Untethered: In Defense of an Independent Air Force

The American Air Force has dominated the skies and crushed enemies since becoming an independent agency in 1947.  As it struggles through a turbulent period, critics are suggesting it be stripped of independence.  They're wrong, but the Air Force needs to do a better job of proving it.  Photo Credit: USAF TSgt Cecilio Ricardo.
The American Air Force has dominated the skies and crushed enemies since becoming an independent agency in 1947. As it struggles through a turbulent period, critics are suggesting it be stripped of independence. They’re wrong, but the Air Force needs to do a better job of proving it. Photo by TSgt Cecilio Ricardo.


Is there a chance that independent airpower could fall prey to budget austerity and departmental defense reform? While the idea seems far-fetched, the Air Force was nervous enough about it a few years ago to mobilize authors and affiliates to raise a pre-emptive defense. This anxiety reflects recognition that the country is in uncharted budgetary and defense territory, and that the Air Force — an agency without a Constitutional mandate — could be stripped of independent status with comparative ease.

Cue scholar Robert Farley, who recently rendered the Air Force a service with his book “Grounded: The Case For Abolishing the United States Air Force.” In delving deeply into the question of the service’s existential necessity, Farley employs a reasoned and researched argument too substantive to be cheaply marginalized. Heretical as it may sound to blue-veined airmen, his work is important. As a massive federal behemoth with an annual budget larger than the GDPs of 130 countries, a perennially stellar public confidence rating, enough firepower to destroy the planet hundreds of times over, and scores of stakeholders working constantly to enlarge its influence, the Air Force wields formidable power. Such power is bound to make it complacent from time to time. Occasionally staring down tough questions about itself is important to the maintenance of institutional wellbeing.

Farley’s work is also timely. The service is currently seized with serious issues of ethics, organization, and leadership that are inviting concern from legislators and disquiet among airmen. For the most part, responses to these issues have been marked by denial rather than transparency. Obscuration and stonewalling have slowed recognition of lurking ills that could conspire to help make Farley’s case for ending Air Force independence more viable. That is, unless, the service pauses, reflects, and plots a course correction.

Institutions get complacent from time to time, and even the world's best Air Force is no different.  Can external pressure help push the most formidable collection of warriors in world history back on course?  Photo by USAF TSgt Ben Bloker.
Institutions get complacent from time to time, and even the world’s best Air Force is no different. Can external pressure help push the most formidable collection of warriors in world history back on course? Photo by  TSgt Ben Bloker.

Despite this grim outlook, there are optimistic stirrings noticeable in recent initiatives. Important reforms to enlisted evaluation and officer professional education systems reflect a rediscovered willingness to grapple with entrenched problems. Assuming this philosophy can be exported to other urgent issues such as modernization, the degradation of squadrons, and the rise of toxic leadership, there’s ample reason to believe we’re not seeing the beginning of the end of independent American airpower, but indeed just the end of the beginning. But hope not making for much of a strategy, it’s important to register in earnest the arguments of external critics, to include those of Robert Farley.

His approach, though not without flaws, is thoughtful. Tracing to the roots of air warfare, Farley builds the case that America needs airpower, but not delivered via an independent service. Holding up the air forces of other nations — albeit ones with more modest security requirements — he maintains that airpower can achieve its objectives better if freed from a unitary structure and instead shared across other services where it can be put to greatest organic use.

Along the way, Farley saliently isolates service preferences that have sometimes blocked ideal air contributions to joint warfighting. He correctly concludes that preoccupation with strategic bombing contributed to the Air Force’s ill preparedness for Vietnam. He gestures accurately toward this same preoccupation as a source of disruptive inter-service tension in the first decades of the Cold War (though he attributes more fault than deserved to the Air Force while letting the Navy off the hook). He also distills the Air Force’s tendency to become infatuated with the technologies it wields, a predilection that sometimes manifests as a greater interest in modernizing than in actually fighting. But while Farley scores some great analytical points, his argument also suffers from flaws that bound its usefulness.

