December 1, 2005  

Finesse trumps firepower

New threats and technologies are returning the Air Force to its roots

It is sometimes said of Americans that they have high hopes for the future and little sense of the past. When you look at what long memories have done for places like Iraq, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. Nonetheless, I share Patrick Henry’s view that there is “no way of judging the future but by the past.”

At a time when the future of U.S. air power seems uncertain — a problem the leadership of the U.S. Air Force didn’t see until it was upon them — it’s worth going back two generations to a moment in the history of the early Air Force when its leaders were facing a crisis of confidence about what air power could accomplish.

It was the winter of 1945, the war in Europe was largely won, and the military was shifting its sights to the coming invasion of Japan. The war thus far had not been an entirely satisfactory experience for leaders of what was then called the Army Air Forces.

They had proven that they could control the skies above U.S. troops and cause considerable damage to enemy cities, but they had not vindicated the belief of prewar visionaries that strategic bombing could win wars. Part of the problem was that the Army kept drawing its bombers away from the strategic targets favored by air planners and used them instead to support ground forces in the field. But the larger problem was that bombers often couldn’t hit the high-value economic targets air-power advocates were convinced lay at the heart of enemy war-fighting capabilities.

A particularly embarrassing episode occurred shortly after the Army Air Forces gained access to bases within range of Japan’s industrial heartland. Applying its precision-bombing doctrine to a large plant producing aircraft engines — potentially a key chokepoint in the Japanese war economy — the 21st Bomber Command launched 835 bomber sorties that cumulatively destroyed only 4 percent of the target.

Poor bombing results weren’t just bad news for proponents of air power. If bombing couldn’t win the war in the Pacific, then up to a million soldiers might die invading and pacifying the Japanese home islands. It was desperate time, which is why the head of the bomber command, Gen. Curtis LeMay, decided to abandon precision bombing of point targets in favor of area attacks against Japanese cities.

The turning point came on the night of March 9, 1945, when LeMay launched 334 Superfortresses loaded mostly with firebombs against the Japanese capital of Tokyo. The conflagration they created in Tokyo was so spectacular that tailgunners on bombers returning to base that night could see the glow of the burning city from 150 miles away. Sixteen square miles of the city were burned out, leaving a million people homeless. The number of Japanese deaths — more than 80,000 — was as great as that caused by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The Tokyo fire raid was the antithesis of the discriminate bombing doctrine airmen favored before the war, but in military terms it was a huge success: In one night, 22 industrial targets important to the Japanese war effort were destroyed. So for the remainder of the war, urban area attacks were the focus of the bombing campaign. In August 1945, shortly after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese government surrendered. The great invasion feared by U.S. leaders had been avoided.


How does — or how should — this small episode in a world war shape our understanding today? The way World War II ended sent the Air Force on a long detour away from its roots — a detour in the direction of mass destruction that only began to seem like a mistake after the world’s greatest military force was defeated in Vietnam.

At its inception in the 1920s and 1930s, air power was about precision and finesse. It was about winning wars quickly. It was about avoiding carnage rather than causing it. But neither the totalitarian threats nor the war-fighting technologies of the mid-20th century cooperated with that vision, so airmen made their case by abandoning the dream of quick and humane victory. Instead, they followed the path of least resistance to a nuclear war plan that in 1960 envisioned killing 360 million to 425 million Eastern Bloc citizens in a few days. That approach to war fighting got the Air Force what it always wanted — independence with a vengeance. When a White House emissary told Strategic Air Command leader LeMay in 1957 that his secret war plan for throwing everything at the Soviets as soon as he got warning of a possible attack violated presidential policy, LeMay responded, “I don’t care, it’s my policy — that’s what I’m going to do.” The problem with such a strategy, though, is that it became unthinkable once enemies had their own secure nuclear force.

