Another Shot at Roles and Missions

Jan. 1, 1994

As part of the 1994 defense authorization bill passed in November, Congress instructed the Secretary of Defense to appoint a commission of seven private citizens to review the roles and missions of the armed forces. The roles and missions report turned in last February by Gen. Colin L. Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not satisfy Congress, which wanted more dramatic results, especially in the areas of functional overlaps and cost savings.

In framing the new directive, the authorization bill said that reviews conducted by the Pentagon have “not produced the comprehensive review envisioned by Congress.” The seven-member commission will be appointed by the Secretary of Defense and make its report by early 1995.

Lest there be any doubt about the focus, the Congressional Research Service has produced a study called “Four US ‘Air Forces’: Overlap and Alternatives.” As always, some overlaps are of more interest than others. There is no great hue and cry, for example, about duplication of light infantry capabilities in the Army and the Marine Corps. The primary target is airpower.

The present roles and missions debate was launched in July 1992 by Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee. In a ringing floor speech, he cited economy as a major motivation. He held out the prospect of the armed forces eliminating five air wings and–even more lucrative–the potential reduction of aircraft procurement programs. Reductions ordered since then will cut the Air Force by another 6.5 fighter wings and the Navy by one air wing. Two of the four tactical aircraft modernization programs planned have been canceled. The roles and missions controversy, however, is still alive.

No matter what fringe theorists may argue, the issue is not the relative value of airpower. The first measure of a nation’s military strength today is combat aircraft. Across the spectrum of conflict, the United States looks to airpower as the initial instrument of force application. In some instances, it will be the primary instrument. All of the armed services respect and emphasize airpower. The US Navy currently has about 400 ships but tends to define itself in terms of thirteen of them, its aircraft carriers. The roles and missions issue is not airpower. It is the basing mode for airpower.

The pivotal question, of course, is the mix of Air Force and Navy airpower. As the commission will discover (if it doesn’t know at the outset), each has particular strengths and advantages. Aircraft carriers provide a forward presence in areas where the US has no bases. When a limited amount of force is sufficient, carriers can put some impressive airpower across the beach. Depending on the crisis, naval aviation may be the best instrument for initial response. In other circumstances, heavy bombers and strike aircraft-reaching any point on Earth quickly from distant bases-will be a better choice.

If a conflict is of larger scope or threatens to escalate to something larger, it will require the weight, sustained sorties, and flexibility of a full-service Air Force. Conflicts differ, but in the nation’s most recent war, Operation Desert Storm in 1991, landbased Air Force units delivered ninety percent of the US precision guided munitions and seventy-two percent of the US gravity bombs.

Like the Navy, the Air Force can do some of its work from a distance, but practical considerations call for bases in reasonable proximity to a major regional conflict. If land bases will not be available for the Army as well as the Air Force, the nation should be very careful about getting involved in serious fights there.

The commission should also note that the nation is measuring its airpower in exceedingly small quantities. It was regarded as a victory for the Navy when it lost only one (rather than two) carrier air wings in last summer’s Bottom-Up Review. The Air Force was hit harder and is headed down toward twenty fighter wings, seven of them in the Guard and Reserve. We cannot afford to lose any more.

The usual approach is to count the number of fighter and attack wings as sort of a shorthand for force structure, but that’s only part of the requirement. US strategy prescribes a capability to respond to two major conflicts almost simultaneously. Each crisis calls for ten Air Force fighter wings, 100 heavy bombers, massive airlift, and four or five aircraft carriers. We are at the limit on fighter wings. The total bomber force may be close to 100 within a few years. Airlift, the main limiting factor in response to global contingencies, is under the gun for budget reductions.

The roles and missions issue has already been plowed and sifted thoroughly. The commission is not likely to find much new evidence-although it could recommend a change in the verdict. The commission should beware of advice from fiscally oriented strategists who may not understand the problem as well as they profess to.

If the commission is wise, its major conclusion will be fairly close to the one General Powell announced a year ago: “America has one Air Force–the US Air Force. Other services have aviation arms essential to their warfighting roles. Each arm provides unique but complementary capabilities. All work jointly to project airpower.”