With the next congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) lurking in the near future, our military services need to take stock of where they are, what they need to do their jobs and where they need to go from here. This article is intended to make a modest contribution to the Air Force’s QDR preparation by presenting a few suggestions in the form of what I call the “aerospace imperatives.” These are a set of central themes that I believe should guide the development of aerospace power for at least the next two to three decades. Unlike many similar discussions, I will not debate what the Air Force should procure — which fighter, bomber, satellite or communications system — but what considerations should guide those procurement and support decisions. I believe these suggestions should be intuitively obvious, at least to airmen, at our present state of political, doctrinal and technological evolution, but I believe they should still be clearly stated.
As a caveat to what follows, I must stress that aerospace power is not an all-purpose panacea. As with the ground and sea components, aerospace forces as a single force element are limited in solving the totality of our military problems. All elements have limits; that’s why we have a joint force operational structure. As Edward Luttwak wrote shortly after the 1991 Gulf War: “One must not overlook the situational limits of air power. ... The value of bombardment depends on the strategic value of the targets it can actually destroy. The less conventional a war, the fewer the stable and easily identifiable targets of high value. Against elusive guerillas who present no stable targets of any value at all, bombardment remains of little use, even if it is perfectly accurate.”
I would essentially agree with Luttwak’s assessment of one role in the range of military operations, with two exceptions: “bombardment” is clearly not the only role air forces play in modern military operations, and even in that role against dispersed irregular forces, one should ask the soldiers and Marines who have benefited from supporting airstrikes about the contribution made to their welfare.
Nothing herein is intended to malign other services’ contribution to national security, but it is my unapologetic purpose to suggest ways to maximize the potential of the nation’s aerospace power. Some may see this as parochialism — as committing the cardinal sin of being “unjoint.” Perhaps so, but unless I missed a major change in public law, the Air Force is still the only service exclusively responsible for organizing, training and equipping aerospace forces to conduct the nation’s business.
With all that said, I maintain that it has been and will remain the speed, range, precision and versatility of air forces that provide an unparalleled contribution to national military capability writ large — across the range of military operations, including irregular warfare — in supported and supporting roles. How do we keep it that way? What general precepts should guide our planning?
Rapid projection of global power defines the Air Force. When representing aerospace forces during the QDR debates, it is important to remember that the reason the Air Force is a separate service — why its members wear blue uniforms instead of green ones — is the ability to rapidly project power globally. For our purposes in thinking about applying aerospace power, “rapidly” means reaching an objective in minutes (perhaps even seconds) or hours to a few days — not many days or several months. And “globally” means getting what is needed to wherever it needs to be when it needs to be there — from weapons precisely on target and ground forces to their operating area to a coordinated cyberoperation against adversary systems. Losing the ability to do this effectively reduces Air Force roles to ground force support and essentially eliminates the need for a separate aerospace service. No other nation, not even our combined European allies, comes close to matching American aerospace systems and expertise, and that presents an insurmountable asymmetric advantage for the U.S. Global American responsibilities dictate that it must remain so even though the short-range, ground-support role is now seen by many in politico-military circles as the Air Force’s reason for being in an era of “twilight war” against terrorist enemies.
Range and speed are essential to 21st-century military operations. Over the past decade-and-a-half, the U.S. has closed well more than 50 percent of its overseas bases, limiting direct access to many parts of the globe. At the same time, more independent-minded partner nations are refusing to allow U.S. aerospace forces, as well as ground and sea forces, to operate from their territories, while potential adversaries seek ways to restrict use of bases that would be made available. Through the use of chemical or biological weapons delivered by increasingly available missile technology or even by terrorist attack, an adversary can at least greatly reduce the efficiency of operations at an attacked base and, if lucky, even force abandonment altogether. The net effect of all this is that many future operations may have to be conducted from extended ranges, much as the bomber operations during all recent campaigns from Serbia to Iraq. This will place a premium on speed and range for air forces in exercising global responsibilities. But this does not necessarily have to be provided by manned systems. Unmanned aerial vehicles and long-range non-nuclear cruise and perhaps even ballistic missiles can provide tremendous capability here and are increasingly being included in defense deliberations. And if we ever get past the notion that space is some sort of sanctuary (and point of increasing vulnerability), the formation of a true space and air force will go a long way toward remedying these problems. Range then becomes less relevant. The synergy of long-range air and missiles, omnipresent space and speed-of-light information operations will go far in reducing such vulnerabilities.
