May 1, 2011  

Paying the piper

An aerospace-centric defense strategy makes fiscal sense

Defense in an uncertain world is vital, but ensuring national security involves far more than military prowess. We now find ourselves asking how we satisfy two conflicting requirements: frugality and security. And I find myself having concerns and making recommendations I would not have even a year ago.

I will start this discussion with the suggestion that we avoid putting ground forces in harm’s way if at all possible, as I think President Obama is trying hard to do in Libya, and that, when we must act, we maximize the use of our air power — Air Force, Navy, Army and Marine Corps. We are the world’s pre-eminent aerospace power. It’s our asymmetric advantage. Let’s use it.

This is not intended as a pitch to increase funding for our aerospace forces. It suggests we best use what we have and are reasonably scheduled to get, nothing more.

The entering argument here is that we cannot now afford the defense budget we are used to getting. We have to make the best use of what we have, and perhaps even less. Compared to everybody else, the defense establishment we have is still superior in equipment, skill and experience. In a (hopefully temporary) era of austerity, how we use it is of overriding importance. Of course, when considering a national debt of $14.4 trillion, a $685 billion defense budget seems piddling. (Where else but in the United States could $685 billion be called piddling?) But if we are truly serious about surviving this debt tsunami of our own creation, defense is not all that will be cut. The already raging debates in Washington over entitlements will surely get worse before anything gets better.

The U.S. is an air- and space-faring nation. By this I mean we dominate the aerospace environment with our powerful aerospace industrial complex, our global transportation and communications systems, our commercial and defense space architecture, and of course the most potent aerospace military forces on the globe — the forces of all the services, not just the Air Force.

No other nation dares challenge the U.S. in the air. Of course, if we don’t fix our flagging education system and our technology base this won’t last much longer.


The statistics here are grim. The March 14 issue of Time Magazine reports U.S. higher education enrollment is sixth in the world. Spending on basic research and development stands at 11th. This does not bode well for continuing U.S. military dominance. Not directly related, except when you start thinking about the health of future military recruits, our national life expectancy is at an alarming 27th. Continued spiraling national debt will surely strangle serious efforts to remedy these deficiencies.

Let’s make one thing clear before all the boots-on-the-ground hand-wringing starts: Aerospace power is not a panacea. The contribution of any force element — air, sea, land or space — is dependent on the situation. Other than the fact that things always go better with air superiority and that anyone operating on the ground in a desert against a superior air force is in serious trouble, we can make no across-the-board generalizations about the viability of air, sea or land forces in any scenario. There are just too many variables: terrain, weather, enemy force structure, friendly forces available, political constraints, to name but a few. Such shades of gray are messy and hard to understand on “the streets,” but understand them we must. We must do all we can to control or best adapt to each situation as it is handed to us. Preconceived notions aren’t useful, and are perhaps even dangerous.

The problem of access to overseas bases is often regarded as a limiting factor for airpower. And so it is, for certain elements — shorter-range land-based systems. But what if heavy land forces are politically denied access to a region in question or are precluded by enemy “keep out” strategies, as admittedly could also be the case for theater-based air? Aerospace forces can still project power through long-range land-based and carrier-based air operations as well as increasingly effective air- and sea-launched cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles.

There is a fly in the ointment here, however. A major criticism I have of current air power force structure is the serious shortage of rapid global-range strike capability. As advanced weapons proliferate, even to stateless insurgent groups, adequate long-range strike becomes central to an aerospace-centric strategy.

Detractors insist that air power only works really well against a massed opponent in open terrain — but then so do tanks and heavy infantry and not well at all against insurgents in urban areas, or jungle. Ditto for armor and infantry, and they can take some nasty casualties while doing so. This is why our enemies always want to lure us into these environments. We have proven on several occasions that airpower’s versatility allows for operations against far more than the opponent’s armed forces. Ask Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic about that.


The national aerospace structure must be harnessed to enhance national power and influence. The aerospace capabilities resident in the four services are far too expensive and important as a combined, synergistic global-ranging expression of U.S. power to be held hostage solely to more limited service-oriented goals.

