|Award winning Futuristic Design by Georgia Tech Student|
Recently two intellectuals who study military affairs put forth a suggestion that the USAF has served 70 years as a separate military department with very little gain for our country other than to fuel a bitter inter-service rivalry that has left us financially strapped and worse off than had the leadership of our nation’s air forces been left in the hands of the Department of the Army. They argue that the time has come to “Ground the Air Force” in the case of Robert Farley who published an article in Foreign Affairs and has recently published a book entitled “Grounded, the Case for the Abolition of the Air Force”. And in the case of Robert Carroll, who writes for the Boston Globe, an Op Ed piece entitled “Abolish the Air Force”. Many have come to the defense of the Air Force, including the article “Why the Nation Needs an Independent Air Force” written by a multi-service collaboration of colonels led by Col Scott Campbell from the United States Marine Corps. Many have also spoken up in comments and commentary to agree with the Carroll and Farley point of view. For those who disagree that our country has been better served by a separate Department of the Air Force I ask you to consider not whether our country will be better off next year but rather whether our country will be better off with an independent Air Force in 2064.
Carroll and Farley do not seem to be living in this future but rather seem to be living 70 years in the past. They are bringing up the same debates that were outlined by air power visionaries such as Billy Mitchell and Hap Arnold who were already living far into the future during their own time. In some respect they were further advanced in their thinking 70 years ago than Carroll and Farley are today. Ultimately, back in 1947, the vision of a separate service carried the day and with it the single largest change to our War Department. Why the bitterness from that victory still… seven decades later…is by far a greater impediment to the efficiency of our Department of Defense then arguments over the budget. It’s time for the losers of this debate to move on. It’s unfathomable to think that we are currently worse off with the USAF we have today rather than had the air forces remained with the Army. I contend that same trend will continue well into the future. So outlining the reasons our country will be better postured by having a separate Air Force in 2064 serves a higher purpose then arguing with a couple of sour grapes.
First, air power isn’t going anywhere. Carroll and Farley both argue that we need the air, so much so that every service has its own “air force”. The same argument that gives us an air force within every service, and the coast guard, as well as the intelligence community essentially means that everyone already recognizes the critical role air power plays in almost every conceivable mission. Will we ever go to war without command of the air? Will we ever engage in any endeavor without support from above?
Second, the USAF as a military department does not fight our wars. The people and equipment from the Air Force do. The USAF as a separate service exists to organize, train, and equip our forces (the people and equipment) to fight in the air. These forces are provided to a joint force combatant commander when it’s time to fight a war. Any argument with regard to which service wins that war with what capability is moot. To believe we don’t fight jointly is to simply have no understanding of joint doctrine and the way military force is employed. The real debate then is which of the military services has a larger share of the defense budget to organize, train, and purchase the systems of war. This debate does not occur on the battlefield. It is wholly contained inside the walls of the Pentagon. The early arguments about the successes of strategic bombing, for instance, are immaterial. The issue is whether or not we need an organizational construct to see about the procurement and fielding of strategic bombing forces. That’s a national strategy and national policy issue that is far above the USAF. In the same vein we will maintain the readiness of a strategic nuclear deterrent until such a time when the country decides nuclear war is a thing of the past. If Carroll and Farley had their heads screwed on straight they would argue a case for eliminating the nation’s interest in strategic bombing not the elimination of the Air Force. Win that debate first…and then we can talk about the Air Force as an independent service vested with the requirement to develop a strategic bombing capability. The same goes for every other mission the USAF performs that goes unmentioned in their articles. Many of these additional missions are covered in the Campbell article, but many more missions go unnoticed to include mobility forces, space forces, C2ISR forces, air superiority forces, air defense forces, special operations forces, and of course the recent arrival of cyber forces. Do we need these forces ready and available for our combatant commanders? Of course we do, as well as many others.
How then should we organize to ensure the proper emphasis is placed on the fielding of these capabilities, training the men and women to operate these systems, and how do we establish the proper doctrine, CONOPS, and tactics for their use? Is it reasonable to place an expert on ground warfare in charge of the development of the next generation air to air missile, for instance? Is it reasonable to require an expert of surface or subsurface warfare to have the responsibly for building the C-17. Both make as much sense as putting an American Football coach in charge of an English Premier League Soccer team (And American Football Coach in London). They speak completely different languages.
