Washington Watch: The Coming Flap on Roles and Missions

Oct. 1, 1992

The armed forces have had a long, uninterrupted run with the roles and missions each was assigned at the dawn of the cold war nearly a half century ago. Now the cold war is over, the world is much different, and roles and missions are ripe for change.

They are under the microscope in a rigorous re-examination that has the look of history repeating itself. Air roles and missions are the major is sues, just as they were in the wake of World War II when the Air Force was new. Today’s big question is the same as the one back then: Should the Air Force or the Navy be the service of choice for the long-range projection of US airpower

The review of roles and missions has a long way to go, and its outcome is uncertain. One thing is for sure: The Air Force will fight with all its might to retain primacy in the long-range bombing mission, the wellspring of its philosophy of global reach, global power and the main reason for its existence as a separate service.

The Air Force was created for one big reason: to carry out the strategic bombing mission with nuclear weapons. The mission is no longer called “strategic,” and nukes are no longer the point, but the ability to strike targets around the world from bases in the US is what sets the Air Force apart. USAF has formed a new composite “air intervention wing” composed of bombers, fighters, and other kinds of aircraft for just such a purpose [see “Gunfighter Country,” p. 24]. That wing is not built for nuclear weapons, although it presumably could resort to them if necessary.

Nukes aside, the thorniest roles and missions issue is still one of Air Force bombers vs. Navy carriers–more precisely, of long-range landbased bombers vs. carrier-based bombers–just as it was when the Air Force and the Navy first faced off 45 years ago.

Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a leading advocate of roles and missions reform, sees a continuing need for both land based aviation and seabased aviation because each offers “unique capabilities and assets” vital to national security. The issue is how much of each and for which missions.

The central question, says the Senator: “What is the best and most cost effective way to provide air interdiction in the future–with long-range bombers from the United States or with large numbers of aircraft carriers with medium-range bombers on their decks?”

That question raises others. What is the tradeoff between upgrading the B-1B bomber fleet, as the Air Force proposes, and building and operating another aircraft carrier, as the Navy plans to do? What are the relative merits of Navy attack planes like the planned A-X and F/A-1 8E/F operating from carriers and of Air Force bombers, like the B-1 and the B-2, operating from land? Should aircraft carriers be confined to launching relatively short range attack aircraft like the F/A-18 and relinquish longer-range varieties like the A-6 and the follow-on A-X

Declares Senator Nunn, “The [carrier] overlap with Air Force landbased air comes into play now, more than it did during the cold war, because there is less emphasis on Air Force long range bombers in the nuclear role and more emphasis on those bombers in the conventional role.”

The interservice debate over long range airpower was first resolved in favor of the Air Force more than 44 years ago in a watershed document, “Functions of the Armed Forces and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” Published by the newly created Department of Defense, it came to be known as the “Key West Agreement” because it was forged in Key West, Fla., at a famous four-day interservice summit meeting in March 1948. Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal had summoned the service chiefs there to settle differences over roles and missions left ambiguous by the National Security Act of 1947.

The Key West Agreement made the services what they are today. They came to be recognized by the functions–commonly referred to as roles and missions–that the document assigned to each. Legislation in later years–the Defense Reorganization Act of 1958 and the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986–transferred much operational authority from the service chiefs to theater and regional commanders, but the services continued to be known by the roles in which the Key West Agreement had cast them.

Those roles have endured despite occasionally fierce flareups of inter service rivalries and periodic forays by military reformers. They have come to be deeply rooted in US military culture, but some are now more vulnerable than others. Shakiest, at a time of shrinking forces and rapidly dwindling financial resources, are those that foster duplication of operations and weapons across two or more services.

Senator Nunn leads the charge against them, claiming that “redundancy and duplication are costing billions of dollars every year.” He prefers that the services take it upon themselves to revamp roles and missions. If they do not, he warns, Congress or the Defense Department will do it for them, with results not to their liking.

“A good first step would be a serious report coming from General Powell that addresses these issues and begins to analyze them,” Senator Nunn told defense writers not long ago.

Gen. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is expected to issue his report on “roles and functions of the armed forces” by the end of November. The Joint Staff has been working on it for some time. It is required by the Goldwater-Nichols Act. Whether it satisfies Senator Nunn and like-minded lawmakers remains to be seen.

Goldwater-Nichols specifies that JCS chairmen must “report not less than once every three years, or upon the request of the President or the Secretary of Defense, . . . recommendations for changes in the assignment of functions, or roles and missions, to the armed forces . . . necessary to achieve maximum effectiveness of the armed forces.” The law also requires the JCS chairmen to weigh three considerations in preparing their reports–changes in the nature of the threats faced by the United States, changes in military technology, and “unnecessary duplication of effort among the armed forces.”

The first such report by a JCS chairman under the Goldwater-Nichols mandate came from Adm. William J. Crowe, Jr., in September 1989. It proposed greater centralization of military intelligence resources and not much else. Some of its recommendations, including the creation of interservice intelligence centers in combat theaters, have been implemented, but many have not.

