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Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force

Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force by Robert M. Farley. University Press of Kentucky, 2014, 272 pp., $26.95.

In this, his first book, Dr. Robert Farley takes on the daunting task of convincing Americans that they should have an airpower force instead of the globally capable air force it now has in the US Air Force. More specifically, he argues that the United States “needs airpower, but not an air force.” He concludes that “enthusiastic aviators” and civilian leaders desiring war on the cheap deluded themselves into thinking airpower could “solve all military problems” and make conflict less likely, whereas it instead made “interservice rivalry more destructive” and “wars more devastating.” As a result, he recommends abolishing the USAF and dividing its roles, missions, assets, and people between the US Army and Navy.

Although Farley laments the six air forces of the United States (USAF, Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and CIA), he only disbands the USAF and does so guided by four reallocation principles. The first is that of organic mission. The services should have organic airpower to meet their most likely missions. Joint operations are OK when required, but organic is best. Next, redundant capabilities between the Army and Navy are acceptable, as extra capacity would “cover the shortfalls of the other.” The third principle is that of efficiency, which results from distributing USAF assets and missions, while eliminating “unnecessary maintenance, administration, and other costs.”  Finally, he offers the principle of organizational culture. Here he sees that in the new divisions of responsibilities, one needs to account for each service’s need to “maintain a healthy organizational culture, built around a coherent vision.” 

In making his case, Farley organizes his argument into three main parts. His first three chapters examine institutional structure and culture, then the development of an independent air force and how this development led to a rejection of Clausewitzian theory. He also discusses the legal and moral issues of airpower and how these issues “increasingly [limit] the circumstances for appropriate airpower use.” 

Farley begins this discussion with a review of airpower missions, although he omits intelligence, surveillance, and space. He uses this discussion to set up a point-counterpoint of his view of five rationales for an independent air force (IAF). His first point argues that operations in a new medium require different services, which he counters by noting that all services need airpower and it is the Army and Navy which have clear distinctions in the required skills of airpower. Next, he notes arguments that independence should depend on the ability to plan and conduct independent campaigns. Here he counters with arguments that airpower cannot win wars and that independence for the IAF was only an excuse for autonomy. The third point he notes is that the need for redundancy should guide the division of service responsibilities, countering with claims the Air Force failed to provide effective air mobility, close air support (CAS), and air superiority, using the Vietnam War as his case study. He counters his last two points—that states follow the leader in military structures and that traditions inform service divisions—by saying there are limits to what follow-the-leader and traditions can change. He draws his counterpoints together to conclude that an IAF leads to interservice rivalry.

Farley then argues the Air Force (from the Army Air Service to the USAF) rejects three key Clausewitzian principles. The first Clausewitzian failing is that airmen believe they can produce decisive effect without battle against an enemy’s fielded forces. He relies heavily on pre–World War II and World War II events to make this argument, pointing out the theories of the early airpower proponents and the failure of the Combined Bomber Offensive to win the war in Europe in evidence. Second, he faults airmen for being overly fascinated with aircraft as “objects of technology” versus tools of national power, thus disconnected from the political process. To support this assertion, he equates the drive for service autonomy as clear evidence of disconnecting airpower from its true political purpose. Finally, he argues that airmen’s belief in strategic bombing over all other missions is evidence that they believe in a mechanistic transparency in warfare, negating Clausewitz’s fog of war concept. He concludes that these shortcomings lead to a decline in capabilities for close air support (CAS), air mobility, and antisubmarine warfare which result in an increased likelihood of war because policymakers find air war attractive.

His last point in this opening segment looks at strategic bombing in terms of its morality and a growing tendency toward “lawfare” to question the future utility of airpower used in this manner. Here again he relies on examples primarily from World War II to argue that the air warfare experience of the past does not look like recent air wars, especially in the last decade. He concludes that strategic bombing leaves policymakers with “dirty hands” that the future of airpower and air warfare will change.

The second section of the book, chapters 4–8, begin with a review of the evolution of independent air forces using experiences of the British and US air forces. His first two chapters here argue that the Royal Air Force (RAF), first to independence, spent most of its interwar years justifying that independence, while the Army Air Service/Corps argued for its independence based on the theoretical proposition of decisive precision bombing. He concludes the RAF’s adoption of strategic bombing proves its failure to comply with Clausewitz’s principle of defeating enemy forces. As for the USAF, he concludes that the struggles from World War I to 1947 only show “that aviation advocates do not need an independent service in order to create mischief; they need only a committed belief in the dominance of airpower.”

