It has been almost twenty years since the topics of U.S. national security strategy and defense policy were seriously discussed. For the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. defense establishment was preoccupied with managing the drawdown and the – marginal – recasting of the Cold War force structure. The second decade was dominated to the exclusion of virtually everything else by the aftermath of 9/11 and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What passed for strategic discussions focused primarily on the tactical and technological.
Now, like Rip van Winkles or Sleeping Beauties, policymakers, military planners and defense experts are emerging from their repose to find that the issues that were debated in the early 1990s – the U.S. role in the world, the proper size and structure of U.S. military forces, the changing nature of threats to national security and the implications of ongoing changes in technologies on military capabilities – are still with us. Without question, many in the defense community were jolted awake by the prospects of significant reductions in defense budgets. But there are other factors challenging those in the defense community to think seriously about the future. These include the rise of China as a military power, weapons of mass destruction in the hands of hostile regimes, the proliferation of advanced military technologies (including new forms of warfare such as cyber), the changing nature of U.S. security relationships and even demographics at home and abroad.
The military services are scrambling to define anew their roles and missions in the 21st Century. They are also struggling to find ways of connecting with the American people and to define simply, clearly and ineluctably, why military power, in general, and their specific brand, in particular, is critical to the nation’s security. The three U.S. ground services, the Army, Marine Corps, and Special Operations Command have just published an almost philosophical treatise titled “Strategic Landpower: Winning the Clash of Wills.”
The service which seems to be having the greatest difficulty in defining itself in a satisfactory way is the Air Force. In part this is because so much of what the Air Force does is virtually unseen, in large measure a tribute to how good it is at doing things like airlift, refueling, ISR and space operations. In part, too, it is because while appearing simple, air operations are exceedingly complex and not readily reduced to bumper sticker definitions. Everyone recognizes and appreciates UPS’s brown trucks and prompt service. But how many people know about the massive aerial fleet and sophisticated command and control system behind next day delivery? Perhaps, too, it is because for the past two decades the Air Force (and, to be fair, naval aviation) has made it look easy, sweeping the skies of Iraqi aircraft in 1991 and not facing a significant challenge since.
Keeping with my theme that the past twenty odd years have been something of a strategic siesta, the Air Force should seek its future in its past. It can start by resurrecting the concept articulated by the then-Secretary of the Air Force, Donald Rice, in 1990: Global Power, Global Reach.* The white paper’s description of the emerging security environment is a case of back to the future.
“The combination of continued and emerging threats to national security interests, proliferation of sophisticated weapons, and reduced numbers of overseas U.S. forces in an unstable world presents new challenges for U.S. military forces. The likelihood that U.S. military forces will be called upon to defend U.S. interests in a lethal environment is high, but the time and place are difficult to predict.”
Not only does Rice’s description of the challenges resonate but so too does his assertion of what the Air Force brings to the table. “The strengths of the Air Force rest upon its inherent characteristics of speed, range, flexibility, precision, and lethality, characteristics which are directly relevant to the national interest in the future.” If anything, the Air Force has improved its performance in each of these areas since 1990. Yes, the other services also possess many of these characteristics. But they do not have them all, nor can they take advantage of them in the same ways, without the requirement to take intermediate steps such as forward basing, to achieve the degree of prompt response as can the Air Force.
The Air Force does not need a new story. It has had only one since it was established in 1947. What has changed is its ability to achieve the vision set out by its leaders. Today the Air Force can deploy forces, including lethal capabilities, promptly, accurately and to global distances. It doesn’t get any better than that.
* Donald Rice, “The Air Force and U.S. National Security; Global Power Global Reach,” June 1990
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