Air Force Spreads Wings

Ever since the end of the Cold War, the uneasy truce between the U.S. armed services has been sorely tested. Congress in 1986 imposed reforms that forced the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps to operate together under "joint" command. Each new broad assessment of America's post-Cold War military needs, however, has provoked internecine warfare over money, turf and dwindling resources.

Squabbles over two previous sweeping reviews have led to battling over this year's comprehensive study, the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR).

Anticipating the December release of a congressionally mandated National Defense Panel study--ostensibly an independent critique of the QDR--a band of Air Force renegades has now flown off on its own. The recent flap presents a textbook example of the challenges faced by civilian policy makers and strategists.

"When a soldier talks about using air power to support troops on the ground, he's applauded for his 'jointness,' " said retired Maj. Gen. Charles D. Link. "When a sailor talks about using Air Force tankers to extend the range of naval aircraft, he's lauded for his 'jointness.' But when an airman talks about using air power independently to kill the enemy instead of putting our troops in harm's way in the first place, he's being parochial and 'unjoint,' which is now viewed as a sin on the order of adultery."

Link, who until recently was the Air Force's point man on the National Defense Panel and a Roles and Missions study, was speaking at a defense symposium. "Though it's difficult to advocate air power without sounding parochial," he said, "I believe that if we in the Air Force fail to do so, we're contributing to unnecessary American casualties in the future. That's immoral."

The Pentagon has tried to apportion the pain of the post-Cold War defense drawdown equally among the Army, the Air Force, the Navy and the Marine Corps (technically a branch of the Navy). Air Force officials' pique at what they call this "cookie-cutter" approach to defense reductions has been growing ever since the Persian Gulf War. That conflict demonstrated, they say, that the synergy of cutting-edge technologies such as stealth aircraft, precision-guided weapons, and space-based surveillance and targeting systems boosted U.S. air power's effectiveness against massed armored forces such as Iraq's.

The capability to thwart armored forces is critical to the Pentagon's current strategy of being prepared to fight two "major theater wars" nearly simultaneously. Air Force officials, as masters of this formidable technology, thus assumed their fortunes would rise on a tide some technocrats have called a "Revolution in Military Affairs."

It hasn't worked out quite that way. The Pentagon houses the world's most massive bureaucracy. Given its internal political dynamics--that is, the need to build a consensus for even incremental change--Defense Department leaders have cut each service by roughly a third since 1989. With each new round of cuts, Air Force disgruntlement has grown.

"I don't believe 'jointness' means simply spreading cuts equally among the three services. That may seem like fairness to some people, but people in leadership positions need to make decisions based on capabilities, and not just on service orientation," said Brig. Gen. Charles F. Wald, special assistant to the Air Force Chief of Staff for the National Defense Review, at an October symposium sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank.

Gen. Charles A. Horner, former commander in chief of the U.S. Space Command and the commander of allied air operations during the Gulf war, maintains that the Defense Department is squandering a historic opportunity to press U.S. technological advantages. "If there are two areas where our military capability ought to be growing, it's in air power and space power, but they are constrained by these budget fights," Horner said at a symposium sponsored by the Eaker Institute, a research arm of the Air Force Association. "The fundamental problem is not where the Air Force should go, but how do you break away from this concept that our national wealth has to be distributed equally among the services, no matter what."

Representatives of the other services accuse the Air Force of overselling advances in technology and of preparing to fight the most recent war rather than focusing on the kinds of far-flung and varied missions entrusted to the military in the past few years. They also warn that air power may prove less effective in combating "asymmetrical" threats of the future, such as missile attacks, guerrilla warfare and terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction.

"There are a lot of buzzwords floating around associated with the 'revolution in military affairs,' and if they weren't so dangerous, they might be funny," said retired Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Ripper, former chief of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, at the CSIS symposium. "With the possible exception of nuclear weapons, technology has never resulted in a fundamental change in how nations go to war. To suggest that such concepts as `information dominance' will now somehow make all the military doctrine that came before it irrelevant is ludicrous. We had information dominance in Somalia."

Though each of the post-Cold War defense reviews prompted behind-the-scenes grumbling among the services, the QDR released earlier this year provoked more complaints than usual from Air Force officials. They protested that the Air Force was being targeted for disproportionate cuts and that the service wasn't getting the benefits it deserved for its high-tech focus and power-projection capabilities.

