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Is the Air Force obsolete?

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Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates requested and received the resignations of both the Secretary of the Air Force, Michael Wynne, and the Air Force Chief of Staff, Michael Moseley. The ostensible reason was losing track of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapon components - the former for a few hours, the latter for a few years.

That's certainly justification for letting these two go. While one may think of nuclear bombers and missiles as a Cold War thing, keeping track of them is probably more important than ever. Letting nuclear weapons sit around unguarded overnight is just asking for Al Qaeda to steal them. Even components could help smaller states get nuclear weapons more quickly - we're rather lucky that Taiwan insisted on giving the Minuteman mk 12 warhead reentry vehicles back.

On a bigger scale, though, it seems that the Air Force may still be trying to plan how best to refight World War II. They want to buy more F-22s, which would be important in maintaining air superiority against an equally armed foe - but in today's world, where are they going to find an equally armed foe? They could get F-16s for much cheaper that would still be superior to anything we're likely to face. They do have a "space command", but aside from the neglected missile forces, that command seems to be tasked primarily to spend money on technology ideas that no reputable science fiction author would write about.

In the meantime, the Air Force is neglecting the the things they are actually needed for.

What are those things? Well, nuclear missiles and perhaps strategic bombers are still needed just to keep Russia and China from having any crazy ideas. Unfortunately those jobs are the same things they were decades ago - they've become boring. Worse, they've become dead ends from a career standpoint. While the latter may be fixed - some Air Force folks in those jobs are cheering Gates' move because they hope they'll finally get some recognition - the former can't.

Perhaps more importantly, though, is support of ground troops. Ground troops have always been the most important part of any war, and that isn't any different in the asymmetric warfare that will characterize the 21st century. Unfortunately, the Air Force has never liked that support role; ever since they've become an independent service arm, they've preferred trying to win wars by themselves through strategic bombing - a questionable strategy even during the Cold War - or flying fighter planes to keep the air safe for those bombers. Doing things that are actually militarily useful seems foreign to them.

That's why, when the Army needs an air strike, they call in the Navy instead of the Air Force. And when the Army needs reconnaissance information ... well, Gates recently complained - in a commencement speech to graduating Air Force Academy cadets - that getting reconnaissance resources out of the Air Force was "like pulling teeth". The Air Force refuses even to buy a sufficient number of reconnaissance vehicles, let alone risk them in a combat zone like Afghanistan. I guess the job isn't sexy enough for the jet jockeys. Heaven knows how the CIA managed to get their hands on some Predator remotely piloted aircraft - though when they did, they promptly used them to kill the #2 man at Al Qaeda, demonstrating how effective they can be if they're available. Airplanes with pilots may be on their way out.

If pilots are on their way out, perhaps we should be asking whether we really need a separate Air Force any more. The nuclear missiles are ground based, and would probably be more at home in the Army than in the Air Force. It's not clear that strategic bombers are needed, or that they have any chance of making it to their targets in today's world. The ground support forces would be more effective under control of the Army, and the Navy has demonstrated that planes which do ground support can still do effective air combat as well, if that's needed.

Maybe we could even save enough money to pay for part of that handout congress seems intent on giving to the nation's factory farmers.
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On June 7th, 2008 01:25 pm (UTC), greyautumnrain commented:
When I recently heard a report about how the air force wasn't buying the unmanned aircraft that everyone wanted them to get more of and instead wanted to buy more F22s, I figured the reason was that pilots get to fly the F22s and they are cool. People join the army because they want to serve. People join the air force because they want to fly. Everyone I know who has joined the air force has wanted to be a pilot, with the possible exception of they guy who chose that branch for ROTC because his father was air force. Unmanned planes don't need pilots, so more unmanned plans mean fewer pilot slots. Is it any wonder that the air force, which is made up primarily of guys who want to fly, is resisting doing things that mean less flying? What you need is a way to fill the air force with guys who want to be militarily useful, and putting them back under the command of the army might be the way to do that.
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On June 7th, 2008 05:51 pm (UTC), psychohist replied:
That's exactly the problem.

