Why do we have an Air Force?

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

Why do we have an Air Force? It seems like an odd question, until you realize that the US did not form an air force when airplanes proved their worth in WWI, as the Brits did, and didn’t form one for WWII either. All those planes strafing German half-tracks and shooting down Japanese Zeros belonged to the US Army Air Force and the US Navy.

Only after WWII, in 1947, did the US Air Force become an independent air force, like the Brits’ Royal Air Force. In each case, the independence of the new air force was closely tied to the notion of strategic bombing, which was deemed unstoppable before the invention of radar and overwhelming after the invention of the atomic bomb:

In the period between the two world wars, military thinkers from several nations advocated strategic bombing as the logical and obvious way to employ aircraft. Domestic political considerations saw to it that the British worked harder on the concept than most. The British Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service of the Great War had been merged in 1918 to create a separate air force, which spent much of the following two decades fighting for survival in an environment of severe government spending constraints.

Royal Air Force leaders, in particular Air Chief Marshal Hugh Trenchard, believed the key to retaining their independence from the senior services was to lay stress on what they saw as the unique ability of a modern air force to win wars by unaided strategic bombing. As the speed and altitude of bombers increased in proportion to fighter aircraft, the prevailing strategic understanding became “the bomber will always get through.” Although anti-aircraft guns and fighter aircraft had proved effective in the Great War, it was accepted there was little warring nations could do to prevent massive civilian casualties from strategic bombing. High civilian morale and retaliation in kind were seen as the only answers. (A later generation would revisit this, as Mutual Assured Destruction.)

In Europe, the air power prophet General Giulio Douhet asserted the basic principle of strategic bombing was the offensive, and there was no defence against carpet bombing and poison gas attacks. Douhet’s apocalyptic predictions found fertile soil in France, Germany, and the United States, where excerpts from his book The Command of the Air (1921) were published. These visions of cities laid waste by bombing also gripped the popular imagination and found expression in novels such as Douhet’s The War of 19– (1930) and H.G. Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come (1933) (filmed by Alexander Korda as Things to Come (1936)).

Douhet’s proposals were hugely influential amongst airforce enthusiasts, arguing as they did that the bombing air arm was the most important, powerful and invulnerable part of any military. He envisaged future wars as lasting a matter of a few weeks. While each opposing Army and Navy fought an inglorious holding campaign, the respective Air Forces would dismantle their enemies’ country, and if one side did not rapidly surrender, both would be so weak after the first few days that the war would effectively cease. Fighter aircraft would be relegated to spotting patrols, but would be essentially powerless to resist the mighty bombers.

In support of this theory he argued for targeting of the civilian population as much as any military target, since a nation’s morale was as important a resource as its weapons. Paradoxically, he suggested that this would actually reduce total casualties, since “The time would soon come when, to put an end to horror and suffering, the people themselves, driven by the instinct of self-preservation, would rise up and demand an end to the war…”. As a result of Douhet’s proposals airforces allocated greater resources to their bomber squadrons than to their fighters, and the ‘dashing young pilots’ promoted in propaganda of the time were invariably bomber pilots.

Pre-war planners, on the whole, vastly overestimated the damage bombers could do, and underestimated the resilience of civilian populations. The speed and altitude of modern bombers, and the difficulty of hitting a target while under attack from improved ground fire and fighters which had yet to be built was not appreciated.

Again, the development of the atomic bomb brought back the argument for strategic bombing.

(By the way, I’ve discussed Things to Come before.)

Years ago, I assumed that we had an army for fighting on land, a navy for fighting on water, and an air force for fighting in the air. It all seemed perfectly straightforward — except for the Marines and, to a lesser extent, naval aviators. Then I read James C. Bennett’s The Anglosphere Challenge, which explains the roots of our system:

This model was based, fundamentally, on the militia system. The “general militia” was defined as the armed populace of the country, organized on a county-by-county basis. Those who trained regularly and were preorganized into units having a dedicated function in wartime were known as “select militia.” In time of war, this militia was to form the core of the army, along with the royal bodyguard regiments and any additional new regiments raised specifically for that war. Permanent peacetime military forces were viewed with such suspicion, constitutionally, that even select militia training was opposed by most Whigs throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.

There were several important exceptions. It was recognized that specialized bodies of military experts could not be trained up quickly in emergencies, but would have to be maintained in time of peace. Artillerymen were the most obvious example; fortification engineers were another. To maintain this expertise, specialized bodies such as the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers were established and maintained.

Note the terminology. Contemporaries, ignorant of the constitutional purpose behind the Anglo-American military structure, idly wonder why the British Air Force and Navy are termed “Royal” while the Army is merely the “British Army.”

This terminology is not a piece of historical trivia: it reflects and illustrates a specific constitutional point. “Royal” forces are permanent forces of the state, maintained even in peacetime.
Therefore, while the British Army is not a “Royal” force, those parts of it that historically had to be maintained in peacetime are. Examples include the artillery or engineers: Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, and so on. The Royal patronage of various individual regiments comes originally from their origin as the personal bodyguard of the king — the Coldstream Guards, Horse Guards, and the like. Another force of troops maintained in peacetime was the category of “guards and garrisons” — troops manning forts at home and overseas. This category constituted most of the nonspecialist peacetime standing forces maintained by the British military from the Restoration until the post-1918 era.

Since it was recognized that maintenance of the freedom of international commerce and other necessary functions of government might require small-scale exercise of military force, one standing land force was earmarked for that purpose — the Royal Marines, maintained as an adjunct of the Royal Navy. The navy was ever landing small parties of marines to deal with pirates or piratical small tyrants, especially in areas such as North Africa, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia (all of which, for that matter, remain troublesome nests of piracy to this day). An examination of the use of the Royal Marines, and subsequently the U.S. Marines, demonstrates how the structure of the armed forces under the Anglo-American civil constitution historically served to create an effective barrier to the abuse of the war-making power. Small-scale interventions have been, and will probably continue to be, an inevitable adjunct of the functions of a large country with worldwide trade and maritime activities. The need to deal with organized ideological-religious terrorist groups, larger than gangs but smaller than states, makes it all the more likely that small-scale armed expeditions will be an ongoing feature of contemporary affairs.

Traditionally, intervention using the navy and marines could be done on the initiative of the executive without the explicit sanction of Parliament. When the problem became too large and army troops had to be raised (since there were so few permanent troops, to send any overseas almost always implied raising them), the Crown was required to go to Parliament for an authorization for troops and funds. In the course of this process, the goals and objectives of the conflict could be thoroughly debated, and the costs and benefits to the country weighed. The subsequent call for volunteers and appeal for subscriptions and loans gave the country an additional opportunity to demonstrate its enthusiasm or lack thereof for the conflict in question. The bias against standing armies was so great that the term “British Army” was not used in official language, like acts of Parliament during peacetime, until 1745. (Appropriations for existing forces were earmarked for “guards and garrisons.”)

By that reasoning, a force like America’s Strategic Air Command, would be, in some sense, naval — ever ready to intervene anywhere in the world — but America’s strategic bombers had always been part of the land-based army, like tanks and artillery, so the new non-Army Air Force became independent — and protective of its turf.

Entering the Atomic Age with a branch of the military devoted to atomic bombs seems reasonable, especially with so many related technologies coming to the fore — ballistic missiles, spy satellites, guided missiles, etc.

But our military doesn’t do much strategic bombing these days, and the Air Force has monopolized almost all “fixed-wing” aircraft. If the Army wants tactical air support, it has to use helicopters — “rotary-wing” aircraft — or go through the Air Force.

That’s why Robert Farley, for instance, is arguing that we should abolish the Air Force as a separate bureaucratic entity:

The Air Force is most effective when operating in support of the Army, and least effective when carrying out its own independent campaign. However, the Air Force dislikes ground support. Its antipathy to tactical missions, for instance, is at the root of its repeated efforts to shed itself of the A-10 Warthog. The A-10 is a slow attack aircraft, extremely effective against tactical enemy targets. The Army loves the A-10, but because the aircraft contributes neither to the air superiority mission that the Air Force favors nor to the strategic mission that provides its raison d’etre, the Air Force has always been lukewarm toward the aircraft. Offers on the part of the Army to take over the A-10 have been rejected, however, as this would violate the Key West Agreement.

