What's the Air Force For?

Rob 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.

Because the discussion is rather lengthy, here's a "table of contents" to guide readers through the roundtable:

David Axe: There's nothing the Air Force does that the other services don't do better.
Jason Sigger: Transform the Air Force, don't abolish it.
John of OP-FOR: The Air Force does need to change, but not that much.
Robert Farley: On collateral damage and restructuring.
Michael Goldfarb: The Air Force hasn't outlived its usefulness yet.
Robert Farley: On bureaucracies, and the use of air power in "the Surge."
Sharon Weinberger: What about the Air Force's assets?
Robert Farley: The Navy can handle it.
Jason Sigger: Allocate military funds on a priority, need-based approach? Ain't gonna happen.
Robert Farley: Optimistic about the Navy's capabilities.
David Axe: Re: Optimistic about the Navy's capabilities.
Jason Sigger: The Navy does not want to be the Air Force.
John of OP-FOR: The role of ICBMs.
Michael Goldfarb: Who would provide the best oversight of big-ticket weapons?
Robert Farley: On Apaches, ICBMs, and the procurement question.
Jason Sigger: On sharing joint cargo aircraft.
John of OP-FOR: JCA is a reason to ditch Key West, not the Air Force.
Michael Goldfarb: But what will tomorrow's wars look like?
Robert Farley: If China is your problem, then you should be more, not less, willing to close the doors on the Air Force.
Noah Shachtman: The bottom line: The Air Force has an identity crisis.

* * *

David Axe: There's nothing the Air Force does that the other services don't do better.

Read Axe's initial response to Abolish the Air Force.

Jason Sigger: Transform the Air Force, don't abolish it.

Read Sigger's initial response to Abolish the Air Force.

John of OP-FOR: The Air Force does need to change, but not that much.

I agree that the Air Force is in need of some sort of drastic cultural change. However, rolling them back into the Army might be a bit too drastic. There's no doubt in my mind that the Air Force has lost its way. They have no primary mission and a dozen secondary ones. They argue (quite stupidly) that air power alone can trump a dedicated counterinsurgency while seeking to replace the only truly effective counterinsurgency platform in their inventory (the A10 Warthog) with an air-superiority fast-mover in the Joint Strike Fighter. They are more of a clunky corporate bureaucracy than a war-fighting element, one that gobbles up resources to fight hypothetical wars against the Russians and the Chinese while the Army and Marines are forced to fight real ones.

However, I do take issue with the contention that collateral damage is a proper argument for reinstating the old Army air corps (and with the numbers cited by The Lancet). This is one area where the Air Force has made tremendous progress. Precision-guided munitions and GPS technology have helped to sharply reduce wartime civilian deaths, and -- even if they didn't -- simply merging the Air Force back into the Army wouldn't eliminate the need for close air support. The answer to the question of civilian casualties is technological, not structural. While there was a time when strategic bombing was so elementary that it didn't discriminate between civilian populations and the war-supporting infrastructure that they supported, smart bombs and advances in our targeting strategy have both made the World War II style of air campaigning completely obsolete.

Ultimately, the Air Force is in need of a kick in the pants. One of our bloggers at OP-FOR is a Marine captain who recently commanded an Air and Naval Gunfire Liason Company, a Marine unit that coordinates air assets in support of combat ground elements. He has said on more than one occasion that he'd take Marine piloted Harrier over an Air Force piloted A-10 in a close air support role any day of the week. That's a bold statement, considering that the A-10 Warthog was designed exclusively for air-to-ground missions. But the logic is obvious. From training day one, Marines pilots are indoctrinated with a single, simple truth: the only real purpose of air power is to support the infantry.

The Air Force has lost sight of that mission. But even though forcing them back under Army command would certainly remind the Air Force of their raison d'etre, such a massive restructuring would be killing a mosquito with a cannon.

Robert Farley: On collateral damage and restructuring.

