The Exact Day the Tailspin Started, and the Clue to Breaking It

Ask most people to sum up the state of the Air Force today, and they’ll acknowledge things are a mess. Low morale, insufficient manpower, excessive distractions, and a general lack of confidence in the will or ability of senior officers to turn things around.

The more interesting inquiry is how we got into this tailspin. Ask people that question and you’ll get a range of answers. Most will say it’s a been a long, gradual decline driven by low budgets, electoral politics, and foreign policy.

Some will point to this or that culminating event as the thing that triggered it all. Of these, many point to the tenure of Gen. Merrill McPeak as Chief of Staff (and I agree with these folks in a sense, as I’ll explain below). Others point to Gen. Ron Fogelman’s resignation from that post a few years later. Others blame the railroading of Brig. Gen Terryl Schwalier after Khobar Towers or the second invasion of Iraq in 2003 for the USAF’s decline into dysfunction. And then there’s the “Thanks, Obama” crowd.

All are probably right to varying degrees. But I have my own theory that the current tailspin threatening the viability and perhaps even the future existence of the USAF started on November 1oth, 1992. Over the course of the 25 years since, the service has paid a dear price for what occurred on that day, descending from the high heights of its Desert Storm prowess to its current flirtation with institutional oblivion.

On that day, the results of that year’s Brigadier General selection board were finalized. The short list of those selected did not include a name most expected would appear: John Warden.

For the uninitiated, Warden was the architect of the strategy behind Desert Storm, and the author of the airpower theory that served as its engine. Over the course of many years, Warden had carefully and intensively studied the history of warfare while theorizing about its future. He had developed an intuition that the United States would be called to fight in the Middle East and had thought in depth and detail about how to leverage the velocity, precision, and stealth unleashed by nascent airpower technologies to make such a war as brief, bloodless, and decisive as possible.

Warden captured these thoughts in arguably the sole coherent theory of airpower committed to paper since the service gained its independence in 1947 (a distinction that still applies a quarter century later, lending credence to the thesis I will set out below).  And when Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 put US interests in the crossfire, Warden saw the opportunity to put his theory to work.

Here’s where his story gets controversial. The ingeniousness and combat potential of Warden’s thinking on airpower had caught the attention of enough influential general officers that when planning for a coalition response to Iraq got underway, he was plucked from his planning cell in the bowels of the Pentagon and given the opportunity to present his ideas to empowered senior leaders on the Air and Joint staffs. Eventually, he briefed Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf.

These men bought Warden’s “air option” and sent him to present it to the Central Command air component commander, Lt. Gen. Chuck Horner. This wasn’t to give Horner an option, but to tell him how to execute.

Horner, wary of how warfighters had been given marching orders from out-of-touch bureaucrats from standoff during Vietnam, hated that a Pentagon staffer had written his plan for him and gotten it sponsorship before anyone from his staff had been involved.

He famously vented his wrath upon Warden as though the hatred were personal and sent Warden back to Washington to watch the war plan he’d built get executed on CNN. Cynically, Horner kept Warden’s deputy planners in theater to help him operationalize the plan, which he also kept. In execution, it became the centerpiece of the First Gulf War, demonstrating the decisive value of airpower and delivering a military victory almost entirely from the air. Horner harvested much of the credit for that victory, gaining a fourth star and a new command.

For Warden, the reward was a slow fade into obscurity and retirement, all the while shadowed by sneering disdain rather than the admiration he deserved. That he could write the plan that won an entire war and and yet be denied promotion is objectively absurd. It demonstrates how little those involved at the time grasped the value of strategy or planning, and how little they understood the historical or strategic significance of the events in which they were participating. But the way this all happened is where we can find the clues illustrating why we’ve been tailspinning ever since.

The seeds of Warden’s promotion board result were planted years before. In 1988, Warden published a book called The Air Campaign: Planning for Combat, which was based on research he conducted at National War College. The book presented an airpower-centric operational planning framework that directly challenged AirLand Battle, the dominant doctrine of the Cold War and the basis of USAF and Army joint organization and budgeting in the 1980s. This book made Warden a controversial figure among general officers, especially those who’d come of age in the tactical Air Force, where tight coherence with AirLand Battle and success at practicing it had been the keys to career ascendancy.

Warden’s next assignment was to command the 36th Tactical Fighter Wing at Bitburg. There, he sought to put his personal imprint on the organization, introducing initiatives that clarified his intent and, in some cases, challenged the conventional wisdom.He got the wing practicing in large formations, as he predicted it would fight (and in fact, many of the officers who later fought the war from Bitburg a few years later credited Warden with preparing them). He also sought to decentralize and debureaucratize operations, and to push responsibility to the lowest possible levels.

These changes did not sit well with the conservative generals running USAFE at the time. When Gen. William Kirk (USAFE/CC) visited the base, he castigated Warden for reducing the number of senior officer reserved parking spaces at the Officer’s Club, privately developing reservations about Warden on the basis of this triviality.

