In August of this year, reports emerged that British Army officers in Afghanistan had requested an end to American airstrikes in Helmand Province because the strikes were killing too many civilians there. In Iraq, the Lancet Study of Iraqi civilian casualties of the war suggested that airstrikes have been responsible for roughly 13 percent of those casualties, or somewhere in the range of 50,000 to 100,000 deaths.
Does the United States Air Force (USAF) fit into the post–September 11 world, a world in which the military mission of U.S. forces focuses more on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency? Not very well. Even the new counterinsurgency manual authored in part by Gen. David H. Petraeus, specifically notes that the excessive use of airpower in counterinsurgency conflict can lead to disaster.
In response, the Air Force has gone on the defensive. In September 2006, Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap Jr. published a long article in Armed Forces Journal denouncing "boots on the ground zealots," and insisting that airpower can solve the most important problems associated with counterinsurgency. The Air Force also recently published its own counterinsurgency manual elaborating on these claims. A recent op-ed by Maj. Gen. Dunlap called on the United States to "think creatively" about airpower and counterinsurgency -- and proposed striking Iranian oil facilities.
Surely, this is not the way the United States Air Force had planned to celebrate its 60th anniversary. On Sept. 18, 1947, Congress granted independence to the United States Army Air Force (USAAF), the branch of the U.S. Army that had coordinated the air campaigns against Germany and Japan.
But it's time to revisit the 1947 decision to separate the Air Force from the Army. While everyone agrees that the United States military requires air capability, it's less obvious that we need a bureaucratic entity called the United States Air Force. The independent Air Force privileges airpower to a degree unsupported by the historical record. This bureaucratic structure has proven to be a continual problem in war fighting, in procurement, and in estimates of the costs of armed conflict. Indeed, it would be wrong to say that the USAF is an idea whose time has passed. Rather, it's a mistake that never should have been made.
Before 1947, aviation existed as a branch (if a large and privileged one) of the Army, alongside the infantry, artillery, and armor branches. To win autonomy, the Air Force needed to demonstrate that it could make a significant independent contribution to victory.
At the beginning of the U.S. involvement in World War II, Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, commander of the Army Air Force, decided that the Air Force would join Britain's Royal Air Force in the Combined Bomber Offensive against Germany. Over the next three years, American and British airmen would suffer appalling losses against German air defenses in a strategic bombing campaign designed to destroy German civilian morale and industrial capacity. The campaign expanded to Japan after Pacific bases became available. The USAAF also conducted a number of other missions, but its chiefs believed that strategic bombing would win the war for the Allies -- and independence for the Air Force.
This desire for independence drove the behavior of the USAAF during the war. By late 1944, a submarine blockade had stymied Japanese war production. Because of the ineffectiveness of attacks on industry, and the flammability of Japanese cities, Gen. Curtis LeMay, mastermind of the strategic bombing campaign against Japan, decided that civilian areas would be the objective of his B-29s. Roughly 1 million Japanese civilians died from the fire-bombing of Japanese cities, though it was the incineration of so many square miles of Japanese city that the Army Air Force pointed to as it adduced clear, quantitative results in its fight for independence. LeMay would later head the Strategic Air Command, and serve as chief of staff of the Air Force during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which he argued for a full set of airstrikes against Cuban targets.
During World War II, the USAAF also engaged in tactical air support and anti-submarine warfare missions, but these involved tight integration with either the Army or the Navy, and thus couldn't justify an independent service; only strategic bombing could do that. In the immediate postwar years, the USAAF fought bitter battles with the Army, the Navy, and the Royal Air Force over the evaluation of the strategic bombing campaign. The campaigns had plainly failed to destroy German or Japanese morale, so the arguments turned to an assessment of Axis industrial output. Although academic disputes continue, the historical consensus is that the campaign inflicted damage on the Axis powers, but not to the degree expected prior to the conflict. Nevertheless, by emphasizing its strategic bombing mission, the Army Air Force managed to win independence from the Army and become the third military service.
