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November 02, 2007

Abolish the Air Force!

I haven't made my way through the accompanying debate yet, but I'm totally convinced by Robert Farley's argument to abolish the Air Force. Keeping air power as a separate bureaucracy forces its adherents to continually justify their organization's existence -- which means over-aggressive use of air power, and constant argument for more of it. It's become the cowbell of the war. Subsume it to the Army, and it can be used more in keeping with broader strategic goals, and it loses the incentive -- or at least some of the incentive -- to oversell its capabilities. This grows all the more important because air power is actually a pretty dangerous tactic, and has a tendency to massively backfire...

November 2, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Hmm, this actually isn't really such a weird idea as it may seem at first glance. The Army has been complaining all of the time that the AirForce isn't really supporting them. Best example is the sad story of the A10 Thunderbolt, a great ground support fighter, who faced diehard opposition from the Airforce just because the army loved it. When the program was scheduled to die without a heir, the Army got into the Apache development, and that chopper showed in the Iraq war it doesn't really come close to the warthog. Even Saddam's lousy flak managed to keep the helis at bay...

Posted by: Gray | Nov 2, 2007 12:48:38 PM

On the other hand, in a conventional war, the Army wouldn't be the best address for coping with concepts like 'air superiority' and 'strategic bombing'. The best compromise would be to simply lift all constraints that keep the Army from operating their own ground support fighters and attack planes. Hell, the Marines have their own air wing, too!

Posted by: Gray | Nov 2, 2007 12:54:30 PM

Am I missing something? Because from my point of view it seems like it must be terribly inefficient to have 5 branches of the armed services. I understand that the Coast Guard is a bit different, but the other branches all have basically the same mission. So why can't we combine them into one organization and decrease this counter-productive territorialism? Is it just tradition that stops us, or is there a good reason to have the branches separated like this?

Posted by: pseudosilence | Nov 2, 2007 1:10:40 PM

Except that much of the incentive to use airpower is independent of whether there is a separate airpower branch of the military. It might make the airpower more appropriate to have the Army use it where it needs it, but it won't remove the calls for more cowbell.

What makes airpower so tempting is that it gives a lot of bang for the buck: you can "shock and awe" the natives without the risks to the soldiers of hand-to-hand combat. And that incentive to use airpower won't be much changed by re-organizations.

Of course, as well all know, the problem with airpower is that it sends the exact opposite message that is intended to be sent: instead of "shock and awe", people respond "why don't you get troops on the ground and fight rather than being wimps hiding in airplanes?"

Posted by: DAS | Nov 2, 2007 1:12:06 PM

Training (experience too!) isn't like money, and it isn't fungible. Assume a unified military with no branches. You still have to have specialties from bottom to top. Commanding an aircraft carrier and its group isn't like commanding a tank division. Putting bombs onto aircraft isn't like loading shells into artillery.

The work world is specialized. Reading a CT Scan is different than surgery on the stomach. The same logic could be applied to government civil service (and still won't make sense). Just transfer folks from the FDA to the Foreign Service? Yeah, that would be stupid.

The problem lies not in the specialization and the separate organizations, but in turning policy into action through funding, command and control and leadership. It means you must have rational strategies than can be achieved and the honesty to say what you mean and mean what you say. The substitution of aircraft and bombs for soldiers on the ground is a reflection of poor to non-existent management leadership. There are tools and there are strategies and tactics. When you don't know the differences between these things and are pursuing unstated objectives that must be hidden, then no organization will make things turn out well.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Nov 2, 2007 1:41:57 PM

You could replace 'Air Force' with 'Navy' in most of that article and reach exactly the same conclusion. It's a question of centralization vs decentralization of military control. The ultimate goal of any military is boots on the ground, the rest is transport and support. The question is whether you want it all under one roof or not.

Posted by: flory | Nov 2, 2007 1:57:35 PM

Despite our current focus on insurgencies and counter-terrorism, which are important, I think that military superiority in the coming century will be increasingly based upon space capabilities. If we got rid of the air force, we would probably need a seperate branch for space superiority.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Nov 2, 2007 2:02:53 PM

Well, uh, no. The ultimate goal of the Navy is not "boots on the ground".

And as for ruling the world from outer space- the peoples of the world stopped challenging us in a way that can be decided by military superiority about twenty years ago- or more. Just because they're foreigners doesn't mean they're stupid.

