In a perfect world that exists only in my imagination, U.S. leaders in Washington would recognize that air power is the decisive force in war. The Air Force would take its place as the dominant military service branch. Readiness to prevail in a “peer” war against a modern nation-state would take precedence over small conflicts and counter-insurgency. Leaders in other service branches would happily agree that the Air Force needs the largest slice of the budget pie because wars are always won in the air, never on the ground.
Today, the United States faces a formidable military threat from Russia, which has hundreds of intercontinental missiles ready to launch against the American homeland. We may never fight a war with Russia or China, or even near-peers like Iran and North Korea, but all of them have the potential to destroy the United States. No terrorist group, not even al-Qaeda, has ever had the remotest chance of doing that.
Because of the nuclear and conventional war dangers posed by well-armed, modern nation states, we risk our own survival if we do not give priority to long-range, land-based air power. In a time of fiscal crisis, that may mean canceling certain military programs that have lots of love from Congress and the Pentagon but won’t help us fight in the air.
Above all, it means we have to toss out our deep-rooted addiction to jointness.
Yes, that’s what I’m saying: ditch the emphasis on jointness. The military service branches are not equal and never have been. We are leaving our nation open to attack by failing to properly and fully equip ourselves with long-range, land-based air power.
Last September, Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh told a conference that a new bomber is a “must have” capability. That’s a slight change in tone from Welsh’s predecessor Gen. Norton Schwartzwho often found himself pleading to be a participant in what he called the “joint fight.” Delivering precisely the wrong message, Schwartz last July spoke about “how the Air Force is a crucial part of the joint team committed to winning today’s fight.” No way of thinking about the Air Force could have been more misguided. Far from being a junior partner in a misguided and thoroughly discredited adventure in Afghanistan, the Air Force should be taking the lead with the mission assigned to the armed forces by the Constitution — the “common defense” of this nation. It’s time to end Afghanistan and anything resembling it, time to begin preparing for a real war.
Welsh is on the right flight path but he doesn’t travel far enough. What I want is way above his pay grade and requires a whole new way of thinking by industry, lobbyists, lawmakers, Pentagon brass and the White House.
Welsh doesn’t — until practical change is made in Washington, he can’t — argue that the Air Force should take precedence over the other service branches. He isn’t even placing a new bomber at the top of his priorities list. It’s third, behind the KC-46 air refueling tanker and F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. Welsh isn’t seeking a new bomber soon enough or in large enough numbers. To put it another way, he isn’t thinking big enough. I want nothing less than a large, unstoppable bomber force. And, oh, I’d like to have a fighter than can defeat the Sukhoi Su-27, please.
As Americans, we need to decide that our fundamental approach to defense is wrong, that putting boots on the ground in some distant backwater is wrong, and that air power and bombers are right. It is not the business of the armed forces to build schools, eradicate poppies, or support women’s rights in Afghanistan. It’s not the job of an American in uniform to care whether a woman in Afghanistan wears a burqa. The Constitution is unambiguous. Job One is the common defense of these United States.
The big obstacle is the idea, entrenched in industry, on Capitol Hill, in the White House and in the Pentagon that all military service branches are somehow equal, that each enjoys equal importance, and that all should join together harmoniously in a collaborative. It was a good idea — mostly forged in the aftermath of our failed mission to rescue hostages in Iran in 1980 — that started out with good intentions but went too far. To put it very simply, inter-service rivalry is not always bad and jointness is not always good.
To prevail in a “peer” conflict in the future, the nation must shed the color purple — so-called because blending the colors of military uniforms is a symbol of jointness. It’s time to return to our policy of the 1950s Air Force blue dominated all else.
Air Power Advocates
Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell argued in the post-World War I era for an independent air force and for long-range air power. Mitchell warned repeatedly that strategic bombardment would become a threat to the United States and make air power the nation’s first line of defense.
If he were around today, Mitchell might well warn of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threat: According to Russian government figures, the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces — an independent military service branch — have 332 ICBMs that carry a total of 1,092 nuclear warheads. These totals do not include Russian and U.S. bombers or submarine-launched missiles. Only a strong Air Force can respond to this threat, which can do more damage in an hour than any terrorist group can inflict over a decade. According to the Congressional Research Service, U. S. Global Strike Command (a component of the Air Force) has 450 ICBMs, each deployed with between one and three warheads; all are to be reduced to only one warhead over the next few years. But today’s American bombers, ICBMs and warheads are geriatric and need to be replaced.
Mitchell demonstrated in tests in the Chesapeake Bay in February 1921 that bombs dropped from aircraft could sink a surface warship, famously sending the ex-German battleship Ostfriesland to the bottom. In further tests in 1921 and 1923, Mitchell’s bombers sank several battleships. Mitchell vigorously opposed the battleship as the Navy’s primary warship, pointing out that he could purchase a thousand bombers for the cost of one battleship, but Mitchell was not entirely anti-Navy: he was in favor of the concepts that evolved into the aircraft carrier and the carrier air wing.
Just as Welsh doesn’t, Mitchell didn’t want enough to satisfy me.
But Alexander Seversky did.
In Victory Through Air Power, published in 1942, Seversky, a Russian immigrant and one-time advisor Mitchell set forth a plan for air power that was valid then and is valid today.
Some remember Seversky for creating an aircraft company. His board ousted him as president in a 1939 dispute and then eased the task of changing signs and stationery by picking a new corporate name with the same number of letters as the old. Seversky Aircraft became Republic and gave us the P-47 Thunderbolt, F-105 Thunderchief and other famous fighters.
My reading of Seversky, who died in 1974, tells me he would favor a focus on strategic warfare rather than counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism and would oppose any blind acceptance of jointness that prevents the Air Force from its rightful place of dominance among service branches.
Seversky argued against static fortresses, large armies and outsized warships. He believed that aircraft carriers are vulnerable targets and that wars can be won only with long-range, land-based air power. After Victory was published, he argued that our costly, island-hopping campaign in the Pacific would have been unnecessary if we hadn’t needed bases in the Marianas Islands from which to bomb Japan. A true long-range bomber, Seversky argued, could have operated from Alaska and defeated Japan — as we did, anyway — from the air.
My guess is that Seversky would have opposed the now-discredited emphasis on counter-insurgency that was so much in fashion when Robert Gates was Defense Secretary from 2006 to 2011. Seversky warned about countries that have powerful air forces, as Russia and China now do.
Soon after the Air Force became an independent service branch on September 18, 1947, inter-service rivalry soared to its height. U.S. leaders recognized, correctly, that long-range, land-based air power was the only weapon that would deter Soviet ambitions. In December 1949, Defense Secretary Louis A. Johnson famously said, “There’s no reason for having a Navy and Marine Corps.” That year, in the “revolt of the admirals,” Navy leaders challenged the Truman administration, failed to get a new aircraft carrier they wanted, and saw the Strategic Air Command (SAC) begin a massive expansion. For a period during the 1950s, SAC had almost 2,000 long-range bombers poised for only one mission, an atomic war with the Soviet Union. On December 31, 1959, SAC had ten heavy bomb wings and 27 medium bomb wings, consisting of no less than 1,854 bombers (488 B-52 Stratofortresses, 1,366 B-47 Stratojets. No one made any pretense that the bomber was anything other than the primary weapon of war.
In the December Air Force magazine, Phillip S. Meilinger quotes President Dwight D. Eisenhower responding to the Army chief of staff, who was pushing for more funds for his service. “The only thing we fear is an atomic attack delivered by air on our cities,” said Ike.
Wrote Meilinger: “Building up the Army was senseless, he said. The Soviet Union did not fear a large U.S. Army. It feared SAC bombers.” Ike, who was more of a “hands on” commander-in-chief than he is usually given credit for, made no pretense that the service branches were equal. He favored the Air Force because no number of ships, tanks and infantrymen could do the job performed by the heavy bomber.
It’s often overlooked that today we face threats similar to those of the 1950s. Yes, we also face other threats, including chemical, biological and cyber attack. What all have in common is this: They can be deterred or defeated by air power but not by large naval forces and not by boots on the ground. Anyone planning to attack us using any weapon needs to be given advance notice that we will retaliate with bombers that can strike any spot on the planet.
I hope Welsh gets his new bomber. In fact, I hope he gets more of them than he is asking for.