Why Airpower Is Still Relevant
A version of this article appears in the August 25 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.
In early 2001, pundits were challenging the continued relevance of ground forces in the 21st century. The incoming Bush administration was already discussing significant cuts in the size of the U.S. Army in an effort described as transformation. The pundits, of course, were proven wrong just a few months later.
History would repeat itself a decade later, when pundits were having difficulty seeing the relevance of airpower other than as a tool for close air support for ground troops. They argue that the Air Force’s independence was based on discredited theories of the decisive effect of airpower, that an independent Air Force results in an undue reliance on airpower as the solution to military problems and that an independent Air Force distorts procurement decisions by placing an undue emphasis on technology. Some even suggest folding the Air Force into the Army and the Navy to ensure more appropriate procurement decisions and create a more “combined” use of American airpower (AW&ST July 28, p. 50).
A common argument is that airpower alone is rarely decisive in modern warfare, and that there is thus no institutional need for an independent Air Force. This criticism largely rests on the view that airpower is only useful in support of naval and ground forces, for it is only if airpower’s value is in support of the Army and the Navy that folding the Air Force into the other services makes sense.
These views are fundamentally flawed. Most profoundly, they ignore sizable components of the Air Force—its mobility and space forces. Yet mobility and space assets offer some of our most significant advantages over potential adversaries.
But even focusing solely on combat airpower, the argument is flawed. It is true that early optimism about airpower as a panacea has at times proven misplaced, such as in the strategic bombing campaigns during World War II or the Vietnam War. But the unstated assumption that airpower can never be decisive apart from support for ground troops cannot be reconciled with history. Look no further than the NATO air offensive in Kosovo, when Serbia was forced to come to the negotiating table.
There are other, more recent examples. While the intensive bombing campaign against Iraq known as Operation Desert Fox in 1998 was at the time heavily criticized as ineffective, we have since learned that the operation was largely responsible for Saddam Hussein’s decision to end his efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction. U.S. military operations in Afghanistan in 2002 and Libya in 2011 were largely exercises in airpower. Simply put, airpower does not obviate the need for ground and naval forces—history has made that point abundantly clear—but in some circumstances, combat airpower is an indispensable tool of national power.
Moreover, the notion that an “airpower can do it alone” culture pervades the Air Force, or that the Air Force is not committed to joint warfighting, doesn’t hold water. To the contrary, during the debates about intervention in Libya and Syria, the Air Force leaders we know were very careful to caution civilian leaders about the costs and limits of airpower. They take great pains to make sure those making force-structure decisions and war plans take full account of the uncertainties and accept that there will be losses and mistakes during conflict. The Air Force of today has a more nuanced and realistic view of airpower than in the past.
Perhaps the most critical combat mission for airpower in the 21st century has been air superiority. In Iraq and Libya, air superiority was achieved rather quickly and largely taken for granted. This allowed all forces—ground, naval and air—freedom of action without concern for attacks from above. Air superiority is something that must still be won and undoubtedly will be contested by conventional state adversaries. In the possible battlefields of the future—against potential adversaries such as China and Iran—achieving air superiority will be a hard-fought battle. Until that battle is won, neither littoral naval nor ground forces can be fully effective. It is this mission—which is becoming increasingly important as more nations develop fifth-generation aircraft and sophisticated integrated air and missile defense systems—that will need to be a continuing focus of the Air Force in the 21st century.
The case for the decisiveness of airpower may have been oversold in the 1940s, but the continued need for airpower of all types—combat, mobility, space and cyberspace—cannot be seriously disputed. Just as the pundits in the late 1990s were profoundly wrong to question the continued importance of ground forces, critics today are wrong to suggest that airpower and the Air Force are anachronisms awaiting a necessary demise.