“Congress Outlaws The USAF”, Strategy Page snarks. The story doesn’t support the headline — it’s about application of the “Anti-Deficiency Act”, or ADA, to cost overruns on Air Force contracts, which is causing heartburn in the top brass:
Scary inspections have become fashionable again, along with fiscal responsibility. Commanders who don’t get with the program are headed for early retirement. This has happened to 14 air force generals and dozens of colonels in the last three years.
Nevertheless, in my humble opinion, the goal of the headline is a good idea. A separate Air Force, with its own supporting bureaucracy, is a notion whose time has come and gone. The following is the text of a comment I left on the story, slightly expanded and edited.
The rule of thumb — not perfect, but a good first approximation — is: Could [service] win a war all by itself?
Clearly a Navy or an Army could do so, although the definition of “war” might have to be unrealistically constrained. The Air Force was invented on the assumption that it could, too, largely by being the deliverers of nuclear weapons. Experience over the last half-century suggests that there is no way to constrain the definition of “war” such that the Air Force could win one unless the original idea were carried out, i.e., “bomb ’em back to the stone age” with nukes. The very suggestion is now politically unacceptable, and experience with Islamists and other irregulars demonstrates that it isn’t true, anyway, so long as some population remains. The war isn’t won until you have 18-year-olds with guns on the ground in the (former) enemy’s territory — and, as much recent experience demonstrates, that condition is necessary, but not sufficient. An Air Force can’t provide “boots on the ground” by its very definition. Neither can the Navy — but that’s one of the things Marines are for.
What is left is a (lower case) service organization, providing capabilities to the other Services that they don’t need all the time and thus don’t want to include in their capital budgets or which are organizationally better done independently for commonality. Fast logistic support, “trashhauling”, falls into the latter category, for instance — the Army will use it most simply because of volume, especially in expeditionary mode, but delivering stuff from home base to where it’s needed is more like FedEx or UPS than anything else. Sign here, please.
Big UAVs are a similar case. They go with satellites, a world-wide capability some local portion of which is called upon by the other Services when needed. Same for delivery of precision munitions, same for bombing at the interface between “tactical” and “strategic”, that is, taking out the enemy’s behind-the-lines logistics, from ammo dumps to manufacturing and production of fuel and weapons. All of those are (lowercase) service functions, called upon when needed by warfighters and remaining in potentia otherwise. If it weren’t for treaties and customs that enforce a dichotomy between uniformed Service members and civilians as regards killing people and breaking things, they could be done by civilians on contract. Imagine a big UAV orbiting over the battlefield with a load of precision-guided munitions, and a system enabling ground forces to designate targets and call for bomb release when needed. The UAV is simply transporting stuff to where it’s to be used. Is there any reason, beyond Laws of War treaties, why it shouldn’t say “MilEx, a subsidiary of Federal Express” on the side, instead of USAF?
So what does that leave? Air superiority and mass strategic, probably nuclear. Yes, those are hard to fit into the paradigm, but for the rest what we see is the Air Force evolving into an on-call support organization for the other two. Is that worth the organizational complexity and expense of maintaining a separate uniformed Service?
The Navy is strategic and diplomatic; it also transports the Marines, which are the President’s sidearm, useful for small-scale conflicts on short notice. The Army is either defensive, responding to invasion, or expeditionary, doing defense on other people’s real estate so’s it doesn’t break our stuff. The Constitution makes a sharp distinction between the two, based (it’s clear from contemporary writings) on their potential for adventurism. The Navy is hard to use for that for many of the same reason(s) an Air Force doesn’t win wars. The Army’s capability is hobbled by the two-year limitation. People who protest Iraq and Afghanistan (and formerly Viet Nam) have a valid point which they, themselves, sacrifice in their moonbat “pacifism”: The United States is, or should be, non- and anti-Imperialist in the military sense while being quasi-imperialist in the commercial. The Army/Navy split supports that ideal. Combining the two and adding a third uniformed “Service” violates it.
Special Forces are actually simple. They are Marines, original concept version (forming large, Army-like bodies of Marines is an aberration). This is most evident in the case of the “Green Berets”, a small, fierce ground-fighting force transported by the parent Service, precisely the role of the USMC vis-a-vis the Navy. The very grouping of the different Services’ organizations into the category “Special Forces” demonstrates the essential commonality, after a period of interservice rivalry consequent to their formation.
Watching from outside the System, it’s actually a bit amusing to see budgetary and political constraints forcing a reversion to something closer to the Founders’ vision. The national Army becomes less and less significant except as training, cadre, and organization; large forces, when necessary, are formed from State Guard units. In a world where effective military equipment is beyond the financial reach of ordinary citizens, this is probably the best compromise between raising Armies of armed citizens and modern needs. The Navy’s aircraft carriers are useful (and used) for gunboat diplomacy, 21st Century version; it remains to re-emphasize small units for anti-piracy and commerce guarding, and tentative steps in that direction are being made, though hobbled by a fixation on the prestige of “deep bottoms”. As that evolves the need for a separate, uniformed Air Force becomes less and less evident. The services provided by the air arm are necessary, even vital. It’s not at all clear that an independent bureaucracy is the best way to provide them.