“Gentlemen, we have run out of money; now we have to think.” Over the past couple of years, pundits and defense experts alike have shown a fondness for quoting this observation attributed to Winston Churchill. While attention in Washington has been largely focused on sequestration, debt ceilings and, most recently, budget deals, the leadership of the military services have taken this aphorism seriously. Each has focused on developing a strategic argument for their roles in U.S. national security and the essential capabilities they must maintain and even modernize in order to preserve their relevance in the face of a rapidly changing international environment.
For much of the past decade, the Air Force has been largely silent regarding the strategic case for airpower. In part, this was because the wars in Southeast Asia were viewed as primarily ground conflicts, despite the massive contribution of the Air Force (and naval aviation) in such areas as strategic and tactical mobility, intelligence collection, close air support and combat search and rescue. It was also a consequence of too much joint thinking in the Pentagon. Anyone in uniform who focused on the unique roles and particular needs of their service were accused of being insufficiently joint.
Now the Air Force leadership has lifted its self-imposed “cone of silence” and is making a strategic case for airpower. This change could not have come at a more crucial time both for defense decision making and the Air Force itself. Many have forgotten why the nation created a separate service focused on operations in air and space.
In a recent discussion with the press, General Mark Welsh, the Air Force Chief of Staff, aptly summed up the unique strategic contribution of his service: “What only the Air Force can do is win the theater-level battle in the air and then go long after those distant but critical targets.” Operationally, these are the two critical and strategic missions of the Air Force, neither of which can be accomplished by the other services. Only the Air Force can achieve air superiority in a theater of conflict and conduct the kind of deep strikes against enemy forces and installations that shape the battle space.
The Air Force’s unique contribution to military operations and, more broadly, national security, is “freedom of action.” The basic virtue of flight is to be liberated from the bonds of Earth. Space systems in certain orbits are even free of Earth’s gravity. With respect to war, airpower operating in, through and from the third or vertical dimension offers a degree of freedom to military forces unlike any other modern technology. Airpower frees up human vision from the restrictions of line-of-sight. It liberates us from the limits on maneuver that naturally occur on the ground. Air mobility provides the freedom to move forces and material – even humanitarian relief supplies – over long distances and difficult terrain. Just think about the U.S. Air Corps flying over the “Hump” during World War Two. Similarly, air transport has been absolutely vital to the ability of U.S. forces to operate in Afghanistan, a country nearly as difficult to master.
Air superiority frees ground forces from the threat of air attack thereby allowing them to move more rapidly and openly and mass without risk. It has been now 60 years since a U.S. service person was last killed by a hostile air attack. In a sense, air superiority provides other forces freedom from fear. It also allows ground and naval forces to operate without concern that their movements are being watched.
The ability to strike deep from any position on the compass provides freedom from linear warfare. At the same time, this capability can hold at risk hostile forces, denying them the ability to concentrate and maneuver, thereby freeing up friendly ground and naval forces to operate with greater latitude. Airpower allowed a handful of U.S. Special Forces to conduct a strategic campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan that drove them from that country in a matter of weeks.
General Welsh’s argument matters too when it comes to Air Force modernization. If the rationale for an independent Air Force rests on its ability to fight and win the theater level battle and to hold at risk any target, anywhere in the world, then the logical investment priorities for the service are, as the Air Force asserts, the F-35 fighter, KC-46A tanker and new long-range bomber. While the Air Force must still invest in the means to perform its other missions (e.g., close air support, intelligence collection and combat search and rescue), it is clear which programs must have the highest priority.
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