Right now the US is the equivalent of the drunk in a barroom looking for someone to fight. And everybody else is just buying us drinks.

Posted by: serial catowner | Nov 2, 2007 2:14:50 PM

Considering the incident of the "lost" nuclear missiles recently, I will count us lucky if some fundamentalist Christian Air Force general doesn't decide to reshape the electoral map by nuking New York and San Francisco.

Posted by: serial catowner | Nov 2, 2007 2:17:36 PM

Yeah, the complete inability of any branch of the military to subordinate themselves as support for another branch has been a problem since before the Air Force was spun off. Practically speaking, the answer was to build up another branch (the Marines) as comined-arms specialists.

Posted by: Senescent | Nov 2, 2007 2:20:36 PM

I thought in Yugoslavia all we needed was the air force and it was the army that was begging for role.

Posted by: Patton | Nov 2, 2007 3:44:35 PM

I friend of mine who was in both the Army and the Air Force also thought that the Air Force should be eliminated. But he thought the Air Force should be brought into the Marines, not the Army. He feels that the Marines should basically be an "attack army", while the Army should be an "occupation army." In this thinking, the Marines would make better use of air capability.

Posted by: fostert | Nov 2, 2007 4:30:22 PM

Make it part of whoever guards the border: no more illegal immigrants. Or the CIA: no more covert ops when you can shock and awe. Or the State Dept: no more need for Blackwater guards. Or the DC police department: no more slums in our beautiful Capital.

Posted by: ostap | Nov 2, 2007 5:46:48 PM

The Constitution empowers Congress to establish and Army and Navy, but it doesn't authorize an Air Force.

Posted by: rea | Nov 2, 2007 11:18:20 PM

The Constitution may not authorize an air force, but an act of Congress did. If they had airplanes in the 18th Century, I'm sure they wouldn't have made that omission.

Posted by: luftmann | Nov 3, 2007 1:06:07 AM

Farley is playing small ball. Abolish the Air Force AND the Army. Currently, we have 3 1/2 air forces-- USAF, USN, USMC and the Army's large helicopter fleet. We also have 2 1/2 armies, Besides the Army and Marines, the Navy has, umm, dipped its oar in the water. Their SEAL teams have long been considered the US's most elite infantry force. And just last year, the Navy announced the creation of a 40,000 member Expeditionary Combat Command-- most countries would call that force "Marines".

Worst of all, we have long had two strategic missile forces-- USAF ICBM and the Navy's SLBM programs. The Navy solved the threat of a crippling Soviet first strike 45 years ago when they deployed the Poseidon missile boats. Every ICBM or strategic bomber purchased since then has been money thrown down a rathole.

We should have a single military department but instead of creating a department out of whole cloth, put everything under the Navy Department. Move all ground forces including the SEAL teams to the Marine Corps (already part of the Navy Dept.) and move all missiles and air assets, including the Marine Air Wings, to the Navy.

We could handle any foreseeable threat by expanding the USMC back to its World War II size of 6 divisions (a Marine division is twice the size of an Army Light Infantry Division, so it'd be the equivalent of a 12 army division ground force).

OK, keep the Army around to run the National Guard and let them play with their Abrams tanks on the weekend. Maybe someday we'll need armored divisions again but in the mean time, the tankers should literally keep their day jobs.

Posted by: beowulf | Nov 3, 2007 1:49:59 AM

Oops, got my SSBMs out of order, the Polaris missile subs were deployed in the early 60's, the Poseidon boats were deployed in the early 70's and the Trident subs came along a few years later (at which point, the Navy started calling boomers "ships" and not "boats").

Posted by: beowulf | Nov 3, 2007 1:57:43 AM

I see five missions for the US military:

1) Police our waters. The Coast Guard.

2) Project power and establish naval superiority. The Navy, with the Naval Air Corps.

3) Establish control of land areas and the air above them. The Army, with the Army Air Corps.

4) A rapid-response integrated force which can pave the way for other forces. The Marines.

5) Nuclear deterrence. A strategic missile command combined with naval missile command.

There is no rational place in this for the Air Force. The Air Force's job is to do part of the Army's job. That's a dumb approach.

Posted by: Punditus Maximus | Nov 3, 2007 4:21:49 AM

I don't know what to say to someone who thinks the Airforce has the preponderance of our airpower. Perhaps their arguments shouldn't really be given much weight, for reasons outlines by Beowulf.