The argument therefore is simple. Is there enough that is unique about the air to warrant an organizational construct to place emphasis on the acquisition and operation of these systems to the peril of not placing special emphasis on this critical domain? Is fighting in the air different from fighting on the ground and different from fighting on or below the sea? Of course it is. The domain is as unique as is the earth, sea, and sky.
In recent years USAF made a mistake by trying to claim unbalanced superiority in the burgeoning cyber domain over the other services as well as the whole of industry. Maybe the Air Force had an earlier role in the development of cyber systems a few years ago…but no longer and certainly not into the future. Industry and the technical advances we see every day in information technology are far more advanced then we could ever hope to develop inside the DoD let alone the Air Force. There are just too many people working in this industry. The DoD is just one of millions of customers for this explosion in technology…yes we have to harness it…but we will not be creating it.
In a similar fashion the USAF might make a claim that they own the space domain. This claim is in fact a far more substantial one. So much so that rising space advocates such as Elon Musk have set the Air Force in their cross-hairs because of the strong hold the Air Force wields over the space community at large. This is no accident. The Air Force owns the foundation upon which United States Space Force might one day launch, no pun intended. The USAF has been the primary driving force in space since the very beginnings of space exploration. The role the USAF has played in space has far and away been the capability for which the USAF has received the least credit. Manned space exploration, being unclassified, has received far greater publicity and praise. It was more public and had a greater sex appeal than developing a communications satellite for instance. The Air Force, however, has spent untold billions on the development of all space capabilities and the world is a much better place due to these investments. Communications, weather, and remote earth sensing to name some of early victories in space the USAF had the most direct hand in creating. Today, one needs look no further than the Global Positioning System (GPS). When alien life forms are visiting the earth and observe our GPS constellation, they will not think of GPS as serving the precision delivery of munitions, but rather the service the USAF provides for all of mankind. There is simply no other capability, in any other service, in any other country’s service, and in any other corporation that has provided so much too so many users for so little. GPS is crowning jewel for the USAF in space. Stepping away from space however, the USAF is replete with capability they fielded to dominate the air domain during times of war that have also grown into ubiquitous technology from which all of humanity has benefited. Those contributions are even less proclaimed. Those key technologies will continue to be corner stone’s of research and development efforts spear headed by the USAF well into the future and must continue. Undoing the Department of the Air Force’s lead in these areas would be as intelligent as changing the formula for Coca-Cola.
As I run through this list of technologies one should ask what would a United States Air Force look like in fifty years and will the Air Force continue to lead in these technology areas?
Stealth Technology: With the possible exception of a few car enthusiasts who purchase absorbing aprons for the front of their sports car to evade police radar, there is no commercial market for radar absorbing material (RAM). The USAF has led in the world in the development of radar evading structures and materials such as RAM for decades. The gap between our knowledge and the knowledge of others regarding stealth technology is still huge and it will take billions of dollars of investment from other countries in order to match our technological advantage in this area. In fifty years aircraft will have to evade not only radar but also optical and infra-red sensors as well. Aircraft disrupt the atmosphere as they fly. Sensors that can detect small changes and other disturbances in the atmosphere will no doubt exist. To remain as undetectable as possible new materials and other technologies will have to be developed. The USAF has cared about this technology more than any other service.
Jet Propulsion Technology: There is a huge market for jet engine technology. The commercial sector will continue to invest in high efficiency jet engines to transport travelers faster and with less fuel costs. In addition, new jet engines will have to conform to new environmental protocols at the same time. The Air Force will benefit from the industrial footprint in place from this commercial interest in jet engine technology; however, the high performance engines required to propel current and future military aircraft will always be someone different from their commercial counterparts. Military jets will always have to fly higher, faster, and farther with less susceptibility to detection. Scram jets for high altitude hyper-sonic flight and engines capable of sustained supersonic flight in the lower atmosphere do not tend to have a place in the commercial market. The USAF has cared about this technology more than any other service.