On the collateral damage issue, I have to wonder if there really is a technological fix. We may achieve munitions and precision guidance that can seriously limit the degree to which a bomb aimed at one house affects neighboring houses, but such strikes will always be dependent upon the existence of good intelligence about the target, intelligence which (in the case of a situation of ethnic strife, especially) may be in short supply. Moreover, the technology is always going to run up against the limits of human intellectual capacity.

But John is clearly correct to point out that whatever civilian collateral damage airpower has inflicted has come through close air support (CAS) for ground operations, rather than predominantly through a strategic campaign. The air campaign against Serbia was a relatively bloodless affair, sparing the Serb civilian population significant pain. The cost calculus of a strategic air campaign now includes the deaths inflicted on the enemy population. It's interesting, though, that although the way of counting costs has changed, the Air Force still argues that airpower is the way to a relatively cheap and easy victory. Destroy enemy infrastructure and communications instead of industry and civilian neighborhoods, and the opposing regime will either a)collapse, or b) give us what we want. I don't think that the empirical record supports such optimism, and I think that the optimism creates unrealistic expectations about the course of wars.

John's also right to say that this would be a massive restructuring. That's true, but we've done such things before (it's how the Air Force was born, after all), and I think that there would be enough a beneficial impact to give it series consideration. Eliminating the Air Force would turn procurement on its head, among other things. It might also help lead to a more realistic set of calculations about the costs and benefits of war.

Michael Goldfarb: The Air Force hasn't outlived its usefulness yet.

I love the bit about taking apart government institutions that "outlive their usefulness or fail as experiments," and I'm loathe to discourage the Prospect from staking out such a bold, Reaganesque position, but the Air Force makes a lousy target for our new consensus push against useless government bureaucracies. Maybe we could first go after the CIA or the Department of Education?

It's not that restoring the Army Air Corps isn't an intriguing idea. I share your concern about the Air Force's long-standing ambivalence to the vital mission of providing our troops with close air support, its abject failure in the realm of procurement oversight, and its unfortunate inclination to function as a welfare agency for America's high-tech industry. But the Air Force hasn't outlived its usefulness yet.

It is a misperception that the Air Force has made only a limited contribution -- or worse, hindered -- the counterinsurgency campaigns now underway in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Lancet study you reference has been widely refuted, with most credible estimates coming in at less than one-tenth that number of civilian casualties. And despite the very public spat between the Petraeus team and the Air Force brass over the role of airpower in counterinsurgency operations, the rate at which ordnance has been dropped in Iraq rose sharply over the first half of 2007 and the results speak for themselves. Whatever we're doing now is working -- the Air Force is finding ways to make itself relevant in the war on terror. And whatever parochialism exists within the Air Force, it is largely balanced out by the overarching system of jointness that now rules the roost.

But the Air Force's mission is constantly evolving. The painful realities of counterinsurgency make strategic bombing an attractive option for policymakers confronting the immediate threat from Iran's nuclear program and its proxy campaign in Iraq, and it has always been the only option for confronting, or preferably deterring, the long-term threat from China. As the recent Israeli strike in Syria has shown, high-tech U.S. aircraft are capable of penetrating the most modern air defenses to strike strategic targets. The Air Force's institutional focus on F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter will allow us to preserve that capability for decades to come. And someone has to be in charge of space missions -- without the Air Force, we'd have to create a separate service for that arena as well. Still, a new Army Air Corps, complete with UAVs, a fleet of turboprop counterinsurgency aircraft, and a fresh buy of A-10s may not be a bad idea. Competition is good for everybody.

Robert Farley: On bureaucracies, and the use of air power in "the Surge."

Heh. As Michael points out, there are certainly elements of this argument that are consistent with a modern conservative approach to governance. One insight of this approach (one that's shared with institutional theory as practiced in the academy) is that bureaucracies, once created, try to stay alive and to expand their writ even as the circumstances that produced them change. Consequently, the Air Force is invariably going to argue that it has a substantial role to play in whatever conflict happens to be going on at the time, including one that involves counter-insurgency. That its actual role may be counter-productive (and if you don't believe me, ask General Petraeus or the British Army in Afghanistan's Helmand Province) doesn't have any impact on this institutional logic.