For instance, as a result of the QDR, the Air Force faced the largest cut in active-duty personnel (26,900 versus 15,000 for the Army and 18,000 for the Navy) and sacrificed a major building block of Air Force force structure--an active-duty fighter wing, which was transferred to the reserves. Favored weapons programs were also hit hard. The B-2 bomber program was capped at 20 aircraft, and the F-22 fighter program reduced from 438 to 339 planes. Perhaps most surprising, the Joint STARS surveillance program--a cutting-edge technology closely associated with the emphasis on information warfare--will get 13 instead of 19 aircraft.

When Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald Fogleman took the unprecedented step last summer of resigning more than a year early, the primary reason cited was his disagreement with Defense Secretary William S. Cohen over Cohen's reprimand of an Air Force general who was in charge of the Khobar Barracks in Saudi Arabia at the time of the deadly 1996 terrorist bombing. Privately, sources say Fogleman was also frustrated by the failure of his attempts in internal Pentagon debates to make the case for air power.

"During the QDR, I think the chief put a lot of Air Force jewels on the table out of a sense of duty, but when he looked around for commensurate sacrifices from the other services, he didn't see them," said a source in Air Force headquarters.

Inter-service quarrels over weapons programs and budgets hardly qualify as headline news. Far more serious are claims by Air Force officials that U.S. military strategy--and the warfighting models that support it--are fundamentally flawed.

Air-power experts say that because the strategy and the models are based on Cold War scenarios involving massive, head-to-head engagements by land armies, with air forces largely in a supporting role, they needlessly risk the lives of tens of thousands of American troops.

"The Roles & Missions and [the] Deep Attack Weapons Mix studies [two Defense Department-sponsored studies done in the past three years] were the most exhaustive look at these issues since 1948, and they both show that our models don't work and our warfighting strategy is all screwed up," said retired Air Force Gen. Link, who oversaw his service's involvement in both reviews. In response to a large-scale aggression, he says, Pentagon strategy calls for the dispatching of Army and Marine Corps divisions to the war zone to get ready for a decisive counteroffensive.

"That's a strategy for putting the largest possible number of Americans within range of enemy fire as quickly as we can," he says. "It was that national strategy and warfighting model that led Gen. [H. Norman] Schwarzkopf to order some 20,000 body bags for allied forces in preparation for Desert Storm."

Instead, the ground counteroffensive was preceded by a withering and largely uncontested air bombardment that lasted for weeks and reduced many Iraqi units to less than 50 per cent combat effectiveness. For the United States and the multination coalition that had troops on the ground, the result was a rapid, 100-hour war and historically low casualty levels.

Partially in recognition of the increased capability of air power demonstrated during the Gulf war, this year's QDR was the first to call on air forces to begin destroying massed enemy forces on the first day they cross into friendly territory and to bring an enemy's offensive to a halt within 14 days. That capability is critical to the goal of fighting and winning two major theater wars at once.

After air power has blocked a foe's attack, however, Pentagon plans call for reduced air strikes and a massive buildup of ground forces in anticipation of a decisive ground counteroffensive. "War plans assume that after we achieve a `halt' phase, the Air Force goes off and plays volleyball during the `buildup' phase. I would maintain that from that point on, the enemy's strategic options decline. He is either leaving for home or dying in place, and a follow-on counteroffensive may not be necessary," says Link. "The point is, our long-term preoccupation with land forces has skewed this debate, and left unchanged, it will lead to unnecessary casualties or military failures in a future conflict."

Some Army and Marine Corps leaders concede that war simulations and plans do not yet adequately reflect stealth technology, precision weapons, satellite reconnaissance and other accoutrements of modern air power. In what one Marine Corps general characterizes as the Air Force's vision of "immaculate warfare," however, they sense a disconnect with the reality of combat through the ages.

"A major competitor in the future will not try and match the United States military system for system," said Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr., a doctrinal expert and commandant of the Army War College, speaking at the CSIS symposium. "Instead, he will use his own advantages, and the No. 1 enemy advantage will most likely be the collective psyche and will of his people. As the Germans found out in the Battle of Britain, trying to destroy enemy will through bombardment can sometimes steel that will." Scales says he still recalls watching American paratroopers trying to take Hamburger Hill in Vietnam. "Every day, I saw hundreds of aircraft sorties dropping bombs on top of that hill, and every night, the North Vietnamese cooking fires would come on. And the next day, American soldiers would try to take the hill, against withering fire."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec