Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part essay on the history of airpower theory as it relates to the current U.S. defense paradigm of great-power competition. Read the first part here.
The first part of this essay examined the writings of early airpower advocates like Giulio Douhet, Billy Mitchell, and Sir Hugh Trenchard in their historical context. Although critics of airpower often treat these texts as fully developed theories—the better to dismiss them in the hindsight of historical evidence—they were less acts of deep strategic reasoning than advocacy for a particular vision of interwar mobilization.
In this light, we can draw a dotted line between the economic pressures that the Great Depression placed on military spending and the corresponding imperative for the United States to cap its current ballooning defense budgets in a period of comparative economic decline. Likewise, the untested hypothesis that strategic bombing would provoke a more rapid—and therefore more humane—end to wars by collapsing public will or industrial capacity faster than armies could echoes current debates on the morality of employing artificial intelligence systems to speed military decision-making or whether hypersonic weapons are destabilizing.
Since airpower has a 100-year head start on the new but similar questions posed by the cheerleaders of emerging technologies or theories of future war, it is useful to examine airpower theory in practice since World War II for clues to the paths that maturing military organizations and their strategists should either take or avoid.
In his autobiography, Groucho Marx famously quipped that he would never belong to a club who would have someone like him for a member—a sentiment expressing both pride and insecurity that has much in common with the U.S. Air Force’s self-image throughout its 60-year history as an independent service. On one hand, the Air Force has proven itself an indispensable military force, often providing policy solutions in cases where its sister services could not. On the other hand, the Air Force’s almost paranoid insistence on its own indispensability has created problems for the U.S. military in both war and peace.
The success of American military operations in the future may depend on whether the Air Force—and, by extension, the much younger, equally brash and insecure space and cyber technocrats on their own path to institutional independence—can resolve this type of identity crisis for the larger good. The best overall strategy in the coming years may be one in which airmen and their counterparts dare not to win in traditional military, political, or economic terms.
Two major trends in modern conflict have made daring not to win viable by redefining the concept of decisiveness in military operations. First, the synergy of specialists has emerged as the dominant mode of military success, precluding the need for war-winning strategies favoring a supported campaign in a single domain. Second, conflicts increasingly require solutions for winning politically in ways that stop well short of traditional operational approaches to victory. Although both these trends challenge the Air Force’s fundamental assumptions about how it flies, fights, and wins, these same developments can ensure the continued relevance of organizations that make important contributions to American power.
No one can do it alone, except us
The Air Force’s first major public relations crisis of the Korean War came less than a month into the conflict, when a series of articles in the Baltimore Sun and Chicago Tribune questioned the Air Force’s ability to coordinate joint air operations and provide adequate close air support to ground forces. As Conrad Crane notes, the incident revealed “the sensitivity of the newest service to any accusation that it was not doing its job properly. Airmen were still concerned that bad publicity might be exploited by those who had not favored an independent Air Force and perhaps lead to the reassignment of tactical air assets to the Army.”
The intervening decades have done little to thicken the Air Force’s skin. During Operation Anaconda in the early months of the war in Afghanistan, questions about fire support to ground forces hunting al Qaeda fugitives in mountainous border terrain devolved into a bitter public dispute between the Army and the Air Force. When extensive press coverage of ground operations in Afghanistan and Iraq prompted concerns that the public was insufficiently aware of the contributions of airpower, the Air Force chief of staff directed an extensive reorganization of his service’s strategic communication functions. The Air Force clearly wishes to be seen as an effective and valued member of the military team.
At the same time, budget battles and other sources of institutional insecurity have driven the Air Force to promote airpower as a war-winning capability in its own right. Strategic Air Command opposed bombing operations in Korea and Vietnam as distractions from the more important business of global nuclear deterrence. Colonel John Warden, author of the “Instant Thunder” air campaign plan for Operation Desert Storm, devoted much of his staff’s time and effort to selling the executive branch, Congress, and the media on an airpower solution to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. As Frederick Kagan argues, the Air Force was “shameless” in leveraging publicity from Operation Allied Force—where U.S. airmen faced no significant air-to-air threat—to justify its expensive procurement of the F-22. Though they are just as shameless, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps advocates are justified in their suspicions that the Air Force seeks to bend current threats in the direction of parochial interests under the rhetorical cover of what is best for the joint team.
