Fighting for Our Future – A Short Defense of the US Air Force

In 2006 while stationed at Misawa Air Base, Japan, I began reading one of my favorite author’s new works.  I had recently arrived at Misawa and picked up New Glory by Ralph Peters, a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel from the Intelligence branch.  I had devoured his first published work Red Army; then The War in 2020; and subsequently his pre-September Eleventh book Fighting for the Future, where I initially agreed with his 1999 theory that America would primarily face minor military actions against what Peters called “Violent men who do not play by the time-honored rules of warfare” because I had come to assume American technological and military supremacy would be a permanent state and would go unchallenged by other nation-states.  I had been especially keen to read New Glory for two reasons.  The first was that I was certain it would incorporate some of Peters’ Op-Eds that had been so critical of Germany’s and Western Europe’s role in the War on Terrorism that the general officers of the Bundeswehr boycotted the 2004 Land Warfare Exposition in Heidelberg because Lt Col Peters was one of the guest speakers; I wished to read firsthand what I had only heard discussed when I briefly met Lt Col Peters there at Heidelberg.  The second reason was because I had just completed the hopelessly propagandistic Why Do People Hate America? by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies and was ready to peruse something patriotic and pro-American.  I was sure New Glory would not disappoint me. 

Lt Col (ret) Ralph Peters and Capt Chris Penningroth

Lt Col (ret) Ralph Peters and then-Capt Chris Penningroth

I was not disappointed at first.  New Glory immediately began attacking the “Revolution in Military Affairs” I had just learned about in Air Command and Staff College, and I was happy to hear an alternative viewpoint for cross-examination.  In the next chapter I remember stowing several personal biases to continue reading through Peters’ assault on the F-22, an aircraft which I believe is superb, but which he deemed an unnecessary vestige of the Cold War pushed primarily by the “aerospace cabal” in the Military-Industrial complex.  It became easier reading when Peters moved from his perceptions of wrongdoing in the Air Force and industry and on to his viewpoints regarding America’s foreign relations and the nature of our likely future conflicts.  Near the end however, as I continued reading on one long summer night, my piqued interest turned into dread as I flipped to page 269 and saw for the first time a suggestion in print that the Air Force be disbanded and its assets and personnel split between the Army and the Navy! I was incredulous.  This was one of my first lessons that perhaps my assumption that America would instinctively understand the need for a technologically cutting-edge Air Force (along with a robust and equally technologically adept Navy, Army, and Marine Corps) to create the strategic deterrence required to ensure that America would only have to fight ‘small actions by rogue actors that could not otherwise be deterred’ was wrong. 

Surprise and disappointment eventually gave way to denial that what I considered such a silly suggestion would ever be taken seriously, but I remained slightly alarmed knowing Lt Col Peters has a significant and influential audience.  I deluded myself into believing that the American public certainly understood the need for the Air Force.  But having read Lt Col Peters’ book, I was not entirely surprised nearly eight months later when our Maintenance Group Commander mentioned in a speech to the Misawa Air Force Association Chapter something to the effect that “Our Air Force is now engaged in a battle for our own relevance.”  I did not need to ask for clarification, I understood the fight was simmering and needed little to bring it to a boil.  Some of my peers who heard the Cololnel’s quote evinced the same disbelief I had felt less than a year prior.  As students of military history, we all understood the need to keep America’s technological edge in air, space, and cyberspace.  As we spoke to one another in late Spring 2007, one of Misawa’s two fighter squadrons was completing its first deployment to Iraq and had begun to drop more bombs in anger in conjunction with General David Petraeus’ surge operations than in the previous year; Misawa’s second fighter squadron was preparing to deploy to replace them and would employ even more ordnance as the surge went into full force.  The effects our brothers downrange had been having once again confirmed in our minds the unquestioned need for an independent Air Force; it  seemed so self-evident that we managed to convince ourselves that calls to disband the Air Force were little more than anomalies and that such endeavors would fail to gain traction, even when the initiator was someone with an extraordinary reputation such as Lt Col Peters.  We all let our guard down for the time being and pressed on with our job of maintaining proficiency in air combat tactics and suppression of enemy air defenses; all while preparing for the squadrons’ next deployment to Iraq in September 2008; training in close air support tactics with a touch of non-traditional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance for good measure.  The squadron performed its second deployment to Iraq with aplomb and returned to Misawa Air Base in early 2009.  Little did I realize there still existed that undercurrent of resentment towards the Air Force in some media elites. 

