No End in Sight to the Army’s Dependence on Airpower


 “Land-based forces now are going to have to penetrate denied areas to facilitate air and naval forces. This is exact opposite of what we have done for the last 70 years, where air and naval forces have enabled ground forces.”.

                                                                                    –General Mark Milley, Chief of Staff of the Army


Inter-service tussles are a staple of the Pentagon experience, particularly in lean times.  Mostly harmless, they are the symptoms of the constant effort by leadership to scrape up together the resources to organize, train, equip, and operate their services.  At the end of the day, however, the Department of Defense still provides the nation with a joint force composed of specialized but interdependent services, each with a specific role to play in America’s defense and each with a carefully thought-out role in obtaining military superiority in their various domains. So, it was with great interest that I read that the U.S. Army’s Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley had proposed an acute shift in roles, wherein the Army would take the lead not only in major ground combat, but in “penetrating denied areas” to enable the other services.  And it would do it without air or maritime superiority.

This approach is tied to the Army’s new concept of “multi-domain battle,” (MDB) which is pitched as a counter to the previous “Air-Sea Battle,” which gave land forces short shrift. But the foundations of MDB rest on shifting sands. AirLand Battle, the concept that successfully deterred the Warsaw Pact and defeated the Iraqi Army in the field, was developed after Vietnam with a deep appreciation for the realities of fighting the Soviets in Europe. MDB lacks the fidelity of that approach, instead treating very real adversary capabilities as “an aspiration” rather than a credible defense. MDB also fails to recognize the limitations imposed by the Army’s existing forward posture. As a result, it is simply infeasible for the Army to “gain access” for components with better range, flexibility, and mobility. Finally, it ignores one deeply ironic outcome of the conflicts since 1991: The Army is deeply and habitually addicted to airpower.

The idea that the U.S. Army “would have to penetrate denied areas to facilitate air and naval forces” was laid out to the public in October. But for a force largely based in the United States, an entire hemisphere away from the nearest “denied area,” this idea puts the cart before the horse. Forward-based Army forces are so diminished compared to those of Cold War and even early 21st century that overseas units cannot be regarded as independent combat formations on an appropriate scale. Rather than being an enabler for other domains, the Army is the most dependent of the services on the capabilities of the others to even get near to the fight, much less into it. Absent an armored thrust into Germany, Korea, or Italy, the Army has little ability to bring combat power to bear without first relying on air and maritime transport to deliver it. U.S. Army Europe and the 8th Army in Korea are shadows of their Cold War forebears. The Army’s combat formations are necessarily heavy and ponderous, and they lack organic strategic lift on the necessary scale. Without sealift or airlift, the Army can’t travel. Without air superiority, it can’t fight a winning battle. And without maritime and air superiority protecting its supply lines, it can’t sustain any fight that it gets into. The common trend for every major conventional operation conducted by the U.S. Army since the landings in Morocco in late 1942 is that these operations were conducted under protective air and naval shields provided by the Navy and the Air Corps (and later the Air Force). To suggest that the Army can do without air and maritime superiority — and to enable rather than be enabled by air and maritime forces — is only to outline conditions under which the Army would be resoundingly defeated.

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If we lose the war in the air we lose the war and lose it quickly.

-Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, British Army

Maj. Gen. Wesley Merritt, commander of 8th Army Corps in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, was the last Army commander who was able to do without air support — mostly because it hadn’t been invented yet. World War I saw airpower emerge as a key warfighting capability, focusing on observation, reconnaissance, and pursuit. By 1940, airpower was so lethal that it proved decisive in the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain.

Figure 1:  A P-38 from the 20th Fighter Group painted in invasion stripes strafes a train in France, 1944. (U.S. Air Force)

Germany possessed a two-phase plan to bring about the defeat of France. At the end of the first phase, the Allies had lost 61 divisions in combat without folding. They were short on equipment and armor, Dunkirk was encircled, and the French Air Army was nearing collapse. In May 1940, the French not only reconstituted two armored divisions but two entire armies (the 7th and 10th) that they used to provide a defense in depth. It didn’t matter. By June 10, the Luftwaffe had air supremacy and French forces were unable to concentrate. French leadership knew that they had to concentrate, and knew where and why. They simply could not do it because German air superiority meant that every movement was relentlessly observed and attacked. The French army fought on even after the French air force was gone, playing out a losing hand to the bitter end. As long as the Luftwaffe maintained air superiority, French maneuver forces were ineffective.

The tide turned almost immediately for the Nazi war machine. Later that year, the Luftwaffe could not establish air superiority over the English Channel, a necessary precondition for Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain. Without air superiority, maritime superiority could not be maintained either, and all of the combat power of a victorious Wehrmacht languished on the European continent unable to cross a mere 21 miles of open water.  The Germans had the sealift, the logistical support, and the backing of the Luftwaffe and Kreigsmarine — and they understood that without air superiority, the invasion plan was futile.  Conversely, none of the Allied amphibious assaults was accomplished without air and maritime superiority. In North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, and North Korea, it was an essential prerequisite.

Figure. 2: German Ju 87B Stuka dive bomber in flight, circa 1940, as seen in publication US Navy Naval Aviation News dated 1 Sep 1943 (Public domain, courtesy ww2dbase).

These are not isolated historical examples. They are the reality, even today.  The Army has been the beneficiary of air and maritime superiority for so long that it takes those for granted. The Air Force can self-deploy globally on short notice; suitable airfields are common in allied nations. The Navy not only deploys itself, but brings both the Marine Corps and naval aviation with it. The Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force can get to the battlefield without the Army, but the Army is completely dependent on airlift and sealift to show up. In World War II, the Army’s ground forces made it into many a denied area – after airpower and seapower made it possible for them.

