As the U.S. Congress debates the defense budget, its focus is squarely on current needs, perhaps at the expense of the longer term. The fight in Iraq and the ongoing "surge" loom large — as they must. But, the lessons of history and the imperatives of an uncertain global environment are equally worthy of concern. America’s future may hinge on the decisions and trade-offs to be made in the coming weeks. Our elected officials owe the nation a holistic, strategic approach that addresses both the challenges of today as well as the far-reaching, long-term implications of their decisions. Such integrated thinking — fusing the full range of current and future considerations into a coherent whole — is uncommon, because it is difficult. And politics doesn’t often reward those who make the effort.
The ability to think anew and reframe existing approaches to problem solving is as critical as it is rare. It hinges on foresight — the ability to assess current and emerging trends, as well as anticipate their potential. This, in turn, requires courage, perseverance, and, often, readiness to defy conventional wisdom. The story of Gen. Billy Mitchell, the "father" of the United States Air Force, demonstrates these virtues — as well as their price.
Mitchell learned to fly from the Wright Brothers in 1916. Two years later, he commanded all American air combat units in World War I France. In September 1918, he planned the first ever coordinated air-ground offensive, leading some 1,500 British, French, and Italian aircraft in the Battle of Saint-Mihiel. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and several foreign decorations. But, Mitchell alienated his superiors and colleagues by openly disagreeing with the deeply-ingrained belief that World War I would be the war to end all wars. Tired of his vocal advocacy of investment in airpower, Mitchell’s superiors sent him to Asia. He returned with a report predicting war with Japan, starting with an attack on Pearl Harbor. His warnings, which deviated from conventional wisdom, were ignored. In 1925, he was court-martialed and found guilty of insubordination. Mitchell resigned and spent the next decade preaching a fundamentally new approach to warfare: victory through air power, avoiding the senseless slaughter of the trenches of Verdun and the Somme by striking directly at opponents’ vital centers. Few would listen. Mitchell died in 1936, never to see his transformational concepts implemented in the devastating combination of air and ground effects known as the Blitzkrieg. Nor did he live to see his warning of an air assault against Pearl Harbor coming true. It wasn’t till after the World War that followed the "war to end all wars" was won — in the ruins of Stalingrad, on the beaches and skies of Normandy, and over Britain, Schweinfurt, Ploesti, Tokyo, and, ultimately, Hiroshima and Nagasaki — that Mitchell was recognized for his "outstanding pioneer service and foresight" and awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor.
Fast forward to today: America depends on air power to an unprecedented extent. The Air Force underwrites the national strategy of reassuring allies, while deterring, dissuading and, if called upon, decisively defeating enemies. Yet, it is flying the least-modern aircraft in history — its oldest jet (a KC-135 tanker) was delivered in November 1957, a month after the USSR launched the Sputnik. This yawning gap between ends and means must be closed. USAF’s modernization and recapitalization is an urgent security need — not a discretionary luxury, or a convenient offset to finance other programs.
Military advantage is fleeting. In the wake of Desert Storm — a 38-day air war followed by a 100-hour ground operation — comfortable in our "margin of superiority," we took a procurement holiday. Now, with an aging fleet battered by 16 years of continuous combat, America’s global reach and global power are eroding. Meanwhile, a rising China and a resurgent Russia are cooperating on military research and development, keeping each others’ defense industries churning, proliferating equipment and know-how to the highest bidder — be it Iran, Venezuela, Syria, or North Korea. China is behaving like a rapacious colonial power in search of cheap resources. Most recently, it successfully tested an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) and ordered modernization of its Air Force at the PLA’s expense. Russia is increasingly aggressive towards those who depend on its energy and those who dare challenge the centralization of wealth and power in the hands of a few former KGB officers. Fuelled by petroleum and weapons’ — trade income, its defense outlays have soared — financing a new generation of aircraft, mobile intercontinental missiles, supersonic bombers, and sophisticated air defense systems. Iran — emboldened by what it sees as the crumbling of America’s commitment to victory — is posturing to fill the void, expand the Shia Crescent overlaying the region’s oil supplies, and advance an apocalyptic agenda wedded to nuclear ambitions.
An arch of instability spans the globe. Weapons’ proliferation invests even marginal players with immense leverage and destructive potential. None of these challenges has diminished just because the U.S. is focused on trying to pacify a country seemingly determined to tear itself apart. What keeps these threats at bay isn’t America’s ground power — as a Chinese general so succinctly put it, the "U.S. Army is quite unlikely to stick its boots into our ant hill." Rather, it is the power of deterrence and dissuasion — global reach, global power and global vigilance — embodied in the USAF.
With the U.S. "neither winning nor losing in Iraq," the Air Force literally underwrites our long-term security. Recapitalization and modernization — to include true fifth-generation aircraft, capable of establishing the air dominance that is the precondition of all subsequent operations, the tankers necessary to get them to the fight, and the helicopters to rescue crews flying against advanced air-to-surface missile threats — are urgent needs, not discretionary luxuries.
Our men and women in uniform trust each other with their lives. They count on each member of the Joint Team to deliver the full range of Service-unique effects. Only one of our Armed Services can provide global surveillance, global command and control, and the requisite range, precision and payload to strike any target, anywhere, anytime, at the speed of sound or the speed of light. Our warriors understand that. Our elected officials must too. Shortchanging one service to prop-up another will cost lives and treasure, undermine the trust binding the military together, and foist on future generations the consequences of strategic myopia.