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Robert Farley, Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014).

It’s not every day someone argues that an entire service of the United States Armed Forces should be disappeared. But that is exactly what Robert Farley proposes in his new book, Grounded. Farley makes a case for the elimination of the U.S. Air Force, basing his argument on the inaccurate notion that strategic bombing is the sole reason for its existence as an independent service. He also takes the Air Force to task for not adequately supporting ground forces. He believes Air Force aircraft are best subsumed into the Army and Navy for better support of soldiers and sailors. In doing so, Farley disregards what the Air Force does best—air domain dominance—and undervalues a key component of United States historical successes in combat.

Air domain dominance doesn’t just happen. The mission requires the right people, equipment, training and doctrine to succeed. Undertaking a Capability Based Analysis (CBA) offers a means of evaluating the potential impact of Farley’s recommendation on this fundamental Air Force mission. A thorough CBA takes into consideration the doctrine, organization, training, materiel, logistics, personnel and facilities required for a given mission.

Air Force doctrine prioritizes achieving command of the skies above the land and maritime battlespace first and foremost in any conflict. And, doctrine is written based on lessons learned in prior conflicts. The United States Army and Navy are the best in the world at dominating land and sea, and each service continually updates its doctrine to retain superiority. An independent Air Force, drawing on decades of combat experiences in the air domain, is best suited to create air-centric doctrine. United States dominance in the five core Air Force missions would be diluted and dominance in the other domains would be at risk if the other services were forced to absorb the Air Force’s mission and responsibility for air domain doctrine. Far from streamlining American defense structures, subsuming Air Force personnel and materiel into another service would build larger, more cumbersome, and less focused organizations.

Each branch of the U.S. military has unique, service-specific priorities based fundamentally on the domain in which it fights. Air Force aircraft and equipment are hardly integral to either the Army’s or the Navy’s priorities. The idea that the Army or Navy would, upon absorbing this equipment, reorganize to prioritize air dominance alongside ground or maritime operations ignores the lessons that led to the creation of a separate air service in the first place. Army dominates on land, and the Navy on sea. Those are big responsibilities.

By focusing on one domain, each service organizes itself to maximize effectiveness in that domain. Adding additional domain requirements would create an intrinsic conflict in organization. For example, a bomber wing is best employed to attack an enemy’s air force. Yet, it is also capable of supporting soldiers, tactically and operationally. If the Army were given bombers, they would be dispersed to support ground combat units. To do otherwise—to maintain the current emphasis on the air domain—would betray the organizational structure that has contributed to the Army’s dominance on land, and would equate to a simple name change for the Air Force. But this is not Farley’s argument. He believes the Air Force should support ground forces—period. Adopting such a change in the Air Force’s strategic orientation would dilute the value of Air Force personnel and materiel currently dominating the air.

Further, if a desire to save money encouraged the U.S. to heed Farley’s suggestion to forego air dominance, then a far more cost effective alternative would be to just disband the Air Force and mothball the aircraft. The United States military could be collectively oriented solely toward land and sea-specific missions. But savings would need to be weighed against new requirements that should be expected to arise. For instance, the Army would have to devise a method to protect soldiers from air attack. Surface-to-air defenses would become far more pervasive within the Army organization. Rather than brigade-level air defense, the Army would have to consider company-level air defense in order to maintain agility. This added requirement would inevitably slow the Army down. And, there is ultimately no guarantee that the defenses would protect soldiers from air attack, since enemy air forces would train to defeat ground-based air defenses.

As a result of the Air Force’s doctrinal emphasis and its organization, the service’s materiel acquisitions are naturally focused on the air domain. The B-2, for example, was designed to be the best bomber in the world. Navy aircraft carriers and Army tanks are similarly designed and procured with such service-specific requirements in mind. An independent Air Force with a focus on the air is best positioned to understand the performance tradeoffs necessary to acquire air dominant aircraft. While both the Army and Navy also have aircraft, those aircraft were conceived and produced for unique purposes: to support Army and Navy missions. To be sure, Air Force aircraft can do this, as well, a fact that has always created confusion for scholars like Farley. But the fact that Air Force aircraft can perform the same missions conducted by aircraft of the other services does not mean that having them do so represents their best use.

