Dr. Robert Farley wrote a book (Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force) in which he makes a case for getting rid of the United States Air Force. Not the aircraft mind you, just the organization which owns those aircraft. This topic was being discussed in my circles last year when the book was first published and it's back again. No doubt because of the A-10 and F-35 debacles which have occurred recently.
To be quite honest, when I first heard of this book I consigned it to the nether regions and wondered what could a political science guy know about anything. That was pretty much a "shoot from the hip" reaction based solely on my 24 years service in that Air Force.
Then a guy I know in Chicago, for whom I have a great deal of respect, mentioned that he'd read Dr. Farley's book and thought that the good professor had made some pretty good points in that tome. Again I pooh-poohed my friend's opinion as being uninformed and not relevant as he'd never been in the military.
Then I read this and found myself questioning my own opinion. (I know, I should have listened to you Spill!) This is what happens when one goes with feelings and not with facts. Damn, how very progressive of me!
In light of some of the embarrassing things my Air Force has done lately (all documented by Tony over at John Q. Public) I've really had to think about this topic in more depth. Toss out the opinions and the emotions, just consider the facts, as it were.
So here goes.
Airpower was first used in World War I. Early aircraft were primitive and were typically used for reconnaissance. The airplane would fly over enemy territory and the crew would observe and make notes. Once back on the ground they would tell the ground commanders what they saw. Useful but not decisive in the early days. Aircraft were used much like light cavalry, as scouts and observers.
As the aircraft became more sophisticated it was used more and more in a ground support role. A nation would also have aircraft whose purpose was to deny the air to the enemy's aircraft, so your guys could bomb and strafe unmolested. Strategic bombing, though used to some extent, was militarily insignificant.
The British or French were not going to quit because zeppelins or primitive bombers bombed them. The payloads were too small and the means of delivery were woefully inadequate and inaccurate.
In the interwar years, some airmen began to dream big, really big. Billy Mitchell demonstrated that aircraft could sink ships. Which won him no friends either in the Army or the Navy. (I'm sure some admirals began thinking about getting their own aircraft to protect their ships around that time.)
Giulio Douhet in Italy had even bigger dreams. Fleets of bombers would wander over the enemy's country laying waste to their industries and training camps. Bombers would be fast and well-armed, so much so that enemy fighters would be useless against them.
As it turned out, Douhet was wrong. Fighter aircraft kept getting better and faster. Bombers got bigger and more heavily armed but in order to truly have an impact on a target, you needed quite a few bombers. Flying in formation they were extremely vulnerable to enemy fighters and anti-aircraft artillery.
The Luftwaffe and the Eighth Air Force discovered this the hard way. The Luftwaffe's aircraft had been designed to support ground forces and were nearly completely inadequate to perform strategic bombing. While the Lancasters, B-17s and B-24's of the Allies carried big enough payloads to perform useful work deep behind enemy lines, the war wasn't won until Allied infantry and armor went ashore at Normandy and Russian grunts planted the flag of the Soviet Union over the ruins of Berlin.
Airpower was useful but not decisive in Europe.
The Pacific was another matter. Even though American airpower devastated Japan, it was the U.S. Navy's submarines which cut Japan's supply lines. Airpower made things tough for the Japanese but didn't really defeat them. Putting the Japanese merchant fleet (and much of the Imperial Navy) on the bottom of the ocean, and the Army and Marines kicking them off the numerous islands they had seized were the decisive element.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki notwithstanding, airpower played a supporting role, not decisive in and of itself. (The atomic bombs detonated over those two Japanese cities made the Japanese government see that their situation was indeed hopeless. They were already defeated, the bombs made them see that. It also spared thousands of lives as an invasion of the Home Islands wouldn't be necessary.)
Somewhere along the way, the bomber generals convinced themselves (and others) that airpower had been decisive in and of itself. (How they figured that still baffles me, while attacks on German oil supplies really hurt the Germans, production of tanks and aircraft continued to rise even under the bombs of the USAAF and the RAF. Many bomber generals still insisted on bombing factories, not oil supplies!)
While airpower had proved decisive in isolating the Normandy beachhead from the interior of Europe (preventing the Germans from reinforcing and resupplying their forces in Normandy), Eisenhower had to go to Churchill and FDR to order the bomber generals to give him control of the strategic air forces!
After the war many theorists were convinced that nuclear weapons had changed everything. What need did we have for an army or a navy, just send in fleets of bombers loaded with nukes to defeat the enemy. No one in their right mind would start a war if the air forces of the free world could nearly literally destroy an enemy country. Picture Hiroshima and Nagasaki writ large!