With less than a year in command, Warden was relieved despite having turned in impressive results. He was not relieved for cause, but as a matter of style preference; Kirk didn’t want a renegade Wing Commander at Europe’s most consequential base complicating the quiet of his sunset tour. Kirk and his toadies deceitfully told Warden he was being moved to a role at the Air Staff that would increase his promotion chances. In reality, he was being sent to pasture, with his wing command tour registering as unsuccessful due to his lack of political obedience.

By the middle of 1990, Warden had turned his Pentagon sentence into a new opportunity, with a Warfighting Concepts engine churning out ideas that continued to contradict prevailing doctrines of the time — chiefly by asserting that land-based airpower had become the predominant national instrument in modern warfare. Warden coined the phrase “global reach, global power” to describe this concept, and chided his servicemates to describe the service mission as “fly and win” rather than the long-accepted “fly and fight.”

Given this backdrop, it’s easy to see through the irony that tactical airpower leaders initially accepted the “Instant Thunder” war plan Warden built only because it was forced upon them. Later, they adopted it because they glimpsed its promise, though they were insistent on doing so without credit to the builder.

Generals deciding on his promotion after the war gave limited weight to the significance of his achievements as a strategist, instead locking in on how he’d challenged doctrine and politics. His relief from command at Bitburg gave them the cover to nonselect him for promotion in spite of the personal recommendation of the Secretary of the Air Force. Had Gen. Merrill McPeak also weighed in for Warden, it might have been enough to push him over the threshold. But alas, McPeak — himself a child of the tactical air force and raised on a diet of AirLand Battle — chose not to weigh in at all.

What the Warden debacle reflects — and it is a debacle when the man most responsible for our victory in a war is passed over in favor of cardboard yes men who did not upset the apple cart — is the Air Force’s preference for obedience and political alignment as well as its disdain for intellectuals and critical thinkers.

No one knows quite how it happened (though I have a few theories of my own, as do others), but somewhere along the way, a service which gained its independence by articulating and fighting into being a warfighting concept that challenged existing theories, doctrines, and politics morphed into an authoritarian, almost clerical order incapable of tolerating such challenges without taking them as attacks on the service itself.

Not every select for 1-star needs to fit a narrow mold. It is beyond fantastical to believe we didn’t have room for a once-in-a-generation thinker and strategist at that level in 1992. We certainly did. Warden was blackballed because he was disobedient, plain and simple. Since the early days of its independence, the Air Force hasn’t made enough room for those mavericks whose ideas are powerful enough to give the loyal and obedient team players a winning strategy to carry out. John Warden and John Boyd are the two most recognizable examples, but there are score more names we’ll never know … because they were driven out or chose to leave before their value as strategic thinkers could be recognized.

In the 25 years since Warden was passed over in favor of some obedient bureaucrat who didn’t offend the vanity of a 4-star or dare to think too aggressively without prior permission, we’ve been in a steadily tightening tailspin. The one variable which explains the chain of failures in that span of time is the absence of critical thought from our general officer corps, which has managed to get collectively more clueless while growing in size.

Every major failure in the last quarter century — from the pilot shortage to the mangling of enlisted PME, from the abysmal implementation of UAVs to the organizational rot of the ICBM community, from the inability to solve sexual assault without killing justice to the feeble inability to remove mold from airmens’ quarters at our deployed bases — all of these have suffered from a failure of imagination. A failure of critical thinking. A failure of strategy.

To a considerable extent, critical thinking is always a threat to establishment thinking. It’s about new ideas challenging old ones — many of which will have become rules, regulations, doctrines, and even laws.

The culture of the USAF since the early 1990s has devolved badly into one where the answer to most challenges is “shut up and color.” Generals and E-9s talk too much and listen too little. They enforce too much and innovate too little. Individuals who might be harboring that next big idea are unlikely to bring it forth … because they have no reason to believe it will make them successful. They have no Wardens at the senior-most level to shepherd and protect them as they push and prod.

The unwillingness to promote a deserving John Warden to 1-star didn’t just injure the value proposition of competing for promotion on a fair basis. It sent a signal to prospective strategists of future generations that they and their ways of work would never be welcome at the senior level.

As a result, we’ve lost most of our free thinkers and failed to recognize most of the few who have remained. Warden’s old “Checkmate” division (where I had the privilege to work at one point) has not survived budget cuts. Strategy isn’t a thing on USAF staffs at any level. Pushing back on a staff package will get you pushed aside, or maybe pushed out.

It’s not one policy or even several that got us into this mess. It’s the way we think — or more accurately the way we don’t think. With a vibrant, intelligent nucleus of theorists, thinkers, and strategists embedded in our senior management levels, we’d be a stronger force with a better chance of navigating the institutional challenges we’ve seen, more of which are in store.

But to win, we have to give our intellectuals real power. Hard to see that happening any time soon.

For more on John Warden, I recommend John Andreas Olsen’s John Warden and the Renaissance of American Airpower

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