The Catastrophic Success of the U.S. Air Force

May 3, 2016

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A retired U.S. Air Force officer recently told one of us about a conversation he had with a senior Air Force leader who outlined plans for a new type of Red Flag training exercise in Nevada (think Maverick vs. Jester in Top Gun). The new exercise would be designed to simulate a contested denied environment that would involve fighting integrated enemy air defenses and capable fighters. The retired officer drily replied, “Oh, you mean war?”

The stunning success of the Air Force in dominating its domain since the 1991 Gulf War has created two looming problems for the service leadership: The Air Force no longer has any substantive experience in how to fight and win in a highly contested environment, and its current airmen have never experienced serious losses of people and machines in air combat. The very profession of arms in air combat — “to fly, fight, and win” in Air Force parlance — may be at risk.  The Air Force’s immense success resulting from the courage, skill, and technological superiority of American airmen has now perversely made the service much less ready to fight the next big war.

The United States has led the world in developing airpower since the first rickety biplanes flew in combat.  Its doctrine, technology, and leadership for air warfare grew substantially during the 1920s and 1930s, but the size and scope of World War II forever cemented the importance of air superiority in the American way of war.  By 1944, U.S. airpower was dominating the battlefields in both the European and Pacific theaters. This effort was immensely costly. More U.S. airmen were lost in just the European theater than marines killed fighting in the Pacific. But by the war’s end, soldiers and marines on the ground could count on airpower to keep away enemy fighters and bombers, provide direct close air support to troops in contact with the enemy, and even airdrop supplies and reinforcements. Dominating the air became a sine qua non in how the United States fought its wars.

The United States also had to fight for control of the air in the major conflicts following World War II.  During the Korean War, U.S. Air Force pilots battled capable North Korean and Chinese fighters in air-to-air combat. Bitter dogfights raged over the Yalu River on the northern border abutting China where U.S. airmen even encountered Russian pilots flying Chinese and North Korean MiGs. Fifteen years later, U.S. pilots faced a sophisticated and deadly integrated air defense system over North Vietnam, and lost hundreds of fliers and planes to Soviet-provided surface to air missiles, anti-aircraft guns and advanced MiG fighters.

Since Vietnam, however, the U.S. Air Force has not faced an integrated air defense network system of comparable lethality.  Enemy air defenses in the 1991 Gulf War, the 1999 air war over Kosovo and Serbia, and in the 2003 invasion of Iraq all rapidly collapsed in the face of well-designed and brilliantly delivered U.S. attacks.  No American warplanes have been shot down by enemy aircraft since at least 1991 and none lost to enemy air defenses since 2003.

The long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have only cemented this impressive legacy of success.  In the last 15 years combat flying, the United States has maintained utterly uncontested air supremacy.  Since early 2003, the U.S. Air Force has been flying its combat missions against enemies that possessed no air force, offered no missile threat, and whose anti-aircraft artillery consisted mostly of small caliber hand-held weapons.  Even U.S. operations in Syria have avoided confronting the more advanced air defense network there.

As a result, an entire new generation of Air Force pilots have flown combat missions that have not involved any serious opposition.  As a result, the risk to aircraft and airmen in combat has become nearly negligible – accidents have been far more dangerous than enemy action. And for American ground forces, U.S. air superiority is so unquestioned that it almost seems like a state of nature.  The U.S. Army has largely disestablished its short-range air defense capabilities, and now for the first time in its history relies entirely upon the Air Force to protect its forces from attacks by manned aircraft.

Yet today, the threat to American air dominance is growing.  Growing anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) tactics and capabilities by potential adversaries such as China, Russia, and Iran are of increasing concern for U.S. military leaders.  In the near future, the United States may face a range of highly sophisticated adversaries with advanced integrated air defense capabilities.  In particular, Russian air defenses in eastern Europe and Chinese weaponry that extends across the Taiwan Strait and the South and East China Seas may directly challenge U.S. airpower.  Both powers can be expected to deploy highly deadly long range air defense missiles, fifth generation stealthy fighters, sophisticated electronic warfare and cyber attack capabilities (and have likely stolen detailed knowledge of U.S. technology and capabilities).

We are rapidly moving toward a world where the United States will no longer be assured of uncontested air superiority.  The key challenge for U.S. Air Force leaders is how to ensure an untested force is fully prepared to wage war in a highly contested environment — to fight and win in the face of lethal threats that haven’t been faced by nearly two generations of military pilots.

The U.S. Air Force needs to take on this challenge in two ways.