Grounded’s diverse claims and recommendations flow from two main propositions. First, that America’s stand-alone air service was born with flaws traceable to its conception, and second, that these flaws have made and will continue to make the costs of independently delivered airpower greater than the benefits.

To illustrate the first proposition, Farley makes an argument others have been making for decades: that the prime mover in the Air Force’s push for independence was an ideological belief in the efficacy of strategic bombing, and that this zeal carried through the independence movement and into the service’s lasting culture. The way Farley and others see it, this is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, the promise of strategic bombing has never been fulfilled, at least not to the extent implied by its champions. Second, its unfulfilled promise has led proponents to continue in the search for a “Holy Grail” combination of aircraft, munitions, and targets to prove the theory correct, consuming energies better devoted to anticipating and adapting to the nation’s conflicts.  

Early airpower theorists like Billy Mitchell found themselves selling a new idea, and had to push hard for it to break through traditional power structures.   Some critics believe this zeal fostered inflated notions of airpower efficacy that persist to the current day.  In truth, the modern Air Force does not have a coherent theory of airpower.
Early airpower theorists like Billy Mitchell found themselves selling a new idea, and had to push hard for it to break through traditional power structures. Some critics believe their zealousness fostered inflated notions of airpower efficacy that persist to the current day. In truth, the modern Air Force does not have a coherent theory of airpower.

Handmaiden to this congenital malady, Farley proposes, is the service’s founding upon an incomplete appreciation of war’s complexity and enduring nature. Farley sees an Air Force wrongly possessed of the idea that it can lift the fog of war through technology, making enemies transparent enough to be systematically defeated without the need for a direct confrontation with fielded forces. Farley points to fixation on nuclear weapons and serial flat-footedness in the face of foreseeable conflicts as evidence of a misguided institution whose psychology is irretrievably flawed and only remediable through disaggregation.

Farley’s second underlying proposition is less rooted in historical or theoretical notions than in his own views about organizational efficiency. Having studied analogues, he believes airpower is at its best in organic form, with the thinnest of coordination barriers between its customers and practitioners. This leads him to the conclusion that airpower should be parceled out to the control of the Army and Navy, whose distinctive requirements an independent service struggles to fully meet. Farley sees the Air Force needlessly resisting a fulsome embrace of these requirements, creating bureaucratic logjams, inefficiencies, and rivalries that drive up the price tag of a stand-alone service.

However we might feel about the accuracy of these critiques, they’re not frivolous. It’s not difficult to imagine these ideas serving as the core of a future movement to economize resources by consolidating airpower, especially if the Air Force’s currently noticeable decline proceeds unchecked. But before we resign ourselves to that outcome, there’s plenty of room to contend with Farley’s arguments and the raft of affiliated ideas that have continually characterized this long-running intellectual squabble.

Even if Farley is right that the Air Force was conceived on inflated notions of airpower efficacy, this does not mean that it didn’t develop and change between its conception and birth, or that it hasn’t grown and changed over the course of its 67 years of life. Even if we accept that the flaws with which the service was born remain in its DNA, it doesn’t follow that the Air Force is irrevocably doomed to a pattern of over-promising, under-delivering, or failing to harmonize with partners.

Hap Arnold said  "a modern, autonomous, and thoroughly trained Air Force in being at all times will not alone be sufficient, but without it there can be no national security."  His words were accurate then and remain so now, even if the service was partially founded on an unsteady theoretical foundation.
Hap Arnold said “a modern, autonomous, and thoroughly trained Air Force in being at all times will not alone be sufficient, but without it there can be no national security.” His words were accurate then and remain so now, even if the service was partially founded on an unsteady theoretical foundation.

Strategic bombing is a powerful idea that indeed animated the upsurge of airpower and continues to occupy a role in airpower thought to the present day. But long before the independent Air Force came to be, the airmen comprising it had embraced several core roles and corresponding theories, including pursuit, surveillance, transportation, and yes, bombing.