Last July, in a landmark Senate speech calling for “a thorough overhaul of roles and missions,” Senator Nunn characterized Goldwater-Nichols as “the most far-reaching step yet taken to create a coherent, efficient, and effective defense establishment.” He contended, for example, that the law had set the stage for the impressive performance of US combined armed forces in the Persian Gulf War by strengthening the authority of theater commanders in chief, such as the Army’s Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, over their multiservice component forces.

Even so, the 1986 law “did not complete the process of reform” and left “considerable unfinished business,” Senator Nunn maintained. “One of the biggest problems we now face,” he said, “is an item that Goldwater-Nichols addressed in a limited way, and that is the issue of the assignment of roles and missions of the military departments.” He called on General Powell to come up with “a noholds- barred review.”

The Senator acknowledges that the going is tough, noting that roles and missions issues bring forth deep feelings of “pride and tradition” and are all about “power and resources–controlling a mission means having a claim to budget resources.” This is why roles and missions constituted “one of the most fiercely debated issues” confronting the Department of Defense at its formation, he reminded the Senate.

After World War II, the emergence of the Air Force and of new aviation technologies, notably jet engines, gave US military aviation new dimensions and washed out the dividing lines between roles and missions formerly confined to the Army and the Navy.

The National Security Act of 1947, also called the Unification Act, created the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Department of the Air Force and left roles and missions up for grabs. Executive Order 9877, issued concurrently to implement the new law, was no help. It dealt in generalities about service functions. At Secretary Forrestal’s urging, the service chiefs tried to carve out roles and missions extemporaneously, but they bogged down in bickering.

Their stalemate is succinctly recounted in the recently published, two volume History of the Office of the Secretary of Defense by military historian Steven L. Reardon. He writes:

“The JCS efforts to agree on service functions . . . foundered over fundamental disagreements: whether the Navy’s carrier aviation should have a role in strategic air operations, and whether the Army or the Air Force should assume primary responsibility for landbased air defense. The Army tended to side with the Air Force on the naval air issue and urged limitations on naval aviation and the Marine Corps, while the Navy stoutly resisted their efforts to limit naval freedom of action.”

Amid the interservice acrimony, President Harry S. Truman rescinded the executive order and told everyone to try again. Secretary Forrestal opted for a change of scenery and arranged for a conference with the service chiefs in a retreat-like setting at Key West.

In general terms, the Key West Agreement of April 21, 1948, made the Air Force responsible for strategic air warfare, for defense of the US against air attack, and for air and logistic support of ground units; the Navy, for combat operations at sea; the Army, for land combat and for air-defense antiaircraft artillery; and the Marine Corps, for amphibious warfare. It also assigned each service a number of collateral missions in support of one another. The Air Force, for instance, took on such ancillary responsibilities as antisubmarine warfare, aerial minelaying, and sea-lane interdiction.

The Key West Agreement did not fully satisfy the Navy. The admirals grudgingly acquiesced to USAF’s lead role in strategic bombing but balked at letting it call all the shots for that mission. The sea service wanted greater command and control of nuclear weapons. It insisted on the right to drop atomic bombs from its own planes–carrier-based or landbased–against targets of its own choosing. It pushed ahead with construction of an aircraft carrier to be named USS United States and designed for long-range nuclear bombers.

To settle matters, Secretary Forrestal and the service chiefs reconvened in August 1948, at the Naval War College in Newport, R. I. The so-called Newport Conference gave the Air Force full operational control of nuclear bombs. The Navy had to settle for the secondary role of helping the Air Force decide how best to use nuclear bombs in wartime. Construction of USS United States subsequently came to a halt. The Air Force had gained the upper hand.

Many years later, on becoming Secretary of Defense in 1973, national security scholar James R. Schlesinger colorfully recounted for Washington defense correspondents the run of events in the period following the formation of the Air Force–Soviet testing of atomic and hydrogen bombs the Berlin Airlift, the onset of the Korean War.

Noting that US defense budgets sharply escalated during the course of those events, Secretary Schlesinger said, “The Air Force comes away with 46 percent of the defense budget–the upstart service casting the senior services into shame. The national strategy is now Air Force strategy. Massive retaliation. You step across the line in Iran, and by God, you lose every city in the Soviet Union. It wasn’t a hell of a lot more sophisticated than that.”

Nowadays, in a strikingly different world, national strategy and Air Force strategy are indeed a lot more sophisticated than that. But the Air Force still sees them as interdependent and inseparable and pegs its roles and missions squarely to them.

The Key West Agreement left much undone. It opened the gates to subsequent disputes over air roles and missions in allowing all four services to operate flying machines. At the time “all argued that their organic [air] capabilities were needed to carry out war on land or at sea,” Senator Nunn recalled in his Senate speech.

