April 1, 2009  

The Air Force at a crossroads

Irregular warfare does not erode air power’s importance

If you happen to stroll around the harbor of Lisbon you are struck by the domineering countenance of Prince Henry the Navigator standing athwart the Monument to the Discoveries. Behind him on the prow of his mythical ship are Magellan, De Gama and Dias staring out on the wide unchartered oceans. Before there was the Spanish Main or Drake or Jamestown, there was Henry of Portugal setting the gaze of Christian Europe over the horizon, exploiting revolutionary technologies in the service of empire and knowledge. Portugal’s caravels and galleons blazed the naval trail of global exploration and military dominance then suddenly vanished from history, overwhelmed by more aggressive, more ruthless and more calculating rivals.

As we head deeper into the 21st century are we also faced with the prospect of another monument built — not on the harbor of a distant shore, but perhaps on the National Mall or the North Carolina dunes at Kitty Hawk? Not a monument with a bow and stern, but one with a wing and cockpit holding aloft the marbled visages of the Wrights, Mitchell, Arnold and Doolittle searching longingly for the world of what might have been. Bear with me.

Of course the U.S. is not in immediate danger of falling off its aerospace pedestal, but the signs are troubling, particularly in the Air Force. The Air Force is at a military crossroad. History is replete with such moments. Most come in the form of technical evolution — wind to steam, the battle line to the carrier, prop to jet, aircraft to spacecraft. However, the current challenge to the Air Force is much less sublime but potentially much more corrosive. It is not so much a technical challenge as it is political and spiritual. Failure to address the root causes exacerbates a crisis that will impact the future of the service and possibly the American concept of air power.

First to the political: The Air Force continues to be rocked by mind-numbing headlines. Adverse publicity and the resulting confusion has shaken the confidence of the current civilian political leadership and placed the service on the strategic and intellectual defensive within the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. Spiritually, the constant body blows have knocked the service off its message and led many to question the contribution of the Air Force to the current fight and the efficacy of air power as a decisive factor on the battlefield. The latter notion, always under the surface of mainstream of American military thought, has been given a new lease on life.

Ironically, the Air Force faces a crisis at the very time when it is lord of every place it flies and air power writ large is killing more enemies of freedom each day than any other kinetic force. In this climate it is imperative that the Air Force reverse this course of the last few years. If this is to be done, the Air Force must first address the very real strategic challenges laid down by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, meet his expectations and reaffirm the central place of airpower to national security. If the Air Force denies reality or bogs down in desultory public squabbles about the F-22, the Joint Cargo Aircraft or warfare community prerogative, it will never catch up.

Again, the entire Air Force community must recognize that the defense secretary is not kidding: He is serious about ending business as usual. He is serious about the centrality of irregular warfare to our national security, and he expects the service to meet his challenge. As he has shown in the last two years, he is not a typical political leader, keeping the chair warm while he looks for something bigger and better to do. He has already dismissed the Army and Air Force secretaries, as well as the Air Force chief of staff.

Look at the National Defense Strategy. The NDS is a counterbalance to what the secretary sees as the Defense Department’s natural tendency to focus excessively on winning conventional conflicts rather than “irregular wars” such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. The NDS also aims to promote a more balanced U.S. national security policy by bolstering the nonmilitary elements of power at the disposal of American policy makers.

The NDS identifies a large range of possible U.S. security threats. The “spectrum of challenges” facing the U.S., its allies, and its partners include “violent transnational extremist networks, hostile states armed with weapons of mass destruction, rising regional powers, emerging space and cyber threats, natural and pandemic disasters, and a growing competition for resources.”

What we face, though not explicitly mentioned, is continuous multilayered conflict for as far as we can see into the future. In addition, “The Department of Defense must respond to these challenges while anticipating and preparing for those of tomorrow,” which include fights over water, food and minerals, demographic trends, power shifts among countries, and “the unpredictable and complex interaction among the trends themselves.”

In terms of immediate dangers, however, the report clearly affirms Gates’ concern with bolstering the military’s capacity to wage “irregular” wars against nonstate actors such as insurgents and terrorists. What we have seen in this century is a new level of ferocity achieved by blending the fanaticism of irregular warfare with conventional military capabilities. A case in point is the Israeli fight against Hezbollah, which deployed regular cadres with irregular fighters capable of adapting and sustaining punishment while operating independently without reliance on centralized command and control. We face enemies who will come at us from multiple fronts: terror, cyber, information, psychological, conventional and criminal. That is what is staring us in the face. The chances of a competitor coming out to refight the classics like Midway, the Bulge or the Meuse-Argonne are fairly remote — Mogadishu, Fallujah and Lebanon are the new paradigms.


