Abolish the Air Force: What It Does on Its Own-Strategic Bombing-Isn't Suited to Modern Warfare. What It Does Well-Its Tactical Support Missions-Could Be Better Managed by the Army and Navy. It's Time to Break Up the Air Force

By Farley, Robert | The American Prospect, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Abolish the Air Force: What It Does on Its Own-Strategic Bombing-Isn't Suited to Modern Warfare. What It Does Well-Its Tactical Support Missions-Could Be Better Managed by the Army and Navy. It's Time to Break Up the Air Force


Farley, Robert, The American Prospect


IN AUGUST OF THIS YEAR, REPORTS EMERGED THAT BRITISH Army officers in Afghanistan had requested an end to American airstrikes in Helmand Province because the strikes were killing too many civilians there. In Iraq, the Lancet Study of Iraqi civilian casualties of the war suggested that airstrikes have been responsible for roughly 13 percent of those casualties, or somewhere in the range of 50,000 to 100,000 deaths.

Does the United States Air Force (USAF) fit into the post-September 11 world, a world in which the military mission of U.S. forces focuses more on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency? Not very well. Even the new counterinsurgency manual authored in part by Gen. David H. Petraeus, specifically notes that the excessive use of airpower in counterinsurgency conflict can lead to disaster.

In response, the Air Force has gone on the defensive. In September 2006, Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap Jr. published a long article in Armed Forces Journal denouncing "boots on the ground zealots," and insisting that airpower can solve the most important problems associated with counterinsurgency. The Air Force also recently published its own counterinsurgency manual elaborating on these claims. A recent op-ed by Maj. Gen. Dunlap called on the United States to "think creatively" about airpower and counterinsurgency--and proposed striking Iranian oil facilities.

Surely, this is not the way the United States Air Force had planned to celebrate its 60th anniversary. On Sept. 18, 1947, Congress granted independence to the United States Army Air Force (USAAF), the branch of the U.S. Army that had coordinated the air campaigns against Germany and Japan.

But it's time to revisit the 1947 decision to separate the Air Force from the Army. While everyone agrees that the United States military requires air capability, it's less obvious that we need a bureaucratic entity called the United States Air Force. The independent Air Force privileges airpower to a degree unsupported by the historical record. This bureaucratic structure has proven to be a continual problem in war fighting, in procurement, and in estimates of the costs of armed conflict. Indeed, it would be wrong to say that the USAF is an idea whose time has passed. Rather, it's a mistake that never should have been made.

Before 1947, aviation existed as a branch (if a large and privileged one) of the Army, alongside the infantry, artillery, and armor branches. To win autonomy, the Air Force needed to demonstrate that it could make a significant independent contribution to victory.

At the beginning of the U.S. involvement in World War II, Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, commander of the Army Air Force, decided that the Air Force would join Britain's Royal Air Force in the Combined Bomber Offensive against Germany. Over the next three years, American and British airmen would suffer appalling losses against German air defenses in a strategic bombing campaign designed to destroy German civilian morale and industrial capacity. The campaign expanded to Japan after Pacific bases became available. The USAAF also conducted a number of other missions, but its chiefs believed that strategic bombing would win the war for the Allies--and independence for the Air Force.

This desire for independence drove the behavior of the USAAF during the war. By late 1944, a submarine blockade had stymied Japanese war production. Because of the ineffectiveness of attacks on industry, and the flammability of Japanese cities, Gen. Curtis LeMay, mastermind of the strategic bombing campaign against Japan, decided that civilian areas would be the objective of his B-29s. Roughly 1 million Japanese civilians died from the fire-bombing of Japanese cities, though it was the incineration of so many square miles of Japanese city that the Army Air Force pointed to as it adduced clear, quantitative results in its fight for independence. LeMay would later head the Strategic Air Command, and serve as chief of staff of the Air Force during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which he argued for a full set of airstrikes against Cuban targets. …

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