In terms of training, Air Force airmen are purposefully equipped with the skills to dominate the air domain. The selection process is rigorous and designed to recruit people with the right attitude and aptitude to excel in this domain. At each step in the development process, they are continually challenged and evaluated. The training is intense, and designed so that the first time an airman sees combat, he/she is ready to rule the air. Significantly, this training approach is not limited to pilots. Numerous career fields in the Air Force have a combat component to them. Combat controllers, joint terminal attack controllers, combat rescue, security forces, logistics personnel, and many others play their part at times under fire.

New airmen put their training to the test at Red Flag, where they engage in realistic mock combat on a large scale for the first time. The two-week exercise was designed after analysis showed that this type of intense training increased survival rates in combat. Red Flag is also the first time air dominance comes together in a holistic fashion. It is in this boiling cauldron of supersonic death where one first understands how each core mission supports and is supported by the primary requirement to dominate the air.

Red Flag is built around the objective of attaining air superiority over a determined, well-trained, and well-equipped air foe. The aerial choreography required to fight and survive in a three-dimensional domain is like ballroom dancing in a tornado. While the Army’s soldiers who fly are incredible at hitting targets in close proximity to troops, they are neither trained nor equipped to fight in three dimensions. Eliminating an independent air force and incorporating it into the Army would inevitably signal the end of training such as that embodied in Red Flag, leaving American combat aviators vulnerable against an enemy air force whose training remains oriented toward winning in the air domain.

Besides seeing such a transformation in their training under Farley’s proposal, airmen who would be transferred would probably suffer slower promotions in a new service. The Army’s very reason for being is to excel in combat on land. This fact has two important implications. First, Army aircraft and pilots are employed in support of the main effort—the soldier on the ground. And second, the Army emphasizes ground combat experience as a qualifying characteristic in its leaders. Therefore, the aviation career field would have trouble promoting those airmen trained to fight and win in aerial combat. The Army may initially get some of the former Air Force’s personnel, but frustrated by lack of support for their inculcated desire to target the enemy’s air force, they would likely soon separate. Many personnel may choose not to transfer to the Army or Navy in the first place, since these services’ respective missions are not that for which they signed up and were trained.

Additionally, forced retirement would be required for much of the Air Force leadership. While some senior officers and enlisted personnel would be retained for continuity, leaders in the Navy and Army with the ground or sea experience that is most valued in these services would generally replace them. The experience and knowledge that Air Force flag officers attained over years of fighting in the air domain would be lost, jeopardizing prospects for success in any future conflict through an unfortunate lack of institutional knowledge of air combat.

Moreover, the dangers that would result from this loss of knowledge would be exacerbated by inevitable changes in the focus of professional military education. Airmen would no longer spend a lifetime studying air combat, resulting in potential blind spots for senior DoD leadership. Eliminating professional military education focused solely on the air domain could mean that future Army and Navy leaders would painfully relearn those lessons.

The benefits of an independent Air Force are far too many and complex to adequately examine in this space. But this article seeks to provide a thoughtful analysis of Professor Farley’s proposal. The United States needs armed forces that are well-trained, well-equipped, well-led, and capable of fighting and winning America’s wars as cost effectively as possible. Farley’s suggested elimination of an independent Air Force, however, would cost billions, make DoD less effective, and displace thousands of talented people. On the basis of these conclusions, and mindful of the incredible record of success achieved by America’s armed forces from the advent of the airplane to today, we ask ourselves whether we are willing to bet the lives of America’s sons and daughters, and the security of this nation, on Professor Farley’s recommendation.  We are not.

Colonel Scott D. Campbell, U.S. Marine Corps; Captain Charles L. Cashin III, U.S. Coast Guard; Captain William J. Parker III, U.S. Navy; and Colonel Robert S. Spalding III, U.S. Air Force are Military Fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations. Charles E. Berger, Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge, Federal Bureau of Investigation, is the National Intelligence Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a former naval officer. The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the authors, and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government.


Photo credit: UNC – CFC – USFK

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19 thoughts on “Why America Needs an Independent Air Force

    1. That is a joke right? The US has never had a problem actually fighting the war (just ask the Nazis, the Japanese, the North Koreans, or the Iraqi army). It is all the other “stuff” we are that great at – but is anyone really “good” when it comes to counter-insurgency warfare?

