The Air Force forgot what business it was in

Sunday, February 3rd, 2019

The United States Air Force has lost its way, Jerry Hendrix argues — and most of its bombers, too:

It has forgotten what business it’s in, mistakenly believing that its raison d’être is air supremacy while forgetting that the core of its mission is long-range strike. If the nation is to be successful in the great-power competition it finds itself in, the Air Force will need to find its way home and regain its strategic relevance in an environment dominated by anti-access/area-denial systems employed by China and Russia.


The Air Force once understood its purpose with stark clarity. In the first half of the 20th century, air-power advocates continually stressed the importance of bypassing tactical skirmishes and penetrating to the enemy’s vital centers to coerce either the foreign government or its population to submit. Independent air forces in Great Britain and Italy focused their procurement efforts on larger and longer-range heavy bombers. Non-independent air forces, such as the U.S. Army Air Corps, sought the same even as their parent service (the U.S. Army, in the American case) pressed them to buy tactical aircraft and perform direct-combat air-support missions for ground infantry and armor units. This made some sense during World War II, when long-range bombers found themselves in need of fighter escorts to fend off enemy fighters and establish temporary air dominance for the bombers to get through to their targets. But after the war, science and engineering combined to alter circumstances.

The jet engines that came to dominate aircraft design during the early years of the Cold War changed the nature of force employment, as jet fighters no longer had the range to escort the jet bombers of the newly established and very powerful Strategic Air Command to targets inside the Soviet Union. Fighters then became specialized for air-defense and air-dominance missions within a radius of a couple of hundred miles of fighter bases. Strategic Air Command bombers, which numbered in the thousands, soon began to specialize themselves, evolving towards designs that could fly higher and faster in order to penetrate Soviet air defenses. The Soviets responded by building new surface-to-air missiles and high-altitude/high-speed interceptors to rob American bombers of their advantages. It was only at the end of the Cold War, with the introduction of the stealth B-2 Spirit bomber, that bombers regained the upper hand in the U.S.–USSR strategic competition. But by then, the Strategic Air Command had been disestablished, and the Air Force felt that its mission had changed.

The change began during the Vietnam War, in which fighters flying from land bases in South Vietnam were loaded up with bombs to hit land targets in North Vietnam and along supply routes in neighboring countries. The improved accuracy of smaller aircraft carrying lighter loads of bombs and providing combat air support to American ground forces in direct contact with the enemy began to subtly alter the internal culture of the Air Force. The bomber “tribe,” based in the politically powerful Strategic Air Command, had supplied six of the first ten Air Force chiefs of staff, but it began to lose influence within the service to the fighter “tribe.” In the 36 years since Chief of Staff Lew Allen Jr. retired, no bomber pilot has occupied that office, and the Air Force’s inventory of bombers has shrunk from over 10,000 aircraft during the 1950s to fewer than 200 today. Fighter pilots gained ascendency based upon the assumptions of access to bases within range of their enemies, the ability of their supporting tanker force to survive, and the greater importance of air supremacy than long-range-strike capability.

Air supremacy is a straightforward concept. It seeks a degree of superiority over an opposing air force such that the enemy is incapable of effective interference with friendly aircraft or ground and naval forces. This definition of air superiority held for regional wars such as those in Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq (both times), and Afghanistan (where the enemy had no opposing air power to speak of). Air Force theorists also state that air superiority applies to theater campaigns (those that range across an entire region of the globe), enabling larger aircraft, cargo haulers, refueling tankers, and bombers to operate freely — except when they cannot, and that is where the modern United States Air Force lost its way.

Air supremacy is all about fighting a long war. It assumes proximity of air-power units to the front lines and/or to the adversary’s coast. It also assumes that the U.S. will fight the next war the way it has fought small wars over the 70-plus years since the end of World War II — deploying combat and support forces from the United States; gradually building up forces and supplies in theater; “rolling back” adversary defenses to gain air, sea, and ground control; and decisively defeating the adversary’s military in force-on-force engagements. All these assumptions are wrong.