The short run solution might be to put a nuclear missile guy in charge, if they can find one who wasn't involved in losing the RVs.
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On June 10th, 2008 02:23 pm (UTC), kirisutogomen replied:
Way back when we were undergrads I took a Course 17 class in national security, and the TA was Col. Craigie, the Air Force colonel whose full-time job was running the Harvard-MIT ROTC program. He pointed out that the official Air Force mission gave you a clue as to what the Air Force would want more/less of. The current version is "to deliver sovereign options for the defense of the United States of America and its global interests —-- to fly and fight in Air, Space, and Cyberspace." I think it was pretty much the same back then, except probably without the "Cyberspace"; what I remember is that it definitely included the words "To Fly And Fight". So Col. Craigie was saying, if you want to know how the USAF will lean when there's a push to use more aerial drones, remember that their mission is "To Fly And Fight", not "To Sit And Push Buttons", regardless of how much more effective the latter is relative to the former.
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On June 10th, 2008 04:00 pm (UTC), psychohist replied:
That's a good point. While that mission statement may be inspirational for budding pilots, it doesn't strike me as providing much useful guidance. I notice that any acknowledgement of other forces is missing, as well.

The Navy mission, as I remember it, had four parts. Two explicitly involved coordination with things outside the navy - merchant vessels in "protection of sea lines of communication" and ground forces in "projection of power ashore". The other two were "strategic deterrence" and "naval presence", which the Navy tends to view as purely naval missions, despite our having been taught about the strategic deterrence "triad".

After posting my comment from last night below, I was realizing that part of the issue here may be that there just hasn't been a lot of study about what air forces are good for. People have been figuring out how to use armies and navies for millenia; air forces have been around for less than a century.

I do think we know a bit more than just 'fly and fight', though. Maybe it's time to revisit the Air Force mission statement and make some adjustments.
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On June 10th, 2008 09:48 pm (UTC), kirisutogomen replied:
As soon as the mission statement uses the word "deliver," you know they're about to screw it up. It's the Air Force, not the freakin post office. "Deliver sovereign options" is third-rate business school verbal sludge along the same lines as "provide unique proactively engineered solutions" or "integrate customized performance-driven opportunities".

(And I never bought into the nuclear triad. For a few decades now strategic bombers have been just silly, and except for cost land-based missiles are almost entirely strictly inferior to submarine-launched missiles. (Remember when we were going to put the MX on trains and drive them around continuously?))
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On June 11th, 2008 02:52 am (UTC), psychohist replied:
Strangely enough for a Navy person, I actually believe the nuclear deterrent should include more than just submarines.

I'd agree that at present, so far as we know, submarines are superior to the other two legs of the triad. However, I can imagine technological advances that could make submarines easily detectable. A good neutrino detector, for example, could find nuclear reactors pretty easily. More realistically, I could see satellite photography plus image enhancement techology improving to the point where you could see submarines even submerged at operating depths, at least when the conditions were good. Once spotted, submarines are softer targets than land based ICBMs and would be more susceptible to a nuclear first strike.

You can "launch on warning", but what do you hit? If the enemy starts taking out your nuclear weapons, but stays away from your cities, are you willing to escalate to hitting cities because it will be your last chance to do so? If you don't, what's going to happen afterwards if the enemy has nukes left and you don't? It's not a position one wants to be in. Bombers have the best change of surviving a first strike since they can take off and stay in the air - and they can land at civilian airports to be saved for later use even after their bases are destroyed. I grant that they have the lowest chance of actually making it to their targets if and when they are actually used, though.

These are fairly far fetched scenarios, and maybe I'm paranoid. As you point out, though, the land based missiles at least are cheap, so my opinion is better safe than sorry.
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On June 7th, 2008 10:40 pm (UTC), dcltdw commented:
Isn't the Air Force still very useful for large invasions? I would guess, but I so don't know, that the Iraqi invasions involved a lot of deep-strike sorties against various targets (logistical? -- bridges and waterworks and electricity generators -- plus military complexes?). My point is to draw a distinction between "totally" and "mostly" obsolete.

Especially with the rise of asymmetrical warfare against us, it seems to me that we want to elevate the Marines into their own wing, but I don't know if that makes any sense whatsoever. My understanding is that they're a wing of the Navy, and they like it that way as they already work so closely that separating them would just introduce a logistical nightmare.
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On June 7th, 2008 11:24 pm (UTC), greyautumnrain replied:
Airplanes are certainly still useful for military operations, but that's not the same thing. I believe that a fair number of air strikes are done by navy pilots based on aircraft carriers. What Warren is talking about is whether a separate branch of the military is still a good idea, not whether or not we can do without all the functions that the branch in question currently does.
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On June 8th, 2008 12:25 am (UTC), psychohist replied:
We were kind of trying to avoid hitting useful civilian targets like bridges and water works and electrical plants in the Gulf War and the Iraq War, since the first time they would have been mostly Kuwaiti plants which we wanted to preserve, and the second time we knew we were going to need the civilian infrastructure after we finished the initial invasion.

