The Air Force finds itself at an unwelcome and unexpected crisis at its 60th birthday. Although the service is tremendously successful at its core capacities, as demonstrated in a series of successful air campaigns from 1991 to 2003, it appears uncertain how to respond to irregular warfare in the Middle East or penetrate the emerging anti-access threat in Asia. And as the Air Force’s critics point out its failings in each category, it cannot seem to decide which effort to prioritize — any notable effort on either, after all, must mean that the Air Force is ignoring the other.
In Iraq, the Air Force’s intelligence-gathering, logistical and transport capabilities are essential to maintaining the counterinsurgency campaign; however, its inability to shape the counterinsurgency effort demonstrates the limitations of air power in irregular war. A recent research paper by Lt. Col. Steven Buteau indicated the uncertainty surrounding the mission in the Middle East when the author suggested that the Air Force train its airmen with such combat and civil affairs skills as to go outside the wire and play a direct role in winning the hearts and minds of civilians.
The Air Force is also dealing with growing demands to respond to a range of potential crises in East Asia. Today, the service suffers unique demands to maintain a strong presence in the Middle East, where it provides the backbone of many combat support roles for the Army and Marine Corps, and in East Asia, where its strike power is at the center of American deterrence strategy against such potential adversaries as China and North Korea.
BEEN HERE BEFORE
The one bright spot in this combination of low- and high-intensity warfare threats is that the Air Force has bridged the gap before. Despite occasional yearning for an antediluvian era in which the sole threat was the Soviet Union, the Air Force spent the Cold War responding to an array of low-intensity brushfire wars in Southeast Asia and Latin America while preparing for a potential high-intensity conflict with the Soviets. The Air Force was able to develop an array of capabilities in response to that spectrum of threats, and it can do so again.
As during the Cold War, many Air Force capabilities will be equally applicable to both threats. For example, a robust airlift and aerial refueling fleet is essential for supporting counterinsurgency efforts in the Middle East and extending American power into East Asia. But responding to the combination of low- and high-intensity warfare challenges will require a mix of technical, doctrinal and political-military responses by the Air Force.
For the Iraq war, the essential question appears to be whether the Air Force can develop remote, airborne sensors for identifying and destroying improvised explosive devices (IEDs). When former Air Force Secretary Jim Roche told the Air Staff to devise a technical capability for identifying IEDs, the institutional response was one of puzzlement — IEDs were an Army problem, and so an Army job. IED-detecting aircraft could have played a vital role in Iraq; improvised explosives have been the leading killer of U.S. troops, and their consequences have critically wounded support from the home front. Being criticized for not performing a technological miracle may seem unfair, but the Air Force has done just that many times before, so it is difficult to believe that, with sufficient resources and prioritization, the IED identification puzzle could not have been solved.
Also, as it considers its role in the Middle East and other locations where the fight against Islamic insurgents requires strong foreign internal defense efforts, the Air Force must look at how it can better organize to support the development of allied air forces. One recent Rand report on this topic emphasizes that the main transport aircraft of the Air Force are not suitable for the air forces of our security partners: Helping them develop an air transport capability will require U.S. airmen to develop expertise on a range of smaller transport aircraft that our allies in the developing world can fund and fly.
If the Air Force is to take on a more robust training and advisory role, a significant number of airmen will have to undergo training for that mission, either requiring additional funding or the shifting resources within the military. As discussion of withdrawal from Iraq emphasizes the absence of Iraqi logistical and fire support capabilities, the value of such a training and advisory mission appears especially useful.
At the same time that the Air Force will have to undertake significant changes to better engage in counterinsurgency and capacity building missions, it also faces tremendous challenges in Asia, where the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) poses an especially potent threat to the U.S. and its security partners in the region. The Chinese air force will soon have more fourth-generation fighter aircraft available in the Western Pacific than the U.S. and Japan combined, and the range of unsettled territorial disputes between China and such neighbors as Taiwan, Japan and the Philippines keeps the prospects for conflict very real.
While the PLAAF develops a powerful range of aircraft that could challenge their American counterparts, the missile arm of the PLA, or the Second Artillery, has also been charged with deploying medium-range ballistic missiles that can threaten the limited number of U.S. military bases in Asia. The PLA is aware that attacking U.S. bases could seriously damage U.S. war-fighting capabilities, crippling not just the aircraft but the many force multiplier roles that Air Force assets play. The concentration of such advanced U.S. aircraft as the F-22 stealth fighter at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa and the B-2 bomber at Guam present especially tempting targets to the Chinese Second Artillery, and could leave the U.S. with great liabilities if it ever has to flow forces into the theater.
The two natural solutions to this challenge are already underway, and the Air Force deserves credit for working on them. First, the development of a new long-range strike capability that can penetrate Chinese airspace is vital, as there are only 21 B-2 bombers available today. Especially in the event of a limited conflict with China surrounding the Taiwan Strait, the requirements for escalation control mean that the use of stealth aircraft that could destroy discrete Chinese targets — such as missile silos that are bombarding Taiwan or docks that are used to prepare an invasion force — without having to attack the entire Chinese command and control system, which would be crucial to an American victory without risking nuclear war.
At the same time that the Air Force is developing a new set of technical capabilities, it is also heavily dependent upon the success of Defense Department civilians and State Department officials who are negotiating status of forces agreements and other arrangements to permit a “lily pad” approach to basing in Asia. The shift toward a larger number of dispersed air bases that U.S. forces can access is essential to handling China’s anti-access strategy, both by limiting the damage that a single attack on any air base can cause and by forcing Beijing to consider the consequences of attacking U.S. forces on multiple countries’ soil. Through such efforts that bolster the deterrent presence of American power in Asia, the Air Force can contribute to peace and stability in the region.
The Air Force at 60 thus faces a wide range of challenges, but also has opportunities to develop new capabilities that allow it to directly address counterinsurgency warfare and minimize the risks posed by rising Chinese military power in Asia. Having reinvented itself many times through the years as it considered varying roles for tactical and strategic air power, the Air Force should be well-placed to undertake a further transformation and continue to lead the world in air power throughout the century.
CHRISTOPHER GRIFFIN is a research associate in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.