We Shrink the Air Force at Our Peril

On the eve of the Normandy landings General Dwight D. Eisenhower told the invading Allied forces that “if you see fighting aircraft over you, they will be ours”.

In the Pacific a few months later kamikaze attacks ended with the capture of Okinawa and nuclear attacks on the home islands of Japan.  In the sixty plus years since that promise, in conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iraq again, whenever the ground forces of the United States looked up at combat aircraft overhead, they were ours.

While Eisenhower’s pledge remains fulfilled over the current battlefields of southwest Asia, there are dangerous trends that cast doubt on Air Force’s ability to deliver on it in the long term. 

The current plight of the soldiers and Marines — multiple combat rotations, equipment not keeping up with a changing threat, declining recruitment numbers and standards — is well reported..  What is lost in these supposed exposes is the rapid concurrent decline in the air and naval forces which support those fighting on the ground.  Unknown to most of the public is the reality that the nearly 600 ship Navy of the recent Reagan era now numbers in the 200’s.

That same public might also have the impression, based on increased wartime budgets, that the Air Force is overstaffed, over-funded, and not very much “over there”.

For those subscribing to this belief, chew on this: the Air Force is downsizing to a planned strength of 309,000 airmen, which is the smallest it has ever been since its founding as a separate service in 1947 when it mustered only 305,000.  Even that “birth weight” is deceiving, because if you counted future Air Force units that had not yet been cleaved from the Army, the force was actually quite a bit bigger. In actuality, the Air Force has not been at such a low force strength since 1941, when America’s population was less than half its current 300 million and Pearl Harbor was known only but a lyric line in a popular song.

Our current Air Force has no equal in the world.  Air Force members and leaders have been responsible custodians of the treasure and trust  given them by the people and to a diminishing degree by politically distracted elected officials.  In equipment and personnel it has lived up to its core value of “excellence in all we do.”  That excellence pays off on the battlefields of 2007 every day.
Consider this scenario, a commonplace since the start of operations in Afghanistan in 2001.  A special operations soldier inserted in some remote outpost hundreds of miles from friendlies takes a laser fix on an enemy position, or the apartment balcony of an Al Qaeda operative.  The coordinates are relayed through a complex satellite network to an unheard and unseen B-1 bomber orbiting six miles up and twenty miles away.  A single precision-guided munition is released and in a few seconds the target is obliterated and 72 virgins have a new job.

Zeus would have envied the fury from the sky called down by that lone soldier.  The weapon may have been an Air Force possession, but it was an Army asset.  Rather than the eight round clip in his grandfather’s M-1 rifle, that single soldier had hundreds of millions of dollars of America’s finest technology and most highly trained warriors under his direct control.

Only a score of years before, that same soldier’s father, who probably would not have even been in that far forward position without this protection of overwhelming air cover, would have had to communicate the information though a labyrinth of multi-service channels and await up to 48 hours of planning and briefings and flight time, and the marshalling of dozens of aircraft, to get that force inaccurately and perhaps unsuccessfully applied to that target, presuming said target had the courtesy to hang around.  Thanks to transformation in the military and a real commitment to joint operations, the awesome platforms of the Air Force, those “gold-plated toys” (as smart-mouthed lefties call them) are the weapons employed by the ground forces.

Precision weapons, network-centric warfare, sophisticated sensor and communication platforms, and the weapons delivery systems that make all this possible come at a cost, a very high cost.  But that cost is a tradeoff.  The collateral is young Americans’ and allied Iraqi lives.  Ask those people if they would rather return to the grinding combat of the Vietnam era, or the human waves of Normandy and Iwo Jima, or if that B-1 or AWACS or JDAM are too expensive.

But now there are those who would do away with this unique American advantage.  They claim that the quality of our high tech forces more than makes up for the growing shortfall in numbers.  They fail to realize (as Stalin is reputed to have said) that quantity has a quality of its own. They are ignorant of the fact that leading technologies have long development times and short shelf lives.  They aim to reduce the Air Force and the Navy air arm further, and even the politics-driven increases for the Army and Marines — listed as a tradeoff for Air Force cuts — are hypocritical and temporary. 

Their narrow focus is on the ongoing struggle in Iraq and the political benefits that certain (bad) outcomes may obtain.  However, Iraq will soon be on the wane, either due to improving measures of success and Iraqification, or through acceptance of a policy of surrender (oh, sorry — “redeployment”). 

But even if we pull out of Iraq — leaving our friends and allies to be murdered — the war isn’t over.  Iran is on the march, Syria is fomenting terrorism, and our strategic interests as well as our allies are threatened.  What the Pals of Pullout don’t say is what they would do about that. Or about the other threats abroad in the world.

To counter growing threats and match the combat capability of these potential adversaries, it will require a commitment for force structures and technological superiority that will match the Reagan buildup (which by ending the Cold War was one of the best returns on investments in government history).  These are not welcome words for a bitterly divided Congress hopefully wishing for a return to lavish welfare state expenditures after Iraq.  Depleted ground forces will have to be replenished and replaced.  Naval and air forces will need to address multi-tiered threats on a widely dispersed global theater.  It is not the scenario pandering politicians hoped to face. 

In the final analysis, Presidents and service secretaries, generals and admirals can only propose force levels and their equipage.  The ultimate authority for the makeup of the military we will have, or lack, is up to the Congress, mandated by the Constitution to “provide for the common Defense,” and “to raise and support armies.” This Congress studiously avoids that fundamental responsibility.

The end of the Iraq experience will not yield another “peace dividend” to be spent willy-nilly on more pork and entitlements.  It is not enough for Congress to carp and condemn the Bush Administration’s alleged mismanagement of the war and the military when it has no vision of its own about how it will man and equip the forces for the broad spectrum of unappreciated enemy threats and capabilities on a dangerously close horizon.  Instead, Congress is apparently content to  weaken the marvelous military that shields us so well today.

General of the Army Douglas Macarthur, a man who knew war well, expressed his experiences thus:   "The history of the failure in war can almost be summed up in two words: too late.  Too late in comprehending the deadly purpose of a potential enemy; too late in realizing the mortal danger; too late in preparedness; too late in uniting all possible forces for resistance; too late in standing with one’s friends." 

Future battlefields will be chosen for us, as there are always new villains entering on the world stage. Those battlefields may be a beach on Taiwan, or the approaches to Teheran, or the skies over lower Manhattan.  Wherever, and whenever, they will come. 

The last Americans who were faced with an enemy overhead are now few and fading.  It is a challenge to our leaders to ensure that a future American commander or soldier will not enter on some battlefield and wonder that if aircraft or missiles appear overhead, “Will they be ours?”