One Air Force

April 1, 1993

Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who went on to become the supreme allied commander in World War I, declared in 1911 that airplanes “are interesting toys, but of no military value.” We remember his words in the 1990s only as a classic mistake in judgment.

A nation’s military might today is measured first by its airpower. Ground forces are hugely dependent on airpower. Naval combat forces are defined largely by the airpower they can put over the beach. Airpower is the first capability considered when confronting a crisis, the first thing a commander worries about in the enemy’s order of battle.

For all of that, the questions persist. Are air forces a discrete element of military power, comparable to armies and navies. or are they an adjunct to something else? The US Air Force has been a separate service since September 1947. Forty-five years and seven months later, some people continue to grieve about this.

Frank Uhlig of the Naval War College Review remarked recently that all services “need airplanes to help them do their job. One of them calls itself the Air Force. The others all had their names before the Wright brothers did their thing.” The point of this little speechlet, we take it, is that airpower–like nylon, aspirin and corn flakes– is so generic that no service should hold a special trademark on it.

Last July, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, recalled former Sen. Barry Goldwater’s assertion that we have “the only military in the world with four air forces.” Presidential candidate Bill Clinton picked up the phrase in his campaign, noting with concern that “We have four separate air forces.”

The New York Times took the cue and raised the ante in an editorial that asked, “Who needs four air Forces?” that drew a quick answer from James M. McCoy, president of the Air Force Association, who said that “no one does.” We need one Air Force, which is precisely the number of air forces the United States happens to have.

This is not to claim a monopoly on airplanes. As it says in US Air Force basic doctrine, “aerospace power is not the sole domain of the Air Force.” The other services have–and should have–aviation capabilities. Typically, they complement the capabilities of the Air Force.

Their primary purpose, though, is to perform roles that are extensions of basic Army, Navy, and Marine Corps functions. Carriers, for example provide air support for naval campaigns and amphibious operations. In the Navy’s new white paper, “From the Sea,” the emphasis for carrier-based airpower is on the littorals, along and over the coastlines of the earth.

The reason everybody wants airplanes today is that their capabilities have developed in ways that would amaze Marshal Foch as well as the early aviators who pushed the cause before it got popular. The last twenty years alone have brought enormous gains in the ability to strike deep by day or night with surprise, precision, and effect.

These developments are largely attributable to people who though of air operations as a primary instrument of power, not as a sideline to something else. Seapower and land power are comparatively mature capabilities. Airpower has room to grow. Who knows what else military forces may eventually prove possible in the open arena of air and space

At a more workaday level, we need a full-service Air Force with integrated capabilities that include airlift, aerial refueling, long-range bombardment, air superiority, close air support, deep interdiction, air defense, search and rescue, electronic combat, reconnaissance, and airborne command and control. The organization that can do all this doesn’t just call itself the Air Force. It is the Air Force.

Gen. Colin L. Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, got it exactly right in his February 1993 report on roles, missions, and functions of the armed forces. “America has only one air force, the United States Air Force,” the report said. “The Army, Navy, and Marine Corps each have aviation arms essential to their assigned warfighting roles. Each air arm provides unique but complementary capabilities. They work jointly to project America’s Air Power.”