Rocket Propulsion Technology: Rocket engines are necessary for both tactical and strategic missiles as well as boosting satellites and other payload into orbit as well as to bases on the moon and beyond. Lockheed Martin gave up on the Delta Clipper, a single stage to orbit, vehicle over a decade ago. Reason stated by the former program manager Mr. Peter Teets, “We were still three technological miracles away from achieving the vision of a reusable single stage to orbit vehicle”. Costs will also have to come down. Elon Musk and the team at SPACE-X have an early shot at bolstering the competition necessary to overcome some of these technical hurdles. The USAF has cared about this technology more than any other service.
Sensor Technology: Radar, Infra-red, Electro-optical, LIDAR, and other sensors that can detect the environment are but a few of the investments in sensing technology that the USAF has given to the world. There will be no less demand for sensors fifty years from now. New phenomonlogies will be invented and harness for use by the Air Force to raise a commander’s situational awareness. Increasing speeds and altitudes have always demanded an increase in sensor performance to balance out the change. The USAF has cared about this technology more than any other service.
Electronic Warfare Technology: Not long after the first air defense radar was put into use someone figured out that the same energy a radar system uses to detect and aircraft can be used to jam the same radar. And the race for counter and counter-counter technology was off and running. As the RF spectrum has gone digital so to have the techniques to counter this capability fuzzying up the difference between what is traditional warfare in the electro-magnetic spectrum and what is a cyber capability. Whereas industry will have a advantage over the military regarding capabilities on, over, and through computers and computer networks, understanding the digital counter and counter-counter punch for military unique systems will remain within the Department of Defense and Intelligence Communities. The USAF has cared about this technology more than any other service. The Navy takes second place.
Materials Science Technology: The Air Force has never had a monopoly on materials science but they have developed many and have been the first using new materials in wide spread applications. First aluminum, then titanium, and later advanced composites. But those are just applications for building and constructing aircraft. The creation of new materials extends into every system the Air Force has produced and includes materials for high and low temperature applications, sensors, coatings, explosives, fuels, and fabrics. In the future the Air Force many not invent products utilizing nano technology, for instance, but they will be first to adopt these new materials into innovative applications. All services care about materials science however the materials necessary for success in land and sea combat, a lot of armor and steel, does not lend itself to Gillespie’s High Flight. One does not slip the surly bonds of Earth and dance the skies on laughter-silvered wing with armor and steel. It requires high strength and light weight materials. The USAF has cared about this technology more than any other service.
Autonomous Vehicle Technology: The USAF has never been given sufficient credit for the development of autonomous flight technology. Instead they are soundly criticized by those that simply cannot give the USAF credit for their technological achievements in this area, not the least of which was Robert Gates. The USAF has been criticized for dragging its feet in this area when it was the USAF that developed this technology. The USAF has been flying autonomous vehicles for decades. Every satellite on orbit is an autonomous vehicle; the USAF does not have a manned space flight program. Satellites achieve their orbital placement either autonomously or by remote control. Ever heard of cruise missiles? The USAF has been launching cruise missiles since the 1950’s. Many of our ISR aircraft, although manned, have extremely precise autopilots. All of this technology ushered in the age of the “drones” or the Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA). Except the word drone actually refers to something akin to a “Target Drone” that USAF has also used for decades creating retired F-4 Phantom jets, into autonomous target vehicles that could be shot down over the Gulf of Mexico. Every rocket, every missile (both tactical and strategic) is an autonomous vehicle. It seems the USAF not only uses unmanned technology, the USAF invented the technology yet is still criticized for wanting to keep a man in the cockpit. The USAF has cared about this technology more than any other service.
Fifty years from now technology will have continued to advance into areas we have yet to imagine. Will there be a need for this technology to be acquired by a unique set of airmen who understand flying and fighting in the air and in space? The expertise to recognize when new technology must be created or how it can be applied has long been the domain of the USAF. In the future the need for long endurance, survivable, fast, and all weather capable aircraft that can deliver a military effect will persist. Most systems, if not all, will be remotely piloted. Just because the pilots will now sit on the ground doesn’t mean the air ceases to be a unique domain without unique requirements for those whose systems operate in and through it. This is no different from the airman who flies a satellite (who has always remained on the ground), the missile crews of our ICBM force who sit below ground, and of course the airman who currently fly our expanding fleet of RPA’s. The Air Force in 2064 is one I would like to see just as proudly I am sure Mitchell and Arnold would be to see our current Air Force…the envy of every Air Force in the world and apparently our very own sister services…or at least the envy of Farley and Carroll.