Michael and I may have different definitions of the term "widely refuted," but here isn't the place to re-argue the Lancet study. The disagreement between Petraeus, and the approach to the use of airpower laid out in FM 3-24, is substantial, which is why Charles Dunlap has been in a state of panic about the direction of Army doctrine for at least the last year. Moreover, the debate about the use of air power in the first six months of the "Surge" isn't strictly about its effectiveness (although suspect that we also might disagree about the effectiveness of the Surge, that debate is also probably an unprofitable direction for this discussion), but rather about whether that air power could be most effectively and efficiently used by an organization dedicated to the use of air power (and consequently having bureaucratic incentives to maximize that use), or whether it should be an organic part of the organizations that are carrying out the ground campaign itself. As you can probably tell, I lean pretty heavily towards the latter over the former. From your last sentence, I have to imagine that you agree with much of this.

As for the strategic and space elements, let me echo David Axe; Go Navy, Go Navy, Go Navy. The Navy in institutionally inclined to think strategically, globally, and to hold to the long view. We already know that in case of war with China, the Navy will be the first responder; instead of leaving a rump Air Force concerned only with strategic and air superiority missions, just hand the F-22s, B-2s, and nuclear missiles over to the Navy. With its aircraft carriers and cruise missile platforms, the Navy already controls an enormous portion of our strategic strike capability, and has given a lot of thought about how to use it.

Sharon Weinberger: What about the Air Force's assets?

Rob, you don't mention space assets, which is, money-wise, perhaps the largest part of the Air Force portfolio. Who would they go to, and whom would they support?

Also, to be devil's advocate: I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on Army's attempt to use Apaches in Kosovo, which might give one pause before giving them a large chunk of the Air Force's portfolio?

To me personally, the bigger issue is challenging the paradigm of the budget pie (i.e. the tradition of splitting funding evenly across the services).

Robert Farley: The Navy can handle it.

Briefly, for space I'm with David; the Navy can handle it. (There's a reason Captain Kirk was a captain and not a colonel, after all.) On the Apaches, I'm assuming that the Army would absorb a substantial portion of the manpower of the Air Force (although this would obviously cause some significant issues of cultural conflict), and that eventually both the assets that the Army currently has and that it would acquire would be better used than they are now. I also think that busting the budget pie split is one of the best reasons for this, although as John points out it's like swatting a fly with a sledgehammer.

Jason Sigger: Allocate military funds on a priority, need-based approach? Ain't gonna happen.

I don't have the numbers in front of me, but somehow I doubt that space assets are the Air Force's largest portfolio. The cost of the Air Force modernization effort alone for their fighters, bombers, and strategic lift has got to be in the tens of billions of dollars.

Re: Kosovo, don't confuse the rice bowl politics within the Army (a dispute over control and use of assets between CINCEUR, CJCS, and SecArmy) with its experience in supporting ground operations. The Army had a bad air assault operation in OIF, but the overwhelming majority of the birds made it home and there was a valuable lesson learned about overconfidence.

On the budget, sure, it would be nice to "bust" the paradigm of splitting the pie three ways and actually allocate funds on a priority, need-based approach. Ain't gonna happen, though, even if you did divest the Air Force. I'd bet the Marines would jump up and say that they were the new "third" member. But I'm a cynic.

Robert Farley: Optimistic about the Navy's capabilities.

