Sunday, January 13, 2019

How the Air Force Lost Its Way By Jerry Hendrix

via National Review...
The Air Force once understood its purpose with stark clarity. In the first half of the 20th century, air-power advocates continually stressed the importance of bypassing tactical skirmishes and penetrating to the enemy’s vital centers to coerce either the foreign government or its population to submit. Independent air forces in Great Britain and Italy focused their procurement efforts on larger and longer-range heavy bombers. Non-independent air forces, such as the U.S. Army Air Corps, sought the same even as their parent service (the U.S. Army, in the American case) pressed them to buy tactical aircraft and perform direct-combat air-support missions for ground infantry and armor units. This made some sense during World War II, when long-range bombers found themselves in need of fighter escorts to fend off enemy fighters and establish temporary air dominance for the bombers to get through to their targets. But after the war, science and engineering combined to alter circumstances.

The jet engines that came to dominate aircraft design during the early years of the Cold War changed the nature of force employment, as jet fighters no longer had the range to escort the jet bombers of the newly established and very powerful Strategic Air Command to targets inside the Soviet Union. Fighters then became specialized for air-defense and air-dominance missions within a radius of a couple of hundred miles of fighter bases. Strategic Air Command bombers, which numbered in the thousands, soon began to specialize themselves, evolving towards designs that could fly higher and faster in order to penetrate Soviet air defenses. The Soviets responded by building new surface-to-air missiles and high-altitude/high-speed interceptors to rob American bombers of their advantages. It was only at the end of the Cold War, with the introduction of the stealth B-2 Spirit bomber, that bombers regained the upper hand in the U.S.–USSR strategic competition. But by then, the Strategic Air Command had been disestablished, and the Air Force felt that its mission had changed.

The change began during the Vietnam War, in which fighters flying from land bases in South Vietnam were loaded up with bombs to hit land targets in North Vietnam and along supply routes in neighboring countries. The improved accuracy of smaller aircraft carrying lighter loads of bombs and providing combat air support to American ground forces in direct contact with the enemy began to subtly alter the internal culture of the Air Force. The bomber “tribe,” based in the politically powerful Strategic Air Command, had supplied six of the first ten Air Force chiefs of staff, but it began to lose influence within the service to the fighter “tribe.” In the 36 years since Chief of Staff Lew Allen Jr. retired, no bomber pilot has occupied that office, and the Air Force’s inventory of bombers has shrunk from over 10,000 aircraft during the 1950s to fewer than 200 today. Fighter pilots gained ascendency based upon the assumptions of access to bases within range of their enemies, the ability of their supporting tanker force to survive, and the greater importance of air supremacy than long-range-strike capability.

Air supremacy is a straightforward concept. It seeks a degree of superiority over an opposing air force such that the enemy is incapable of effective interference with friendly aircraft or ground and naval forces. This definition of air superiority held for regional wars such as those in Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq (both times), and Afghanistan (where the enemy had no opposing air power to speak of). Air Force theorists also state that air superiority applies to theater campaigns (those that range across an entire region of the globe), enabling larger aircraft, cargo haulers, refueling tankers, and bombers to operate freely — except when they cannot, and that is where the modern United States Air Force lost its way.
Story here. 

Hendrix is right but he's wrong too.

Right when talking about the Fighter Mafia taking control of the USAF.  Wrong when he tries to talk about the reason why.

What did he miss?

He missed the reality of America's wars for the past half century.  America has been involved in a continuing small wars cycle for as long as I can remember.  Because past Air Force leadership was so wedded to the idea of the Strategic Air Command being only useful for nuclear strike they were late to the party to providing support for the kind of wars America was involved in.

Because they were late and so singularly focused they were slow to pickup on the changing nature of hot wars, the politics of denuclearization and almost impotent when Air Force reorganization gave power to the part of the force that was most involved in the fighting.

When did this happen?

By my reckoning shortly after Vietnam and hit warp speed when the USSR fell.

What I find astonishing is the bare facts of things. 

One squadron of B-52's or B-1's can provide all the support that the ground forces need in say Afghanistan.  Not only would it be less costly but a couple of plains loitering over the country carry a reasonable load of precision munitions would see as good if not better performance than their fighter brothers can provide.

The Air Force has lost its way but it's because US policy makers don't know what they're doing or how they want to do it.

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