That reality became all too clear in Vietnam, because despite its vast firepower and the commitment of half a million men to the jungles of Indochina, America still suffered the greatest military defeat in its history. And so there was a second turning point in Air Force history, as air power theorists assimilated the limits of overkill. The second turning point began a slow migration of air power back to its roots — back to a world in which finesse trumped firepower, avoiding the death of innocents mattered and the political consequences of conflict were paramount. This time, the new threats and technologies cooperated. In fact, they have brought the Air Force today to a moment in which it may be able to fully realize the fondest dreams of Giulio Douhet and Billy Mitchell.


Few administrations have been as clear as this one in setting forth their ideas about future military challenges the nation faces. A case in point is the threat matrix prepared by Pentagon policymakers to guide the current Quadrennial Defense Review. The matrix defines four generic threats confronting America and the world:

• “Traditional” threats, meaning conventional threats, which are said to be receding in likelihood due to America’s military dominance.

• “Irregular” threats, such as the Iraqi insurgency, which are said to be more likely because they offer an asymmetric counter to U.S. conventional might.

• “Catastrophic” threats involving the use of weapons of mass destruction by states or nonstate actors.

• “Disruptive” threats in which adversaries upset the military balance by achieving breakthroughs in new technologies.

Though this threat matrix seems to provide a “transformative” framework, it’s sort of amusing to hear it described as a fundamental break with the threat assessments of the past. If it was a real break with the past, it would acknowledge a range of economic trends that pose true peril to the nation’s long-term welfare, such as rising dependence on foreign energy sources and waning technological competitiveness.

Instead, the matrix offers a standard military assessment that could just as easily have been constructed in the 1960s. Back then, we were increasingly worried about the demands of counterinsurgency warfare in the Third World, apprehensive about the spread of nuclear-weapons technologies to new countries, and downright hysterical about some of the disruptive breakthroughs we thought the Soviets might achieve.

So what’s really new about the Pentagon’s threat matrix, other than our heightened sensitivity to unconventional threats in the aftermath of Sept. 11? What’s new is the tools at the disposal of our enemies. The information revolution has empowered every type of adversary with technologies few past enemies could have imagined: encrypted e-mail, digital sensors, engineered viruses, satellite phones, hacking software, electromagnetic pulse devices — a whole new array of capabilities. In the hands of well-organized states, these new technologies pose a real challenge to America’s global military power, including its ability to command the air. Pentagon planners understand that danger and have included three major combat scenarios in their quadrennial deliberations covering China, Iran and Korea. But even in the hands of a few dedicated zealots, technology confers options seldom available in the past to the poor and the disaffected. Somehow, the quadrennial review has to think through that problem, too.


What challenges and opportunities does this technologically transformed environment present for U.S. air power? I see eight key components to the emerging operational environment:

1 Uncertainty. My first point, probably the most important, is that new technology is transforming the world so fast and so fundamentally that we can’t pretend to know what the future holds. That’s why we have no alternative to capabilities-based planning — we must develop forces with tools and skills fungible across the widest range of potential dangers, because we can’t say for sure which threats will be most pressing in the years ahead. In general, that requirement drives us toward air and space power, and away from more traditional forms of military power that are limited in their reach, their field of view, and their versatility.

2 Air dominance, the core mission. Whatever the future holds, there is little doubt that the Air Force’s paramount mission will remain command of the air. Air dominance enables every other facet of joint war fighting — without it, there is little we can achieve in any other arena of future combat. Americans have enjoyed air dominance for so long that they sometimes seem to regard it as a birthright. But if we fail to make the modest investments required today to assure air dominance to midcentury, all of our other grand plans for remaking the military will come unraveled.

3 Advanced air defenses. At least in the near term, most of the serious challenges to air dominance will be on the ground rather than in the air. They will take the form of increasingly agile surface-to-air missiles, networked sensors and mobile command centers that are hard to destroy. The information revolution has made it possible for countries that can’t afford new fighters to build very good ground defenses; therefore, we must field offensive air power with the stealth and sophistication to overcome such integrated defenses.

