Losing Altitude

Oct. 1, 2012

The Air Force came out of the Gulf War and other conflicts of the 1990s flying high, having demonstrated what modern airpower could accomplish. The Quadrennial Defense Review in 1997 said that a “Revolution in Military Affairs” had taken place, and a vision statement from the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1996 acknowledged the emerging capability to achieve the effects of mass without the actual massing of forces.

There was no indication of the nosedive to come, but over the next 10 years the status of the Air Force sank to dead last among the armed forces and it was relegated to supporting low-intensity ground operations of marginal strategic value.

The success of airpower in the 1990s was a threat to the roles and budgets of ground forces. The Army struck back to regain its accustomed priority and discredit airpower. “Wars are won on the ground,” said the Army annual report in 1996. “The Army has paid a high price for the unfulfilled promises of airpower since World War II,” said retired Gen. Frederick J. Kroesen, former US Army commander in Europe.

The ground power campaign had some success. A revised joint vision statement in 2000 restored the traditional concept of massed forces. Retired Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, former Army Chief of Staff, complained that land power had been “cavalierly discounted” to “support or finance untested technological solutions and theories for the distant future.”

The big change began six months after the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001. In a decision still subject to question, US counter-terrorism strategy shifted to operations on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. A consensus developed among politicians in and out of the Pentagon that the Air Force’s main job was supporting boots on the ground. The QDR in 2005 declared “irregular warfare” the dominant form of warfare. Funding was realigned and the Air Force and the Navy became bill payers for the ground forces.

If there was any doubt about the direction of momentum, it became fully clear when Robert M. Gates became Secretary of Defense in 2006. He increased the concentration on current operations and ridiculed concerns about the future and force modernization as “next-war-itis.” In June 2008, Gates fired the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff, supposedly for lax control of nuclear weapons. However, it was widely believed that at least part of the reason was his displeasure with their strong advocacy of airpower.

The net effect was “a national security environment in which an informed airman’s perspective is not only not missed but actually discouraged,” said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles D. Link. Through the next four years, the new leaders of the Air Force made a “conscious choice” not to promote airpower.

Air Force fighter and bomber programs were choked off and the diminished status of the force was made obvious to all. “Our most important air and space mission is supporting our troops and those of our allies on the front lines,” said Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn III.

With the war in Iraq supposedly won, the United States shifted focus to Afghanistan, where the most lethal combat measures were curtailed in an effort to gain acceptance and support of the local population. The counterinsurgency strategy, said National War College professor Richard B. Andres, “requires the United States to engage in a relatively low-tech, manpower-intensive form of warfare that pits one of its greatest weaknesses against one of its opponents’ greatest strengths.”

Meanwhile, the capability to project global power, particularly airpower, declined. As retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr. has pointed out, the Pentagon seemed unable “to distinguish sufficiently between the serious challenge of irregular wars and the need to deter truly existential threats posed by nation states.”

The Air Force share of the defense budget shrank to a record low. Procurement was cut back. Aircraft were retired to save money with those remaining in the inventory mostly old, wearing out, and ever fewer in numbers. Potential adversaries narrowed the gap in capabilities for conventional and regional conflicts.

The reduced posture and vacillating resolution practically invite challenge. “Many international leaders believe the United States will be reluctant to use force again in the future,” Andres said. “Ironically, then, the US commitment to this [low-intensity] form of warfare has reduced its ability to influence the actions of potential opponents.”

The United States has not gotten much gain in return for this loss of strategic capability, and the meager results from the long counterinsurgency operations are not commensurate with American loss of life and limb or the heroic sacrifices of the forces engaged.

Leon E. Panetta replaced Gates as Secretary of Defense in July 2011. With Afghanistan winding down, Panetta declared a “strategic turning point” and issued new defense guidance in January 2012, reversing several elements of the Gates doctrine. Panetta said the force would “no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations” and announced a transition from “emphasis on today’s wars to preparing for future challenges.” The revised guidance and moderate reductions in the Army and Marine Corps were promptly denounced by ground power advocates.

The revised defense guidance is but a small step and it is too soon to guess how meaningful it will be. It does not specifically prescribe any restoration of airpower and it does not provide for additional resources. At present, all focus is on fiscal aspects of the defense program with the looming threat of a funding sequester.

In any case, the decline of airpower is still in progress, and the Air Force has already been cut so much that a bounce-back will be difficult. The land power culture in the Pentagon, strong before, has gotten much stronger. How much change it will tolerate remains to be seen.

The imbalance in strategy and forces could persist. It could get worse. But it cannot continue indefinitely without encountering a critical crisis or challenge which—for the first time—the United States may not be prepared to meet.

John T. Correll was Editor in Chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is now a contributor.