Some militaries are defeated in battle; others lose the war before the firing even begins. For example, it is the general consensus among military historians that the French military lost in World War Two before the first German panzer had crossed the frontier. A combination of preparing to fight the last war, inadequate investment in modern air and ground power, the wrong organization and French politics basically ensured that Germany would defeat France.
The United States may be replicating the French experience. Rather than maintaining control of the high ground and with it control of the initiative in future conflicts, the U.S. Air Force is choosing to just get by. In a recent interview with Air Force Magazine, the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz made the following startling statement: “To handle multiplying missions without more people, the Air Force won’t be able to do all its assigned tasks as comprehensively as it once did, and will be aiming instead for simple sufficiency in areas where it’s been accustomed to dominance.” This is akin to the head of the French Air Force saying in the late 1930s that he was willing to cede air superiority to the Luftwaffe.
In essence, the Air Force (like the other services) is being worn down by a political leadership that does not know how to limit its international commitments or to limit its employment of the military instrument of national power. The Secretary of Defense has made plain his desire to employ the other instruments of national power, particularly diplomatic and economic, in ways that would take some of the strain off the Department of Defense. He has even offered up resources, something almost unheard of in Washington but necessary as a bribe to the other departments and agencies to pull more weight. Yet, whether it is the war against Al Qaeda, the security of vital U.S. overseas interests or assistance to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, it is the U.S. military that continues to carry the burden.
The U.S. Air Force is faced with a series of challenges in the next several decades that could well undermine the ability of the United States to deter aggression, defend key allies and interests or project power into vital regions. First, there are the growing anti-access and air denial threats, including that to U.S. systems. Second is the development of fourth and almost fifth-generation aircraft by potential adversaries. Third is the growing capability and interest of rogue regimes to disperse, conceal and bury critical assets. Finally, there is the effort by current and future adversaries to use complex and inaccessible terrain such as cities, mountains and jungles as their primary defense against ground attack leaving the U.S. with no way to access the enemy except through the air.
So how is the Air Force responding to the greatest set of challenges to its ability to dominate the aerospace environment and deliver precision effects where, when and as needed? According to the Chief of Staff it is with “calibrated ambition — reaching for only those systems that are urgently needed, and with high confidence of near-term success.” While not saying so directly, even when pressed on the question of the F-22 versus the F-35, the Chief’s words imply a willingness to cede at least a measure of air dominance to potential adversaries such as Russia and China.
What has happened to the Air Force? Does the blood of Billy Mitchell, Hap Arnold, Jimmy Doolittle and Curtis LeMay no longer flow in the veins of Air Force leaders? It is inconceivable that these or any former generation of air power advocates would willingly abrogate the Air Force’s commitment to control the skies in the service of the nation. The lesson of all of this country’s modern wars is that without dominance of the air the ability to project power forward, particularly on land, is at risk. Will it take the equivalent of the fall of France, a Dunkirk or a battle of Britain to teach the Air Force and the Department of Defense the lesson of the importance of air dominance?
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