      1. Maybe we should ask the Vietnamese, the Lebanese (1983 version), the Chinese (1950-53 version), and the British (1812 version). I don’t know that we’re notoriously bad at war, but we’ve sure had problems fighting actual wars.

      2. Sadly, it is not a joke.

        American forces are traditionally led by frankly bad Admirals and Generals in the initial phases of war. We tend to have ‘political’ and ‘warfighting’ flag officers and neither does well in the opposing environs. Halsey and Patton would never be promoted past O4 now, unless they were SOCOM officers and they’d hit the brass ceiling at O6.

        This is an oft-repeated pattern in the US and it takes months in the initial portion of a conflict to weed out the paper-tigers that get promoted in peace to find the real fighters in wartime.

        Even the American GI needs to be weeded through to eliminate the ‘uniform wearing jobs program’ peacetime types from the real warriors in total war mode.

        Review American military history for further examples.

  1. Not having read Farley’s proposal I can not objectively add to this debate but in my opinion, the proposal appears very short sighted and ill conceived. As stated, the Air Force’s (am British so I include the RAF in this) main aim is to dominate and own the airspace so the following land and sea forces can own their domains.

    That is the end of the argument. There are no savings in costs or simplifying any command structure which appeals to logic. The US Air Force and RAF were born out of war, they were separated from the army because they needed to be. They excel because it is their job to. Academic argument often adds little to the physical needs of the services. And war needs the physical.

  2. I think one of the greatest challenges the AF faces is how wide its current mission areas are – there are just too many unrelated specialties fighting each other for dominance of a limited budget pie. Rather than eliminating the Air Force I think we should split it into separate services similar – but not identical – to the Navy and the Marines together making up the Department of the Navy.
    My half crazy solution would be a 3 way split: AF Strategic Forces (bombers, ICBMs, cyber, space), AF Support Forces Forces (cargo air craft, tankers), AF Combat Forces (fighters, SAR, air combat controllers). Chief of staff for the Air Force (only AF rep on the joint chiefs) would rotate between the three. I acknowledge this would bloat up the “tail” a bit (splitting personnel functions, budgeting) but it would also more logically align the structure of the Air Force. It would also help each “leg” of the Air Force get top quality people – rather than relegating the dregs of the AF to the less interesting jobs (see the ICBM cheating scandal) and provide greater opportunities for advancement for those who aren’t fighter pilots.

  3. “Air Force aircraft and equipment are hardly integral to either the Army’s or the Navy’s priorities.”

    This was written after the Air Force retired the entire fleet of A-10 Warthogs, I see.

  4. “Farley makes a case for the elimination of the U.S. Air Force, basing his argument on the inaccurate notion that strategic bombing is the sole reason for its existence as an independent service.”

    Readings from “The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy” by Lawrence Freedman and “World Politics and the Evolution of War” by John J. Weltman shall disabuse readers of this “inaccuracy”. The US Air Force was established as an independent service based upon the theories of Douhet and Mitchell, among others, combined with the postwar belief the the wars of the future would be won with initial “massive bombardment” by nuclear-armed bomber fleets. (They conveniently overlooked the fact that massive conventional bombardment had failed to secure strategic goals during the preceding conflict, and that the surrender after the bombing of Nagasaki wasn’t so simple as “we dropped an atomic bomb and they surrendered”.) The creation of the Air Force was based upon the sale of the air as an independent domain of strategic effect, the promise of nuclear dominance, and the claim that air power could win wars independent of surface forces. That is absolutely the reason why America has an independent Air Force, despite the fact that history has yet to corroborate any of these claims.

    In the intervening years, the Air Force has transitioned to a narrative of air dominance which could almost certainly have been accomplished by a subordinate Army Air Corps. Meanwhile, it has increasingly marginalized its nuclear forces, and lamented its obligation to use its air dominance assets to provide close air support to ground forces.

    “And, doctrine is written based on lessons learned in prior conflicts.”

    That, dear friends, is a gross oversimplification, and the point where I tuned out.

  5. “While the Army’s soldiers who fly are incredible at hitting targets in close proximity to troops, they are neither trained nor equipped to fight in three dimensions”

    So what about Naval aviators? They seem to be doing a decent job in the third dimension. Why would it be any different after a transition to the Army using fixed wing aircraft?

