The Headwinds of Tradition

Oct. 1, 1997

Two documents are currently steering the US defense program. They are “Joint Vision 2010,” published by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in July 1996, and the Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review, put out by the Department of Defense in May 1997. From an Air Force perspective, they contain several important conclusions.

  • A Revolution in Military Affairs, the principal elements of which are long-range precision strike and information technology, is making a fundamental change in how wars are fought.
  • The Joint Chiefs acknowledge that “we will be increasingly able to accomplish the effects of mass–the necessary concentration of combat power at the decisive time and place–with less need to mass physically than in the past.”
  • The Department of Defense says that one of the most critical requirements in theater war is to halt an enemy invasion rapidly, short of its objective, heading off a long and costly operation to evict the enemy from captured territory.

These capabilities are to be found mainly in air and space forces. That might seem to mean that the Air Force, upon the 50th anniversary of its founding, has finally achieved recognition of what it can contribute to US military power. Unfortunately, there are complications.

Airpower is still undervalued in Joint doctrine and war plans. Land forces dominate the theater commands and their influence is strong. In the Joint world, the Air Force encounters the headwinds of tradition. The belief is widespread that “boots on the ground” are more important than precision attack.

The ground forces’ definition of a Joint operation is one in which they are supported by airpower. The notion that airpower might achieve anything on its own, or with land or sea forces in support, is heresy. Air Force airpower not in support of land forces is considered “unjoint,” says Maj. Gen. Charles D. Link, who was the Air Force’s point man on the QDR.

Our defense strategy centers on winning two major theater wars that occur almost simultaneously. When the enemy attacks, the traditional sequence of response is the deployment of airpower to halt the invasion, the buildup of US combat power in the theater, and finally, the launch of a decisive counteroffensive. Joint planning models–reflecting the assumptions on which theater war plans are built–have airpower pounding the enemy force hard in the first two weeks of conflict, bringing the invasion to a stop. However, instead of continuing the attack, the Air Force then cuts back drastically on sorties and conserves its munitions until land forces arrive and are ready, many weeks later, to begin the Joint counteroffensive.

The Gulf War gave us an outstanding example of what airpower may accomplish when not held back. The theater commander, Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, wisely relied on the air campaign for the first 38 days of combat, during which Iraq’s command-and-control system was destroyed, its air force neutralized, and a high percentage of its forces rendered militarily ineffective. Coalition ground forces joined in for the last four days of the war.

The revised defense strategy puts unprecedented emphasis on Smaller-scale Contingencies and Military Operations Other Than War. That diverts attention and resources from the main requirement, which is to fight and win the nation’s wars. It also tends to lessen the priority on Air Force combat airpower, since other services are seen as more relevant to peacekeeping and constabulary functions.

The QDR reductions fell heavily on the Air Force, which took 43 percent of the total active-duty force cuts. It lost an active-duty fighter wing, replacing it with a reserve component wing created by converting force structure from Air National Guard air defense squadrons. The F-22 fighter was cut from 438 aircraft to 339, and the production rate was slowed down. The Joint Stars deep-surveillance aircraft was reduced from 19 to 13. Although additional B-2 bombers “would improve our ability to halt an adversary’s advance during the opening days of a Major Theater War,” no additional B-2s are planned.

The problems are both doctrinal and fiscal. The QDR wound up cutting too much and cutting the wrong things. The defense program does not take advantage of the Revolution in Military Affairs. We do not present theater commanders with their most effective range of options. Our capability to execute the strategy is in serious doubt.

The National Defense Panel, established by Congress to review the QDR, makes its report in December. Several thoughts would be particularly appropriate in its final deliberations.

  • We should fund the defense program to actual requirements, not to wishful thinking. Outlays are dropping toward 2.9 percent of Gross Domestic Product. It’s difficult to be a superpower on that.
  • We should concentrate on the main objectives of the strategy. As the House National Security Committee said last spring, “Ultimately, the truest test of readiness will be how the US military performs in the next war, not in the next peacekeeping mission, forest fire, or hurricane.”
  • We are the world’s leading military power primarily because of our strength in air and space. It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of that, and it ought to figure more prominently than it does in the determination of our nation’s defense policy.