First, its leaders must prepare the force both technologically and intellectually for a highly contested air war.  These air battles could be anything from the opening gambits of a limited war against a sophisticated nation state, or the first battles of a prolonged conflict. The Air Force’s history of innovation, adaptability, and access to cutting edge technology, including cyber and space capabilities, give it significant advantages on this battlefield.  Here the Air Force must move more rapidly towards unmanned and autonomous strike systems, hypersonic cruise and ballistic missiles, and swarming tactics with cheap small-size drones designed to overwhelm advanced enemy air defenses.  It must also accelerate its offensive and defensive electronic warfare and cyber capabilities to disrupt adversary systems and protect U.S. warfighting advantages.  Building a force with the tactics and technological capability to defeat an adversary in tomorrow’s highly developed A2/AD fights all fall within the Air Force’s long-standing strengths.

The more significant challenge, however, will be building a resilient force that can withstand potentially high casualties.  The Air Force is most brittle in this domain since virtually no one serving in today’s force has personally experienced any wartime attrition of either airmen or their airplanes.  The service leadership must prepare the force to absorb substantial losses while preserving its capability to fight a deadly and possibly prolonged conflict. This may mean finding new ways to restore mothballed aircraft to active service, re-qualify pilots in retired airframes, stockpiling quantities of precision munitions, and figuring out cheap ways to convert or use dumb bombs more effectively.

Building resilient people – those who can press on day after day into deadly air combat environments when more and more of their squadron mates don’t come home – will be immensely more difficult.  Winning a big war from the air may require the same kind of bloody-minded Air Force leadership and stoic resolve not seen since the peak of deadly air combat in World War II.  The staggering losses of the strategic bomber community flying against German defenses over Europe in 1943 were strikingly portrayed in the classic movie Twelve O’Clock High. This compelling film shows the unrelenting and intense demands of Air Force combat leadership when losses were so great that virtually no aircrews survived to complete the requisite 25 missions before going home. Many airmen today have never seen or even heard of the movie, and know little of this sobering and heroic part of their service’s history.  Screening the film and discussing its meaning throughout the force might be one small step towards bolstering the Air Force profession of arms for a war where many airmen may not return to fly and fight again.

Last week, General David Goldfein was nominated to become the next Chief of Staff of the Air Force, becoming the last of the four U.S. service chiefs to turn over within a 12-month period. (As we wrote last year, this will be only the fourth time in history that every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have changed out in that short period of time.) If confirmed by the Senate, he will need to address both of these challenges. Goldfein will take over a service that has been more successful at its assigned mission that nearly any air force in history — but its unchallenged success may now be its greatest weakness.  Today’s Air Force is comprised of leaders and airmen who possess every bit as much courage and fortitude as any of their predecessors.  Their dedication and commitment remains the cornerstone that makes every Air Force mission possible.  But the next chief will have to help prepare his service to fly, fight, and win in an operational environment where planes and people do not always come home.  Tomorrow’s fight for the air will likely be much more intense and lethal than air combat has been during the careers of those serving today.  The Air Force must prepare now to meet those formidable challenges.


Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every third Tuesday. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.

Image: U.S. Air Force, Staff Sgt. Cody H. Ramirez

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19 thoughts on “The Catastrophic Success of the U.S. Air Force

  1. A third approach could be to restructure Red Flag into Campaign based scenarios, where losses on Monday come out of hide Tuesday through Friday. In this case, both “red” aggressor capabilities and “blue” assets would reconsider risk and strategy as today’s success or failure would contribute directly towards tomorrow’s mission effectiveness.

  2. Some issues. First Twelve O’clock high is a horrible movie I was required to watch during OTS. You want to show people the horrors of war and how to continue day in and day out, try Restrepo. Second, we’ve been fighting for 15 years, and plenty of Airmen have had to learn how to deal with casualties in their units, Logisticians, EOD, Security Forces, Communications and Special Forces. It’s only fighter pilots who may have lost this “skill.” And even then I see no reason to doubt that the rest of the Air Force who have experienced combat wouldn’t be willing to support our fellow Airmen.

  3. “….Building resilient people – those who can press on day after day into deadly air combat environments when more and more of their squadron mates don’t come home – will be immensely more difficult. Winning a big war from the air may require the same kind of bloody-minded Air Force leadership and stoic resolve not seen since the peak of deadly air combat in World War II….”

    Interesting problem given today’s “me first” generation, and the dystopian state of the nation.