There were a few deep strikes. The Iraq War opened with a strike with four bunker buster bombs dropped from Air Force F-117s and 40 cruise missiles launched from submarines. All four of the bombs missed, though, and it seems that Saddam Hussein wasn't there anyway. There were certainly air launched cruise missiles from B-52s used in both wars as well - to sharp observers, the B-52s taking off from England were the first notice that the invasion had actually started.

Tactical strikes by A-10 warthog ground attack aircraft were very useful in the Gulf War, and were also useful in the Iraq War as well, though the impression from my admittedly biased ex-Navy viewpoint is that in the latter, all the really difficult battles were handled by Marines with support from the Navy rather than by the Army with support from the Air Force.

All of these aircraft are old, though; the F-117 is a 25 year old design, the A-10 dates from the 1970s, and the B-52 dates from the 1950s. They don't really need to be updated because they aren't facing anything on the other side that's being updated. In terms of expense, they just don't compare to the F-22s the Air Force fighter pilot brass keeps pushing; unlike the F-22s, the budget for them doesn't push out thousands of billets for aircraft maintenance people or people reaponsible for making sure the right items are in the right boxes.

Also, I think it's questionable whether they justify a separate service arm. The A-10s could probably be more efficiently integrated into the Army, and to a large extent their role is being replaced by remotely piloted aircraft anyway, especially in Afghanistan. The B-52s and F-117s aren't enough to justify an entirely separate service arm.

With respect to the Marines, they do have their own service chief - that's why the joint chiefs has four people on it, rather than three - but officer training is integrated with the Navy. I think that actually works pretty well. One good result is that Navy officers, having gone to college with Marines, tend to take air support for ground operations seriously, rather treating it as an annoying task foisted on them by another service. Marines are, in turn, more willing to rely on the Navy for air support rather than pushing to have it in house. The other big advantage is that, by virtue of being in one common budget, the military guys can figure out what the appropriate budget allocations are based on their needs, without as much influence from congressional pork barrel politics.

A similar relationship between the Air Force and the Army might work well, with some the Air Force's cyber warfare duties split off and given to the NSA or some other intelligence agency.
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On June 8th, 2008 12:31 am (UTC), greyautumnrain commented:
Speaking of air force incompetence...
If I recall correctly it was an air force guys who were involved in the deadly friendly fire incident with the tank from the Blues and Royals. I know friendly fire incidents happen in war, but as part of the overall pattern it does not look good. Also, British tanks look absolutely nothing like the old soviet tanks the Iraqis were using.
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On June 9th, 2008 04:23 am (UTC), treptoplax commented:
You can make a pretty good case that strategic bombing was an enormous waste of resources on all sides in WWII, and that independent air forces only encourage that sort of nonsense.

The interesting power struggle now is between the Air Force and Army over UAVs (that is, Unmanned Air Vehicles, or as I prefer to call them Flying Killer Robots!). The airforce is making a push to have all non-trivial (that is, big enough to wreck a fighter if it collides with one) UAVs put under Air Force air traffic control. The army, meanwhile, is opposing that and planning to buy several hundred Predators of its own (with a Mark II onboard 'AI', so they can be operated by NCOs with no real pilot's training as such). Certainly in the current political environment, the army seems likely to win this battle.

Ordinarly, of course, the Army isn't allowed to have fixed-wing aircraft at all (under the Key West Agreement from the 50's - and the fact that the Army and Air Force have a 'treaty' on that tells you all you need to know about interservice rivalry...), but has argued that doesn't apply to UAVs, and again, the air force doesn't seem to be in position to win those fights anymore.

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On June 10th, 2008 03:24 am (UTC), psychohist replied:
Re: UAVs
This is indeed interesting. The Air Force has always had a somewhat self contradictory attitude over ground support: they've never wanted to actually do it, but they've never wanted to cede that part of the budget to the Army so the army could do it, either. The A-10 was evidently a response to an Army attempt to build a helicopter with fixed wings for ground attack, for example.

I realized after my response above that I'd neglected the other critical mission of air force planes: air transport. Evidently Gates hadn't forgotten, having now recommended a former transport pilot to replace Moseley. He's also recommending a former bomber guy for assistant Chief of Staff; it looks like he's trying to end the reign of the fighter pilots. The missile guys still seem unrepresented in the top spots, though.
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On June 10th, 2008 04:12 pm (UTC), psychohist replied:
Re: UAVs
Meanwhile, Iran seems to think the relevant part of the appointment is that Schwartz is Jewish - the headline there is "U.S. names Jewish pilot as air force chief":


Somehow I think they've got pretty skewed perceptions of our priorities.
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