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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.