Figure Out the Air Force: Airpower, Nuclear Weapons and Next Generation Bombers
General Welsh, speaking to Defense News soon after taking the helm of the United States Air Force as its Chief of Staff, expressed his frustration that the other services can’t appreciate the US Air Force. The problemin his viewbeing the ignorance of the other services. The problem is certainly ignorance, but that ignorance stems from the lack of a doctrinal discipline that clearly, and unambiguously, defines Airpower. Airpower is tragically not whatever the USAF says it is. Airpower is, in actuality, a simple concept merely being the means by which a country seizes what Italian artilleryman and theorist Giulio Douhet called “Command of the Air.”
But what is Command of the Air? That, too, is simple to define as it means ”to have the ability to fly against an enemy so as to injure him, while he has been deprived of the power to do likewise.” Further, “To have command of the air means to be in a position to wield offensive power so great it defies human imagination.” The mechanism to do this is what Douhet called, “The Independent Air Force.” The Independent Air Force, as Douhet wrote, and Mitchell and Arnold and the Army Air Corps (later the USAF) adopted is simply an offensive force which can strike with terrific speed against enemy targets on land or sea in any direction and can force its way through any aerial opposition from the enemy. Further, this Independent Air Force must:
- Be capable of winning the struggle for command of the air.
- Prevent its own territory from being subjected to aerial offensives of the enemy.
- Subject all the enemy’s land and sea territory to aerial offensives.
As William Bradford Huie wrote in 1942 in his book The Fight for Air Power:
“Airpower is the means by which a nation exerts its will directly through the air. Air power is the strategical [sic] weapon that can reach beyond the range of surface arms and strike at the foundations of the enemy strength. Air power consists of airplanes of great range and great power that can strike blows alone and unaided by the surface arms. And air power consists of the specialized organization required to design, produce and operate such airplanes.”
Hundreds of bombers ready to deliver nuclear weapons directly into the heart of the Soviet Union. This was Airpower, in the model the United States Air Force preferred, personified.
General Spaatz asserted “The primary function of the Strategic Air Force is to destroy the enemy’s munition making capability as well as his will to wage war.”
In the 1920s and up until the 1960s, the objective of military pilots and the theories of Douhet blended quite neatly. The pilots were adamant that they needed independence, and the technology of the age demanded that manned aircraft were the only mechanism to deliver the all-decisive “Command of the Air.” Air Force historian Thomas Greer wrote unapologetically of the USAF’s basic roots in Douhet’s theories in 1955. The bomb of requisite power, and the sole mechanism to deliver it, was in the hands of the United States Air Force. And the means to defend against such attacks were likewise in the hands of the Air Force. Continental Air Command, having seized all fighters from the quickly aborted Tactical Air Command, provided our knights in the sky, flying solo to defend America against the Soviet air armada. The ultimate manifestation of this vision was found in the B52s conjoined with KC135s. Hundreds of bombers ready to deliver nuclear weapons directly into the heart of the Soviet Union. This was Airpower, in the model the United States Air Force preferred, personified.
Within 10 years, the vision crumbled. Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) proved an effective counter to manned bombers and the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) replaced the bomber as the unstoppable means to target the heart of the enemy’s strategic centers of gravity. The all-important bomber as the means to deliver the all-powerful nuclear bomb became a backup. And then was relegated even further with the development of the nuclear submarine armed with ballistic missiles and hundreds of warheads. Not that this vision was unforeseen. Hap Arnold sagely foresaw, “With the vastly multiplied power of atomic or hydrogen warheads, propelled by long range guided missiles, another major war might well be decided by airborne weapons.”
