Mark Begich (D-AK) is one of the few members of Congress speaking out against a key part of President Obama's plan for fighting the Islamic State.
The U.S. Air Force was founded in 1947, right after the heroics of American flyers during World War II, and with the Cold War looming. But a new book argues the Air Force, as a separate branch of the military, should be abolished.
In “Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force,” author Robert Farley says that while the U.S. still needs air power, that power shouldn’t be segregated — it should be part of the Navy or the Army.
On the problem with a separate Air Force
“The creation of the Air Force, which started in 1947, erected unnecessary bureaucratic barriers between the missions the military most often does. Pretty much everything the military does on a daily basis requires some sort of conjunction between air power and sea power and land power. And we created the air force with the idea that air power could do a lot of the jobs by itself. And I think that idea was wrongheaded in 1947 and I think we have much more evidence that it’s wrongheaded today.”
“The capabilities that we’ve allocated to the Air Force we have largely allocated by choice, rather than by any chance of natural design. So for example the Army doesn’t have any capability — besides helicopters, doesn’t have any capability of medical rescue. But the reason it doesn’t have that capability is essentially because the Air Force took that responsibility away from it.”
On the timing of his proposal
“I think actually right now is ideal in terms of thinking about potential for military reform. We’re winding down the two wars we’re having right now and we are re-orientating toward an entirely different form of military preparedness, which is in terms of what we’ve heard about the Pacific pivot … and it seems to me that right now when we don’t actually see a lot of conflicts on the immediate horizon, it’s a great time to think about how we might reform our military services for the future.”
On the idea of the Air Force projecting power around the globe
“It’s an argument that people commonly make as to why we need the Air Force — that we need the global capability to strike anywhere in the world. But it’s interesting that when we look at how we’ve actually used that strike capability in the past, and how we’re using it right now, very often our global strike is through tomahawk missiles that are launched by U.S. surface ships and U.S. submarines. And so while this idea of having this 24-hour, anywhere in the world, 15-minute strike capability, sounds kind of awesome, it always runs into political difficulties and all sorts of political obstacles and we never seem to really take advantage of it.
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The image of the U.S. Air Force took a hit recently when more than two dozen officers responsible for launching nuclear weapons were pulled off the job because they were caught cheating on a proficiency exam, or failed to report cheating. But should the entire Air Force go away and be folded into other branches of the military?
That's the view of our next guest, Robert Farley. He's an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky's Patterson School of Diplomacy, and he's author of "Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force." He's with us from WUKY in Lexington, Ky. Dr. Farley, welcome.
ROBERT FARLEY: Oh, thanks for having me.
HOBSON: And we should say right at the top, you're not arguing that the U.S. doesn't need airpower.
FARLEY: That's correct. I think that the United States does not need an independent Air Force and that the assets that we currently allocate to the Air Force should, in most cases, be shifted and amalgamated with the Army and the Navy.
HOBSON: Why is that? Why don't we need an Air Force?
FARLEY: I think that the creation of the Air Force, which started in 1947, erected unnecessary bureaucratic barriers between the missions that the military most often does. Pretty much everything the military does on a day-to-day basis requires some sort of conjunction of airpower and sea power and land power. And we created an Air Force in the idea that airpower could do a lot of jobs by itself. And I think that idea was wrongheaded in 1947, and I think we have lots more evidence that it's wrongheaded today.
HOBSON: Why is it wrongheaded today more than it was, in your view, in 1947?
FARLEY: Well, in 1947, there were a lot of people who were still sufficiently optimistic about the idea of airpower that it could win wars all on its own; that we could strike over the horizon, avoid enemy armies, tear apart the sinews of an enemy state. And I think that we found over the years that the information demands for that are just so awesome that we can never quite be able to defeat an adversary, especially a determined adversary, just with airpower; and that just about everything we do requires that ground and air forces cooperate with one another for the best effect.
HOBSON: You write that in Afghanistan and Iraq, neither of those conflicts required flashy strategic airpower.
FARLEY: That's correct. I think that in both cases, what we found was that the most fancy air power assets, the ones that have been designed to fight the Soviet Union, have been reduced to jobs such as killing groups of insurgents in the middle of the desert. This is something that we would never consider that the B-52 and the B-1 would have done, but they've been pressed into in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. And I think that's really, in a lot of ways, has been the reality of air power, and it's likely to continue to be the future of air power.
HOBSON: Now, the air power that we have outside of the Air Force - in the Army, in the Navy, in the Marine Corps, even in the Coast Guard - I've been speaking to military experts who say that the Air Force has capacities and capabilities that those other branches do not have; and that there would be massive disruption if you were to try to fold some of the capabilities of the Air Force into, say, the Army's air power.