Posted by: soullite | Nov 3, 2007 9:31:20 AM

Posted by: beowulf | Nov 3, 2007 1:49:59 AM

We should have a single military department but instead of creating a department out of whole cloth, put everything under the Navy Department. Move all ground forces including the SEAL teams to the Marine Corps (already part of the Navy Dept.) and move all missiles and air assets, including the Marine Air Wings, to the Navy.

We could handle any foreseeable threat by expanding the USMC back to its World War II size of 6 divisions (a Marine division is twice the size of an Army Light Infantry Division, so it'd be the equivalent of a 12 army division ground force).

OK, keep the Army around to run the National Guard and let them play with their Abrams tanks on the weekend. Maybe someday we'll need armored divisions again but in the mean time, the tankers should literally keep their day jobs.

This would be a return to something quite like our pre-Civil War arrangement, where the Navy was the standing force and we raised the army when going on a war footing.

And, indeed, would be a recognition that the Cold War is over, and its time to bring the Army back from the Cold War bases.

Posted by: BruceMcF | Nov 3, 2007 10:58:02 AM

Hey, Punditus Maximus, we could have one mission to establish control of the air, and then all the ground or water underneath it. Then the Air Force could absorb the Army and the Navy!

I have to say this "abolish the Air Force!" meme came out of nowhere and I agree with Bill Sweetman at Aviation Week who calls it "a rather ill-structured and highly selective recycling of old arguments." Responding to Farley's op-ed's assertion that "some elements of tactical airpower would pass to the Marine Corps," he asks, "why the bloody hell does the US Navy's own army need its own air force?" (to point out the structural fault of singling out the USAF for extinction as opposed to any other branch, not to attack the Marines' own air power).

In all of this armchair pontificating, I haven't seen a voice from the Army, Navy or Marine Corps agree that they want the Air Force's job(s). The Air Force is not about "strategic bombing" despite Farley's assertions--it's about the organization and command-and-control of the nation's air power. Organizing these capabilities into something a Joint Forces Commander can employ as part of the toolbox is what the Air Force brings to the fight. For everyone who scoffs at the Air Force's role in the current conflict, Airmen are vital to the massive logistics bridge (cf. transport through Incirlik and the kerfuffle over the Armenian genocide resolution), close air support for troops-in-contact, and theater intel, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR ... cf. the 300 hrs of Predator surveillance needed before F-16s could roll in and bomb Zarqawi). Blithely asserting that another branch wants to or should absorb those capabilities and core competencies and somehow make room for them at their tables doesn't make it so.

Ezra, your health care analysis rocks, but I wouldn't vouch for your judgment on the roles and organization of US military power ...

Posted by: Respectful Dissent | Nov 3, 2007 12:16:39 PM

JimPortlandOR – Of course specialties are important, and I completely understand that there are very different roles within the military. And your point about it ultimately coming down good management is well taken. But there will be very different roles within any large organization. My question is whether the current branch structure of the American military is counterproductive and contributes to territorialism, inefficiency, and bad decision-making.

As Beowulf, Respectful Dissent, and several other commenters have clearly proven, most of you know far more about the military then I do. Which is why I’m honestly asking the forum, is there an advantage to having such distinct branches, or is an historical accident that survives in spite of being inefficient? As an ignorant civilian the branch arrangement has always struck me as bizarre, so why is it this way and is it something we should consider changing?

Posted by: pseudosilence | Nov 3, 2007 4:39:42 PM

Posted by: pseudosilence | Nov 3, 2007 4:39:42 PM

Which is why I’m honestly asking the forum, is there an advantage to having such distinct branches, or is an historical accident that survives in spite of being inefficient? As an ignorant civilian the branch arrangement has always struck me as bizarre, so why is it this way and is it something we should consider changing?

The main advantage of having a distinct service branch is that it fights for what is needed for the distinct missions that it sees as its turf.

The main disadvantage of having a distinct service branch is that it fights for what is needed for the distinct missions that it sees as its turf.

Or, in other words, the main distinctive characteristic of having a distinct service branch is that it fights for what is needed for the distinct missions that it sees as its turf, and whether that is good or bad depends on whether or not that is what you want.

For the Army versus the Navy, there seems to be substantial arguments that can be made for having distinct service branches.

On the other hand, the argument made regarding the Air Force is that what a free standing Air Force fights for are things where we would be better of having the benefit of the mission argued within the Army.