Both China and Russia have noted how effectively the United States has fought its wars over the past 50 years and have invested in a new series of sensors and weapons that seek to push American forces back from their shores. Broadly grouped under the label of “anti-access/area-denial” systems, these radars, satellites, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and submarines all seek to ensure that U.S. power-projection forces cannot reach their vital political, economic, and military centers. Because of these investments, most of America’s most recent weapons systems, including all three variants of the new F-35 multi-role fighter, will be unable to reach Chinese or Russian targets. There will be no proximity to “front lines” — not that it matters, as there will be no front lines. The next battlefield will be fluid and spread out over vast areas. Moreover, both legacy fighters and just-fielding F-35s are already vulnerable to modern integrated air- and missile-defense networks. The enemies get a vote, and they have cast it.


When World War II ended, the Army Air Forces understood these lessons, and when the U.S. Air Force was established in 1947 and the Strategic Air Command thereafter, the long-range bomber and the long-range strike mission lay at the center of their culture. But then regional wars and the end of the Cold War happened, and the Air Force forgot what business it was in. It got into short-range fighters and fought small, short-range wars.

He’s a big fan of the B-21 Raider.


  1. Albion says:

    Really, the US Air Force has been ‘effective’?

    I thought the evidence in recent times was that no matter how much overwhelming air superiority one has and no matter how many tons of napalm one drops, the nature of war in the last fifty years has changed. The enemy merely waits out the bombing raid and emerges to still control the ground, where in the end success comes in military terms.

  2. Ross says:

    Let’s see if they get hip to hypersonics, or if that’s all going to be on Space Force’s plate

  3. Bob Sykes says:

    Air forces have to be good at all three: close air support, air superiority, and strategic bombing. But this requires different classes of air craft and pilot training for each task. Perhaps they should be split among different services. Give CAS and the fixed wing planes for it back to the Army (where it belongs anyway, a la Marines).

    However, many of the targets for strategic bombing are better tasked to ballistic and cruise missiles, which can be launched from submarines. Even our existing heavy bombers are really missile trucks.

    There are still uses for carpet bombing, and heavy bombers are ideal for that. But the day of fleets of heavy bombers is over.

    Even in WW II, our strategic bomber crews suffered percentage losses higher than our infantry. Only submariners deaded at a higher rate.

  4. Harry Jones says:

    If the enemy intends to wait out an air raid, they need some place to hide. That means an air raid is still useful for one thing: prelude to an attack in a set piece battle on contested ground. Not so much use against entrenched positions.

    Japan was not able to wait out the A-bomb attacks. But that’s an extreme case, probably never to be repeated.

    In the long run, that which does not make us stronger kills us. Wear them down. They can’t wait it out forever.

  5. McChuck says:

    An air force is the wrong tool to “keep the enemy’s heads down” during an assault. The proper tool is artillery. Much cheaper, and more effective for the purpose. Of course, you can use a glass sledgehammer to swat a fly, but it’s not ideal.

    That’s not to say that close air support is not an invaluable tool. It is. But it’s purpose to to spot and destroy a relatively small enemy formation, in defense of a relatively small friendly unit. It is literally flying, self-spotting artillery in this role.

  6. Kirk says:

    As an Army guy, I don’t want close air support from the Air Force integrated in with the Army. The requirements are too damn different, in terms of emphasis and culture, for the zoomies to ever fit in well with the ground-pounders.

    If it’s got to be done, then do away with the Key West Accords that prevent the Army from having fixed-wing aviation, and let the Army build up it’s own fleet of close-support assets on its own. The Air Force mentality is just too damn different for them to ever really be able to integrate well.

    I think the Soviets had it right–They had more than one “Air Force”, and their Frontal Aviation was more like what we need for close air support. Only thing is, I think that the Air Force “reason for being” is an artifact of the mid-20th, and is rapidly evaporating as we watch. What’s coming down the line is a near-complete obviation of everything that’s manned and in-atmosphere. In space, there’s still purview for manned equipment, due to the lag in communications, but that’s only in terms of command/control–Combat is going to be remote-operated drones.

    The “Army’s Air Force” of the future is likely to be UAV-based, and controlled by some lowly junior enlisted guy with a tablet and an X-Box controller, huddled in with the platoon RTO and the PL. The Air Force is going to be completely irrelevant because ain’t nobody gonna be riskin’ an 80 million-dollar manned aircraft to drop bombs on some ragheads firing a PKM at our guys…

  7. Kevin M. says:

    I think there’s a typo there. At no point after 47 did our fleet of bombers reach 10,000. There were less than 4,000 B29s and less than 800 B52s.

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