The Air Force at a Crossroads

By Krepinevich, Andrew F., Jr. | Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

The Air Force at a Crossroads

Krepinevich, Andrew F., Jr., Issues in Science and Technology

To meet emerging threats, it should deemphasize manned aircraft and move toward space systems and unmanned aerial vehicles.

On the night of January 16-17, 1991, the United States launched an air war against Iraq after diplomatic efforts to end that country's invasion of Kuwait had failed. U.S. air and naval forces employed stealth aircraft, long-range cruise missiles, and precision-guided "smart" munitions (PGMs) for the first time together in substantial numbers. The results were devastating. The Iraqi air defense network was quickly disabled, and the Iraqi leadership's command and control of its forces was ruptured. Iraqi aircraft could not survive in the air or even in hardened shelters on the ground; many simply abandoned the fight and flew to safety in Iran. Although the effectiveness of U.S. PGMs was not as great as originally believed, the overall accuracy of the weapons was a vast improvement over their "dumb" ancestors.

This lopsided air war led some experts to conclude that a military revolution had occurred and that air power had led the way. Italian military theorist Gulio Douhet's 70-year-old vision of air power's ability to win wars seemed a reality at last. Other experts, however, including some U.S. Air Force leaders, viewed the war's outcome in an entirely different way: Instead of the culmination of a military revolution, the Gulf War represented only the beginning of a period of increasingly rapid technological and geopolitical change that will confront the Air Force with challenges far different from, and far more formidable than, those that were faced in the skies over Iraq. If this latter vision is correct, as I will argue it is, in the relatively short span of 20 years, the U.S. Air Force will need to dramatically transform itself from its current reliance on manned aircraft to a new emphasis on, among other things, space operations and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

What kind of Air Force the United States will require a generation from now is a critical question that needs to be examined today. With the Cold War's end, the Air Force is facing greater uncertainty than it has ever known. Although the world is a far less threatening place than it was during the Cold War, the challenges to national security will almost certainly increase substantially over the next 10 to 20 years as new and improving technologies make possible dramatic changes in all aspects of military planning and operations. In addition, the Air Force is now entering a period of modernization and will need to invest increasingly scarce defense resources wisely. It takes years to develop and field new military systems. If the Air Force chooses poorly now, it may be difficult, if not impossible (and certainly very expensive), to create a different kind of force on short notice later. Thus, the Air Force needs to examine whether its planned purchases of up to $133 billion in new combat aircraft will displace investments in military equipment and systems that may be equally or even more crucial for future needs.

Forging a vision

To prepare for a world 20 years hence, the Air Force first needs a vision of its future operating environment and the challenges it will pose. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration has thus far succumbed to the temptation to view future conflicts simply as linear extensions of more recent ones. Its 1993 Bottom-up Review (BUR) assumes future enemies with forces and operations similar to Iraq's in 1991. Yet the Pentagon's toughest future competitors are not likely to be updated versions of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Rather, the greatest challenges that could emerge would result from the erosion of great-power relationships, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the diffusion of information-based military technologies. Indeed, for potential competitors, the cardinal lesson of the Gulf War is to avoid confronting the Air Force as the Iraqis did. Competitors will probably be unable to match the U. …

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