Over the past couple weeks the most-discussed non-work-related news in my work center has been the 21 April article “Up, Up and Out” in the New York Times by Paul Kane.  In that article Kane echoed the earlier call by Lt Col Peters to disband the Air Force.  Fortunately Kane is far less eloquent and makes a poor, easily rebutted case.  While Lt Col Peters’ 2005 rationale for splitting the Air Force is based primarily on suspected corporate and HQ USAF malfeasance ignores the lessons learned during the Second World War, Kane’s argument is that the Air Force is not at war at all, nor is it structured to fight in the current actions.  To put it charitably, this is silly.  This would be tantamount to having called for Kane’s Marine Corps to be disbanded in 1999 since only a handful of Marines were involved in Operations NORTHERN and SOUTHERN WATCH and ALLIED FORCE; the few Marines involved in these Operations were primarily aviators and were redundant with the Air Force; and then to say “The Marines just aren’t structured for the “Wars” of the 1990s.”  It would have been nonsense to have said that in 1999.  It is equally preposterous to suggest the Air Force is incapable of fighting in 2009 and beyond.  An Air Force that is capable of fighting force-on-force engagements will remain necessary if for no other reason than to prevent a nation-state opponent from acquiring what has been America’s key asymmetric war-fighting advantage since 1943.  Air supremacy may not be a sufficient condition for victory in future wars, but since the Spanish Civil War it has been a necessary condition for success.  My fellow Airmen and I understand this.  We Airmen have and will continue to deploy to any region of the world necessary; whether to bring justice to terrorists; to bring hope to victims of natural disasters; or to fly, fight, and win our nations wars. 

The key to victory in the air has a great deal to do with training.  The air wars in Korea and late Vietnam that pitted Soviet-trained pilots against Americans flying when Americans were overwhelmingly victorious attest to this, as did the Israeli experience in 1967.  While dogfighting an enemy with ‘Machine parity’ may be an agreeable situation for fighter pilots who are full of confidence in their training and their warhorse, this is a less-than-acceptable situation for sensible commanders (and politicians) who have to send those pilots into battle knowing that weapons systems exist that would technologically overmatch the best the enemy had to offer (regardless of the cost).  Why is it America’s best interest to be prepared to fight small wars handily but assume the risk of having to fight an aerial war of attrition in the event of a large force-on-force war? I would argue it is not in our interest to seek parity (or rather to allow parity to catch up with us in the current world strategic environment).  The Battle of Britain was only barely won by our erstwhile allies whose Spitfires and Hurricanes were only slightly if at all better than the Messerschmitt Bf109 in the air war over Europe, and then it was won nearly entirely because of operational blunders on the part of German Oberkommando, not because the RAF thwarted enough air attacks to force culmination.  Fortunately for the Allies, the lead time required to rush fighters into production was measured in months, not years.  The F-22 went onto the drawing board in the mid-1980s and entered operational service in 2003; the F-35 enjoyed a shorter timeline but benefitted from a better learning curve as a result of lessons learned from the F-22’s development.  A similar situation can be seen in aviation cadet training.  The two separate processes are linked from a strategic point of view. 

Today it takes from 36 to 48 months to mint a modern fighter or bomber pilot.  To measure that in terms of events in the Second World War, in the about the same amount of time the Germans launched Operation BARBAROSSA, arrived at the suburbs of Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad; and were pushed back to Kharkov (or if you prefer, the same time it took the US Pacific Forces to recover from Pearl Harbor and to fight their way onto Tarawa).  Modern fighters cost at least $25 million for a basically capable fourth generation fighter/attack aircraft plus $2,700 or more per hour to fly.  Japan learned the hard way in WWII that you cannot simply tell a new pilot to go fly and expect him to succeed in combat.  If you want to win on the modern battlefield, you have to have your plan to win in place and in action well before the commencement of hostilities, regardless whether it’s a force-on-force set-piece battle or a counterinsurgency effort.  General Omar Bradley stood up the Army’s Officer Candidate School in 1940, over a year before the U.S. entered the Second World War.  Similarly, you have to have your Air Force built and trained years before they can be called into effective action.  Demanding the Air Force build and train for the current status quo without anticipating and preparing to pre-empt our potential rivals’ capabilities leaves America open to being strategically outmaneuvered.  It is possible to win at chess with a king, a queen, two knights, and eight pawns; but victory is far less certain if the opponent has that plus acquires rooks and bishops.  We do not ask our soldiers or Marines to take off their body armor in order to make the fight more fair, nor do we only equip certain battalions with body armor and Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAP).  But in an apples-and-oranges sense, this is what the Air Force has been asked to do for now; so just like the Marine Corps has done through most of its history, we Airmen will make do with the weapons we’re given.  And we’ll do whatever job we’re given in a way that makes sense to those of us who have grown up professionally in the air, the way we were taught to fly by the legends who came before like Rickenbacker, Olds, McGuire, Bong, Thach, and Gabreski among many others who learned themselves and triumphed in the crucibles of the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam.