The last three chapters in this section take the reader from airpower in limited war to the post–Cold War era and then to drone warfare. In the first two of these, Farley uses his three Clausewitzian themes for structure. The Air Force, he argues, put its airpower eggs into the basket of strategic bombing and, in so doing, produced the interservice rivalries of the day, such as the revolt of the admirals. Airmen failed to prepare for Korea and Vietnam due to a fixation on strategic bombing, now enhanced by nuclear weapons. They pushed back on ballistic missiles that put their aircraft at budget risk. In addition, airmen were unprepared for the tactical missions required in Vietnam to defeat enemy forces and were less effective in combat than their Navy and Marine counterparts. Only in the late-to-need adoption of an air-ground team concept did the Air Force effectively contribute to these operations. In his discussion of drone warfare he concludes that the USAF had interest in drones only as new technology to further marginalize Clausewitz’s fog of war and to disconnect policymakers from the real activity of war—Clausewitz’s principle of defeating the enemy’s forces—making war seem easy and cheap. He suggests his review indicates “that the USAF is no more than a minor player in what is thus far the most important question of twenty-first-century airpower theory”—drone warfare.

In the final section of the book, Farley provides his way ahead and conclusions. He discusses the merits of the Soviet Union’s airpower organization, the integrated character of the Israeli Defence Forces, and the structure of the Canadian Defence Forces before settling on Canada’s military force structure as the model for the United States. After providing his four reallocation principles, discussed earlier, he proceeds to divide USAF assets and missions between the Army and Navy. His lessons here are that it is possible for a nation to “redesign its military forces” and that airpower can persist without an independent air force organization. He concludes with the assertion the Air Force no longer has a viable rationale for independence, if indeed there ever was one. Current shortcomings in counterinsurgency and a world of rogue states indicate to him that the Air Force has run its course and should be grounded by political leadership.

Farley poses an interesting argument but one that suffers in a number of ways, not the least of which is his attempt to take on more than 100 years of aviation history, Clausewitz, the development of airpower theory on an international scale, interservice rivalries, and the reorganization of the Defense Department in just 189 pages. From a scholarly perspective, his truncated storyline suffers from a lack of context in critical areas, various leaps in logic, and a tendency to cherry-pick sound bites, taking points out of context from the original author. For example, his discussion on the theories of airpower from the early aviators references Tammy Davis Biddle’s book, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare, but without her attention to context. One can see this shortcoming in his discussion of airpower theory development post–World War I in the dearth of context of the times with Europe’s rejection of war, fear of the future, and tremendous fear of the advent of airpower. The theorist aviators of the day had little experience to complement their ideas, but the printed media had many journalists willing to exploit fanciful futures for their readership.

The leaps of logic Farley make are even more disconcerting. In several parts of the book, he concludes that an IAF or even the advocacy of an IAF leads policymakers to find war more attractive. He provides no support for such an assertion and, indeed, would have to convince one that independence advocacy, not seen since 1947, somehow influenced US policymakers’ choice of USAF capabilities since that time. He also puts forth the assertion that had Billy Mitchell’s views on airpower prevailed during the interwar years, the Navy would not have built the carrier forces that won in the Pacific in World War II. From 1922 to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Navy fielded eight carriers. The Navy had its own challenges integrating airpower into its plans, and Mitchell had little to do with the effort. Farley argues that USAF airpower proved indecisive in the counterinsurgency (COIN) wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although he note that this point alone does not justify disbanding the USAF, he fails to note that in the COIN manual he cites, there is no military lead in this form of conflict—the political elements of power have the place of primacy. Finally, he puts forward, with the caveat that “some might argue,” the assertion that the Army Air Corps put its future autonomy ahead of its “pursuit for victory” in World War II. On this assertion, words fail me.

Another worrisome aspect is his misconstruing of cited text. Early in the book, he cites Carl Builder’s discussion on service collaboration and infers that the IAF/USAF gave little to collaboration with the other services when, in fact, Builder ranks the USAF between the Army and Navy on a scale of most-to-least “joint.” Later in the book, Farley states that General Marshall proposed a single chief of staff structure for the military because he worried that an IAF “would leave the army without necessary air support.” In truth, the article cited notes Marshall’s concern for naval and air support due to Army dependence on both in future conflict. This observation serves as a prelude to a discussion of the Navy’s view of future service structure. A final example comes from his discussion of battlefield air interdiction where he misconstrues Thomas McCaffrey’s discussion to support his own contention that the USAF wanted nothing to do with Army–Air Force cooperation. The section Farley uses to support this assertion, however, does acknowledge the doubts of some aviators, but in fact discusses the high-level support the Air Force gave to the emerging AirLand Battle concept.

