Leadership: The USAF Is Lost And Found

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June 8,2008: The U.S. Secretary of Defense recently forced Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and the Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley to resign. Wynne had originally been asked to fire Moseley, but refused to do so. This resulted in both being fired (or "asked to resign.") This was the culmination of over half a century of conflict between the U.S. Air Force, and the rest of the services. The immediate cause was two incidents involving mishandling of nuclear weapons. But there were other problems as well. The Department of Defense was unhappy with the support the air force was giving the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then there was the air force effort to take control of all UAVs, even though most of them were being used by the army, and the army made it clear it would fight real hard to maintain control. Then there was the issue of insisting that all UAV operators be qualified pilots, while the other services, and many other countries, successfully used non-pilots. Then there were the budget battles, with the air force scrambling to scrounge up money to build more of the most expensive fighter (the F-22) ever built. Finally, there was the seemingly endless string of corruption and procurement scandals.

But there were older problems as well. For thousands of years, it was the army that called the shots when it came to military strategy. Even nations with large navies, let the generals have the final say. There have been a few exceptions, mainly powerful island nations like Great Britain. But for the vast majority of nations, it was generals, not admirals, who had the last say. When air forces appeared 90 years ago, they were seen as a support service for the army and navy.

But air force commanders soon developed other ideas, especially the one that "wars could be won from the air". World War II was supposed to be a test of this theory, but the results were inconclusive. At least that's what the careful examination of the effects of strategic bombing revealed. These studies, especially the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS), were embarrassing to the air force generals. But the arrival of the atomic bomb in the last weeks of the war seemed to give the air force a power that could not be denied. That was not the case, especially when the nukes were delivered by ballistic missiles, against which there was no defense. Nuclear weapons were so powerful and intimidating that they brought an unprecedented period of peace between the major powers. There were still wars, but not really, really big ones. These little wars were non-nuclear, and the air force was generally not ready for them.

So, about two decades into the nuclear age, the air force get interested in conventional warfare again. This time, the air force thought it had a decisive weapon in the form of smart bombs. These were actually developed and used, with success, at the end of World War II, but generally ignored once the war ended. But now (late 1960s) the U.S. Air Force had laser guided bombs. Very accurate, but very expensive. By the end of the century the price had come way down, and the air force believed it was now the dominant service.

This was the attitude that got the Israelis in trouble during the Summer of 2006. That all began when, for the first time, an air force general became Chief of Staff (head of the Israeli armed forces.) He went along with air force plans to crush Hizbollah from the air. But here the Israeli air force fell into the same trap that had gotten the U.S. Air Force into so much trouble over the years. Despite the best efforts of Israeli intelligence, Hizbollahs efforts to secretly build bunkers in southern Lebanon were largely successful. The Israelis knew Hizbollah was fortifying the areas along the Israeli border, which Israel abandoned in 2000 (in an effort to bring peace to the area). Israel knew something was going on, but depended largely on aerial reconnaissance (jets, UAVs and some spy satellites) to identify what Hizbollah was doing. Based on this intelligence, the Israelis worked out plans for they would deal with Hizbollah, via air and artillery attacks, if war came. War did come in July, 2006, and it was quickly discovered that Israeli intel had missed many of the bunker complexes. These were then discovered, with some difficulty, by Israeli ground troops.

Blame it all on BDA (Bomb Damage Assessment), the problem air forces in general, and the U.S. Air Force in particular, just cannot get a handle on. BDA is the business of figuring out what to bomb, and what the impact on the enemy is after you bomb. The problem, of the guys in the air getting fooled by the guys on the ground, began during World War II. This was when air forces used large scale aerial bombing for the first time. Right after that conflict, the U.S. did a thorough survey, of the impact of strategic bombing on Germany and Japan. It was discovered that the impact was far different from what BDA during the war had indicated.

The air force vowed to do better next time. But as experience in Korea (1950-3), Vietnam (1965-72), Kuwait (1991) and Kosovo (1999), Iraq (2003) and Lebanon (2006) demonstrated, the enemy on the ground continued to have an edge when it came to deceiving the most energetic BDA efforts. The only proven technique for beating the BDA problem was to have people on the ground, up close, checking up on targets, while the fighting was going on. Before 2006, the Israelis did not want to do this, because of the risk of some of their commandos getting killed or captured, and because the intel and air force people were sure that they knew what Hizbollah was up to down there.

But there's another problem. The army and air force have a different outlook on planning and risk. The air force sees warfare as a much tidier, and predictable, affair than does the army. In this respect, the air force and navy are closely aligned. Both are technical services, who are used to exercising more control over their forces than do army generals. The army sees warfare as more unpredictable, and has adapted to that unpredictability. Army generals have always been skeptical of the air force claims, and it's usually the army guys who are proved to be right. But because air force and navy equipment is so much more expensive, those services get most of the defense budget, and the political clout that goes with it.

Since the Iraq invasion, the U.S. Air Force has been keeping fairly quiet about its ability to do things on its own. That's because there's a war on, and the army is doing most of the work. Moreover, the relationship between the army and air force has been fundamentally changed by the introduction of micro (under ten pounds) UAVs, and GPS smart bombs. The army has thousands of micro-UAVs in action, giving every infantry commander his own air force, at least as far as air reconnaissance goes. And then there are the smart bombs, which have restored army faith in close air support. And the troops have noted the pilots and their bombers are way up there, out of gunfire range. Down below, the army is running the war, just calling on pilots to push a button (and release a smart bomb) from time to time.

The GPS guided smart bombs have revolutionized warfare, but not to the air force's advantage. The greater reliability and accuracy of the GPS bombs means that far fewer bombs, and bombers are needed. The air force still has its 65 years of air superiority to worry about. Many officials in the Department of Defense fear that this advantage may be lost if the United States does not keep up with coming shift to robotic fighter aircraft. The pilots who run the air force (and naval aviation) are not keen on adopting robotic air superiority fighters, but less partisan observers have seen such parochialism cause disasters in the past.

The change of leadership in the air force is not going to solve all these problems, but it does put air force generals, and supporters, on notice that there are problems that have to be recognized and solved.

 


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