After 1947, the USAF believed that strategic airpower could decide wars, whether global or local. Destruction of enemy will and industrial capacity through conventional or nuclear means would result in victory. Control over nuclear weapons passed to the Air Force because of the connection of such weapons with the concept of strategic bombing.
Ground support also fell under the purview of the new Air Force. However, the Air Force did not take to this mission with the same enthusiasm it exhibited for strategic bombing. Ground support inherently involved collaboration with the Army and consequently subjection to Army aims. Autonomy and the glory of victory would go to the Army, rather than to the Air Force. Still, the Air Force ensured that it would have a role in ground support operations through the 1947 Key West Agreement, which mandated that fixed-wing aircraft would remain under Air Force, rather than Army, control.
The assumptions undergirding strategic bombing have changed since 1947. The Air Force no longer advocates firebombing enemy cities. Its strategic focus has shifted away from attacking the enemy's civilian morale and toward attacking industrial capacity and infrastructure. Most recently, the Air Force has embraced "Effects Based Operations," or military operations designed to produce political consequences.
Unfortunately, the Air Force has had a poor strategic record. In the Korean War, heavy strategic attacks on North Korean cities failed to reduce Communist capabilities. Operation Rolling Thunder -- the campaign designed to destroy North Vietnamese will, transport capacity, and industry -- went on for three years and had little noticeable effect on the course of that war. The strategic air component of Operation Desert Storm failed to topple Saddam Hussein or dislodge him from Kuwait. Even the 2003 "Shock and Awe" campaign did not destroy the Hussein regime, or reduce its capacity to communicate internally or externally.
Arguably, airpower did succeed on its own in bringing victory in the 1999 Kosovo War. For 78 days, the NATO alliance bombed Serbian military and infrastructure targets in order to force Serbia's withdrawal from the province of Kosovo. After increasingly serious threats of a ground invasion and the end of Russian support, Serbia succumbed to the NATO occupation of Kosovo. Even acknowledging the decisiveness of the airstrikes, however, the ability of a small country to stand against the world's most powerful military alliance for almost three months does not speak well of the coercive capacity of modern airpower.
In response to such critiques, Air Force supporters have blamed the constraints placed on strategic air campaigns by U.S. civilian leadership. Despite the fact that the United States dropped over 850,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam during Operation Rolling Thunder (some 350,000 more tons than were dropped on Japan in World War II), LeMay argued that the offensive failed because of inadequate use of force, and that the threat of an even more extensive strategic bombing campaign against North Vietnam in 1965 would have won the war. This echoed similar complaints about limiting the use of airpower in the Korean War to targets on the Korean peninsula. The same arguments were trotted out again in refuting the allegations of uncertain performance of airpower in Kosovo. At least in the cases of Vietnam and Korea, historians have not tended to back these arguments.
On the other hand, the United States Air Force has made important tactical contributions to U.S. war efforts. In the first Gulf War, American and British airpower destroyed roughly a third of deployed Iraqi vehicles prior to the advance of U.S. ground forces. In Vietnam, Operations Linebacker I and II, directed primarily against North Vietnamese military forces, helped stop their advance into South Vietnam and bring the North back to the peace table. The Air Force also performed very well in support of the Northern Alliance during the war in Afghanistan, and helped destroy much Iraqi hardware in the opening stages of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
This has created an odd situation. The Air Force is most effective when operating in support of the Army, and least effective when carrying out its own independent campaign. However, the Air Force dislikes ground support. Its antipathy to tactical missions, for instance, is at the root of its repeated efforts to shed itself of the A-10 Warthog. The A-10 is a slow attack aircraft, extremely effective against tactical enemy targets. The Army loves the A-10, but because the aircraft contributes neither to the air superiority mission that the Air Force favors nor to the strategic mission that provides its raison d'etre, the Air Force has always been lukewarm toward the aircraft. Offers on the part of the Army to take over the A-10 have been rejected, however, as this would violate the Key West Agreement.