    In your answer, please explain how the two paragraphs spent on Red Flag aren’t rebutted by the existence of the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (aka Top Gun).

  6. Very interesting article. There have been some great thought-provoking arguments on both sides.

    I would be interested to hear how Naval Aviation fits into the authors’ argument. Would they argue that Navy aircraft provide air dominance in the maritime arena less effectively because they are under Navy (rather than AF) command? Is Naval Aviation doctrine and training, including that promulgated by TOPGUN, inferior to that of the Air Force?

  7. As per usual, in most defenses of the USAF’s independence, this one is riddled with logical fallacies, and statements not backed up by any facts. Strategicservice already mentioned one line in the argument that was so poorly supported that it could almost be a red herring, so I will address another.

    “An independent Air Force with a focus on the air is best positioned to understand the performance tradeoffs necessary to acquire air dominant aircraft.” The USAF is notoriously bad at making performance tradeoffs necessary to acquire air dominant aircraft. Perhaps the authors have never heard of the F-111, or have been snorting the magic pixie dust of the F-35. The acquisitions history of the USAF is little but a legacy of severely flawed planes, with a few exceptions that the USAF didn’t even want initially (A-10, F-16, etc.)

    I could go on and on, but the fact remains that air superiority, or “Dominance” in the current terminology, does not and cannot produce strategic effects. It is only useful in a support role. As a result, the USAF as it is currently constituted is nothing more than a self-licking ice cream cone.

  8. The problem with the US Air Force is that it has effectively lost its primary mission and the secondary role that it should play is not welcome by the Fighter and bomber ‘mafias’.

    When the AF had a strategic bombing role in the nuclear SIOP and Curtis LeMay was in charge of SAC, the AF was in its halcyon days. Now, the nuclear mission is effectively dead because even if CONUS were attacked with nuclear or high order chemical weapons, no President would be willing to go down in history as one of the greatest mass killers, even in revenge.

    The USAF cherishes their legacy imagery as Gabby Gabreski or Richard Bong type fighter pilots, dogfighting at angels 30 with a comparable enemy or as self imagined LeMay types leveling strategic enemy infrastructure with effective bombing attacks. Neither roles really exist any more.

    Bombers are high tech capital investments which cost over a billion dollars a copy now. They are the AF’s equivalent of a battleship. They are too valuable and expensive to send into battle like so many B24s over Ploesti. What is needed is a reasonably priced ‘bomb truck’ which can haul many tons of conventional ordnance and apply them in support of ground forces, yet the AF will not embrace them.

    The fighter mafia is much the same as the bomber generals. They want a multi-engined, mutli-missioned, stealth platform that is supersonic, can fight well past BVR, do everything, and will never suffer a bit of damage, based on failed revisited 1950s tactics. Many fighter jocks tend to not want a CAS role for ground troops because it is damn dangerous to be in the weeds with an obscenely expensive aircraft and it is not endorsed by the AF brass unwilling to lose a plane.

    Warfare now is not against the Soviet horde or a billion plus Communists running roughshod over a continent, but as an adjunct to the Army and Marine Corps down in the mud facing determined zealots. The AF wants a preeminent role and they do not have one in this generation.

    The Global Strike mission is dead. The LGM30 is nearly two generations old, the silos are targeted by anyone with Google Earth and a GPS, they are not secure against determined attack, their crews are bored/disenfranchised, and endanger the CONUS and American citizens with a preemptive first strike attack. There role is far better served by the Navy’s SSBN fleet which can get within single digit minutes of their targets, if they were ever commanded by a President willing to break his biscuit, authorize a counterforce strike, and not accept millions of dead Americans as the price of a failure in foreign policy. The strategic bomber role is effectively dead, because 30 or so B2 Spirit bombers and an equal amount of nuke capable B-one Lancers are not any type of effective deterrent to likely adversaries willing to stare down the US.

    It is well past time to end the nuclear ICBM component of the USAF and close Malmstrom, FE Warren, Minot, and Grand Forks AFBs. Take nukes out of the hands of the AF and remove their role in nuclear vengeance.