Colonel Meilinger, writing for the Air University Press in his interestingly titled book, “Airmen and Air Theory” decided that the history of air power was completely separate from nuclear deterrence “The aim of this and the following chapters is to enumerate and assess those works of Airpower theory and doctrine. The subject of nuclear deterrence theory and its associated doctrines of MAD and the like and are not addressed” Of Douhet, whom Air Force Historian Dr. Richard Hallion said, “In the pantheon of air power spokesmen, Giulio Douhet holds center stage” and “Douhet’s central vision, has been proven through the history of wars in this century.” Meilinger dismisses with a haughty, “If the only thing that makes Douhet relevant is nuclear weapons, then he is completely irrelevant.” But Meilinger himself concedes that planning by the nascent USAF in the post war period “relied primarily on nuclear weapons delivered by air. In the 1930s bombardment aviation dominated discussion of air power at the Air Corps Tactics School (ACTS) at Maxwell Air Force Base, largely based upon what Greer termed, the ”Mitchell-Douhet” doctrine. Indeed in 1933 the Office of Chief of the Air Corps adopted the motto “Fighters are obsolete”. If nuclear weapons render Douhet “completely irrelevant”, what does that say of a service built upon the mission to deliver nuclear weapons based largely upon the theories of Douhet?The nuclear wielding air power era is playing out as predicted by the Army Air Force in its exhaustive US Strategic Bombing Survey conducted immediately after WWII. This document insisted a proper air force, nuclear armed, “might be enough to prevent the outbreak of war in the first place.” Since the creation of nuclear arsenals, air power wielding nations but rarely meet directly. Both the Sino-Soviet border conflict in 1969 and the Pakistan-India Kargil Conflict in 1999 were highly-limited conflicts with each side careful not to anger the other to too great a degree rather than achieve purely military objectives. Casualties in both instances were measured in the hundreds. The status quo ante-bellum was the post-bellum result in both cases as well. For there are no conflicts conceivable in the conventional arena that are worth risking a nuclear exchange with an airpower wielding nation. Even with masses arrayed in the close proximity of Central Europe, the nuclear threat kept passions and objectives restrained. Strategic Airpower has more than delivered the promise of peace that was once dismissed as fanciful dreams. The absence of aircraft as an essential component to Strategic Airpower has apparently led the USAF to dismiss the significance and embark upon a crusade of self-justification.
Strategic Airpower has more than delivered the promise of peace that was once dismissed as fanciful dreams. The absence of aircraft as an essential component to Strategic Airpower has apparently led the USAF to dismiss the significance and embark upon a crusade of self-justification.
One might be tempted to think the Air Forces dedication to a next generation bomber (NGB) or Long Range Strike (LRS) is proof that the USAF remains dedicated to the strategic mission. General Loh, former Air Combat Commander and Vice Chief of the Air Force, disagrees. The Air Force initially didn’t want a nuclear capability for its new bomber which General Loh says, “implies that the Air Force considers nuclear a secondary capability.”
The bomber has found a niche is the post-ICBM era. On the conventional side it provides a large payload, highly valuable in the pre-precision munitions era. It also provides loiter in the small war environment, albeit with a hugely expensive maintenance and fuel bill. In the nuclear arena, the justifications become a bit less quantifiable. It is recallable, but that recall must be before crossing the Rubicon-esque Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), otherwise it risks an enemy counter attack. It also assumes an unmolested electro-magnetic spectrum allowing that recall order to come. It can forward deploy as statements of resolve. But that isn’t airpowerthat’s simply airshows. Perhaps our diplomats could find a better means to transmit to our enemy the nation’s resolve. A statement from the President is powerful and infinitely cheaper.
A small force of niche bombers still has its place. But capping the number at the requirements of the mission, not a blind replacement for anachronistic airplanes, should drive our procurement. And with the understanding that the manned bomber force will always be numbered in the low 20s, we can forgo ridiculous sums wasted in development that are wished away in the dreams of a giant fleet that should never materialize. Small, critical air fleets are an effective way to meet the need. The SR-71, AWACs, and U2 programs were all essential to our national security. But we didn’t need hundreds of them to conduct the mission. The inter-continental bomber is likewise such a platform now. TRIAD justified our existing bombers, but barely. TRIAD cannot, however, justify an entirely new fleet.Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) batteries, at an order of magnitude cheaper than stealth penetration bombers, create essentially the same effect. There is no reason to think that Minuteman missiles in Wyoming and North Dakota (recent news stories notwithstanding) are somehow less threatening in the absence of a squadron of bombers in Guam. General Loh notes that the Air Force is hesitant to make the Next Generation Bomber nuclear capable. He argues, however, that our allies prefer the long range bomber for enforcing deterrence. If our allies want a penetration bomber, they are free to procure one for themselves. Our 20 B-2s should provide that capability as well for the rare, but existent, need for a long ranged manned penetrator bomber to carry huge, conventional munitions globally.
So why did the Air Force lose its way on its raison detre? The rise of “The Fighter Mafia” is certainly a possibility. Douhet saw the risks of this occurring early, writing “This favoritism [of pursuit planes] produced a rapid growth of online casino this flying specialty, but at the same time it obscured the problem of national defense and prevented a correct understanding of what the command of the air consists of.” LeMay simply said, “Flying fighters is fun. Flying bombers is important.” In WWII, the future head of SAC observed “The long range future of the AAF lies in the field of guided missiles. The AAF MUST go to guided missiles for the initial phases of future wars.” The hard politics of the Pentagon overwhelmed even LeMay, however, so by 1960 his 17 priorities for SAC procurement had the B70 1stand ICBMs last. Only the direct interference of President Eisenhower re-prioritized the Air Force’s plans.
Theories of Airpower were born of the unmitigated disaster of the First World War. Unfortunately, the Second World War was even worse as Airpower technology lagged behind theory. The past 70 years stand as a towering testament of Strategic Airpower.
We wisely procured a conventional force to match that of the Soviet Union in the cold war. Two mighty powers arrayed only meters apart left few things to chance. The fact that the cold war did not go hot is the supreme fact of the latter half of the 20th century. When investigating the “whys” we could do worse than to assume that the air power disciples of the first half of the 20th century were fundamentally correct. Major General Andrews, commander of the General Headquarters of the Army Air Force in 1939: “To stop the aggressor nation from even planning the attack, through fear of retaliation. Air power should be seen not as a war fighting instrument but as an instrument of national policy. One capable of toppling the diplomatic balance and perhaps eventually creating mutual deterrence through terror between two nations both capable of power air actions.”
Now, with antagonists separated by great oceans and not merely chain link fences, the likelihood of convention conflicts against true Strategic Airpower wielding nations enters the realm of farfetched fantasy. And to procure conventional capabilities to reach “downtown Beijing” reaches criminal negligence in today’s fiscal environment. To dominate conventionally a nuclear power with delivery capabilitytrue “Airpower”is simply not a realistic scenario. As Douhet observed, “If furthermore, it were admitted that a stronger IAF could be held in check purely by the active and passive aerial defense of the enemy, we would have to conclude that it is useless superfluous and harmful to have an Air Force stronger than the enemy’s.” It is not the defense that holds us in check, however, but the fear of an unstoppable retaliation. That same Sword of Damocles we hold as well. Deterrence though nuclear weapons lives on.
So now we find strategic airpower divided unevenly among the three secretariats. The Navy, possessing the bulk of our strategic deterrence in their Ohio class SSBNs. The Air Force providing the passive early warning and a small, rapid attack capability in their 50 year old Minuteman silos. The Army providing the sole defense against such attacks with 3 dozen interceptors slaved to the warning and data of globally placed radars. The 16 nuclear capable B2s are hard to register as a nuclear deterrence at all with only “5 to 6” being available at any given time. The 66 billion spent on RnD alone for the capability (in 1989 dollars!) notwithstanding. While the US Strategic Command has control of these forces, its commander is somewhat left to the whims of the services to procure as they see fit. A notable exception is the truly joint Missile Defense Agency, which wisely bypasses many aspects of the archaic secretariat-based procurement systems.The other half of strategic air power is to defend your country against it. We do possess the ability to intercept ICBMs now, though our interceptor fleet is such that only the most rudimentary air power wielding nation can fear them. The Army National Guard’s sole strategic missile defense battalion provides a key capability. Since Airpower entails both the means to attack and defend strategically, it would stand to reason that the USAF would control this capability. Alas, the unmanned nature of the capability leaves it uninteresting to the organization created to wield it. General White, the Air Force Chief of Staff from 1957-1961, well understood the problem. “To say there is not a deeply ingrained prejudice in favor of aircraft among flyers would be a stupid statement” Which is why Hap Arnold warned soon after WWII, “for the last 20 years we have built and run the air force on pilots. But we can’t do that anymore.” This statement rings as true 70 years later as it did the day Arnold issued it.
In February 1946, Hap Arnold put his name on a manifesto in The National Geographic Magazine of the initial foundations into the yet to be created Air Force in an article audaciously (and brilliantly prophetic) titled “Air Power for Peace”. He crafted his vision of the Air Force around the idea that “the progressive development of the air arm, especially with the concurrent development of the atomic explosive, guided missiles, and other modern devices, will reduce the requirement for, and employment of, mass armies and navies.” The expansive armories of the NATO forces and Warsaw Pact were, in the final analysis, largely superfluous and essentially unused. While speaking of the vast armories post WWII, his vision held true at the end of the Cold War. “Possession of large stocks of war equipment at the end of a war affords a serious temptation to continue to use that equipment in training peacetime forces.” We see this same dynamic at play now.
The results of the Air Force abandoning its raison d’etre of strategic nuclear deterrence is becoming painfully obvious. Where is the secretariat defending the unquestioned success of our nuclear arsenal, “preventing another war?”
Much of the justification for the F35’s fleet count is to replace the air assets procured to fight a 24 year now-ended cold war that never required them in the first place. Arnold put much emphasis on the technological flavor of the future. He spoke of ground and air-launched cruise missiles, ICBMs, unmanned aircraft for reconnaissance, guided bombs, fully automated bombs self-targeting based upon radar. The father of the United States Air Force flatly stated, “when satisfactory ground to ground missiles become standard equipment, the need for both air to ground and air to air weapons will be definitely decreased. Of great importance is the long range ground to ground guided missile. This will be the strategic long range bombardment airplane of the future.” In only 15 years, General Arnold was proven correct. And for 50 years, the Air Force has apparently ignored that fact and the inherent implications manifest in its own founding doctrine.
The results of the Air Force abandoning its raison d’etre of strategic nuclear deterrence is becoming painfully obvious. Where is the secretariat defending the unquestioned success of our nuclear arsenal, “preventing another war?” The former Secretary of Defense, Senator Hagel, speaks openly of a nuclear weapons free world, as does the Commander in Chief. Where is our “strategic service” defending their core equity? The Air Force was created as a separate branch of service specifically because of the criticality of strategic deterrence. And what of our defense against hostile air power? Arnold listed three priorities for defense against strategic attack as he described the holistic theory of American Air Power.
First, we should attempt to make sure that nowhere in the world are atomic bombs being made clandestinely
Second, we should create new-type devices and techniques to secure every possible active defense against an atomic bomb attack, once launched.
Third, we might redesign our country for minimum vulnerability to atomic bomb attack.
Where is the Air Force in these three priorities for defense? Essentially absent. In the first, the USAF has abandoned nuclear non-proliferation to the State Department, Department of Defense and other organizations. In the second, the Navy and the Army stand alone with missile defense capability. The Air Force’s Airborne Laser (ABL) sits abandoned in Davis Monthan, having spent 5 billion dollars in the predictably fruitless pursuit of a manned, aircraft solution to an unmanned missile problem. The AF does maintain the ability to intercept Russian bombers. We have progressed from F-100s, to F-102s, to F106s, to F4s, to F15s, to F22s to intercept the same Tu-95s. Is this truly Strategic Airpower?
The United States Air Force was created to provide the means of strategic attack and defense against the same. It no longer conducts this mission as a focal set. Rather, the strategic deterrence is an afterthought in the thinking and procurement of the Air Force. There has never been a missileer who served as Chief of Staff of the Air Force. It remains an organization run by pilots for pilots. In 1946, Hap Arnold said, “The time has passed when an air staff can be composed exclusively of command pilots.” If this was true in 1946, what makes it less so 70 years later? Strategic Command and Northern Command now share the duties that were the mission of the USAF. But they lack the secretary and budget that allows them to perform their duties adequately or in a fiscally responsible manner.As for the last, civil defense against strategic airpower is a vestige of over a generation past. Not because the concept failed, but because the deterrence, the rapidly deteriorating and woefully un-championed nuclear deterrence provided through true Airpower, was preeminently successful.
What is the purpose of the Department of the Air Force now? To procure aircraft in support of operational naval and land missions? If the Air Force was effective at doing this mission, we would not have a 5000 aircraft fleet in both the Department of the Army AND in the Department of the Navy. In 20 years, it is probable that the USAF will be the third smallest Air Force in the US Department of Defense while still largely ignoring its primary mission. With budget cuts looming, the fact that the Army operates a 5600 aircraft fleet on an operational budget of 7 billion dollars may indicate that the USAF’s share will continue to drop.
Strategic Airpower has delivered on the promise of a more secure world at a lower cost of defense. Unfortunately, the USAF is no longerand has not been in decadesthe organization responsible or advocating for Strategic Airpower. The service we need to be focused on future technologies of strategic importance is mired in justifying masses of manned aircraft designed to fight a war that history, their own doctrine and thus-far proven theories clearly indicates (if not outright proves) we will not fight. As technology races ahead, we risk falling further behind as the bulk of our military space assets continue to be led by command pilots. The Sequestration cuts imposed on the DoD have been called a “catastrophe” by both the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and various Secretaries of Defense. But military catastrophes can often be the catalysts that grow and develop new, inspired concepts. In the wake of the ending of the Cold War the United States requires a military restructuring on par with the 1947 National Security Act. If we require a huge budget cut to inspire thinking and not merely spending, so be it.
One might well note that the last war fought in the absence of a nuclear deterrent was WWII. In our headlong rush towards a nuclear weapon free world, we might not wonder if the threat of nuclear Armageddon might be better than actual Armageddon through conventional means.
We have a Commander in Chief who openly advocate for not only large scale cuts to our greatly reduced nuclear arsenal, but also seeks the complete elimination of our nuclear deterrence. One might easily suspect that we may do so even unilaterally. He points to a greatly more peaceful world in the past 70 years where large scale direct conflicts are notably, and thankfully, absent. Where are the advocates noting that this peace might just have been brought about BECAUSE of nuclear deterrence, not in spite of Strategic Airpower? Where is the Chief of Staff of the Air Force in this discussion? The Air Force Association? The fighter pilots focused like lasers on procuring single seat, supersonic stealth jets? One might well note that the last war fought in the absence of a nuclear deterrent was WWII. In our headlong rush towards a nuclear weapon free world, we might not wonder if the threat of nuclear Armageddon might be better than actual Armageddon through conventional means. The 50 million dead from WWII serve as stark reminders of the cost of miscalculation. Ira Eaker warned,
My greatest concern regarding our military establishment is this: I fear that we shall spend vast sums needlessly and wastefully because we are not building the right kind of military and are not providing keen alert management.”
And, long after his retirement in 1971, “What I want, what this country must have, is a strategic force of such size and composition that no enemy will ever dare to launch that massive nuclear first strike. That is our highest national priority”
The theories of Airpower were born of the unmitigated wasteful disaster of the First World War. Unfortunately, the Second World War was even worse as the technology of Airpower lagged behind the theories. The past 70 years stand as a towering testament of Strategic Airpower. It is beyond time that we fulfill the promises of savings that have been avoided for more than a generation. As the nations of the world race forward with developing their own true Airpower and missiles and nuclear weapons to arm them, we must restructure our defense against them with an organization dedicated to the strategy of deterrence and a focused, united defense against the expanding nuclear arsenals of our would-be enemies.
A simple recommendation would be to make nuclear duty a pre-requisite for promotion to general officer in the Air Force. Of the galaxy of stars the USAF possesses in its general ranks, few wear the missileer badge on their pocket. And only one of the current 4-star generals do. For an organization founded on the principle of nuclear deterrence, the fact that no missileer has ever served as Chief of Staff might well explain the otherwise unexplainable breaches of discipline in the nuclear Air Force since the creation of Air Combat Command and the elimination of Strategic Air Command. When Global Strike Command was upgraded to a 3-star billet, it was a command pilot, not a career missileer, who filled it. A sharing of the unglamorous and arduous duty in the frozen missile fields would unquestionably serve to better unite the many tribes in the Air Force. Perhaps then we can best ensure another 70 years of peace through Airpower.
[Photos: Flickr Commons]