Jason has some interesting observations on the strategic strike and transport roles; regarding the former:

I do not, however, agree with Rob that the Air Force ought to give up its strategic strike capabilities to the Navy, either conventional or nuclear. I have no doubt in the Navy's ability to operate carrier task groups and to significantly influence political and military operations anywhere on the globe. However, if we examine the first and second Gulf Wars, it was the Air Force that provided the overwhelming conventional "shock and awe" around the clock. The Navy has punch, but not sustainability. I don't doubt that the Navy could, if tasked, take over the strategic nuclear capabilities of the Air Force, but frankly, I'm not sure that it wants that job. The Navy does nuclear subs, which, while ballistic missile silos in Montana may feature similar characteristics, the submarines are much more versatile. The Navy's conventional strike capabilities are aimed at blue-water operations and not much more than a few miles of coastline. We need the Air Force to continue its strategic strike mission.

I guess I'm a bit more optimistic about the Navy's capability in this regard. The innovation of 1990s naval doctrine was the move to the littoral, where, after all, most of the population of the world lives. Navy strike capabilities certainly extend far beyond the traditional 60 mile littoral limit, as has been amply demonstrated in Afghanistan. The silos to the Army or Navy is really a preference issue; I'd hand them to the Navy because the Navy already has nukes (and a body of doctrine and thought regarding their use), but I'll allow that deploying Navy assets in North Dakota could be a bit awkward.

David Axe: Re: Optimistic about the Navy's capabilities.

Here's a thought: Push hard for a new arms limitation treaty, aggressively retire all land-based nuclear missiles, move to a strictly sea-based deterrent.

Jason Sigger: The Navy does not want to be the Air Force.

There will not be a new arms limitation treaty as long as we have START and NPT. What would the basis be for a new treaty? Everyone has the authority to negotiate, but Russia and the U.S. are quite happy where they are now. There will never be a move to a "strictly sea-based deterrent" -- that would counter the perceived nuclear deterrence strategy that has successfully held the peace for 50 years. If only subs have nukes, what's to stop a potential future nuclear power from just focusing on sub warfare? In this case, duplicative efforts are complementary to defining a better strategy.

Naval strategy isn't my forte, but I'm not optimistic that the Navy has any interests more than 10 miles inland, let alone the 60 mile litoral area. Yes, they have cruise missiles. That's more of a strategic weapon, in my view. Afghanistan? Come on. Here's a lift from the Air Force web site:

In the 18 months since Operation Enduring Freedom began on Oct 7, 2001, the Air Force team -- active, Guard, Reserve -- have flown more than 85,000 sorties, more than 75 percent of all OEF missions flown. Air Force bombers, fighters, airlifters, tankers and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets are in action daily.

USAF B-1s, B-2s, B-52s, F-15Es, F-16s, A-10s and AC-130s have flown more than 75 percent of all OEF combat missions in Afghanistan, dropping more than 30,750 munitions -- 9,650 tons -- damaging or destroying approximately three-quarters of planned targets.

Throughout combat operations in Afghanistan, the Air Force has flown more than 48,000 airlift missions. These missions have moved more than 513,026 passengers and more than 487,000 tons of carge from the U.S. to the Afghan theater of operations.

The Navy, in comparison, flew about 8,700 sorties. Do the math: Was the Navy a vital part of OEF? No. Understand this, the Navy does not want to be the Air Force. It focuses on blue-water operations. It only got littoral fever when its leadership realized it had no competition and needed to remain relevant in the "Global War on Terror". It wants to spend billions of dollars on carriers, subs, and cruisers. As for "Capt. Kirk" and the future of space, well, if the Navy is interested in that area, they have yet to demonstrate it (other than by providing a few pilots).

Stick with your original premise. The Air Force is good when it understands its role as supporting ground and sea operations. That means constraining their role to the ones they do well, not forcing the other services to adopt missions in which they have little interest or equity. Let the Air Force take on strategic responsibilities and let the Army have the assets it needs to be successful on tactical matters.

John of OP-FOR: The role of ICBMs.

We're getting a bit off topic here, but I think that land based inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) have become so much of a question mark these days, the subject is worthy of brief discussion.

I've heard arguments similar to David's in the past. Eliminating ICBMs was a component of Senator Kerry's national security platform during his 2004 presidential run, and the proposal has been kicked around the Pentagon's rings since the wall came down.

