What are the key attributes of airpower, those essential capabilities that are central to the reason the nation maintains an independent Air Force? This question was posed to me recently by a senior Air Force general officer with the following codicil: “These attributes are the ones over which senior leaders should be willing to resign rather than see lost.”
The Department of Defense continues its campaign to ‘rebalance” the U.S. military away from its predominate focus on conventional conflict and more towards a greater capability for irregular warfare. The Secretary of Defense insists that we have an excess of capabilities and systems for conventional warfare and not enough to be successful at irregular warfare. The question needs to be asked, is anything vital being lost in the rebalancing? Are there capabilities and skills that are decaying to the point that they threaten to undermine the rationale for an independent Air Force?
It seems to me that there are only two key attributes of airpower that justify the existence of an independent Service. The first is the ability to establish control over critical air space. The most critical airspace is over friendly territory and forces. For more than fifty years there has not been a successful attack by hostile airplanes on U.S. forces in the presence of the U.S. Air Force.
The second attribute of an independent Air Force is its ability to enter hostile airspace, at whatever distance is required, and locate and neutralize targets, whether or not they are defended. After spending decades perfecting the art of delivering ordinance accurately on target the Air Force can now accomplish with one bomber more than the entire Eighth Air Force was able to do in the biggest bombing raids of World War Two and do so without having to deal with hostile air defenses. One of the principal reasons there are few credible conventional threats to the United States or its interests is because of the devastating strategic power of the U.S. Air Force.
Both these attributes are now at risk. As part of his rebalancing act, the SecDef has limited the production of this country’s only modern air superiority fighter, the F-22 to 187 aircraft. He has delayed the development of a new strategic bomber, ensuring that the inventory of strategic bombers will be on average 70 years old before a new plane enters the fleet. The Air Force is also deficient in long-range penetrating weapons that can compensate for the vulnerability of penetrating aircraft.
The result is an Air Force that provides services (e.g., ISR, transportation, aerial refueling) to the other Services – the Army, in particular. These are good things to do but they do not warrant an independent Air Force. What should the senior leaders of the Air Force do?
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