By Col. C. K. Hyde
314th Airlift Wing commander
Air Power has always had its critics who have been unwilling to accept its place alongside land and sea power as equal components of the joint force.
Air power’s history has been one of dramatic swings in popularity and achievement compared to the constant consequence that comes with centuries of notable land and sea achievement as instruments of the state. This continuous change, which reflects the adaptability of air power in the modern era, is also the bane which leads some to doubt its innate importance as an instrument of national power -- a power that can be decisive in warfare in the supported or supporting role.
In the post-World War II era, air power achieved an unbalanced dominance as nuclear deterrence and strategic operations were the preeminent expression of national power. This dominance gave way to a tactical focus in Vietnam with little connection between the strategic ends and tactical means and an even more confused purpose as major commands battled for ascendancy and the true meaning of air power.
In this period of identity crisis, the Air Force, led by the tactical “victors,” joined, as unequal partners, the Air-Land Battle Doctrine for the defense of Western Europe against the Warsaw Pact. The problem with Air-Land Battle Doctrine was not air power’s contributions to the defense of NATO against Soviet-aligned forces, but the diminution of air power to a supporting role with little consideration of the operational and strategic effects that air power brings to the joint force. Beyond close air support and battlefield interdiction, air power’s only contribution to combined arms was mutual assured destruction.
Enter John Warden and other air power advocates. They brought a new focus to the air power debate and stubbornly insisted that air power could be decisive at the operational level of war. They asserted that air power could and should be the supported force across a wide spectrum of operations. They brought a new equality of thought and vision to the use of air and space forces which revived the zeal of the Air Corps Tactical School. Their thinking led to effects-based operations, parallel operations, an expeditionary Air Force organization, and the prominent contributions of air power in Desert Storm, Allied Force and Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom.
Air Power was back, and its essence was captured in the 1990 white paper titled Global Reach -- Global Power. This document provided a treatise on air power’s capabilities and inherent characteristics -- speed, range, flexibility -- asserted air power’s unprecedented leverage in support of national security, and gave Airmen a common point of reference for engaging in joint operations as an equal partner. The Air Force had a unified purpose, was no longer drifting in the search for relevance, and for perhaps the first time, possessed capabilities and doctrine which were respected as more than theory.
Fast forward to 2010. Despite historic contributions to the joint fight and a new rallying cry of “All In,” our Air Force seems to be searching for its purpose. The nation has equated national security with counterinsurgency doctrine, which is essential to the current fights in Afghanistan and Iraq, but which unfortunately underestimates the contributions of air power as an essential component of the joint operations, and more importantly, assumes that the spectrum of conflict has been forever altered.
Air power’s role may be predominately a supporting one in the counterinsurgency fight and we should be “All In”, but the real danger may be sparing within the Air Force in which tribes seek to gain preeminence based on the relevance of their mission to the current fight. When air power critics start the feckless cycle of “irrelevance rhetoric,” the temptation is to lose our higher purpose as the world’s most dominant air, space and cyberspace force and turn against core capabilities which are not prominently represented in the current fight.
The seeds for this potential division were perhaps sown in the same document which rejuvenated American air power, Global Reach -- Global Power. By segmenting ourselves into mobility and combat tribes, we have undoubtedly increased the effectiveness of our Air Force in delivering war-winning capabilities to combatant commanders, but as we get further from the inspiration behind air power’s renaissance, we risk identification with each part rather than the whole.
Our national security depends on our Air Force to be the world’s leader in air, space, and cyberspace power -- a power that can be eroded when Airmen fail to understand our contributions to national security -- yesterday, today and tomorrow. We are American Airmen first and mobility professionals second.