Since assuming office in late 2006, Gates has consistently warned against repeating the post-Vietnam experience of forgetting how to wage successful counterinsurgencies, which he considers a likely recurring phenomenon throughout the “long war” against violent extremist movements. The NDS states that “improving the U.S. Armed Forces’ proficiency in irregular warfare is the Defense Department’s top priority.” In his January article in Foreign Affairs, “A Balanced Strategy,” the secretary declared emphatically that the time is long overdue for some “unconventional thinking” in the Pentagon. For those who respond well to anecdotes, taking a stroll through the secretary’s conference rooms is illustrative. Given equal space with traditional pictures of American hard power are photos of mobile hospitals, engineers and civil affairs teams defending national interests in ways that many senior leaders have given short shrift.

Where does this leave the Air Force? In Gates’ construct, irregular warfare is more than putting “steel on target.” For the Air Force it is merging, as John Bellflower notes in “The Soft Side of Airpower,” its kinetic power with magnetic effects. Magnetic effects employ power to influence a given population by providing human security needs. This also means helping to restore legitimacy to a central government that may be under threat from terrorist subversion. The persistence of air power can create a defensive shield behind which a friendly government can gain breathing space.

Gates has frequently called upon the services to enhance soft power by building partnerships with friendly forces around the world. This is not new ground for the Air Force. Historically, the Air Force has been able to open the aperture of the spectrum of conflict beyond fighters and bombers. Beginning with the Flying Tigers, support for the Chindits through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the Air Force built successful partnerships, under fire, with developing nations and their air forces (what retired Air Force Col. George Monroe calls “The Outback Air Force.”)

Training, advising and equipping others matches the Gates paradigm. Naturally this type of mission has a heavy special operations force component. However, the scope of potential missions is so large, particularly in Africa, that SOF alone cannot meet the need. The conventional Air Force has to be heavily involved.

Building its partnership and counterinsurgency capacity complements the unmatched conventional and nuclear capabilities of the Air Force — thereby allowing the service to employ power across the entire spectrum. For those worried that the emphasis on irregular capabilities will erode or destroy the Air Force’s core competencies, history rejects that argument soundly. It is virtually impossible to engage in unconventional operations without holding the big stick of deterrence and without control of the thin air. American engagement in small wars and counterinsurgencies occurs under the umbrella of air power and the nuclear shield. Without that power, the small wars will escalate into large wars.


How does the Air Force respond to the new call? The Quadrennial Defense Review can be the vehicle to start the way back by laying out the means to meet Gates’ challenge, but more importantly to chart a course to the broader future.

Here are some ideas. Expanding the air advisory program is a step in the Gates direction but only the first step. Heed former Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley’s call to use Air Force schools to train and equip thousands of foreign officers and senior enlisted cadre in service ethics and build a bridge that has been neglected in the post-Cold War world. Build up the transportable hospital capability. Create more heavy construction units to build the airports and runways needed for developing new air forces and having a place that we can use in the event of a crisis impacting our national interest. Perhaps create a dedicated air expeditionary wing specializing in humanitarian operations and one comprised of multifunctional air commandos who can provide an immediate irregular warfare surge capability. Imbed these capabilities within the combatant commands. Finally, break once and for all the mind set that we need to get programs and systems perfect in a 15- to 20-year cycle rather than putting an 80 percent to 90 percent solution forward in months.

Gates’ focus on irregular warfare should not be viewed as his holistic approach to national defense, as it mistakenly has been in many quarters. In Foreign Affairs, the secretary points out that in spite of his views on the immediate future, the Air Force will and must have “ample unmatched striking power should the need arise to deter or punish aggression — whether on the Korean Peninsula, in the Persian Gulf or across the Taiwan Strait.” So it should be clear that the emphasis on irregular warfare does not obviate the need for traditional conventional or nuclear capabilities nor does it ignore the potential for more traditional threats to American interests.

I would argue that conventional and nuclear capabilities can and should be complementary as noted above. Rogue regimes that threaten their neighbors and our allies, potentially with nuclear weapons, are a problem today and will be in the future. Our goal is, in part, to reduce their ability to hold other nations hostage, and to deny them the ability to project power. A new triad with a conventional strike force and ballistic missile defense moves us in that direction. A conventional strike force means that more targets are vulnerable without our having to resort to nuclear weapons. And missile defenses reinforce deterrence and minimize the benefits of rogue nations investing heavily in ballistic missiles: Iran and North Korea won’t know if their missiles will be effective, thus making the U.S. and its allies feel less vulnerable.

This leads to the tactics of the coming months. The last thing the Air Force needs to be is defensive — that is what is expected. Constantly hammering home the fact that air power is everywhere, it is persistent, it is lethal and it strikes fear in the hearts of terrorists and potential peer competitors is the key to reversing the impression that seems to have taken hold in the circles of power — that the Air Force does not work and borders on irrelevancy. The entire Air Force must embrace its proud and successful heritage, accept that there is a new reality in place and adapt now, not in a servile manner but in a thoughtful and historically measured response, or someone might just think of an American version of Prince Henry’s monument in blue and silver hues. AFJ

ROBERT WILKIE is a former assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Defense Department.