Abolish the U.S. Air Force
A version of this article appears in the July 28 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.
Institutionally speaking, we are living in 1947. We created military services in order to provide institutional voice to certain kinds of capabilities. Interwar airpower enthusiasts argued that aviators needed an independent service because land and sea commanders could not appreciate the transformative implications of military aviation. Innovation, industry and doctrine would suffer as the parochial interests of the Army and Navy prevented aviators from spreading their wings, so to speak.
The debate over Air Force independence also became entangled with a long, continuing discussion about the potential for independent decisive effect through airpower. Airpower enthusiasts made dramatic claims for the ability of air forces to win wars without resorting to significant land or naval combat. Whether we should interpret these claims as serious analyses of military affairs or as bureaucratic posturing remains a point of dispute.
Giving aviators a service insulated them from the predation of soldiers and sailors, but also created, in effect, a permanent bureaucratic lobby for airpower. The legacy of 1947 makes the question “How should the U.S. organize its military aviation?” hard to ask, and harder to answer. In my book, Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the, I argue that our institutions need reform, and that the Air Force should be folded into the Army and the Navy.
Today the U.S. operates five air forces, each with distinct procurement, training and mission priorities: the U.S. Air Force and the aviation branches of the Navy,, Army and Coast Guard. Each operates by its own rules and has its own set of complicated relationships with other organizations.
The creation of services inevitably results in the manufacturing of bureaucratic barriers between warfighters. Some such barriers are necessary, as the requirements of training and organizational culture demand the separation of some communities from others so they can fully develop their potential. Other barriers are pointless and destructive, leading to procurement inefficiencies and combat shortfalls.
We don’t have endless disputes over close air support and the A-10 because either Air Force or Army officers are bad or stupid. Rather, we have these disputes because we have structured our system so that two services compete over resources and have an incentive to shirk joint capabilities.
Folding the Air Force back into the other two services would accomplish two important policy aims.
•First, it would by necessity produce significant procurement reform by changing the process through which the services arrive at such decisions. In particular, procurement in theremains built around service requirements. While the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols reforms produced significant gains for joint planning, procurement still concentrates on service needs, and consequently on the organizational cultures and parochial interests of the services themselves. This creates a basic structural disjuncture between how we prepare for war and how we acquire the weapons of war.
•Second, it would change the way the Defense Department approaches the joint fight, by making the warfighters genuinely joint for the first time since 1947. Airpower plays a role in every conceivable military mission. Every peace since World War II has witnessed the emergence of a gulf between the expectations that services have of one another and their capabilities. In every war that gulf has closed, sometimes more quickly than others. Again, Goldwater-Nichols helped, but the conflicts over drone operations and counter-insurgency doctrine that have erupted in the last decade demonstrate that difficulties remain.
Every arrangement has downsides. Most countries grant a degree of autonomy to their air forces, although it varies considerably from case to case. What we lack is a compelling logic for dividing airpower from the military tasks to which it contributes. The most conventional explanation—that different mediums require different services—falls apart under any scrutiny (see again the five-plus air forces we currently field). And it is no longer necessary (if it ever was) to convince soldiers and sailors that they need to pay attention to airpower. For example, submarines do not require their own service, because the Navy has sufficient appreciation for what they do to integrate them into strategic and operational planning.
The borders that divide the services may (or may not) have made sense in 1947, but now they hamper good strategic and tactical thinking and contribute to a utterly broken procurement process. Killing a government bureaucracy is hard, but it can be done.
Farley is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky.