Book Reviews

"Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force," by Robert M. Farley

By Book Review Editor
Sunday, July 20, 2014, 3:08 PM

Published by The University Press of Kentucky (2014) 

Reviewed by Charles Blanchard 

I seem to have a knack for working for military services at a time when they are viewed as the redheaded stepchildren of the Department of Defense—ugly, dispensable ducklings.  When I left my position as General Counsel of the Army in early 2001, pundits were challenging the continued relevance of ground forces in the 21st century. The incoming Bush Administration was already discussing significant cuts in the size of the Army.  The pundits, of course, were proven very wrong just a few months later.

And when I left my position as General Counsel of the Air Force last December, many pundits were having difficulty seeing the relevance of air power other than as a tool for close air support for ground troops.  Robert Farley, a political scientist and professor at the University of Kentucky, summarizes the case in his new book, Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force, that an independent Air Force was a mistake in 1947 and that it continues to be a mistake today.  Professor Farley argues that the Air Force’s independence was based on discredited theories of the decisive effect of airpower, that an independent Air Force results in an undue reliance on airpower as the solution to military problems, and that an independent Air Force distorts procurement decisions by placing an undue emphasis on technology.  At the root of Farley’s argument, however, is the argument that airpower alone is rarely decisive in modern warfare, and that there is thus no institutional need for an independent Air Force.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I find Farley’s book fundamentally flawed.  Most profoundly, Farley largely ignores the majority of the Air Force--its mobility and space forces.  Instead, mobility and space missions get only passing reference in the book.  This is unfortunate since it is our mobility and space assets that offer some of our most significant advantages over potential adversaries.  For example, we are one of the few militaries in the world that can project military power globally thanks to our fleet of tankers and large strategic airlift planes.  The importance of this capability was made plain in the recent Mali intervention when France largely relied on U.S. Air Force mobility forces to move its forces and refuel its fighters.  And U.S. Air Force space assets--used for intelligence, positioning, and communication--are vital to the ability of both ground and naval forces to conduct operations.  (And, of course, the U.S. Air Force’s GPS system, has become indispensible for global commerce.)

But even if you focus, as Professor Farley does, on combat airpower, his argument is flawed.  First, Farley offers an incomplete history of the effectiveness of combat air power in recent conflicts.  He is certainly correct that early optimism about airpower as a panacea for modern warfare has proven misplaced.  The strategic bombing campaigns during World War II did not have the decisive effect that early airpower advocates envisioned.  And, Farley is also correct that the bombing campaigns in Vietnam failed to accomplish their goal.  But Farley’s unstated assumption that airpower can never be decisive apart from support for ground troops cannot be reconciled with history.  As even Farley admits, without the NATO air offensive in Kosovo, Serbia would have been unlikely to come to the table.

And there are other, more recent examples as well.  While the intensive bombing campaign against Iraq known as Operation Desert Fox in 1998 was heavily criticized at the time as ineffective, we have since learned that the operation was largely responsible for Saddam Hussein’s decision to end his WMD efforts.   Successful U.S. military operations in Afghanistan in 2002 and in Libya in 2011 were largely exercises in air power.  And had we intervened in Syria, the focus of our efforts would have been on the use of air power.  Simply put, airpower is not a panacea that can replace the need for ground and naval forces--history has made that point abundantly clear--but in some circumstances, combat air power can be an important tool of national power.

Second, my experience with Air Force leaders is completely inconsistent with the “airpower can do it alone” culture that Farley asserts pervades the Air Force.  To the contrary, during the debates about intervention in Libya and Syria, the Air Force leaders I knew were very careful to caution civilian leadership about the costs and limits of air power alone in these conflicts.  These same leaders also continually reminded the force that we were part of a joint force and that we were answerable to the requirements of combatant commanders in a joint fight. The result was a burst of energy in developing new close air support tools (such as sniper pods on B-1 bombers), in dramatically increasing intelligence, surveillance reconnaissance tools for the joint fight, and in coordinating operational concepts such as Air-Sea Battle with the Navy.  And rather than assuming that technology can overcome the “fog of war”, as Farley asserts, these leaders took great pains to make sure that planners making force structure decisions and war plans took full account of uncertainty, including assuming the likelihood that there would be losses and mistakes during conflict.  Undoubtedly as the result of history, the Air Force of today has a more nuanced and realistic view of air power than Hap Arnold or even John Warden.

Third, as is the case with many critics of the Air Force today, Farley largely dismisses or ignores the most critical combat mission for airpower in the 21st century--air supremacy.  In our most recent conflicts, such as Iraq and Libya, air supremacy was rather quickly achieved and largely taken for granted.  This allowed all forces--ground, naval and air--freedom of action without concern for attacks from enemy air forces.  This includes the ability to use drone forces, for surveillance or attack, because the current generation of UAVs is largely defenseless against air defense systems.

We have thus come to assume that air supremacy is our birthright, rather than something that must still be won--and will be contested by conventional state adversaries.  In the potential battlefields of the future--against potential adversaries such as China and Iran--air supremacy will be a hard fought battle. Until that battle is won, neither naval nor ground forces can be fully effective.  It is this mission (which is becoming increasingly important as more nations develop 5th generation aircraft and sophisticated integrated air and missile defense systems) that will need to be a central focus of the Air Force in the 21st century.

The case for the decisiveness of air power may have been oversold in the 1940s, but the continued need for air power of all types--combat, mobility, space and cyberspace--cannot be seriously disputed.  Just as the pundits in the late 1990’s were profoundly wrong to question the continued importance of ground forces, Professor Farley is wrong to suggest that airpower should be given a back seat to ground and naval forces.

(Charles Blanchard is a partner at Arnold & Porter LLP, where he practices national security law. He served as General Counsel of the Army from 1999-2001, and General Counsel of the Air Force from 2009-2013.)