To the extent strategic bombing doctrine created the impetus for independence, it scarcely persisted as a preoccupation for long. The Air Force has been “re-born” several times in the decades since it achieved independence. The reorientation of US security strategy toward containing the Soviet Union led the fledgling service to focus on developing and employing atomic weapons, which was more about deterring adversary states by holding them at risk and less about systematically targeting them. Soon enough, Vietnam forced the Air Force into low-intensity adaptations that exposed its preference for high-end conflict but imprinted it with stubborn traditions of special operations, close air support, and tactical mobility, and air superiority. 

The post-Vietnam era brought another re-birth. The Air Force of the 70s and 80s kept the deterrence pot boiling, but also developed a passion for pushing a putative Soviet invasion back out of central Europe as the spearhead of a combined arms force tightly coordinating with joint partners. This version of the service placed a premium on training to the high end of the warfighting spectrum but equipping for an expansive band of potential conflict, a task made easier by robust Reagan-era defense budgets. The investments of the 80s became seed money for revolutions in stealth and precision that fundamentally shifted philosophies among airpower theorists, planners, and practitioners in the following decade. This new philosophy may have looked like a strategic bombing resurgence to outsiders, but it was new thinking. Where legacy airpower advocates had been concerned with breaking the will of enemy populations, this new school of thought focused on the use of precision and simultaneity to paralyze adversaries without making rubble of entire societies. It viewed enemies as reacting systems rather than static collections of industrial targets. This airpower Renaissance, ushered in by John Warden and carried forward by Dave Deptula and others, boosted independent airpower forward until September 11th, 2001.

John Warden proposed that "if we can prevent the system’s leadership from gathering, processing, and using information we don’t want him to have, we have effectively paralyzed the system at a strategic level." His theory formed the core of a doctrinal reformation that carried the Air Force through the transitional decade leading to 9/11.  The wars that followed didn't comport well with this theory, and the service has struggled to adapt.
John Warden proposed that “if we can prevent the [enemy]’s leadership from gathering, processing, and using information we don’t want him to have, we have effectively paralyzed the system at a strategic level.” His theory formed the core of a doctrinal reformation that carried the Air Force through the transitional decade leading to 9/11. The wars that followed have not comported well with this theory, and the service has struggled to adapt.
Since that day, the service has been engaged in an endless and vicious adaptation exercise that has yet to culminate, but yields one undeniable conclusion: the Air Force of 2014 does not resemble in any meaningful way the Air Force of 1947. This is on one level a damning statement. It reflects the failure of the institution to cultivate and preserve enough heritage to emotionally link today’s struggles with those of its past. But it’s also a vindication of sorts. It nullifies the Farley contention that an ill-bred and low-born service can only have its flaws scrubbed away through death. Like the airmen who comprise it, the Air Force has been made stronger by that which didn’t kill it, and needn’t perish to prove the point.

But let’s assume for a moment that Farley’s right. Let’s assume the marrow of the Air Force is riddled with an unshakeable belief in the efficacy of industrial-era strategic bombing theory, and that no matter the number or intensity of rejuvenating baptisms endured, it can never be trusted to resist its inborn, instinctive attraction to this idea. It’s still fair to question whether Farley’s second proposition — that the cost of independent airpower outweighs the benefit — flows logically from the idea that it is infected with the disease of mistaken doctrine.

The best way to test to this idea is to imagine how an air force nested wholly within the Army might have responded to the challenges of the security environment over the last seven decades. This is an indirect way of imagining how a new Army Air Corps might serve or undermine the nation’s security objectives.

The Berlin Airlift was born when Gen. Lucian Clay, commander of the US occupation of Berlin when it was blockaded by the Soviets, asked Gen. Curt LeMay whether the Air Force could haul coal. LeMay’s response: “we can haul anything.” No need for a workshop or research seminar, just a definitive answer resting on confident foreknowledge.  Independent airmen, free to theorize about the best application of their capabilities, stood ready with a distinctive idea for how to overcome the Berlin blockade. Would an aerial course of action have been considered, developed, and ready to execute without independent airpower thought shepherded by an airman? It’s an interesting question that should give us pause about the potentially diverse paths history might have taken with ground-tethered airpower.