Supporting service surface operations is important if those services are actively engaged, but more important in the 21st century will be their ability to act as part of a national aerospace team rather than waiting for their supported formations to be committed.

Western aversion to casualties and long-term operations will present few opportunities for large-scale surface confrontations requiring extensive classic aerospace support. In many cases we will just have to accept that and work around it.

The U.S. military and the nation as a whole have inherited a ground-force-centric, or “boots on the ground,” view of military operations. This is a legacy of the Napoleonic era dictum that to persuade an adversary’s leaders to accede to your political objectives you must militarily defeat him, and to defeat him you must always destroy his army. In doing this — in dealing with errant nations — even in modern times we tend to want to put as many young Americans as possible in range of enemy fire as quickly as possible, even against insurgents and guerrillas in the aforementioned “difficult terrain.”

What if the U.S. had committed a major ground force to action in Libya based on initial Arab League support? (As of this writing we haven’t.) The Washington Post had something to say about that. A March 24 article stated:

“The Obama administration has said Arab backing was a critical factor in its decision to push for the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the military intervention in Libya. Specifically, the White House has cited the Arab League’s endorsement of a no-fly zone over Libya, as well as promises by Arab countries to join in the operation.

“Since the no-fly zone was imposed, however, the Arab League has expressed concern about civilian casualties, and no Arab country has yet played a direct military role.”

We would have been in trouble with the locals once again and likely facing another insurgency and nation-building exercise with little help.

Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward recently commented that once combat begins it becomes very hard “to find the off switch.” Things never go as planned. Some elected officials are upset about the Libyan air campaign, but it’s a whole lot easier to find the off switch to air operations than it is for a ground force commitment.

The bottom line here is to adopt an aerospace-centric defense strategy where the hoped-for solution is joint surface forces operating in support of joint aerospace power whenever possible rather than the strategy we’re more accustomed to of airpower in support of ground operations. We need to keep in mind that tradition is not a strategy. While many opponents deny it, this has been done before. The Battle of Britain, the Berlin Airlift, Dessert Storm, the Allied Force campaign against Serbia and the initial campaign in Afghanistan are all examples of truly air-centric operations. Despite that, I must add that I do not offer an either-or solution here. It is more a matter of emphasis.

As the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts wind down, ground forces (forces that actually fight on the surface), and perhaps some sea forces (ditto) can be cut to some yet-to-be-determined extent, but we might want to hang on to as much of their air arms as we can.

sharing the burden

Here is the tricky part: Will aerospace power solve all our military problems? No. Will there be times when we have to put ground force elements in action? Yes. But we need to be looking to others to do more, or most, of that — if they want our help. That’s just the way it has to be. The days of nations or international organizations such as the Arab League asking for our assistance and then backing off and leaving the U.S. holding the bag are, or certainly should be, over. And the instances of unilateral U.S. military operations are likely to be very limited. Sending thousands of young Americans to bleed on foreign soil is to be reserved for issues of serious U.S. national consequence. Both moral and financial responsibilities demand it.

I see no other choice than to adopt an aerospace-centric strategy. Note that the term is aerospace-centric, not aerospace exclusive.

Of course, there is more to this than what I have outlined here. As always, the devil is in the details of matching forces to strategy. We will likely have to forgo certain types of operations, rely more on coalition partners, and/or develop different tactics.

None of this will be easy, and for many wearing uniforms today, it will be very unpleasant. It is certain that surface-force requirements will not disappear just because we may view force structures differently. We must make related decisions carefully; there are dangers.

As for near-term fiscal needs, I do not think I am far from the mark when I say this country is in serious financial trouble, dare I say nearly broke. Armed forces are not the be-all and end-all of national security, and the other parts — national debt, education, basic technology development, infrastructure and industrial base — all need serious attention.

It is time to pay the piper. An aerospace-centric strategy that would best allow for inevitable defense budget cuts is one of the many, least harmful ways to do it. AFJ

Grover “Gene” Myers is a retired Air Force officer and independent defense consultant with 30 years’ experience in joint and aerospace concepts and doctrine and defense policy.