One thing we would get, for example, would be less reliance on helicopters in missions where fixed wing aircraft can provide more effective ground forces support. A second thing we would get would be less focus on "strategic bombing" and more focus on close support of ground forces.

Posted by: BruceMcF | Nov 3, 2007 5:28:39 PM

I don't see many military experts in this forum. The American military is divided among the three spheres of influence in which combat may be fought: land, sea, and air. There is some overlapping, such as the need for CAS for army troops in contact. Any "expert" who claims that the navy can handle army or air force matters better than they can obviously has never taken a professional military course.

The navy excels at warfighting at sea. Naval aviation is required for fleet protection, since it was proven that air power can asymetrically trump sea power (Billy Mitchell sinking the unsinkable Ostfriesland, Pearl Harbor, Coral Sea, Midway, Battle of the Bismarck Sea, among others). To give the navy control of strategic airlift, bombardment, air interdiction, air supremacy, air-to-air refueling, nuclear assets, and ISR would place them in charge of an element (air) which is in direct conflict with its specialty (water).

The marines are the navy's army. I personnaly feel that this duplicates the army's history of amphibious assault, but since the marines have a long, distinguished history of success in warfare, they have earned their place. Whether they need their own air arm and Abrams tanks is a different matter. Do they control their amphibious assault ships or does the navy have that responsibility? The marines should be an elite, rapid deployable shock force operating, as they are, under the navy. To give all responsibility for land combat to the marines is to dillute what they do best. They are not simply equipped to handle long-term land based operations.

The army excels at warfighting on land. This should include the airspace immediately above the battlefield, typically under 10,000 feet (that is very generous, since helos usually operate at 1000 AGL and below). Much of the army's inventory of heavy equipment is ill suited for the marines to take over. Imagine the marines storming a beach with a MLRS in tow. Putting an Abrams ashore is enough of a challenge.

The air force excels at warfighting in the air. The air is a separate arena and should be treated as such. There are many core competancies that the other branches have simply shown little or no interest in acquiring. Heavy air-to-air refueling cannot be accomplished from carrier borne aircraft. Land based bombers have proven that they can hit any target around the globe without worrying if the enemy will attack the home airfield (unlike the navy). Air supremacy is paramount in denying the enemy the use of the air. No other branch of the military has ever shown much interest in this arena more than to protect the fleet or to protect the army in the field. Strategic airlift has proven its worth in the Berlin Airlift, Gulf War I & II, and in the current war against terrorism. The air force is also the only branch that has shown even the remotest interest in space. Despite all the trekkies that point out that Capt Kirk was a captain in the navy model, space flight more closely resembles high-altitude pressurized flight that any frigate. Space is a natural extension of air power.

The air force is not going away, no matter how much academic eggheads love the pre-civil war romantic fallacy of a strong navy protecting our shores. We are in the 21st Century and we cannot turn the clock back on our national defense to 1941 or 1861.

The only reasonable argument for "abolishing the air force" would be to roll ALL of the military branches into a single unified command - the US Armed Forces. Bickering over budgets would diminish and the military could concentrate on the efficient use and projection of combat power - on land, sea, and air.

But I suppose there is a reason they are separated, to answer pseudosilence. It has been argued that civilian control of the military is most effective by the divide and conquer method. Having the branches quarreling endlessly over who does what and how much money they get ensures proper civilian control and protection of our government from internal military threats. A unified military with a popular leader could challenge the very existence of our democracy.

So if that means we have to listen to armchair admirals and wanna-be marine commandants argue why they can do the army and air force's jobs better, that is the price we pay for democracy.

Posted by: luftmann | Nov 3, 2007 6:30:21 PM

"The only reasonable argument for "abolishing the air force" would be to roll ALL of the military branches into a single unified command - the US Armed Forces. Bickering over budgets would diminish and the military could concentrate on the efficient use and projection of combat power - on land, sea, and air.

But I suppose there is a reason they are separated, to answer pseudosilence. It has been argued that civilian control of the military is most effective by the divide and conquer method. Having the branches quarreling endlessly over who does what and how much money they get ensures proper civilian control and protection of our government from internal military threats. A unified military with a popular leader could challenge the very existence of our democracy"

Interesting. Thanks, luftman.

Posted by: pseudosilence | Nov 4, 2007 2:26:11 PM

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