The success of the Berlin Airlift stemmed largely from corrections made by Maj. Gen. William Tunner after a series of mishaps reflected an inappropriate balance between risk and operational necessity. Would a non-airman have grasped or been receptive to these adjustments? The answers are debatable. Again, they gesture toward the risk of not having a service specializing in airpower, and not knowing what we don’t know as a result.

The Berlin Airlift resolved a tense political dispute non-kinetically.  Without an independent Air Force, would it have been possible? Any lack of confidence in the answer reflects the risk of ground-tethered airpower.
The Berlin Airlift resolved a tense political dispute non-kinetically. Without an independent Air Force, would it have been possible? Any lack of confidence in the answer reflects the risk of ground-tethered airpower.

Now apply this same logic to other major exercises of airpower. Much as we lament the ultimate indecision of the first Gulf War, how much more costly might it have been without the surgical dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s command-and-control network, the systematic destruction of his fielded forces, and the defanging of his theater missile capability? How much more slow and ineffectual would the 2001 US response in Afghanistan have been without the uniquely balanced capabilities of platforms developed with range, payload, and tactical prowess held in balance?

It’s an important query, because it’s difficult to imagine the varied portfolio of fighter, reconnaissance, mobility, and special operations capabilities that shared the airspace on the first night of that war even getting built, let alone having their potentialities exploited, without an independent air service budget and the passion-brimmed ideas that gave it meaning over the span of decades. From staying the hand of Iran to supporting regime change in Libya to balancing an uneasy peace on the Korean peninsula, airpower has long been a flexible tool for political leaders solving problems of military conflict, humanitarian relief, and diplomatic brinksmanship. Would this have been the case without service independence? In a world growing more volatile and more interdependent, this might be the most important question. Proponents of a federated air force typically provide solid renditions of the potential benefits of a departmental re-structure, but that’s the easy part. The tough part is weighing the countervailing risks, and they are considerable.

All of this is to say that the benefits of independent airpower aren’t really fertile grounds for litigation anymore, if ever they were. It’s squarely proven that the independent organization and leadership of airpower engenders resourceful military options and channels procurement efforts toward the weapons to make these options possible. This gives policymakers more latitude in confronting threats, in turn raising the margin by which our nation and its interests are safely defended. While neither airpower nor the strategic bombing concept that brought it greater notoriety are likely to be singularly decisive in a conventional war, the availability of independent airpower can be dispositive across a range of military and political undertakings. The only question, then, is whether the costs of independent airpower are vindicated by these benefits.

One potential cost entertained by Robert Farley and others is the notion that airpower allows us to deceive ourselves about the price tags and risks of military adventurism. It gives politicians and the people they represent too much incentive to support a force-drive foreign policy by presenting itself as a cost-effective panacea. To the extent airpower advocates have oversold its utility and politicians have wielded it for lack of a better idea, this is a concern worthy of registering. But ultimately, it seems unfounded.

The forces compelling politicians into foreign entanglement have been geopolitical, electoral, and strategic. These are powerful motivations that would not likely have been forestalled by the distinction between independent and subordinate air forces. It’s unlikely that Bill Clinton’s decision would have been different with respect to Kosovo or that Barack Obama would have avoided confronting the Islamic State simply because of a more modest volume of airpower advocacy. Given that the George W. Bush Administration ignored military advice in designing Operation Iraqi Freedom, it’s a stretch to imagine a different defense structure would have resulted in a different outcome. In all likelihood, wars of choice would be just as attractive to politicians in the absence of independent airpower, lest we believe the comparatively higher costs of ground combat supported by less effective airpower would transform them into models of restraint.

