Gates and the Air Force

Many years ago there was a television commercial which featured two fairly empty-headed bleach blondes trying to make their case that Certs is a candy mint, as one would say, while the other would angrily retort that no, Certs was a breath mint. At which point the announcer would intone in a strong male authority voice: “Stop, you’re both right! Certs is a candy mint and a breath mint!…Two mints…two…two in one!”

While sweet mints for your breath may seem a far cry from the U.S. military, the arguments now between the Air Force and the Army, particularly including Defense Secretary Robert Gates , reflect a dual argument as well: either we need to focus exclusively on the wars on-going now in Afghanistan and Iraq or we need to be preparing for far larger conflicts in the future involving nation states and not just insurgents.

The answer should be obvious: Stop! You’re both right. America must fight its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan right now and do so with plenty of unmanned “drone” aircraft capable of scrambling and flying at very low altitudes at any time and on very short notice as the ground commanders need them and call them in. We must be able to find and disarm sometimes just the one bad guy (or gal) with bombs strapped on his chest, etc. in a sea of often otherwise peaceful people.

Yet at the same time, the U.S. Air Force in particular must focus on what Secretary Gates has somewhat angrily called “next-war-itis.” What he actually said is: “I have noticed too much of a tendency toward what might be called “next-war-itis” — the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict.”

Well, Mr. Secretary, that is not a bad thing. It is never easy of course to do the balancing act that is needed to make the U.S. military run smoothly and efficiently. Perhaps that is why the SecDef job is so difficult and why so very few have handled it well. But Secretary Gates needs to learn what he does not appear to understand: it is not going to do this country much good to “win” the wars against the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan if we do so at the cost of ignoring the perils we still face from such familiar potential enemies as Russia and China, among others.

Even more important, as the American civilian leader of the military, Secretary Gates, should be doing his utmost to insure that all the branches of the military are content with their required missions and are receiving the proper support, both physical and mental. It is not helpful in the least to publicly criticize one of your military service branches, nor in a good administrator should it be at all necessary.

Last Sunday, the New York Times reported that the U.S. Army is trying to “edge away” from the Air Force, by starting its own aviation unit. Reporter Thom Shanker wrote that “In Iraq, Army officers say the Air Force has often been out of touch, fulfilling only half of their requests for the sophisticated surveillance aircraft the ground commanders say are needed to find roadside bombs and track down insurgents.”

Both Army and Marine Corps officers in Afghanistan have complained, according to Mr. Shanker, that “Air Force plots flying attack missions in support of ground operations do not come in as low as their Navy and Marine counterparts…Instances of civilian casualties from bombing and missile attacks have increased tensions among local populations, which have to then be eased by ground commanders, adding to the burden of winning the hearts and minds in the counterinsurgency efforts.”

No doubt there is some truth to that and there can be little doubt that when Secretary Gates fired both the current Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and the Air Force Chief of Staff, he did it for more than the serious lapses in transporting nuclear material (the famed case of allowing an aircraft last year to fly within the U.S. with six armed nukes on board along with the accidental shipping to Taiwan of nuclear triggers), the stated reasons for the firings.

However, the truth is the firings happened primarily because of a basic policy difference which has the Air Force concentrating more on the long range future and not on the shorter term insurgent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Air Force certainly has tried to support the Army as best it can in the current wars — it has quadrupled its number of sorties and bombing raids over the past year and increased dramatically the number of Predator surveillance flights as the troop “surge” has been implemented in Iraq especially.

However, in many ways, the Air Force is perhaps unsuited for this new type of warfare. The fact is that now our flying men are engaged in protecting, among other places, the whole Pacific theater — an area of several thousand square miles of ocean and the air above it. Un-manned drones and low flying sorties are hardly what that mission calls for.

As George Friedman wrote recently in “Geopolitical Weekly,” the Air Force sees F-22’s and other conventional technology as the key weapons of the next generation. The Air Force leadership facing decades-long timetables in fielding new weapon systems, feels it must focus on the next war now. Secretary Gates, responsible for fighting this generation’s war(s), sees the Air Force as neglecting current requirements.

Although no one really has a crystal ball to view what the next war will look like, it is safe to say that China has never stopped arming itself and is now spending at least as much as the U.S. on its own “defense.” It is also true the same trends appear to be happening in Russia, if indeed they ever stopped at the so-called “end” to the cold war. Rogue states and loose coalitions in the mid-east especially pose threats that no unmanned drone can protect against alone: witness the current nuclear program in Iran and the Israeli action against the Syrian nuclear site.

While wars of insurgency are what are happening now, it is correct to say that neither Iraq or Afghanistan, regardless of these two wars’ outcomes, will cause the downfall of America. However, a loss of any type of World War III most certainly would.

Wars between nation-states, such as World War I and World War II, George Friedman points out, “are rare in the sense that the United States fought many more wars like the Huk rising in the Philippines or the Vietnam War in its guerilla phase than it did in world wars…Nevertheless, it was the two world wars that determined the future of the world and threatened fundamental U.S. interests. The United States can lose a dozen Vietnams or Iraqs and not have its (most important) interests harmed. But losing a war with a nation-state could be catastrophic.”

That is why, no matter how frustrating the current war operations may be it is extremely foolish and, yes, dangerous, for the top civilian military man, the Secretary of Defense, to come out publicly and criticize the most important American service branch simply because it has the gall to be looking first and foremost to the most important mission: the preservation and on-going protection of our American union and our free land.

The Air Force’s business has been, since its inception in 1947, to not only fight the current war, but to forsee and plan for the next one, and the one after that. Secretary Gates must not insist on blinding the most forward-looking of the armed forces.