Leadership: Congress Outlaws The USAF

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January 9, 2011:  The U.S. Air Force has been using a rarely enforced 19th century law (the Anti-Deficiency Act, or ADA), and more inspections, to get rid of generals and senior commanders who do not do their jobs. This all began because of the embarrassing problems with nuclear weapons security three years ago. Since then, commanders have come under more pressure to do things right. That means more strictness in following the rules. Scary inspections have become fashionable again, along with fiscal responsibility. Commanders who don't get with the program are headed for early retirement. This has happened to 14 air force generals and dozens of colonels in the last three years.

This all began in 2008, when The U.S. Secretary of Defense 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. The ADA was applied to cases where generals or colonels were in charge of projects that went way over budget, for no convincing reason. The air force has more problems with budget control than anyone else, but for decades was allowed to get away with the overruns. Not anymore, or not so much anymore.

There were older, and more fundamental, problems in the air force. 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 made the final decisions. 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. 

What the air force was accustomed to was spending lots of money (more than any other service) on new technology. The new gadgets often work, after costing more, and taking longer, than promised. The air force could always fall back on the fact that no air force has been able to successfully challenge American air power since World War II. During that time, the U.S. Air Force has dominated any air space it was called to fight in. But the air force has staked its claim on so much of the defense budget based on its ability to intervene decisively, and play a critical role in winning the war for the ground forces. That has not been happening.

Blame it all on BDA (Bomb Damage Assessment), the problem is that air forces in general, and the U.S. Air Force in particular, just cannot get a handle on it. 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 (the Israeli Air Force in 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.

But there are other problems. 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 (because the bombs hit friendly troops much less often). 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. And those who do not perform, will be eased out. Anyone nailed with an ADA violation (that prohibits spending more money than Congress allocated) is not going to get promoted, and is headed for retirement. The colonels that get relieved of their commands are never going to make general. Suddenly, getting the job done is a matter of life-or-death, at least as far as careers are concerned.

 


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