  4. This well written argument at the atrophied skill set that not only affects the Air Force, but similarly all services and their sustainability. Tactics and doctrine for air defense is but one symptom of this wasting disease. Think about the industrial capacity that no longer exists. There is no more arsenal of democracy. We couldn’t surge ship production if needed. Insufficient yards. Worst yet few remain that have the needed skills to work them. The Army lacks corporate knowledge and the capacity for even the land battle of Desert Storm. The Marines beg rides from NATO partners or converted merchant shipping and have lost much of their corporate experience in things amphibious. The Navy is crippled by the fewest number of ships since prior to WWI, let alone the impact of A2/AD imposes on carrier battle groups or LCS survivability. The strategic arsenal and delivery means has aged out. The nation’s once mighty industrial base fueled not only the economy but from general revenues generated the means by which the nation could afford to build and maintain its defense. Corporations have abandoned their heritage. 70% of GM cars are made overseas and the corporation has set its future on China, as an example. Globalization may give us cheap iPhones but it doesn’t make us safe. It returns the world to a state of feudalism without the frog in the pot knowing that its been incrementally set to boil. Rebuild the economic engine, train the necessary work force, dust off the old field manuals, update the weapons and training to effective TTPs for the 21st Century to provide for our common and necessary defense, or take the admonition on the back of the fortune cookie slip seriously: “Learn Chinese.”

  5. N9M6 makes a key point — it’s not just the Air Force (although we’re in sorry shape); it’s the force as a whole. It’s only in dark corners we contemplate the man and machine-shredding implications of modern peer-on-peer combat, consuming not just individuals, but whole units in the space of days. Consider that D-Day — one day! — losses on the Normandy beaches exceeded those accumulated over 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan. Even a beefed-up industrial base wouldn’t be able to cope without pretty robust stockpiles of equipment, munitions, and particularly replacement manpower.

    The specific problem for the Air Force isn’t that it’s in more or less dire straits than the rest of the force to start with, but that the nature of air combat demands a great deal of fresh metal and flesh to sustain operations tempo. RPAs and some level of autonomous systems may mitigate some of that on the aircrew side, but if the electronic environment is as intense a battleground as the physical one — and there’s no reason to believe we’ll get a pass there — we’ll still need to put people on board many aircraft.

    As for TOCH — as Tim Lundberg notes, it’s still a staple of Air Force officer training (back in the ’80s, we got to see it again in Squadron Officer School). It’s a hard film to appreciate without studying the background context, though. It’s also interesting to see an AF officer identify more with a movie about infantry combat…but maybe that’s because the definitive air war movie hasn’t been made yet.

    1. although the overall casualty rate on D-Day was low due to the enormous numbers of allied troops that landed, the first wave on the most defended stretch of real estate, Omaha beach – 16 US Army infantry companies – were completely wiped out. 16 infantry companies essentially completely killed or wounded in a very short period of time before the germans were over-run.

  6. One thing I have noticed is people have forgotten that besides Desert Storm, Allied Force and Enduring Freedom the Air Force has been in constant conflict since 91 doing no-fly missions like Deny Flight Northern and Southern Watch and latest in Libya. Red Flag has been the only way these aircrew see “real” adversity in my opinion.

  7. The “success” of the Air Force has led to some key assumptions becoming ingrained in memory to the point that the US military has forgotten they aren’t fact.

    Chief among those assumptions is that we will always have air superiority or be able to achieve it at acceptable cost. Dealing with advanced IADS and complex EM environments may not be fixable with a more robust Red Flag experience, it probably requires a wholesale shift in American equipment, tactics, and training.

    The first, and biggest step, would be to get the ground forces involved. If a missile blows an enemy aircraft out of the sky, or smashes a ground target, it really doesn’t matter whether that ordnance came from aircraft or artillery, and the same reasons our enemies rely on surface defenses would work the same for us.

  8. Our recent military successes were also built upon an overwhelming operational pace that was initiated at the time of our choosing with much preparation and over a relatively small geographic area. To say altercations with either China or Russia would probably be dissimilar, is an understatement.

  9. Christ Russia and China are much much worse off than the US in this area. The US has some experience in this area. not to mention much more reliable and capable platforms to accomplish its goals, backed up of course by the worlds most reliable command and control. It might takes weeks of intense action to batter down China’s A2/AD but it will be inevitable. Those B-2s and F-22s will have a feeding frenzy on those radar installations in China. Don’t be a chicken little running around like your head was cut off.

  10. A major catastrophe for the Air Force has been the total failure to encrypt it’s unclassified data at rest.

    Ask yourself — why hasn’t there been a major funded move AF-wide to encrypt everything that sits on collaborative other platforms or servers? If you need to look at a document or drawing or something in a data base, only that bit of information would be decrypted; not leave everything wide open. How do you think our adversaries steal data during data breaches and network intrusions? Simple — they copied unencrypted files.

    Think firewalls, routers, passwords and routers are enough to protect your data? For starters, call OPM and ask how that worked out for their personnel and fingerprint databases.

    I managed a project 15 years ago for a cloud provider with a HR portal project with two Fortune 500 companies. Both companies required all data at rest to be encrypted at all times except when an end user needed to use or view it. If the AF went through the same IT security audit we went through back then, they never would have passed it.

