The Air Force's Missing Doctrine: How the US Air Force Ignores Counterinsurgency

By Beebe, Kenneth | Air & Space Power Journal, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Air Force's Missing Doctrine: How the US Air Force Ignores Counterinsurgency


Beebe, Kenneth, Air & Space Power Journal


CONSIDERING THAT THE U.S. military has extensive experience in using airpower against insurgents, and that the United States will almost certainly be involved in fighting insurgents and terrorists and will no doubt assist other nations in their own fights against irregular opponents in the future, the lack of attention in military colleges and in doctrine regarding this subject is scandalous. The U.S. Air Force in particular, has tended to ignore and downplay air operations in small wars in its education system and in its doctrine."1

Many futurists speculate that the era of major combat against a peer competitor is over, at least for the foreseeable future.2 They predict more conflicts at the lower end of the spectrum, the doctrinal territory known as military operations other than war or stability and support operations. After overwhelming the regime of Saddam Hussein during Operation Iraqi Freedom in a fastpaced conventional battle, the Pentagon quickly found itself facing a determined insurgency in Iraq. Indeed, some authors contend that the global war on terrorism is in fact a battle against a global insurgency.3 If this is the type of warfare the US military can expect to see more of in the future, it should look to counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine to learn how to fight it.

Unfortunately, even as it appears that COIN will only become more common in the future, the Air Force has no workable doctrine for this emerging mission area. Writing doctrine, as compared to creating new organizations or buying new weapons systems, costs very little even though it could have the greatest impact. According to retired USAF colonel Dennis Drew, "To a large extent, the Air Force has ignored insurgency as much as possible, preferring to think of it as little more than a small version of conventional war."4 To prepare for the future, the USAF must shift its doctrinal focus and force structure to include COIN, instead of continuing to focus exclusively on increasingly less likely major conventional operations.

This article examines Air Force COIN doctrine, or the lack thereof. First, it reviews current Air Force COIN doctrine. Next, it looks at what types of issues COIN doctrine can help address. Then finally, this article reviews the case of how the Air Force faced an insurgency in the Vietnam conflict but failed to write, or at least keep, the doctrine.

The purpose of doctrine is to help us prepare to fight present and future conflicts by codifying the experiences of the past. Air Force Doctrine Document (AFDD ) I, Air Force Basic Doctrine, states, "Air and space doctrine is a statement of officially sanctioned beliefs, warfighting principles, and terminology that describes and guides the proper use of air and space forces in military operations. It is what we have come to understand, based on our experience to date. The Air Force promulgates and teaches this doctrine as a common frame of reference on the best way to prepare and employ air and space forces. Subsequently, doctrine shapes the manner in which the Air Force organizes, trains, equips, and sustains its forces" (emphasis in original).5 A military that lacks doctrine for COIN also lacks guidance on how to best prepare and employ its forces or how to organize, train, equip, and sustain its forces in such conflicts. The lack of COIN doctrine suggests that the Air Force deems it unimportant to include-a case of preparing to fight the wars we prefer and not preparing for the wars we are most likely to fight.

Since its early days, the USAF has focused on large-scale conventional doctrine and, later, nuclear doctrine-war at the high end of the spectrum. In the interwar period between World Wars I and II, the focus of emerging Army Air Service and Army Air Corps doctrine was largely on strategic bombardment in an effort to emphasize the need for a separate air service.6 In the decades after World War II, nuclear warfare dominated airpower doctrine. …

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