There’s also a related worry — surfaced in an oft-repeated claim of airpower critics — that by indulging in an airpower-focused service, we’ve created a cult of theorists who believe it’s possible to skip over an enemy’s fielded forces and still prevail in a major confrontation. This claim is inaccurate and irrelevant. The US Air Force has attacked fielded forces in every major conflict waged since its inception, and has itself advocated that this be done. The tools for effectively finding, fixing, and destroying mobile and armored ground forces have been developed and refined by airmen, as have the tactics and techniques necessary to make such engagements effective. Airmen have advanced the orchestration of reconnaissance and close air support far beyond degrees imaginable without dedicated communities of practice operating over the course of time to continually learn and apply the hard-won lessons of contending with enemy armies.

"The preponderance of the Republican Guard divisions outside of Baghdad are now dead. I find it interesting when folks say we're softening them up. We're not softening them up, we're killing them." Lt. Gen. Michael Moseley, USAF, 5 April 2003.
“The preponderance of the Republican Guard divisions outside of Baghdad are now dead. I find it interesting when folks say we’re softening them up. We’re not softening them up, we’re killing them.” Lt. Gen. Michael Moseley, USAF, 5 April 2003.

To the extent the Air Force cherishes an unspoken preference for overflying fielded forces and paralyzing an enemy state without the need for costly force-on-force battles, this is an advantage rather than a liability. Only by exploring the potential of this idea does it become possible that conflict might be abbreviated and less costly than in the set-piece battles marking industrial war on two-dimensional battlefields. We shouldn’t be concerned that an independent air force is likely to focus too intently on this prospect, so long as it remains capable of simultaneously holding fielded forces at risk. Here, the record is clear. When it’s not directly interdicting any enemy dumb enough to mass itself into a target, the US Air Force unerringly provides direct and indirect support to its ground-based partners, multiplying their effectiveness and proving it can simultaneously regard an enemy in both systemic and episodic terms.

Of course, the entire debate about what the Air Force seeks or prefers fallaciously assumes a monolithic or even primary warfighting philosophy can prevail among airmen. Since the beginning of airpower, its rise has been marked by the clash and cooperation of expert clans. The modern Air Force, consistent with its ancestry, is a collection of diversified specialties lacking in not only a common philosophy, but even a common understanding of itself. This is an institutional liability, but also a counterargument to those needlessly anxious that independent status is an enabler of flawed doctrines.

On balance, opponents of continued airpower independence, to include Robert Farley, don’t make a solid case that the costs of independent airpower are considerable enough to outweigh its benefits. They also fail to adequately address the risks that lurk in breaking it up piecemeal now that the nation’s defense has been structured on the assumption of a separate service for nearly seventy years.

But before shelving Farley’s important addition to the defense reform discussion, it’s important to recognize and wrestle with his most important offering. Throughout his argument, Farley builds up the proposition that airmen wrongly believe airpower can free them from the timeless nature of war. Farley frames this recurring theme by insisting that airmen are averse to widely recognized notions of war and strategy popularized by Carl von Clausewitz — notions such as the necessity of striking fielded forces, the inescapability of fog and friction in war, and the importance of understanding the critical linkages between conflict and the policy goals it seeks to vindicate. While many of Farley’s specific claims don’t ring true because they pretend more certitude than exists (see the preceding discussion), his intuition about the intellectual health of the Air Force is accurate.

Farley is right that airmen prefer the futility of trying to lift the fog of war to the recognition that it can’t be lifted. This matters because a service that doesn’t believe uncertainty must be accepted consequently doesn’t see a need to inculcate judgment into its planners, operators, and leaders. Without judgment, leaders freeze under conditions of uncertainty and fail to make decisions, inviting mission failure and the subsequent over-involvement of senior officials in tactical matters. The modern Air Force is absolutely seized with a cult of micromanagement reflecting this intellectual weakness.

The Air Force’s education and training programs do not currently approach war with sufficient respect for its complexity, nuance, and the fluidity it demands. Airmen are taught to think too linearly, and too much in terms of scientific solutions rather than impressionist renderings. Campaigns are about managing data and chalking metrics rather than engaging in the more difficult and essential practice of operational art. So, if the heart of the Farley critique is to worry about the intellectual decline of a service that began on questionable footing in the first place, he crushes the bullseye of his most important target.

