The Catastrophic Success of the U.S. Air Force


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