Tuesday, April 21, 2009

You're Not Using Your Car Today So You Should Sell It

So I read this NYT op-ed: Up, Up, and Out and am singularly unimpressed with its lack of depth.

On the face of it, the concept of force restructuring is not inherently silly, but I find more with which I disagree than agree. His third paragraph contains the meat:

"First, the Air Force should be eliminated, and its personnel and equipment integrated into the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. Second, the archaic “up or out” military promotion system should be scrapped in favor of a plan that treats service members as real assets. Third, the United States needs a national service program for all young men and women, without any deferments, to increase the quality and size of the pool from which troops are drawn."

The USAF's primary mission is a strategic one composed of roughly three parts:
1) Securing the airspace of the theater.
2) Deep strike interdiction.
3) Moving shit around.

It has a sub-mission that consists of

a) Close Air Support

It's easy to say "carve it up and parcel it out to the other services", and for the close air support mission I am 100% in agreement with the author's concept. Hell's bells, I'd like to see us build 5,000 more A-10s and give them to the Army and Marines to fly. And for all I know it's also perfectly reasonable to give the Army, Navy, and Marines sole control of their own airlift assets.

But I simply don't see the primary missions of deep strike and air supremacy living comfortably with the other services.

As far as force and personnel management, as a layman I can't really judge. However I've known a bunch of people who have been and are Air Force and Navy, and they learned to live with the "up or out" concept just fine, and planes continue to fly and ships continue to steam. It might not be the perfect system but it does, in theory, help guard against ossification of the body military, and injects valuable experience back into the public and private sectors.

The concept of "National Service" i.e. Draft i.e. Indoctrinated Youth is anathema to me regardless of who's selling it (and it's almost always a Lefty :) ). There are plenty of voluntary civilian organizations that fill that role in this country and perceived shortcomings in the current force structure are a poor excuse to push that idea.

Finally, there are two sentences that completely invalidate his opinion for me:
"At the moment, the Army, Navy and Marine Corps are at war, but the Air Force is not."

"War is no longer made up of set-piece battles between huge armies confronting each other with tanks and airplanes."

These two statements are shockingly ignorant and short-sighted. True, the current stage of the WoT is not a showcase for the USAF, but last decade we had a President who went all cowboy and rode to the rescue of the beleaguered Euros who were being threatened by a Serbian strongman who wanted to do a little people purging. This cowboy's shootin' iron of choice was the USAF, which strained more than a few wing spars hauling bombs in that campaign. Did that conflict invalidate the existance of the Navy? Of course it didn't.

And the author is pretty sure set-piece battles are never going to occur again, certainly not any that could use a dedicated air supremacy arm. The silliness of that position is almost beyond comment. History shows us the folly of only preparing to fight the last war or the current war.

Now, as I opened with, I think the idea of rethinking the USAF's strengths is a valuable one. If I were the Magic SecDef, I would snap my fingers and move the USAF firmly into the 21st century with next-generation UAVs supplanting manned airframes, and I would move the whole of the USAF up a few Angels, transitioning the ground support mission wholly to the other services and firmly embracing low and high Earth orbit for new platforms and missions. But get rid of the Air Force? No way.

In short, the services are optimized toolboxes, and wars and conflicts are jobs for tool-users. Not every toolbox is going to be opened for every job, but it's nice to know you've got the options and the optimization.


MeatAxe said...

I second the vote for more A-10s.

MeatAxe said...

Also I agree about air superiority. If we ever get into a real shooting match with the North Koreans or (heaven help us) the Chinese, we will be up shit creek in a barbed wire canoe without strategic bombing and a bunch of iron-assed fighter jocks flying interdiction missions.

cnick said...

I think UAVs are going to completely take over. Within 30 years or so you won't find very many manned Air Force planes in the sky. Just lots and lots of UAVs and micro-UAVs (why spy from 100 miles up when you could send in a swarm of micro-helicopters and see everything up close).

Anonymous said...

Eventually perhaps UAV's will take over cnick, but we are a long way from having true AI which is what is really required to have an unmanned fighter plane. UAV's for low level observations (such as the man launched ones that the army has), and predators are fine because they are comparatively cheap, and the man launched ones are two small for a fighter to bother with. Predators in any kind of contested air enviroment would be toast in no time. The global hawk is essentially used to fly over uncontested airspace as well. It is safe against most sam systems and other countries fighter interception due to its operating height which makes it valuable. I don't see it operating over any country with 3.5 gen fighters, mig 25's (because they are capable of making high speed high altitude interceptions), or heavy surface to air missile networks.

There are at least two more generations of manned western fighters before UAV's become the predominate fighter aircraft.

cnick said...

I actually work on this sort of stuff for a living...believe me, UAVs are taking over. They will still be remotely operated/guided for a while, but eventually they'll be almost completely automatic.

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