Jimmy Doolittle admonished "if we should have to fight, we should be prepared to do so from the neck up instead of from the neck down."  The modern Air Force is astray from this guiding principle, and must relocate it to maintain its independence.
Jimmy Doolittle admonished “if we should have to fight, we should be prepared to do so from the neck up instead of from the neck down.” The modern Air Force is astray from this guiding principle, and must relocate it to maintain its independence.

But with every word, he also demonstrates why the Air Force must never be tethered to the authority of ground commanders. The soul of airpower is innovation, and innovation depends upon the intellectual freedom to dream up new ways of solving problems and making enemies suffer from the air. That freedom won’t predominate with airmen sealed into a two-dimensional culture with a three-meter perspective. Without an independent air service, the intellectual centers of excellence that have thrived in episodic but critical ways over the years would not exist, and we wouldn’t have the best and brightest airmen studying, reflecting, and thinking creatively at an intense enough level to unlock the potential of the nation’s most important advantage — its asymmetric capability to wage war through air and space.

Looking for proof? Look no further than the last decade. The Air Force has been busily working to make Robert Farley’s argument for him by betraying its duty to remain an intellectually and practically distinctive warfighting service. In a transparent ploy to maintain budgetary relevance by staking out a share of the current fight, the Air Force has been continually adopting the structures and practices of a land-based service. The Air Force has changed its uniforms, consolidated its base operations, adopted a mind-numbingly silly universal creed, shifted its terminology and labeling, and installed a new fitness program, all in the name of eliminating the techno-specialized clan traditions of an aviation culture to replace them with the martial traditions of a ground support culture. Human resource practices and leadership priorities have been radically upended, reversing incentive streams that once rewarded ingenuity and now reward rote compliance. A raft of policies telling supervisors not only what to do but how to do it have made it open season for micromanagers, putting airmen on notice to work like rented mules, stifle their misgivings, be thankful they have jobs, and start thinking like they’re told to think. This is a disastrous approach for a service that depends on unconventional thinking as its lifeblood.  

It also leads to a severe underutilization of the talents and capabilities of American airmen.  They are superbly intelligent, resourceful, and committed.  They volunteered to serve their country through air and space in a time of historic difficulty and danger.  All they ask in return is to be adequately resourced, well led, and permitted to focus on doing their work. This means that much as they respect their fellow Marines, Sailors, and Soldiers, they insist rightly on doing airpower work within an airpower culture.  The Air Force is struggling these days to give lift to these basic aspirations.  This difficulty casts a shadow of doubt over the future.

Airmen.  They've raised their hands to defend their country during a time of conflict and deprivation.  Is the Air Force doing all it should to let them focus and attain excellence?  That question looms large in the discussion of the service's continued independence.  Photo by MSgt Greg Steele.
Airmen. They’ve raised their hands to defend their country during a time of conflict and deprivation. Is the Air Force doing all it should to let them focus and attain excellence? That question looms large in the discussion of the service’s continued independence. Photo by MSgt Greg Steele.

The good news is that airmen at all levels, especially those old enough to have been part of the airpower Renaissance of the 90s, recognize these unfolding contradictions and can scarcely contain their dissonance. The result is a service openly grappling for its sense of self, starved for thinking space, and struggling to enumerate and articulate priorities. This conflict is a good thing.  It’s the only path to clarity. Given that it’s always darkest just before the dawn, Farley’s jolt to the Air Force psyche could provide the first flicker of a new intellectual awakening — one that will hopefully quell any talk of radical reform by reminding everyone how thunderously impressive a well-functioning air service can be at full throttle. Intellectually untethered, airmen can and will explore and exploit the potential of determinant military action through air and space. This is what American national defense deserves.

But the corollary is also true. If the independent US Air Force can’t or won’t snap out of its decade-long mental and ethical slump, dispense with the pretension of trying to “play army” as a gambit to get more modernization money, and leverage its independence to think about war and leadership more critically, its rationale for independence will be continually degraded. At some point, Congress and the taxpayer could find the Farley argument attractive enough to act on it. In that case, it’ll be darkest just before everything goes black.


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