The current force of Minutemen III is 30 years old and -- quite frankly -- ripe for retirement. The problem is that post-Cold War cuts to our strategic forces have made it impossible for bombers or ballistic missile subs to shoulder the load of our 500 (soon to be 450) sortie ICBM fleet. Second is the issue of timing. Despite our advances in global strike, ICBMs are still the fastest kids on the block ("guaranteed delivery in 30 minutes or less, or the next one's free," brag the missile jockeys). With Russia fielding brand new ICBMs and resuming strategic bomber flights, North Korea flying medium range ballistic missiles over Japan (albeit crappy ones), and China making great strides in rocketry, eliminating those missiles from our stockpile would send precisely the wrong message to potential enemies.

However, based on the recent Bent Spear incident at Minot Air Force Base, there's certainly a strong case to hand the lot of 'em over to the Army or Navy. If they Air Force can't keep track of their goods, give them to someone who can. Preferably the Army, you don't want to waste precious Marines babysitting nukes. Heh.

Also, it costs anywhere between 2-3 billion per year to maintain the entire ICBM force. The latest generation long range bomber, the B-2, cost 2.1 billion apiece. Presumably, the next evolution of long range strike aircraft would be even more expensive than that. The Pentagon is more concerned with finances than anything else. It was commonly believed that we cut the Peacekeeper missile as part of START compliance. In reality, we did it to save money. Even though Peacekeepers were the most effective ICBMs ever fielded, they simply cost too much to maintain.

So I just don't see a bulked up bomber force taking over for ICBMs. They cost more, they can be intercepted, and we would be dedicating extra resources just so we can go from a robust three-dimensional strategic triad to a less dynamic two-dimensional force. Once airborne, ICBMs are nearly impossible to defeat. They are remarkably survivable, and they are the fastest response weapon on the planet. Our enemies still field them, and in some cases are upgrading their strategic rocket forces with better boosters, better guidance systems, better reentry vehicles, and so on.

So, I've heard many arguments on whether or not we could eliminate ICBMs, but not a whole lot of discussion on whether or not we should.

Michael Goldfarb: Who would provide the best oversight of big-ticket weapons?

Back to Sharon's questions, she raises a good point about the Apache. The Apache never flew a combat mission in Kosovo, and an April 2003 strike against a Republican Guard position outside Baghdad saw 30 Apaches badly damaged out of a total force of 33. The Apache's operational record doesn't inspire confidence in the Army's ability to effectively use the airpower that it already has. And as far as procurement oversight, the Army's failed, next-generation attack helicopter, the Comanche, cost nearly $9 billion before the Pentagon terminated the program in 2004. Then there's the defunct Crusader program, the Land Warrior program, which has been killed and resuscitated so many times I can't keep up, and, of course, the Bradley. We don't have much evidence to support the proposition that the Army would provide better oversight of big-ticket weapons systems than the Air Force -- and we know the Navy wouldn't. (Coast Guard, even worse!)

But getting rid of our ICBMs? It's an interesting idea. I think it would be terribly naïve to put all our eggs in one basket and rely exclusively on a sea-based deterrent as David suggests, but if we increased the size of the Naval fleet and set aside enough money for a new long-range bomber, eliminating ICBMs isn't inconceivable. And it's not like we'd just have to ditch those missiles -- attach a tungsten rod to the tip and voila, you've got yourself a conventional weapon capable of vaporizing deeply buried targets. You just need to convince the Russians and Chinese you aren't lobbing a nuke in their direction.

All very entertaining in theory -- but bad politics. Woe to the presidential candidate who runs against the United States Air Force, or America's nuclear deterrent.

Robert Farley: On Apaches, ICBMs, and the procurement question.

Meh; I like the idea of holding on to the entire nuclear triad. Potentially destabilizing when both sides were MIRVing, but now a source of stability. Given that the Chinese (and to a lesser extent the Russian) SLBM force isn't capable of providing a meaningful second strike capability, I'm not sure that the idea of an ICBM Treaty would fly.

