’s still more than a year from its first flight. 

“The force that won the Gulf War no longer exists,” AFA noted in an eerily prescient policy statement in the fall of 1993. “The existing force … is operating at an arduous tempo to meet operational commitments. Fighter and mobility forces are particularly pressed. The Air Force of the future may draw combat units from a service half the size of the Air Force that waged the Desert Storm air campaign. Unless system modernization proceeds, that force will be left to fight the conflicts of the 21st century with the same equipment—obsolescing and in reduced numbers—employed in the Gulf War.”

The threat of global war had receded, but that AFA statement warned the public and Congress that the impending world order would be neither peaceful nor benign. What followed was a period of nonstop conflict as the United States became enmeshed, one after another, in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, usually in more than one place at a time.  

Russia has reset its nuclear and strategic forces. China has studied and countered virtually every strategic advance in America’s historically technologically superior forces. Iran and North Korea have flouted international law and diplomacy while developing nuclear arms. They, like Russia and China, engage in cyber warfare daily. 

And as the world became more dangerous, our nation was weakened by our own fractious infighting. We are the spoiled kids fighting over the remote while the roof caves in above us. 

Enough! 

Some 75 years ago a few visionary leaders established our Air Force Association to ensure America didn’t forget what won World War II, and that we never returned to the impotent interwar period after World War I, when Americans were naïve enough to think we had won the “war to end all wars.” We have endured for those 75 years because tens of thousands of us continue to believe that American security is rooted in the strategic development and application of aerospace power, and because history tells us that the failure to advocate for aerospace power will leave us without that power when we need it most. 

This is our mission: educating, advocating, and supporting the Airmen and Guardians who stand ready to defend us from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Let us rise above the politics of the hour and hold fast to a common cause, that of a free people committed to the common defense, the rule of law, and common decency.

We live in a dangerous world, where real enemies lurk. We must be ready and waiting, united as one.