Failure Is an Option

Aug. 1, 2008

Air forces can fail, as witness the World War II disasters suffered by Japan and Germany as well as those that have befallen Argentina, Egypt, and other states. Most Americans today have no real experience of such unpleasantness.

For decades now, the US Air Force has produced only successes. These range from Linebacker II in Vietnam in 1972 and the Persian Gulf War in 1991 through Southern and Northern Watch and air campaigns in Bosnia and Serbia in the 1990s, and then operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. USAF makes it seem easy.

The key word is “seem.” Success is hard-won and never assured. And so, in assessing Air Force prospects, we feel constrained to repeat the well-known mutual fund warning: “Past performance is not a guarantee of future returns.”

Others also have been thinking along the same lines. An example is the recent book Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat, edited by Robin Higham and Stephen J. Harris. Another is a similar and more recent internal USAF brief, “Why Air Forces Fail: Learning From History’s Lessons.”

The brief is based on 11 cases, from failure of the Kaiser’s fliers in the Great War to defeat of Argentina’s in the Falklands War, with side trips to World War II, Vietnam, and the Mideast.

In distilling the case studies, the briefing identifies four root causes of disaster. It claims that failed air forces were:

Unable to read the enemy. In case after case, airmen and national leaders misunderstood or underestimated a foe. Among the sources of this failure were mirror imaging, poor intelligence, failure to use intelligence that existed, and even racism. One offender was the Army Air Forces in the Pacific. Airmen thought their Japanese counterparts incapable of long-distance strikes, and suffered disaster for it. The RAF fell into the same trap.

A classic case was the World War II German Luftwaffe. As the brief points out, German air leaders expected to make quick work of the French and British air forces. They were right about France, but wrong about the RAF. When Germany attacked Russia in 1941, German airmen assumed the Soviet air force would collapse. They did not plan for winter combat, moved no depots forward, and failed to provide for transport of fuel and spares. The Soviet force eventually recovered, the Luftwaffe faltered badly, and the campaign was lost.

Unprepared for a long haul. The USAF brief cites five cases in which training pipelines, support infrastructure, and repair systems were unable to keep up with attrition and provide adequate, timely replacements. This meant that, after initial stages of a war, shortages of air crews and combat-ready aircraft emerged.

In the World War of 1914-18, the Kaiser’s German air force was overwhelmed by superior British and French industry. In the run-up of World War II, France failed to plan for fighting beyond the initial battles and ran out of aviators and aircraft. As war wore on in the 1940s, German aviation was mismanaged; the Luftwaffe had started with a huge edge, but, by 1942, had lost most of it, and the air arm was in permanent decline.

Short on independence. In several cases, doctrine blocked creation of an independent air arm, casting the air force into a wholly supportive role. This bred disunity of command, confusion about whom to support, and, more critically, robbed the aviation force of the power to wage a true air campaign.

France’s air force at the start of World War II was weakened in this way; as the brief puts it, Paris handed its air force a “subservient, reactive, defensive” role. Parceled out to various army commanders, it lacked unity of command and collapsed under German pressure in 1940. Japan’s army air force in World War II had a similar experience and proved largely irrelevant.

The textbook case was that of Argentina’s air force in the 1982 war with Britain. It existed to give short-range support to naval and ground forces. When it was called on to lead the war, it was neither trained nor equipped to perform long-range operations.

Lacking in modern aircraft and weapons. In all 11 cases of air force failures, a key culprit was lack of quality hardware. Weak-engined German aircraft in World War I were outmuscled by Western types. Outmoded Italian fighters of the interwar years were easily defeated when World War II came. In 1940, French fighters were outnumbered three-to-one by the German Luftwaffe.

The RAF had potent Spitfires in Britain, but it had only old, outclassed fighters in Malaya and Greece. Japanese aircraft late in the war lacked radar and good shortwave radios. Egyptian and Syrian air forces of the 1960s, flying Soviet-made fighters, lagged behind Israel’s Western types and were overpowered.

Then there was USAAF in the first year of the Pacific War. For strike, it had mostly obsolete B-10 bombers. Tactical forces were based on old P-26 and P-35 fighters, and even they were available in inadequate numbers. USAAF was, in 1942, outclassed by Japan.

The obvious question for Air Force partisans is this: Are any of these potentially serious weaknesses in evidence now

Today’s Air Force shows no obvious signs that it is suffering the effects of No. 1 or No. 2. No. 3 gives some pause, in light of the fact that some in the Joint community judge USAF’s worth solely by the degree to which it “supports” surface forces, and would be happy to lash Air Force units tightly to them.

The real danger is No. 4. The past three Administrations all have failed to sufficiently support the vital recapitalization of USAF bombers, fighters, airlifters, and support aircraft. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates calls preoccupation with this need “next-war-itis.”

Within the US military, there is a presumption of success, expressed in the words, “Failure is not an option.” The reality, as history makes only too plain, is that failure is indeed an option, and an ever-present one at that.

Surely, recognition of that fact is the first and indispensable step toward avoiding a failure of arms some time in the future.