I don't know that the Apache situation tells us anything very important about the Army's capacity to take over the Air Force's CAS mission. The Apache's performance in the Kosovo campaign says more about the political limitations on that campaign than about the capacity of the Army, and the strike in Iraqi Freedom revealed, I think, deficiencies in the Apache rather than in the Army's command and control. Moreover, much of the point of integrating the Army and the Air Force would be to produce better collaboration between the two; the idea is that CAS would be better than either the Army or the Air Force currently provide, while at the same time eliminating a host of bureaucratic and political problems created by the existence of the Air Force.

On the procurement question, I think we can all agree that each of the services has suffered some substantial procedural problems. Part of the problem is the familiar iron triangle; services, industry, and congress collaborating the purchase systems that don't work and that are overpriced in any case. Reducing the number of services from three to two might bring a little coherence back to the system; decisions about what systems to push for would at least be made internal to the Army, rather than in political semi-competition between the Army and the Air Force, especially since they don't really compete. But then (and let me reveal my bias here) I think that the kinds of weapons that the Army pushes for are more important to national defense than those of the Air Force, and moreover that placing the Air Force under the Army would make the procurement of air assets more rational and utility oriented. Call me a dirty Clausewitzian, but I still hold to the notion that a campaign to destroy the military capabilities of the enemy (rather than to attack its infrastructure, or to cause it "pain) is the best way to fight a war.

Jason Sigger: On sharing joint cargo aircraft. More reasons why the Air Force needs to be cut back from controlling all tactical fixed air assets...

"Questioning whether the Army and Air Force should share the JCA [Joint Cargo Aircraft] program, Senate defense authorizers are directing the Pentagon to assign responsibility to the Air Force for all fixed-wing airlift functions and missions.

Debate over the two services' roles and missions has been intensifying in Congress and at the Pentagon since former acquisition czar Kenneth Krieg directed the two services to enter a joint program for a smaller cargo airplane.

Senate authorizers are directing the secretary of defense, acting through the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to make the Air Force responsible for fixed-wing support for the Army's logistics on the battlefield.

The language accompanies a shift of $157 million from the Army's budget request for the JCA to the Air Force's budget line.

The Army fears that the language in the Senate's version of the bill would take away its control of the JCA and prevent it from moving forward.

In an opposite move, Senate defense appropriators fully funded the Army's request for the JCA but slashed the Air Force's funding.

The Army has an immediate need for the aircraft while the Air Force is not planning to buy it until 2010."

John of OP-FOR: JCA is a reason to ditch Key West, not the Air Force.

Agreed that the Air Force has royally screwed the Army with their butt-dragging over the JCA, but that's more of a reason to ditch Key West than it is the Air Force.

Why we are still using a primitive Cold War agreement to guide the 21st century's defense acquisitions is beyond me.

Michael Goldfarb: But what will tomorrow's wars look like?

I'm just reading through the McCaffrey memo, which offers a useful counterpoint to Rob, who's proposal to abolish the Air Force is premised largely on the notion that the conflicts of tomorrow will look much like the wars we're now fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rob asks if "the United States Air Force fit into the post September 11 world, a world in which the military mission of U.S. forces focuses more on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency," but McCaffrey rightly points to the danger of a swing away from "the eerie immaturity of the Rumsfeld era focus on the magic of technology as the sole determinant of national security, to an equally disastrous concentration of building a ground combat force which could have won Iraq from the start..." I couldn't agree more with this. It's obvious we need a larger Army, and McCaffrey says as much. But not at the expense of our high-tech Air Force.

But this is because McCaffrey isn't primarily worried about the war on terror -- how the Air Force fits into the post September 11 world -- as much as he's worried about China. Interestingly, Rob mentions China not once in his piece. McCaffrey, however, would base our entire national security strategy on the ability to inflict "a devastating punitive air, sea, and cyber strike using conventional weapons capable of devastating the offensive power of a foreign state." That the target of such an attack would be China is implicit.