Military operations since 1945 clearly have demonstrated that ground operations are essential to any effort in which America seeks to seize or defend territory from an armed adversary. Iraqi forces defied Warden’s prediction that strategic bombing would eliminate the need for a ground offensive during Desert Storm, although airpower effectively destroyed any chance for substantial resistance to that offensive. Operation Deliberate Force benefited from a serendipitous synergy between NATO bombings and Croatian-Bosnian ground advances against the Bosnian Serbs. Six years later, U.S. special operations forces directed air strikes in concert with an offensive by Afghan fighters, overthrowing the Taliban regime in the early months of Operation Enduring Freedom. Noting how the absence of a credible ground threat from either NATO or the Kosovo Liberation Army enabled Serbia to disperse its forces and frustrate air attacks during Operation Allied Force, Benjamin Lambeth, a noted Air Force booster, concludes that “a ground component to joint campaign strategies may be essential, at least in some cases, for enabling air power to deliver to its fullest potential.”
Admitting that ground and maritime operations are necessary for fighting America’s future wars, however, does not imply the operational or fiscal subordination of the Air Force to other services, as many airmen fear. Although American soldiers scored impressive tactical victories in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, they have been less successful in operations that have not featured an extensive air campaign, notably Grenada, Panama, and Somalia. Army strategies have failed to defeat insurgencies in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq. Political and geographic facts have excluded ground and sea components from combat operations in the Balkans and Afghanistan. To date no soldier, sailor, or marine has produced a convincing plan to win great-power competition, much less any precise idea of what that means in military terms.
In short, any military service by itself suffers from a poverty of strategic options and opportunities in an expanding range of military conflicts and competitions. Therefore, future challenges do not require airmen who are better able to support ground or sea campaigns. It requires a networked collective of airmen, soldiers, sailors, and marines who together are capable of designing more comprehensive, flexible, and unconventional joint campaigns.
If all the talk of jointness sounds mundane, it is because service leaders say things like this almost every day. When budget dollars or prestige are on the line, though, they rarely think or act this way. The say-do gap on joint strategy is the source of many problems.
Winning isn’t winning anymore
If it has become meaningless to discuss air, ground, maritime, space, or cyber operations that can succeed with only token support from other components, it has become equally meaningless to consider military victory as the usual or preferred purpose of military force.
This has not prevented military officers from reframing their wars as achievable military victories frustrated by political meddling. To read Colonel Jack Broughton’s memoir of Operation Rolling Thunder, a few restrictive rules of engagement were all that stood between America and defeat of the North Vietnamese. To listen to the recent comments of Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, political ineptitude stymied legitimate hopes for a successful military strategy in Iraq. These and other entries in the long list of lamentations by veterans of America’s limited wars ignore the fact that political control of military force is often a good thing, especially when standard military doctrine advocates applying force at a rate or level of intensity that can be counterproductive to the problem at hand.
Since the end of World War II, political leaders generally consider the conditions that would enable decisive military victory to be less important than broader political objectives. Although President Richard Nixon claimed that unlike Lyndon Johnson he had “the will in spades” to bomb North Vietnam aggressively, he saw the value of strategic bombing operations “as much in their psychological effects as in their direct military results.” Nixon therefore carefully orchestrated the frequency and intensity of Linebacker bombing operations with his Russian, Chinese, and North Vietnamese diplomatic initiatives.
Rather than attempting to defeat Serbian forces in the field, Operations Deliberate Force and Allied Force represented efforts to win diplomatic concessions from the Serbs through the application of gradual, discriminating military pressure. As Benjamin Lambeth notes, despite the assertion by Vice President Dick Cheney that the “gloves would come off” after the September 11th terrorist attacks, Operation Enduring Freedom witnessed “an unprecedented emphasis on avoiding collateral damage” to protect America’s reputation among its allies and Muslim populations worldwide.