    Oh, none of this discussion about encrypting data at risk should be news to anyone. When we who worked in the Information Management functional area in Air Force Systems Command first started planning in 1984 for moving institutionally from a paper-based WWII information era into the networked environment, we listed this data encryption need as a “must fund” requirement. No one in charge cared; every shiny new weapons system and IT device was more important. Ask yourself again how our adversaries get copies of our tech data. Answer: lack of encryption of data at risk.

  11. The deeper problem is in a possible conflagration with either Russia or China neither need to actually win!
    Simply causing unimaginable american casualties day after day would be enough to break the ranks.
    The average american soldier is a piece of meat trying to survive until payday so he can send some money home to his family living in the rust belt U.S.A, what is it that he will be asked to die for, a Latvian taxi driver? a Vietnamese fisherman?
    Make sure its an ‘Honorable’ war otherwise at fifty thousand dead comrades and little chance of him surviving himself he’ll
    likely turn his gun on his own General.

    1. Having spent most of my adult life in uniform, I question your description of the average American solider. It certainly doesn’t jibe with those I served with and led.

    2. That would certainly be true for our POLITICAL leadership, but if they’ll simply STFU and get out of the way, the war will be over – and WON – quickly.
      My immediate family has a century in uniform. My father said, concerning Viet Nam, “Either get IN and WIN, or get out!” Allowing sanctuary locations where the enemy will not be attacked in tragically counter-productive, and that’s been the primary reason why we haven’t “won” a war since WWII. The Norks had sanctuary in China; the NVN had sanctuary around Hanoi.

      You want to WIN the current war and PREVENT the next one? Issue the following order to the Chairman of the JCS; “Kill the enemy wherever they are, and follow them wherever they run.”

      Of course, the other requirement for “victory” is that you have some idea of what “victory” looks like. GHWB abd GWB had no CLUE about what “victory” looked like, and it showed. And Obama doesn’t want to win, anyway.

    3. Papagallo, the last time the Air Force actually faced massive casualties (ETO WWII), it was part of the Army. and they performed magnificently.

      the “average” American Soldier may be an ordinary Joe, but he does his duty with bravery 99.9% of the time. Green Berets are “elite”, marines THINK they are “elite”, but it is the ordinary Soldier who actually wins wars. You can’t make millions of Green Berets, but you can make millions of Soldiers just doing their duty the best they csn.

  12. This article reflects what I believe are the fundamental failures of defense thinkers and actors – lacking in foresight and being reactive. They are planning for the ‘near battle’ and failed to see the far battle; as well as being captured by particular technology that is now almost 40 years old. Gate’s catastrophic decision to cancel the F-22, because he could not foresee (or perhaps afford) a world different from the one he was engaged in has led to a perhaps fatal shortfall – air superiority. It has not been a tactically important issue for 15 years. Now we have both the Russians and the Chinese on the brink of being able to overwhelm us (add Iran with S3/400s and who knows how man 4.5 generation fighters – in an important chokepoint). Just read the daily security press (Thank you, Early Bird) or even this site. The F22 is the best fighter aircraft in the world, the F35 cannot replace it (or F15s or F16s) and no we cannot afford to restart it even though other programs have been restarted. So we cannot restart the best fighter in the world (because updating it would be too expensive) while allowing what is fundamentally an F-117 replacement to consume the entire modernization budget. It cannot be an F16 (too expensive), an F15 (it can’t fight – it is a $150M derringer), the F15E (it is a derringer with a different load out), a F1651/52 (it cannot load a HARM in its weapons bay nor carry the jammers on its wings without the loss of stealth) and it damn sure cannot be an A10. All of our platforms, with demonstrated capabilities, have been sacrificed for the F35 mono-culture with the increasingly dubious promise of stealth, almost no offensive capability (derringer – like F117) and seemingly no growth potential – it is trapped by the iron maiden of a stealthy configuration – but it does really nifty things with the inter-net.

    1. If they have very sophisticated air defenses, they probably are either A) our friends or B) a nuclear (or soon to be) power. Both A & B keep us from fighting them on anything but a proxy. In our historical proxy fights its either been A) the US vs a proxy directly or B) a proxy that we have supported tacitly. If we’re fighting a proxy then again we’re going to establish AS pretty quickly and its back to MANPADS and small arms. If we’re supporting the proxy then it’s not us getting shot at. The big war ain’t coming. If it does then it won’t matter how many airman get shot up because it’s Mad Max world anyhow.

    2. what a load of bollocks. The F-15 is not a “derringer”, it is 102 wins to 0 losses in A2A and STILL world class 40 years after initial development. The F15 is about equivalent to the latest, most advanced flanker variants – except we have lots and lots of F-15s with AESA and the Russians can’t even afford their own latest Flanker.

      And the F-16 costs less than a F-15, so your comment that it is “too expensive” is bizarre.