Aerospace power consists of air, space and information components, all of which are reinforcing and complementary. Today, the Air Force deals with more than just managing an air war and rapidly moving people and materiel. Former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald Fogleman set his service down the long-term path of moving from an air force to a space and air force. Doctrine is now beginning to recognize the compelling necessity for this integration of air and space. Weapons in space are inevitable. A major significance of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that they may very well be the last major military combat operations that do not experience active interference with vital space systems. As with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, political and “moral” objections to our active protection of space-based systems will not prevent opponents from seeking to eliminate our advantages there. However, until the third element of the modern aerospace triad of capabilities — information — is recognized and incorporated into aerospace doctrine as a coequal component, we will not have fully prepared the Air Force for operations in the 21st century. Dominance in the information environment — possessing more and better information than your adversary and reacting to it more quickly — has always provided strategic and tactical advantages to the force possessing it. This is truer today than at any time in history. Operations in each of these three realms — air, space, and information — can be synergistic and overlapping and can achieve strategic, operational or tactical-level effects individually or in combination.
The lessons of conflict are cumulative, not exclusive. The Sept. 11 attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have focused national policymakers’ attention on the ability of American forces to fight ground campaigns against elusive insurgent and terrorist opponents. Improving our ground forces’ ability to conduct such operations is indeed needed, as is aerospace power’s ability to support them. However, a myopic pursuit of a larger force structure designed primarily for irregular warfare can be dangerous. We risk finding ourselves in the position of having to place young Americans on the ground in harm’s way as an only option and building a joint force structure that is ill-suited for facing other opponents. (North Korea, Iran and perhaps even Russia come to mind.) We should also remember our very poor track record in predicting the nature and adversary of our next conflict — from World War I to Iraq — even a few years prior. Chances are at least fair that over the next two decades, we will face at least one enemy we will not have even considered, much less planned for, before a crisis erupts. Joint Forces Command’s 2008 “Joint Operating Environment” study reinforces this admonition: “The nature of the human condition will guarantee that uncertainty, ambiguity, and surprise will dominate the course of events. However carefully we think about the future; however thorough our preparations; however coherent and thoughtful our concepts, training, and doctrine; we will be surprised.”
The lessons of effective use of aerospace power during the air campaigns in Iraq (Desert Storm), Bosnia, Kosovo, Berlin Airlift and even World War II (the Battle of Britain and the bomber campaigns in Europe and the Pacific) cannot be ignored as we apply newly acquired knowledge from our bloody experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan — that knowledge is cumulative, not exclusive. I don’t argue with the notion that robust irregular warfare (IW) capabilities are now and will continue to be important to national well-being, but the increasingly vocal “one track” IW advocates tend to miss a very important point. Put bluntly, if we aren’t prepared to conduct major theater combat as a worst-case possibility, all the IW capability in the world won’t save our bacon from the fire in a major contingency. It is important to remember that an IW-oriented force invites major transgressions by major opponents, just as a predominately conventional warfare capability encourages unconventional enemies. Since history clearly teaches us that we really don’t know where and to what degree we will be involved next, flexibility and versatility are the keys to military readiness — the most important and most validated of aerospace power characteristics.
Retired Air Force Gen. John Shaud encapsulated much of the argument presented here in a winter 2008 Strategic Studies Quarterly article. “Global power,” he wrote, “represents the ability to create and sustain effects through air, space, and cyberspace. These effects encompass a full range of kinetic and nonkinetic, lethal and nonlethal, constructive and destructive options prosecuted through air, space, and cyberspace either individually, or more likely, via a synergistic, mutually supporting campaign.”
The U.S. faces myriad political and military adversaries and potential adversaries: North Korea, Iran, Russia, al-Qaida, Iraqi insurgents, Mexican drug cartels and almost certainly somebody we haven’t even considered yet. In the final analysis, our success in dealing with the military requirements presented by this mixed bag of global miscreants depends on a complex, highly flexible force structure applied by an equally flexible set of doctrinal precepts. No one answer or even set of answers will serve us well in the 21st century. For the Air Force, the choice is simple yet a difficult one to make: Provide certain core capabilities best-suited to the service’s “corporate culture” and legal authority, or cease to provide any real military capability at all, at least as a separate military service.