Paralleling the limits imposed on military force when political objectives diverge significantly from the goal of unambiguous military victory, policymakers continue to seek non-lethal solutions to traditional military problems. The independent Air Force’s first major operation, the Berlin Airlift, defended territory vital to U.S. interests at a time when ground forces were war-weary and rapidly demobilizing. Airlift reprised its role as a decisive strategic option in 1973 by preventing the collapse of the Israeli Defense Force in its war with Egypt and Syria. The American diplomat Richard Holbrooke shared military intelligence with Bosnian and Serbian leaders to achieve political breakthroughs that were in most respects as decisive as the results achieved through the Deliberate Force bombing campaign.
Non-lethal policy options become particularly important for U.S. leaders whenever military setbacks or popular expectations of a peace dividend following long wars increase the political value of limiting the use of military force. America’s armed forces are entering such a period as civilian leaders push to reduce commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. A successful theory of airpower or fill-in-the-blank-power now must focus more on the ends of the violence spectrum than on its middle. Strategists must present credible options to enhance interstate political competition and deterrence while ensuring protection against existential threats.
Daring not to win
In its determination to defend institutional turf and to develop unquestionable competency in the tactical delivery of airpower, the Air Force has channeled most of its best talent and experience into a pipeline extending from the tactical to component-operational level of war. The resulting air-mindedness has been a boon to tactical proficiency but a bane to developing theater-operational to strategic perspectives within the service.
The limited perspective of most airmen has slowed attainment of the joint and combined synergies that win modern wars—not only by hindering interservice cooperation as discussed above, but by marginalizing the foreign partnerships needed to prevent limited wars or disengage from them. Nixon’s “Vietnamization” strategy, for example, depended heavily on South Vietnam’s ability to field a self-sufficient defense force. By 1972, however, U.S. airmen had undercut this strategic objective by insisting that the South Vietnamese air force train to fight an American-style air war. When their South Vietnamese pupils proved unequal to the task, Air Force pilots, in the interest of short-term tactical success, flew most combat sorties themselves.
The Air Force’s focus on largely tactical, air-centric operations has been further limited by privileging lethal air-centric operations. To the extent that great-power competition serves as code for getting ready to fight another major war, this may make sense. But it is just as likely—actually, much more likely in the near term—that competition will feature U.S. forces wrestling with their response to smaller proxy conflicts, in which case the experiences of the past two decades cannot be dismissed.
As James Corum and Wray Johnson observe in their review of airpower in small wars, guerillas and terrorists “are seldom vulnerable to air attack. In that sense the lethal application of airpower takes a back seat to other uses, such as the rapid insertion and movement of troops, aerial resupply of isolated units, reconnaissance and intelligence collection, and psychological warfare.” The interaction of airpower experts and regional news media can be added to this list of underdeveloped capabilities, since sophisticated adversary propaganda through third parties plagued operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Operations in space and cyberspace also should provide a growing number of non-lethal alternatives to the menu of military options. Warfighting remains central to the military profession, and the Air Force must pay attention to the emergence of military peers and the proliferation of lethal technology over the next several decades. However, to the extent that future military operations remain subordinate to political objectives that probably will seek to minimize and in some cases eliminate the use of force, the Air Force will benefit by expanding its portfolio of non-lethal capabilities.
Changing the Air Force’s focus would entail real costs for the service. Senior leaders would have to accept more risk than they may feel they avoid with the costliest solutions for more advanced air superiority or strike capabilities. The high-end savings would need to go into smaller improvements in lower-end missions that provide value to joint, interagency, and allied competition against adversaries, such as intelligence, partnership building, command and control, cyber operations, and public communication. Planners devoting more effort to devising a wider range of options for policymakers naturally would focus less on treating each new violent actor as a traditional target set for a bombing campaign, which might put air components behind the power curve if circumstances deteriorated to the point where bombing was necessary.
To airmen who remain wedded to classic airpower theory, these outcomes would put victory itself at risk. The purpose of technocrats who specialize in a domain, in this view, is to sustain an orthodoxy that military victory is achievable predominantly through that domain, which in turn yields domestic political victories that sustain the service’s growing investments in personnel and technology. However, the history of airpower theory in practice suggests that such an outlook is short-sighted.