If strategic bombing won independence for the Air Force, yet strategic bombing cannot win wars, it's unclear why the Air Force should retain its independence. To be sure, institutional inertia works in its favor. The efforts of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to force the services to compete against one another for procurement funds in the 1960s resulted, ironically, in a deep reluctance on the part of the services to question one another. This interservice collusion persists to the present day, in spite of changes in the nature of the threats the U.S. faces. This has helped lead to such absurdities as the continued procurement of the F-22 Raptor, an aircraft whose sole purpose is the destruction of advanced enemy fighter planes, during the course of two counter-insurgency conflicts against low-tech enemies.
Moreover, the presence of the Air Force in the high councils of war and peace tends to provide presidents with predictions of quick and easy military victories. Advocates of airpower have been making such cases since the run-up to World War II. Though these prophecies have been proven false time and again, they nevertheless remain attractive to civilian leaders who fear public disillusionment with casualties, and who wish to go to war while resisting the dangers of full military involvement. Airpower advocates offer military power on the cheap; the wars they lay out entail few casualties and many spectacular successes. These advocates would continue to exist in the absence of the Air Force, of course, but situating them within organizations of broader strategic views would probably reduce the force of their arguments.
Besides, having an independent Air Force requires using that independent Air Force, whether or not its mode of war-making fits the particular conflict. The existence of several separate services creates a competitive need to act during war. Each service wishes to demonstrate that it can contribute, thus justifying future procurement. Unfortunately, this produces a situation in which force is allocated to meet bureaucratic necessity rather than strategic need. Although we won't have a complete picture until full campaign histories are written, the need to produce work for the Air Force in Iraq and Afghanistan has probably led to overuse of airpower. Bureaucratic necessity doesn't fully explain excessive airstrikes, but it is likely a contributing factor.
There's a better way to use American airpower. The Army and the Navy can accomplish the jobs that the Air Force does well within their current institutional structures. Tactical airpower should belong to the Army. Although the Army and the Air Force have worked out credible systems of cooperation, reunifying the two would likely result in tighter collaboration between air and ground forces. The tactical mission would also include air superiority, which is necessary to prevent enemy use of airspace and to allow freedom of action for U.S. forces. Similarly, some tactical elements of airpower would pass to the Marine Corps.
To the extent that the United States requires a capability to punish other states militarily for political purposes, the Navy can handle the job. The aircraft carriers of the Navy already represent the most powerful concentration of mobile military power in the world. Navy cruise missiles, launched from submarines and surface vessels, can strike most of the surface of the Earth within a couple of hours. Adding certain elements of the Air Force portfolio to the Navy would neither transform nor hinder the Navy's power projection mission.
The strategic nuclear capability of the Air Force should also go to the Navy. The USN already operates its own strategic deterrent in the form of the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, armed with the Trident missile. The Navy could also operate the other two legs of the nuclear triangle (ICBMs and strategic bombers) without difficulty, especially since the latter would support the Navy's strategic mission.
We aren't likely to see the end of the United States Air Force anytime soon, however. The institutional structure of the Air Force would resist its absorption into the Army and the Navy; friends of the Air Force in Congress and the public would fight to prevent consolidation. Strong proponents of the "Air Force way of war" remain, and aren't convinced by "boots on the ground zealots." The Air Force would fight very hard to stay independent.
The consolidation of the services, of course, is no panacea for military difficulties. In spite of the formal unification of Israel's military forces, for instance, the Israel Defense Forces last summer embarked on a poorly planned strategic air campaign against Hezbollah and its Lebanese supporters. Israeli air attacks destroyed Lebanese infrastructure and killed Lebanese civilians without dealing serious damage to Hezbollah.
Nevertheless, the idea of an independent air force was not handed down on Mount Sinai. We have institutions because we've built them. When these institutions outlive their usefulness or fail as experiments, we can take them apart. In a post–September 11 world, we live with threats quite different from those that the Soviet arsenal used to pose. We can and should devise uses and a bureaucratic structure for American airpower better suited to our current challenges than those set out in 1947.
RELATED: Robert Farley discusses his case for abolishing the Air Force with David Axe of War is Boring, Jason Sigger of Armchair Generalist, John of OP-FOR, Noah Shachtman of Danger Room, Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard, and Sharon Weinberger of Danger Room.