    Afterwards, kill the seemingly eternal hangar queen program [F35] and use the money saved to build Gen 2 upgraded Eagles, Falcons, stripped down B-1Bs, and a follow on to the A10. Make CAS a priority and promote integrated training with the Army, Navy, and Marines. Take every officer in the drone program and re-assign them elsewhere in the AF. Take community college grads and make them Warrant Officers in the revised drone program. This too will save money for more needed areas. There is absolutely no need to have a senior O3 sitting in an A/C connex at Indian Springs and remotely killing others by Hellfire.

    If the AF can’t accept that concept, return them to the Army Signal Corps with brown wool uniforms and let them re-learn their role in modern warfare.

    1. Dan – the biggest problem with what you suggest is that it would leave us with only 2 strategic bases both of which could be mission killed minimal effort non-nuclear strikes. A few cruise missiles (1 submarine’s worth per coast) could damage or destroy the in-port SSBNs, the reloading facilities (EHWs), and the dry-docks used to maintain the submarines. The at-sea SSBNs can only stay out for so long before they would have to come in. It is easy to say we would respond to such an attack with a nuclear response of our own but do you really want to put the President (the current or any future one) in a position where his only response to the US being hit with 16 – 20 conventional cruise missiles is to respond with a nuclear strike?
      Secondly by making the threat one dimensional we actually incentivize them to concentrate their efforts on finding our at-sea SSBNs – the harder they look for them the easier they are to find.
      We need ICBMs so they can’t concentrate only on finding our SSBNs and to be a target sink – they are hard enough to resist most conventional attacks and even if they can take out of some of them there are so many it would have to be a large scale attack. Do we need 450? No but I do think we need at least 150 – enough to discourage anyone from even thinking they could take us on.
      For reference I am a former SSBN sailor. I would love to see us build more than 12 OHIO-Replacement SSBNs but not if the cost is the ICBMs.
      As to the bomber – the cost of making it nuclear capable is a small fraction of the cost of making the bomber itself. As the B2 flyby of North Korea last spring shows there is a certain value in being obvious and very public about what you are threatening. Sending an extra SSBN or two to sea doesn’t quite send the same message.
      The triad really is the best answer – now we just need to force the AF to give it the attention and money it deserves.

      1. The idea of a US President retaliating against any strike with nuclear weapons is unfathomable. No President is willing to commit mass murder and ultimately suicide of the American Nation-State, even for a declarable war. They are effectively useless weapons that cost billions each FY to hold and maintain.

        Even if you buy into a future President and NCA willing to use nuclear weapons, the US is ill prepared to implement that decision. The concept of limited nuclear war is lost on the American national command authority and for decades, their sole response to an attack involving chemical or nuclear weapons, was to release the literal hell that was the SIOP. These supposedly has been addressed, but the formal target review process precludes a reasonable and flexible strike in a dynamic schedule.

        We have how many B2 bombers? Only 19 are assigned to Whiteman AFB and how many are actually capable of alert status within 24 hours? The other one is at Edwards AFB to certify mods made to the fleet. Having one fly through international airspace in distal proximity to a mentally questionable tyrant will intimidate only the most juvenile and unstudied minds. The USAF is physically incapable of wielding the ‘big stick’. It has no way to get them from the igloos to the targets. One can’t sabre rattle without strategic bombers and we just don’t have them or the capital to build them.

        The USAF LGM30 fields are single shot platforms specifically designed to support the SIOP theory of nuclear war. One launch and thrown away, if not preemptively struck in an initial assault. Are you honestly advocating that we allow American citizens in the Midwest and the East to be hostages to the fallout from the LGM30 missile fields in order to prevent the deployed SSBNs from become a “target sink”? In your scenario of limited strikes, I find that logic to be flawed. The Navy understands and accepts the risk, I doubt that much of the American public would accept your assignment to them of risk.

        The USAF has contributed to their irrelevancy by demanding exorbitantly expensive platforms and the infrastructure that supports it. They need to adapt or die to the current economic and geopolitical realities of the 21st century.