And I think this maybe a fundamental divide in this debate. The case for abolishing the Air Force rests on the assumption that we will not soon need the capacity for a sustained strategic bombing campaign -- either to deter genuine peer competitors or to punish them. If that assumption is wrong, we may find that strategic bombing using precision weapons is far better suited to modern warfare than it was in the 20th Century.

Robert Farley: If China is your problem, then you should be more, not less, willing to close the doors on the Air Force.

On the contrary, I'd say that my piece is more backwards looking than forward looking. The Navy will be the first point of contact if China and the United States come to blows over Taiwan; why would we want to share our assets between two different (and competing) organization rather than concentrate them in one service?

The difference is that I think the fate of Taiwan would be decided by local war-fighting, rather than by a strategic campaign to punish or deter the Chinese. The Chinese already understand that the seizure of Taiwan would mean the infliction of substantial amounts of pain, which is why I very much doubt that the threat of a strategic campaign or even its execution would transform their calculation. If Taiwan is to be saved, it will be saved by the annihilation of Chinese Army assets in the Taiwan theater before a beachhead can be established. Tactical air power will do that; strategic will not.

All that's a bit of a longwinded way of saying that if China is your problem, then you should be more, not less, willing to close the doors on the Air Force. I'd prefer to be able to destroy China's military forces than to pretend that we can win a war on the cheap by hitting the Forbidden City with a few B-2 strikes. It's also worth noting that China has a unified military service...

Noah Shachtman: The Air Force's identity crisis.

Thanks for a fascinating conversation -- sorry I'm joining in so late in the game. And rather than get too deep into the debates here at the 59th minute, I figured I'd tell a little story, instead.

Back in February, I started working with some of the Air Force's top civilian and military leadership, to come up with an article that definitively told the tale of the Air Force's contributions to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Generals were enlisted. Complex plans were arranged. Finally, in late August, I headed over to the Middle East, with the understanding I'd be reporting from Air Force bases in Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. And after a long, hot month overseas, the result was... nothing. Nada. Diddly squat. Donut.

Despite months and months of preparation -- and despite the involvement and interest of some extremely senior people in the service -- the Air Force could not come up with a single demonstration of how it was contributing to America's wars.

Now, there are lots of complicated reasons why things fell through. But at the heart of the matter, I think there's a real confusion in the Air Force leadership about what exactly they should be doing in these ugly little wars were fighting today, and are likely to face in the years to come. It's like these guys all took tango lessons, and were suddenly put into a break-dancing competition. Very few feel like doing the Worm.

Instead, some want to ignore the new dance; "Does anyone truly believe America will do a nation-building 'Iraq' again anytime soon?" asks Major General Charles Dunlap. Some want to sit tight for a fight with Beijing; Air Force briefings about the Raptor "are all China, China, China," a military insider tells the Los Angeles Times. Some want to stop relying on the Air Force's traditional mission -- flying manned aircraft -- and become the military's go-to guys for drones and cyber war.

And some want to take their tango steps, and call 'em popping-and-locking. Take Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. David Deptula. He recently scolded critics of the superbad F-22 stealth jet, who, in his words, "only consider the F-22 as an air-to-air fighter -- the implication being that if there is no significant air threat, it's an unnecessary expense." The "F-22 is not just an 'air-to-air' platform -- and here is where traditional nomenclature constrains understanding of capability -- It's not an F-22, it's an F-, A-, B-, E-, EA-, RC-, AWACS….22," he added, using the designations for bombing, electronic attacks, and reconnaissance, as well the acronym for one of the Air Force's early warning planes."

Ahem. Who's the confused one here, again?

I'm not sure we need to get rid of the Air Force. But we sure do need to get some leaders in the service who are clear about what their role is supposed to be. And stop making up some cockamamie justifications when their tools don't exactly fit the bill.

David Axe:


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