“The problem with the Key West Agreement,” he asserted, “is that it largely failed to avoid the tremendous redundancy and duplication among the military services.” He noted that “we are the only military in the world with four air forces.”

The Senator expects each service to continue to operate aircraft. His goal, he says, is not to eliminate the air assets of any one service but to “crack down” on their overlaps. He claims the armed forces altogether spend “tens of billions of dollars every year operating tactical aircraft squadrons” and “have over $350 billion worth of new combat aircraft on the drawing boards.”

Aircraft programs and operations are not the only targets of the roles and missions review. For example, the Army and the Marines field look alike light infantry divisions, the Air Force and the Navy build and operate satellites and cruise missiles, and notes Senator Nunn, “each of the military departments has its own huge infrastructure of schools, laboratories, industrial facilities, testing organizations, and training ranges,” plus individual chaplain, medical, dental, nursing, and legal corps.

In his Senate speech, he took note of “broad areas of substantial duplication and potential opportunity for streamlining,” including projection of airpower, contingency or expeditionary ground forces, theater air defenses, space operations, helicopter forces, intelligence, functional organizations and activities, logistics and support activities, administrative and management headquarters, and Guard and Reserve component forces.

Senator Nunn’s campaign against redundant roles and missions is not merely rhetorical. At his direction, the Senate Armed Services Committee produced a Fiscal Year 1993 defense authorization bill that uses money as leverage to force the issue, cutting or deferring funds for allegedly redundant weapon systems until the JCS comes up with a roles and missions report that the Senate, at least, finds satisfactory.

Tactical aviation programs take heavy fire in the Senate bill. It prohibits the Air Force and the Navy from obligating more than half the funds authorized for their respective F-22 and A-X advanced aircraft programs pending the outcome of the JCS review. The bill arbitrarily chooses the Navy to handle all area jamming for Navy and USAF air operations. To back its play, it manipulates money for jammer aircraft upgrades, withholding funding requested by USAF for the EF-111 but doubling Navy-requested funding for the EA-6B. The bill also requires DoD to choose between the Air Force RC135 and the Navy EP-3 intelligence gathering planes.

That’s not all by a long shot. The Senate bill directs the Air Force to adopt the Navy’s F/A-18E/F strike fighter, now in the works, as its new multirole fighter, to give up on plans to develop its own MRF, and to cancel the F-16 fighter program.

Senator Nunn acknowledges that the Air Force may have good reasons for not adopting the upgraded F/A-18 and says he is “not absolutely locked in concrete” on the issue. His purpose, he says, is to make the services get together, if possible, in developing “a common multirole fighter.”

He is pressing the Pentagon to rationalize redundancies of tactical air programs on a roles and missions basis within the next eighteen months. Otherwise, he says, Congress will take over. “There’s just no way the services can keep going the way they want to go on tactical air,” he asserts. “It’s impossible. It can’t be paid for.”

General Powell has made it clear that he will not recommend a dramatic reshaping of tacair roles and missions or of plans to develop and produce planes for them. He flatly told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “four air forces are the right answer….The question is how to make sure that [they] . . . are not redundant and are complementary.”

The JCS Chairman reportedly sees the need to revamp some roles and missions but prefers to take an operational, rather than a programmatic, approach. Unified military commands such as the new, multiservice US Strategic Command and the US Contingency Command that is said to be in the offing, are counted on to cut duplication of roles and missions by the very nature of their joint operations.

Air Force officials say the service may be willing, even eager, to relinquish some roles in order to consolidate its dwindling forces and resources in others that it considers more important. Close air support comes to mind– but would the Army want it, after all

The Air Force is dead set against relinquishing its area-jamming mission to the Navy, as dictated by the Senate bill. Among other things, the transfer would greatly complicate matters for USAF’s new, blue-ribbon air- intervention wing. The wing’s capacity for electronic warfare comes in great measure from its organic EF-111 Ravens. Without them, it might be lost. Working Navy jammer aircraft into the wing’s deployment and operations plans would be awkward at best.

Air Force officials acknowledge that it is time to rearrange roles and missions but warn that the exercise will come hard and take several years. “It’s just extremely difficult,” says one Air Force general at the Pentagon. “The services have operated with definite roles and missions for a very long time. Trying to change them in a major way is a heavy endeavor. It’s a lot more than putting electronic warfare into one service or the other. It’s changing whole cultures.”

There are signs that roles and missions debates are heating up among the services and on the Joint Staff amid final preparations for General Powell’s report. There are also signs that the report will not go far enough to suit roles and missions reformers and that Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney will be drawn into the picture.

Sen. John Warner of Virginia, senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, sees the Powell report as only the beginning. He expects it will take until next year to produce “a significant work product on the roles and missions of the services.” That product will represent the combined efforts of General Powell Secretary Cheney, Senator Nunn, and himself, Senator Warner predicts.

Some students of US military history and of contemporary military affairs go further, predicting “Key West revisited” in two or three years to iron out interservice differences all over again.