        1. 1) The best way to make sure the president doesn’t have to order a nuclear strike is to retain a deterrent that is credible and survivable enough that no one will ever attack us. The nuclear deterrent is amazing low cost when you consider how effective it has been at preventing great power war. Nuclear weapons are not useless – we use them every day to deter existential threats to ourselves and our allies and international partners.
          2. What are you basing your second paragraph on? You clearly have no idea how targeting currently works or how the US might actually carry out a limited nuclear strike. SIOP is long dead and has been replaced by something quite different – far more flexible and adaptable then you appear to believe possible.
          3. Yes – 19 B-2s each capable of carrying a number of bombs – including the largest in the arsenal (B83) and the only earth penetrating warhead (B61-11). Don’t forget the 70+ nuclear capable B52s each capable of launching nuclear tipped ALCM’s from safely outside the enemies air defenses. The jury is still out on LRS-B – but the AF seems committed to actually getting this one right. Since the entire program is black it is hard to tell how they are doing but time will tell. If we really need to we could also re-convert the B1s back to a nuclear role but that would take quite a bit of time and money.
          4.Yes, I am advocating that we hold the heartland “hostage” to the threat of attack on the MMIII fields. And of course they are one shot platforms – all missiles are or do you honestly think the SSBNs will have a base to return to and reload following even the most limited nuclear exchange? Also the thinking on ICBMs is far beyond cold war/siop – why do you think we got rid of peacekeeper and only have single warhead MMIII’s? In their hardened silos it would take an adversary at least two warheads to be sure they could reliably take out just 1 MMIII – that is why the silos are so far apart. In the modern age of nuclear parity and arms control this discourages an attack on the MMIII field – they will have to use twice as many warheads as we would lose. As to the American public accepting the risk – anyone who lives in a city already accepts the risk of a nuclear strike or do you really expect nations like Iran, North Korea, or China not to hit “counter value” targets should they decide to launch a nuclear strike? The best way to protect the American public is with a deterrent so large and so robust it would be suicide to attack any part of it or our cities.
          5. You have completely neglected the unique role US nuclear weapons play in discouraging nuclear proliferation among our allies and partners. Nations like Japan, South Korea, and (at least according to the 1994 Budapest memo) Ukraine don’t need nuclear weapons because the US guarantees their security. The US nuclear umbrella – including the gravity bombs forward deployed to NATO for use by US and Allied aircraft – rests on the credibility of the US nuclear deterrent. An SSBN monad just isn’t as credible – especially to a country like South Korea that primarily worries about a tyrant who holds his own people hostage. We need the low yield/high accuracy gravity bombs to effectively deter nations like that because they are much more proportional than a D5 loaded with multiple Mk-4/W76s or Mk-5/W88s.
          Thanks for your opinion though.

  9. Abolish the USAF? I’d like see one big integrated service. We talk about joint this and joint that and jointness, but we suck at it. It is still separate services doing their own thing and looking out for what they want and not considering the other services. The Army and Marines need CAS. Why don’t they have A-10s and just take care of it themselves? Because the USAF threw a fit a said airpower is their domain. So, now the USAF does CAS(kinda)and once again wants to ditch the A-10 and switch to the yet to be proven and less CAS capable F-35. The Army is thrilled.
    What is it that the USAF does well?
    CAS? No
    Global Strike? Not so much on the nuke side and the bomber side… well they were using B-1s for CAS and ISR
    Air dominance – That was achieved a while ago
    ISR – Yeah the USAF does that so well that the Army has its own platforms that they can task them in a way that suits them best instead of the USAF telling them what they can have.

    I know, we have to look ahead to the next conflict (because we don’t actually declare war anymore) and start procuring new weapons systems now and we will write our doctrine based on the last conflict and then just reinvent the wheel anyway.

    So, lets just reinvent the wheel now and focus all of our might under once unified (joint) force? Competencies won’t belong to a separate force but to certain units or divisions or commands… or whatever new name we come up with. The leadership structure will resemble a pyramid instead of stovepipes, equipment will be shared and interoperable among all players, redundancies can be greatly reduced (a rifleman is a rifleman, a jet maintainer is a jet maintainer no matter what his location boat or base) and all forces will be integrated.
    In modern warfare everything needs to work together like a Symphony. There is a time and place for each part and there is one conductor who has experience with each instrument and has had years of training to effectively exploit the capabilities of each one.

  10. Great discussion in the comments, thanks everybody!

    Being a civilian aerospace engineer this might be kind of an ignorant question…but what do bombers have to do with air dominance? (other than taking out enemy air forces bases)