The lessons those aces and top pilots from Allied and opponent nations learned starting in 1915 taught us that the skills, talents, and mindsets that form the most successful combat pilots diverge from the characteristics that make the best infantrymen.  While no one questions that all military personnel share needs to be in top physical condition and the ability to work as an aggressive, disciplined team, success (even survival) in the air depended on the pilot’s willingness to go out into the vast expanse of sky over contested territory with the support of only one- to three fellow pilots in a formation and determine within seconds how to attack several tactical problems.  Their solutions would play out over a matter of minutes in what author Tom Wolfe termed “The Truest Sport” and end with the result that someone (preferably the enemy) would not be going home.  The best aerial tacticians became known to be those who could rapidly develop a high degree of situational awareness and who could primarily by sight determine not only where a multitude of super-fast aircraft were at that moment but where each of them could and then would be in a matter of seconds and minutes.  The pilots who were able to do this were relatively independent thinkers, willing to act on what appeared to all others to be sheer instinct, able to innately assess the risk to themselves and their flights, and aggressively poise themselves to attack when the outcome was going to be favorable to them.  The airborne mission commander has only minutes to accomplish his objectives (whether they are to attack targets on the ground or to escort bombers or any of a range of other missions) and must fight an intense battle to defend himself, his wingmen against opposing fighters, anti-aircraft artillery, and surface-to-air missiles over the contested battlespace.  Pilots in combat “measure their lives by the sweep-second hand.”  Now take the best pilots’ tendencies towards independent and high-risk actions with only one, two, or three others and contrast this combat situation to the job of the infantryman in battle.  The infantryman enters the battlespace with his squad of at least nine, which is part of a platoon of 44 or so, which is part of a company of over 100, and so on.  The ground commander’s job becomes a contest of wills with the opponent to outmaneuver and outfight him on the ground in order to secure the ground area.  The infantryman with his team must be able to survive and fight on the enemy’s turf, daring the opposing force to try to do something about the infantryman’s presence.  The infantryman must be conditioned to act only in concert with his fellows at the direction of the leader who orchestrates the complicated ballet of fire and maneuver based on the terrain, cover, concealment, and abilities of his troops.  For the infantryman to act independently away from his team the way a combat pilot must operate is to invite certain death for himself and a potential catastrophe for his team.  So the qualities that forge the best pilots to a large degree contradict the qualities that forge the best infantrymen.  The characteristics that make us superb pilots would make us poor soldiers.  Conversely, the traits that make the best infantrymen would make for an airborne force that would do little more than present an opportunity for the enemy to become aces; a highly disciplined line of targets would be flying in concert to their destruction (which some might arge was the Soviet method).   The art of tactical air combat is not to win by slogging it out on the street in a duel; it is to sneak up on your opponent in a dark alley, stab him in the back, and slip quietly away.  To try to make it otherwise is to ignore nearly a century of experience at your own peril.   

My beloved Air Force has made a series of serious missteps since 1999, there can be little question about that.  It was inexcusable to have unknowingly loaded nuclear weapons onto a B-52, much less flown them.  We have taken significant steps to rectify problems with discipline that should never have occurred with our nuclear enterprise.  As our force culture evolved in the 1990s with fewer people shouldering more deployments we emphasized “Getting the job done” and sacrificed physical training in order for our flightlines to operate longer hours with squadrons and groups half a world away.  Today we have made substantial progress in re-emphasizing physical training for the force, but the nature of our business prevents all 5,000 people in a modern Air Wing from arriving at 0630 for an hour-long workout the way the Army and the Marines do it; it will remain largely an individual responsibility to carve out time to exercise.  Our recent big-ticket acquisition efforts (KC-X, CSAR-X, and Transformational Satellite (TSAT)) have come to naught thus far and some of our other projects such as the F-35 and the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) have flirted dangerously with Nunn-McCurdy, inviting intense and often negative scrutiny.  We have suffered several other public relations debacles such as “ThunderVision” and some of the fallout over the 27 April VC-25 “Flying Photo Op” over New York City that set people there into a panic.  Our self-rehabilitation work is nowhere near complete but the Air Force will find equitable solutions that will ensure our nations’ freedom from harm.  We’re Americans, we will do what it takes to adjust to new realities.  For the foreseeable future, all new realities will still require an Air Force that can provide air and space supremacy because as long as air and space supremacy is assured, all terrain is fatal. 

I look back at the fights my Air Force has fought and successes it wrought in Operations DESERT STORM, ALLIED FORCE, ENDURING FREEDOM, and IRAQI FREEDOM.  When I hear pedantic calls from the likes of Paul Kane or frustrating straw man arguments from the highly respected Lt Col Ralph Peters concluding the United States would best serve its national security interests by dismembering the Air Force, I have to wonder exactly what must my brother and sister Airmen do to achieve a Mount Suribachi moment for our service? Can America take five hundred years worth of incremental proof of the necessity of an independent Air Force or will we have to be taught a disastrous lesson in a future conflict that the only thing more expensive than the most capable Air Force is an Air Force that is not up to all tasks, especially its primary one of ensuring air and space supremacy?  

I for one hope that we can stop this tired debate and put it behind us.  I also hope the American public agrees with my conclusion, and will be solidly in favor of the need for an independent Air Force for the next five hundred years.

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