To really understand the shortcomings in this book, let’s examine the reallocation principles and the Clausewitzian failings Farley uses to make his argument. In his restructuring ideas, he begins with the idea of organic airpower to meet the most likely missions of army and naval units. What he misses in this idea is that the full range of military operations exceeds the air support missions for ground and sea forces and “most likely” does not encompass “most catastrophic” in terms of consequences. If there were another Battle of Britain or other major-power air forces versus air forces, then US national security would require an air force dedicated to meeting such a challenge. The redundancy and efficiency discussion served to “rearrange the deck chairs” but offered little else. While some savings would occur from having fewer headquarters, shifting assets saves little. Therefore, a savings argument requires one of two things: either major cuts to forces, negating the redundancy argument, or a reduced demand in terms of what the nation asks of its military or what crises in the world demand. So far, demand remains high.

Farley’s Clausewitzian argument is more polemic than substantive. He argues that the IAF/USAF fails to battle fielded forces in a Clausewitzian sense of decisive battle. However, while some airmen theorize the possibility of such a condition, practicing airmen take fielded forces seriously and attack them at appropriate times. No war involving airpower has not seen airmen striking fielded forces with the exceptions of the limitations of such attacks in World War I and in compliance with political restraints in wars post–World War II. Since World War II, the United States has enjoyed such overwhelming military power versus its adversaries that it could usually do both attacks on fielded forces and more strategic targets. The better question here would be to ask about a future when overwhelming force is not the US advantage, or, as in Libya in 2011, not the political choice.

The second Clausewitzian failure involved the argument that airmen substituted their technology in place of political process. The historical record, however, counters such an argument. Policymakers have tightly tied airpower operations to their oversight. No other service receives such scrutiny in the execution of its missions. One need only reflect on the “Tuesday lunches” between President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara, the close regulation of bombing under President Nixon to control peace talks, or the NATO heads of state guiding target selection during the Kosovo War in 1999. The interesting thing to note is the increase in the tie between airpower, policy, and policymakers as the risk of total war with its large-scale destruction has decreased while the frequency of conflict and ever-tightening restrictions on collateral damage has increased over time.

Finally, the idea that the Air Force fails to understand Clausewitz’s fog of war concept is hard to align with fact. The USAF maintains intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) as core functions and gives global vigilance equal billing to its means of global reach and power. The Air Force devotes much of its budget to space assets that provide the capabilities to support national intelligence community requirements and provide the communications network to support global dissemination of data. The investment in remotely piloted vehicles (RPV), Farley’s “drones,” might have had an uneven arrival, but the Air Force provides the bulk of the long-duration RPV ISR capabilities for the nation and the joint team. In short, Farley’s Clausewitzian indictment does not hold up to the facts.

The most serious concern I have with this book is the implicit argument—the one Farley does not bring to his discussion. The real question is a simple one. “Does the United States want an airpower force, or does it want the airpower force—the USAF?” Farley offers three candidate air forces as exemplars of his perspective: those of the Soviet Union, Israel, and Canada. These are each territorial air forces tied to national ground units. They do not have responsibility to project power on a global basis. Is the United States ready to accept air forces that do not project power beyond the “most likely” needs of their naval or ground service? Farley’s exemplars have the bulk of their air forces bound to their sea or land forces. This option is what an airpower is capable of doing.

The Air Force supports airpower—air, space, and cyber elements—to meet the national security and economic well-being requirements of the United States. Its reach is global; it must be, given the global security and economic interests of the nation. The Air Force develops airmen to meet the challenges of operating globally to provide security and stability to ensure the access this country requires to the air, space, and cyber domains for its economic well-being. Yes, the Air Force has a technology focus—all the services do, because only on land can we access a domain without some level of technology. In addition, the Air Force is concerned about developing global partnerships with others interested in security and stability and in the economic benefits that obtain from such a condition.

Only if we as a nation are prepared to be an airpower, as opposed to having the airpower capability of the US Air Force, should we follow the prescriptions laid out in this book.

Dr. Steve “Wilbur” Wright
Deputy Commandant, School of Advanced Air and Space Studies

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"The views expressed in this book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."