If strategic bombing won independence for the Air Force, yet strategic bombing cannot win wars, it’s unclear why the Air Force should retain its independence.

There’s a better way to use American airpower:

The Army and the Navy can accomplish the jobs that the Air Force does well within their current institutional structures. Tactical airpower should belong to the Army. Although the Army and the Air Force have worked out credible systems of cooperation, reunifying the two would likely result in tighter collaboration between air and ground forces. The tactical mission would also include air superiority, which is necessary to prevent enemy use of airspace and to allow freedom of action for U.S. forces. Similarly, some tactical elements of airpower would pass to the Marine Corps.

To the extent that the United States requires a capability to punish other states militarily for political purposes, the Navy can handle the job. The aircraft carriers of the Navy already represent the most powerful concentration of mobile military power in the world. Navy cruise missiles, launched from submarines and surface vessels, can strike most of the surface of the Earth within a couple of hours. Adding certain elements of the Air Force portfolio to the Navy would neither transform nor hinder the Navy’s power projection mission.

The strategic nuclear capability of the Air Force should also go to the Navy. The USN already operates its own strategic deterrent in the form of the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, armed with the Trident missile. The Navy could also operate the other two legs of the nuclear triangle (ICBMs and strategic bombers) without difficulty, especially since the latter would support the Navy’s strategic mission.


  1. T. Greer says:

    Lynn Rees recently argued (among many other things) that the independent air force is the main reason tactical air support is repeatedly shafted, to the detriment of the U.S. national interest. I highly recommend both of his pieces:

    “You Will Be Gamed”
    Lynn Rees. Zenpundit. 10 August 2013.

    Kill the Department of Defense.
    Lynn Rees. Zenpundit. 12 August 2013.

    I also liked one of his comments on the first post:

    Tactical air support needs its own political constituency, one powerful enough to challenge the Fighter Mafia and the Bomber Mafia in grubbing for dollars. That will never happen unless its leadership, promotional ladder, and patronage distribution network can check and balance those two gangs with independence and impunity. And that will never happen while tactical airpower is incorporated into an independent U.S. Air Force.

    Several approaches are:

    • Give tactical air support back to the U.S. Army, a natural enemy of the U.S. Air Force
    • As Mark Safranski proposes, give tactical air support to the Marines. Marines exercise an amount of power in Congress terrifying to the U.S. Air Force
    • Make tactical air support an independent service co-equal with the others with its own greasy pole and its own patronage base.

    One sign that you have too much air power extremism on the brain: the U.S. doesn’t have a close air support propeller driven plane like the A1. Prop planes are slower and can hover over the battlefield longer than jets, making them better flying artillery. The jet engine partisan might object and claim that prop planes are too slow to survive against enemy jets. My response would be: what use is your precious air superiority if it doesn’t allow us to fly prop planes for close air support missions without fear of enemy fighters?

    There is still a need for strategic air power. It could even continue as an independent service. You could even try to sooth the amputation of the CAS role by giving them a fancier title like Starfleet Command.

  2. Isegoria says:

    Readers of this blog may recognize Lynn C. Rees‘ style, even if the name is unfamiliar.

  3. Isegoria says:

    The “Starfleet Command” bit is cute, but I have no trouble imagining a US Aerospace Force.

  4. I agree, give CAS and tactical bombing (and transport?) back to the Army. Make the Air Force the Aerospace Force with command of air-superiority operations, strategic bombing, and space assets (space definitely being a major battleground of the next large-scale war).

  5. L. C. Rees says:

    One FB comment was: “More bureaucratic infighting? No thanks.”

    Killing DoD wouldn’t result in more bureaucratic infighting. It would just make the existing bureaucratic infighting more obvious. Biggest gain: replacing one big dangerous dysfunctional procurement bureaucracy with the safety of multiple small dysfunctional procurement bureaucracies.

    No difficulty here imagining a strategic air-space service. The name “Starfleet Command” has more verisimilitude though: Star Trek seems more plausible than a U.S. air service that can keep the F-35 flying. We don’t need a tarmac superiority fighter.

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