Flying Not Quite as High
The release of the Obama administration’s defense budget in January makes clear just how the president intends to reshape the U.S. military. For starters, the Army will shrink 14 percent by 2017, the Marines will decrease by 20,000, six Air Force fighter squadrons will be deactivated, and the Navy will make do with fewer ships. Putting skin on this skeleton is the Defense Strategic Guidance, released in January at the Pentagon. Most significantly, the document calls for a shift of resources to Asia and promises that America will “maintain its ability to project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged” by states like China and Iran. Yet in Secretary of Defense Panetta’s own words, U.S. forces will have to do this while facing “profound challenges” and relying on “low-cost and small-footprint approaches” to achieving national security objectives.
Unfortunately, the president’s goals cannot be met by the ends he proposes. In particular, the administration’s plans will demand a much greater role for the airpower capabilities of both the Air Force and Navy. Yet under current plans both services will see their qualitative and quantitative air edge over competitors shrink, as they lose airplanes, operate an aging force, and face greater threats from adversaries.
Already the functions of the Air Force underpin everything America’s Joint Force does, from surveillance to transport, and from close combat to cyber defense. Airpower advocates point to the sea- and land-based air destruction of Saddam Hussein’s military in the 1991 Gulf war, the 1999 Allied Force air campaign against Yugoslavia, and last year’s action in support of the Libyan rebellion as proof of how airpower can overcome an enemy’s order of battle, command and control, and warfighting spirit. At the same time, airpower dominance allows us to deploy minimal numbers of combat ground forces and reduces civilian casualties and collateral damage.
The success of Western airpower in recent wars, however, had a foreseeable result: Potential adversaries are investing in systems that prevent access to their airspace. During the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, the U.S. Air Force faced a Russian air defense “no-go zone” that it could not penetrate or could have penetrated only at unacceptable cost. The lesson is simple: To survive an attack on your homeland or forces, deny the United States control of the air.