During the Cold War, the Air Force succumbed to the belief that “preparing for global war meant being ready for conflicts of lesser magnitude.” By refusing to risk their ability to deter or even prevail in a nuclear war that never happened, over too many decades airmen neglected to prepare themselves for the limited wars they actually fought.
The Air Force, its sister services, and the emerging space and cyber services-to-be should not make the same mistake twice in another era of competition. While talk of multi-domain operations and gray zones and anti-access area-denial threats and all the rest may be unavoidable, we should recognize them for what they are—improvised arguments for marketing defense solutions that are no more than a current best guess at ways out of strategic uncertainty.
If we allow these loose concepts to become rigid guides to winning a war we have not fought, then the resulting theory is likely to prove inadequate or even disastrous in practice. Nothing helps imperfect ideas become bad strategy like putting those ideas at the center of institutional politics, where defense of the theory becomes synonymous with the survival of the institution.
Maintaining America’s advantages in great-power competition requires finding affordable ways to increase rather than decrease our lethal and non-lethal options. Under the current system, the only way we can do that is if more tactical specialists who graduate into service and joint leadership positions dare not to win the battles over the control and resourcing of strategy that have contributed to America’s slow decline.
Groucho Marx, Groucho and Me(New York: B. Geis Associates, 1959), 321.
Conrad C. Crane, American Airpower Strategy in Korea, 1950-1953(Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000), 30.
Benjamin S. Lambeth, Air Power Against Terror: America’s Conduct of Operation Enduring Freedom(Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2005), 204-221.
General T. Michael Moseley, USAF, Air Force Chief of Staff, memorandum to major command commanders, subject: “Multimedia/Public Affairs Realignment,” 12 June 2006.
Crane, 59-60. John Schlight, The War in South Vietnam: The Years of the Offensive, 1965-1968(Air Force History and Museums Program, 1999), 49-50.
John Andreas Olsen, John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power(Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2007), 220-246.
Frederick W. Kagan, Finding the Target: The Transformation of American Military Policy(New York: Encounter Books, 2006), 196.
Colonel Christopher M. Campbell, USAF, “The Deliberate Force Air Campaign Plan,” in Deliberate Force: A Case Study in Effective Air Campaigning, ed. Colonel Robert C. Owen, USAF (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 2000), 119.
Lambeth, Air Power Against Terror, 361.
Benjamin S. Lambeth, NATO’s Air War for Kosovo: A Strategic and Operational Assessment(Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2001), 242.
Colonel Jack Broughton, USAF retired, Thud Ridge(Manchester, UK: Crécy Publishing Limited, 2006).
Jonathan Weisman, “Politics Creates Odd Pair: Sanchez and Democrats,” Washington Post, 27 November 2007, A1.
James S. Corum and Wray R. Johnson, Airpower in Small Wars: Fighting Insurgents and Terrorists(Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2003), 270.
Stephen P. Randolph, Powerful and Brutal Weapons: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Easter Offensive (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 199 and 227.
Karl Mueller, “The Demise of Yugoslavia and the Destruction of Bosnia: Strategic Causes, Effects, and Responses,” inDeliberate Force: A Case Study in Effective Air Campaigning, 28. Lambeth, NATO’s Air War for Kosovo, 8-10.
Lambeth, Air Power Against Terror, 366.
Roger G. Miller, To Save a City: The Berlin Airlift, 1948-1949(Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998), 20.
Walter J. Boyne, The Yom Kippur War and the Airlift that Saved Israel(New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2002).
Richard Holbrooke, To End a War(New York: Random House, 1998), 194-95 and 211-12.
Corum and Johnson, 437-38.
Corum and Johnson, 272-73.
Corum and Johnson, 272.
Lambeth, Air Power Against Terror, 347-48. Major Gary Pounder, USAF, “Opportunity Lost: Public Affairs, Information Operations, and the Air War against Serbia,” Aerospace Power Journal14, no. 2 (Summer 2000): 56-77.