Air Occupation: Asking the Right Questions

By Dippold, Marc K | Air & Space Power Journal, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Air Occupation: Asking the Right Questions


Dippold, Marc K, Air & Space Power Journal


Among the many devices by which domestic factions avoid joining the essential, but all too touchy issues, is to debate the timing of a crucial decision without ever discussing whether or not the move should be made at all.

ONE OF Col John A. Warden's controversial ideas is that airpower permits the virtual occupation of enemy territory by aircraft without requiring a potentially entangling and costly ground occupation. Although this concept of air occupation has received some attention lately, the idea is not new. Unfortunately, the age of the concept has not added clarity to its definition. Many of the related studies and arguments focus too much on the "how" and not enough on the "why." As alluring and parochially rewarding as air occupation may seem, the US Air Force (USAF) cannot afford to commit dwindling resources to missions or capabilities that are not compatible with US foreign policy or the service's core competencies. We need to understand the definition and implications of air occupation because the question may not be "can we?" but "should we?"

To many people, the increasingly frequent use of the term air occupation is the equivalent of distant war drums-a precursor to the upcoming battles over the dwindling budget and relevance in the post-cold-war environment. This subject is clearly polarized between those who love and those who hate the concept. Adding fuel to the fire is the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) directed by the Armed Forces Structure Review Act of 1996. The charter of this review is to determine the defense strategy and establish a Revised Defense Program through the year 2005. No doubt, the USAF should focus on key strategic, rather than supporting, roles and missions in order to preserve its autonomy.l The USAF's survival as a dominant service will hinge on where it focuses its scarce resources to prepare for the challenges of the twenty-first century. If current trends continue, when the ball drops in Times Square on 1 January 2000, the USAF will be a smaller service, subsisting on an ever-shrinking defense budget. By the year 2000, the US armed forces will lose another 64,000 activeduty troops, leveling at approximately 1,418,000-35 percent smaller than the cold war force of 1987.2 Procurement has stagnated for more than a decade, but fiscal year (FY) 1997 was supposed to be the turnaround year. Unfortunately, or some may say predictably, the FY 1997 procurement budget dropped again, "falling to the lowest level since before the outbreak of the Korean War."3 As a share of US gross domestic product (GDP), defense spending dropped to 3.2 percent in 1997 and is forecast to drop to 2.7 percent in FY 2002-less than half the 6.3 percent of GDP allocated to defense in the "growth" years of the mid-1980s.4 In fact, the USAF Program Objectives Memorandum 98 (POM FY 1998-2003) leaves $15.7 billion of validated, unfunded requirements.5

In this fiscally constrained environment, the adage "be careful what you wish for-you may get it" should be on the minds of airpower advocates coveting the air occupation mission. It could very well be a double-edged sword that expands the relative influence of the USAF but also saddles it with a complex, persistent, and costly mission. For example, the trend of open-ended commitments of US airpower-only force packages to "stabilize" scenarios (e.g., Operations Provide Comfort and Southern Watch in Iraq) would accelerate if the concept of air occupation is embraced by our leaders. How far can this "residual" airpower role be stretched before it affects our ability to respond to major contingencies or a true peer competitor (e.g., China)?

The USAF must ensure that it asks the right questions before embarking on a serious campaign to "win" the air occupation debate. The discourse on the concept of air occupation has swirled primarily around issues of how airpower could be used in an occupation role. Typically, the focus is on innovations in sensor and weapon technology that could reduce or eliminate the need for troops on the ground. …

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