Our most capable adversaries may one day deploy directed-energy systems that can unmask stealthy aircraft, but a far more pressing concern today is that even conventional radar can see most of the planes in our fleet. To assure the other benefits of air dominance are available to the joint force, we must invest in whatever tools are necessary to suppress the emerging defensive threat.

4 Reconnaissance and surveillance. The problem of precision targeting that dogged the early Air Force has been solved — we can hit anything we can find. So the big challenge lies in finding the elusive targets that dominate the administration’s threat assessment. One of the big ways in which air power is changing is the range of destructive mechanisms it can deploy against adversaries — not just the high-explosive options of the past, but also nonkinetic and even nonlethal effects. The Air Force subsumes these possibilities in a concept called “effects-based operations” that is well suited to a world which values political sensitivities and avoidance of innocent deaths.

5 Target location, identification and tracking. The challenge of finding elusive targets is emerging as the Air Force’s most important mission after assuring air dominance. When a bomber sortie can destroy a dozen targets, you don’t need a lot of bombers — assuming, of course, that the planes are survivable. But you do need a way of finding, tracking and targeting the adversary. Today’s adversaries are so elusive that much of the debate of future investment priorities in the quadrennial review revolves around how to free up money for more intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance. If we are going to avoid wasting a lot of money through needless redundancy, some service needs to take the lead on these new reconnaissance initiatives. The Air Force is the obvious candidate because it already has the lead for orbital systems and has the widest array of airborne reconnaissance vehicles.

6 Space, a somewhat delicate subject. America’s ability to employ orbital systems is a key facet of its military dominance, and the Air Force plays a central role in that mission area. Space will always be the best place from which to provide communications, weather data and navigational positioning. However, it is not so clear that space is the best place from which to collect the kind of intelligence we need today.

Obviously, if a country has control of its airspace and human agents are hard to develop, then space may be our best option for finding out what’s happening there. But most places we really care about today are suitable venues for deploying manned and unmanned reconnaissance aircraft that can get much closer to items of interest. Considering how uneven our efforts to develop next-generation imagery and eavesdropping satellites have been over the last few years, it seems likely that we will turn increasingly to airborne collectors for the insight we need.

7 Jointness. There was a time when airmen presented air power as the winning weapon, the tool that could win wars unassisted. It was a wonderful dream, but nobody in the Air Force really takes that view of war fighting seriously anymore — the requirements of victory have become too complex. So when proponents of air power think today of air dominance or precision bombing or aerial reconnaissance, they usually are thinking about how they can help the other services and allies as well as themselves.

That is a huge cultural shift, but it has been in progress since the Vietnam War, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the Army today is offloading artillery in anticipation of more airborne fire support from the Air Force. Nor should we be surprised that the mobility metrics for the Army’s next-generation armored vehicles are keyed to Air Force transport planes, because that’s the only way they’re going to get to the other side of the world quickly. Under the pressure of new threats and tight budgets, this cooperation will continue growing for the foreseeable future, breaking down the tribal biases of the past.

8 The new meaning of air power in this emerging operational environment. When the term “air power” was invented by visionaries at the beginning of the last century, it was meant to be taken literally as the use of airplanes to bring about a revolution in warfare. Air power in that sense is still important, but there is a larger, more metaphorical meaning to the phrase that seems to be taking hold in the information age. Air power today is about the application of advanced technology to military purposes, whether it takes the form of aerial vehicles or orbital systems or digital networks.

If there is any single, defining feature of the global landscape today it is its rapid transformation by new technology. All of the military services understand this, but all are not as able or as willing to embrace new technology on its own terms. Unlike the older services, the Air Force was founded on the promise of new technology. Today, that enthusiasm for new tools and possibilities permeates the culture of airmen in a way that has seldom been seen in the history of warfare. So when we think about the challenges and opportunities of a world shaped by new technologies, it is the Air Force that is likely to see first what that means for the future of warfare.