I guess a lot of people bought into that because in 1947 President Truman signed the National Security Act which, among other things, created the United States Air Force. A service on an equal footing with the Army and the Navy. A separate service no longer under the command of the Army. A separate service built around bombers and atomic weapons. There was talk in some circles of disbanding the Army and the Navy as useless expenses. After all, we could use the Coast Guard in our waters and who was going to mess with us? We had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, we were untouchable militarily.
Then on 29 August 1949, the Soviet Union detonated their own atomic bomb. We were no longer the only nation on the planet with nuclear weapons. Ruh-roh.
As time went on we came up with this whole Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) concept. If you blow up our half of the planet, why then we'll blow up your half. So there.
The Air Force had bombers and missiles in silos, the Navy had missiles in submarines. The Army had...
Um, the Army had...
Oh yeah! Nuclear artillery! Atomic Annie! Big guns...
Okay, look at the gun then look at the mushroom cloud. Would you want to join the artillery and have that job? Talk about danger close. They'd be like the old Soviet Northern Fleet, glowing in the dark.
Seriously though, we had what was a fairly standard ground war in Korea from 1950 to 1953. No nukes, no strategic bombing. Just lots of infantry (with some tanks) with lots of close air support and standard non-atomic artillery.
Whatever strategic strikes there were were mostly deep strikes behind the Communist lines against logistical targets. Not factories but rail lines, supply hubs, troop concentrations and the like. We weren't trying to bomb North Korea out of the war, in fact after Inchon it was mostly a Red Chinese fight, the North Korean army was pretty chewed up retreating from Pusan after MacArthur landed at Inchon, deep behind Communist lines.
No strategic bombing of China either, though MacArthur really wanted to, I believe he even recommended a nuclear strike which no doubt had the Air Force bomber mafia salivating. Fortunately (I guess) cooler heads prevailed. (Though to this day I wonder what would have happened if we'd destroyed the portion of China bordering North Korea. I'm sure the Russians would have been pissed but I doubt that they would fight for China. After all if we nuked the Chinese we'd probably nuke the Russians. I'm glad we didn't find out. Dad could have been called back to the Army with that sort of escalation and who knows what would have followed. Some think the Red Army would use that excuse to cross Germany and head for the Channel. After all, we were kind of busy in Korea!)
Strategic bombing was tried in North Vietnam, not really against factories as the North Vietnamese got most of their stuff from the Russians and the Chinese. Air strikes against infrastructure mostly, targets chosen by the "geniuses" in DC to "send messages" to the North Vietnamese leadership. The air strikes didn't really become effective until Nixon turned American airpower against Haiphong harbor and really began pounding Hanoi. That got the North's attention and got them back to the negotiating table.
But where were the Air Force generals in all this? They weren't calling the shots by any means. The F-105s and F-4s flying out of Thailand were all directed out of Washington DC by LBJ and his pet "genius" McNamara. Neither of them had a clue, I don't recall any generals resigning in protest over the running of the air war. Nope, as long as their budgets stayed up they were happy.
In my opinion, the Vietnam air war was a colonel's war. The wing commanders made the tactical decisions and they and the men below them did the flying and the dying. I don't really see the need for an independent Air Force in that context.
Back in the day air commanders were worried that their forces would be wasted by ground commanders who didn't understand air power. That might have been true before 1940. Now I think any ground commander worth his stars wants (and needs) to have air power on tap. Ready to go at a moment's notice and not routed through some Air Force higher headquarters. (I know the admirals like their carriers, I like 'em too but in my opinion our submarines are a much more effective weapon. You can tell if a carrier battle group is not there. With submarines you never know.)
One thing makes me hesitant to do away with an independent Air Force and that is the experience of the German Luftwaffe in World War II (which really was only good for ground support). This was an air force built solely to support the army. It couldn't really do anything on its own. Making the Air Force part of the Army again could tend in that direction.
Having an independent Air Force though may be impossible given what appears to be the sheer bull-headed stupidity (IMHO) prevalent in the higher ranks of my Air Force. It's why we can't have nice things.
Seriously? Get rid of the A-10? The Bone (B-1) can provide close air support? Are you kidding me? The F-35 can replace all those other aircraft in the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps? First of all it's too damn expensive and is beginning to look like it can't do some of the missions the Air Force claims it can. If you criticize the leadership you're a traitor? Really?
I'm starting to see Professor Farley's point of view. The Air Force track record lately isn't so good.
And don't get me started on drones. I know Tuna likes them, I don't. Good for reconnaissance and deep strike if you have air supremacy. I wouldn't trust them for close air support and if the other side has manned aircraft and knows how to use them (which the Russians and Chinese do) then our drones will be swept from the skies.
Manned aircraft will be around for some time to come. (And the F-35 needs a freaking gun, didn't we learn that in Vietnam with the Phantom?)
I'm not sure if the current Air Force leadership is up to the challenge of future war.
Breaks my heart, but there it is.
Maybe Dr. Farley is right.