The U.S. Air Force thinks it is facing an identity crisis. Despite having, arguably, the best people, equipment and practices and having performed well through two wars and numerous crises, it doesn’t know who it is. It has demonstrated superb technical and tactical capabilities over the past decade, for example using B-1s and B-52s to provide close air support for Special Forces units in Afghanistan and airlifting heavy armor behind Iraqi lines during Operation Iraqi Freedom. At the same time as it was supporting two major conflicts and conducting dozens of other activities, including another airpower-centered contingency in Libya, the Air Force was deeply involved in a modernization program to ensure its ability to operate effectively in the 21st Century. The U.S. Air Force has repeatedly and successfully demonstrated that it is a, perhaps the, global instrument of U.S. power.
Moreover, maintaining its current high operational tempo and performance standards will be increasingly difficult as defense budgets decline, anti-access threats grow and new technologies emerge. Already the demand for ISR and tactical fighters exceeds the supply. Maintaining an Air Force capable of reach, speed and power is expensive. Even with all the innovations coming from the aerospace industry, this is a mature technology area and it is impossible to get major increases in capabilities on the cheap. Also, because all the Combatant Commander’s war plans demand the early and massive deployment of air power, the Air Force cannot reduce its readiness.
There are questions emerging, even within the service itself, about its strategic purpose, core missions and future capabilities. In part, this reflects the general public’s lack of attention to and under appreciation of what the Air Force has done and can do. But it also reflects the reality that the Air Force will not be able to continue to do what it has done to the high standards it has achieved on the budgets the nation seems willing to provide. Senior military leaders tell stories about going from planning meetings for response options to North Korea, Iran, Syria and North Africa to meetings focused on making reductions to meet budget targets. It is difficult for the Air Force to talk about future requirements without speaking of the need to deter the growing military power of nations such as China and the emergence of so-called anti-access/area denial threats. Since few want to even imagine such a conflict, it is easier to simply dismiss the possibility.
Moreover, the Air Force doesn’t want to say to rest of the military and the civilian leadership of the Department of Defense this simple fact: without control and exploitation of the air domain, success in future conflicts will be impossible. The Army likes to speak of conflicts as clashes of wills and of its unique role as the force that can win such engagements and impose defeat on an adversary. Very true. But it can only do so if it can get to the fight, be sustained once there and be free from assault by hostile air and missile forces. The Normandy landing and the defeat of the Wehrmacht was possible only once the Luftwaffe was defeated and the Allies could exploit the advantages of air dominance. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and, more recently, Libya and Mali, were successful because of absolute air dominance.
The Air Force knows who it is and what it must accomplish to defend the nation. It needs to clearly and confidently declare who it is and what it does. Its unique skills and capabilities are no less relevant to U.S. security today than is the Marine Corps’ self-avowed ability to conduct opposed amphibious landings, even though it hasn’t actually done one in more than 60 years. The Navy controls the seas and the Navy-Marine Corps team projects power from that secure base at sea onto the land. The Air Force does both of these missions, promptly and anywhere on the globe. It has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to apply lethal force against hostile forces from the continental United States. It also has enabled all the other services to deploy forward and project their relevant capabilities. There should be no identity crisis within the Air Force, even if it must more clearly make its case before Congress and the American people.
The Air Force needs to stop asking outsiders, particularly academics and think tank denizens, who it should be when it grows up. It needs to decide that for itself and then seek to invest in the necessary means to be what it must.
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