FARLEY: Well, I think that there are two responses to that. The first is that the capabilities that we've allocated the Air Force we have largely allocated by choice rather than by any sort of natural design. So for example, the Army doesn't have any capability or doesn't have - besides helicopters - any capability of medical rescue. But the reason it doesn't have that capability is because the Air Force essentially took that responsibility away from it.
There's a very similar story to be told about drones, that there was a big fight between the Army and the Air Force over who would control drones and that essentially came down to a bureaucratic decision. And the second response is that there are a lot of reforms that have short-term costs and that have long-term benefits.
And I don't think there's any question that in the short term folding the Air Force back into the other services would be extremely costly. For one, you would have to buy a lot of new uniforms for Air Force personnel. But in the long term, I think there are going to be a lot of benefits.
HOBSON: But could you afford that short-term cost? Could you afford a short-term disruption in the military like that?
FARLEY: I actually think right now is ideal in terms of thinking about potential for military reform. We're winding down the two wars that we are having right now, and we are reorienting towards an entirely different form of military preparedness, which is what we've heard of in terms of the Pacific pivot.
And the Pacific pivot is going to require the Air Force and the Navy to work together very closely. And it seems to me that right now, when we don't actually see a lot of conflicts on the immediate horizon, it's a great time to think about how we might reform our military services for the future.
HOBSON: On the other hand, right now is not a time that Congress can agree on much, let alone getting rid of one of the main branches of the military.
FARLEY: That's true. I can't really tell you that I'm super-optimistic about this Congress or the next Congress passing a - really a tremendous bill for reform of the armed forces, but at the same time there seems to be some indication that there could be a growing coalition of Republicans and Democrats who are interested in significant military reform, who are worried about the direction that the national security state has taken and who might be interested in what amount to innovative proposals for rethinking how the United States uses its military force.
HOBSON: What about the idea of the Air Force as able to project the massive power of the United States, that you have to have these incredible assets of the Air Force to show the world the power of the U.S., especially with the rise of China?
FARLEY: I think it's an argument that people commonly make about why we need the Air Force, that we need the global capability to strike anywhere in the world. But it's interesting that when we look at how we've actually used that strike capability in the past, and how we're using it right now, very often our global strike is through tomahawk missiles that are launched by U.S. surface ships and U.S. submarines.
Our global strike right now in places like Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia is carried out by aircraft that aren't actually very sophisticated at all. They're not very fast, they're not very modern in terms of sort of hyper-modern fighter jets, But they're Predator drones that we're using for political reasons.
And so while this idea of having this 24-hour, anywhere in the world, 15-minute strike capability sounds kind of awesome, it always runs into all sorts of political difficulties and all sorts of political obstacles. And we never seem to be able to really take advantage of it, even when we have an Air Force. And so as a reason for keeping an Air Force, I don't find it terribly compelling.
HOBSON: There are a lot of comments on the Foreign Affairs website after your story was published. And one of them says: Abolish the Air Force? Why not just go all the way and look at the Canadian model - combine all three services and establish a true joint force. What do you think of that?
FARLEY: The Canadian model has ended up - it created this unified structure, but it's ended up deteriorating back into what amounts to an Army, an Air Force and a Navy. And what I'm hoping to achieve here is a genuine reprioritization of the military missions that we have. And so putting parts of the Air Force into the Army, in my view, will force the Army and the Air Force to be more collaborative with one another, in a way that they really haven't since the 1940s.
And that's part of the point. And similarly, putting parts of the Air Force into the Navy will force more collaboration there, whereas if you just created a unified three-structure system, it might not actually result in tighter cooperation than we have right now.
HOBSON: Ideally for you, 20 years from now, would you like to see the military much smaller than it is today?
FARLEY: I do think that our military forces right now - for the tasks that we have, the task that the United States requires - are a bit too large. I think it's very difficult to project 20 years in the future. Twenty years in the future the Chinese military budget could be larger than the U.S., and there might be all sorts of different changes in the strategic landscape.
And so it's hard to say that - or what the defense budget should look like. But I think we have allowed it to grow too large given the tasks that we face right now.
HOBSON: Robert Farley is assistant professor at the University of Kentucky's Patterson School of Diplomacy. He's the author of "Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force." Professor, thanks so much for joining us.
FARLEY: Thank you for having me.
HOBSON: And let us know what you think. Should the Air Force be abolished and folded into the other branches of the military? You can go to hereandnow.org. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.