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The future battle on the ground will be preceded by battle in the air. This will determine which of the contestants has to suffer operational and tactical disadvantages and be forced throughout the battle into adopting compromise solutions.

– Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, The Rommel Papers

Should anyone think that lessons from earlier wars no longer apply, the experience of modern warfare can be equally instructive. The annual REFORGER exercises were held for the express purpose of providing a live rehearsal for all of the moving parts that would be required to reinforce NATO with ground forces. Checkered Flag did the same for Air Force fighter / attack squadrons. Had the operations been conducted in wartime, they would have been preceded by a second Battle of the Atlantic and a massive airlift effort to bring more airpower into theater and provide critical war materiel. Operation Nickel Grass proved the concept in 1973 by providing a critical airlift lifeline to hard-pressed Israel during the Yom Kippur War.

Every U.S. military adventure in the modern era reinforces the narrative. The Army did not drive into battle in Grenada or Panama. The Iraqi military machine, having just taken Kuwait in August of 1990, was poised to drive south through Saudi Arabia. We may never be sure why they did not, but it wasn’t the (air-deployed) brigade of the 82nd Airborne that posed a credible check, and it wasn’t the Saudi National Guard. If anything, it was the presence of Air Force and naval aviation, the first squadrons of which were en route or in place before the U.S. Army started to deploy, allowing troop-laden airlift to land protected by the F-15 Eagles which had beaten them there. Unhampered by the need to obtain basing permission, the USS Eisenhower was on station in the eastern Mediterranean and the USS Independence in the Gulf of Oman before the first soldier boarded a plane. By the time the Army had finished moving a single brigade, the Air Force’s combat power in theather included multiple wings of fighter/attack aircraft, and the Navy’s battlegroups were present in a density not seen since Vietnam.

Figure 3: Troops cross the airfield after disembarking from Military Airlift Command C-141 Starlifter aircraft at a non-disclosed base in Southwest Asia in support of Operation Desert Shield in August 1990. (Department of Defense Photo)

Operation Desert Storm proved that sea- and air-deployed ground forces could rage across Kuwait and Southern Iraq after a 40-day, 24/7 air campaign turned Iraqi fielded forces into turnips: dug in, immobile, out of communications, unaware of their surroundings, and without visible sources of resupply and sustainment. The victory in the Gulf War was punctuated by ground forces only after sealift had delivered and sustained them and airpower had prepared the battlefield, delivering not only protection, but also superior situational awareness to ground forces who had watched the air component fight for almost seven weeks.

Operation Allied Force over the Former Republic of Yugoslavia proved that air forces alone could win. Reasonably characterized as “winning ugly”, it was a 78-day NATO air campaign that stopped the slaughter of Kosovar Albanians and led to the independence of Kosovo and Montenegro. The Army’s contribution was limited to defensive measures; even Army aviation was unneeded in the operation. The Army’s view that only they can achieve victory in warfare is unsupported by the historical record and dismissive of the Army’s complete dependence on the joint force for its logistics.

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Every soldier generally thinks only as far as the radius of action of his branch of the service and only as quickly as he can move with his weapons.

– General der Flieger Karl Koller, Luftwaffe

There is a cultural issue at play here. An Army officer grows up steeped in a culture that values close combat — closing with an adversary to wrest control of the ground away and thereby establish dominance. This form of warfare has been preeminent for millennia because in most cases no alternative existed. The British Empire, which spanned more of the globe than any empire before or since, relied mostly on seapower to stitch the empire together, confound its enemies, and maintain communications — ensuring that any land conflicts would be kept as local as possible. Airmen upset the established order, and they did so intentionally. Airmen have always been looking for the shortcut, the way to overfly the traditional “front line” to achieve victory by striking at centers of gravity far removed from the clash of ground forces. Soldiers are primed to fight traditionally, while the airmen are constantly looking for a way to cheat. Both approaches have their uses, but in an environment where the mere presence of the joint force has to be paid for in blood, the Army is not the tip of the spear, and wishing will not make it so. Ironically, if the Army wishes to have the power to project and protect itself, it cannot merely become more like the Navy and Air Force. It must become the Navy and the Air Force, because those services are the guardians of the power projection capability that the Army needs to leave North America.


“The Army — yes, the Army — we’re going to sink ships (and) dominate the airspace above our units from enemy air and missile attack.”

                                                            – General Mark Milley, Army Chief of Staff

The Army has so neglected its artillery and air defense capabilities that it is unlikely it can effectively contest friendly airspace or deliver accurate long-range fires without the application of airpower. The Army isn’t going to be sinking warships any time soon, either. It disbanded the coastal artillery in 1950, and Army artillery isn’t designed or equipped to hit moving ships. The ATACMS missile may someday be upgraded to hit moving sea targets, if another component supplies the targeting data. The Army fields no realistic capability to establish or maintain surveillance of the maritime domain, much less control it. In fact, the Army is so staggeringly addicted to the 24/7 airpower support provided by the Air Force and naval aviation that it felt comfortable stripping its own artillery capabilities to the bone, disbanding divisional artillery and relying heavily on aerial fires in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only did the Army reduce its capacity to deliver long-range fires, but it reduced its purchase of precision munitions because airpower was providing them instead. The Army’s solution when it lacked for organic firepower was to demand more from the Air Force and naval aviation.

Figure 4:  An F-15E from the 391st Fighter Squadron loaded for bear over Afghanistan, 7 October 2008.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon)

As for air superiority — it can only be established from the air. Air superiority can be denied from the surface of the earth, but it cannot be established from there. Army air defense capabilities suffered mightily after 1991, which lost its all-weather, medium-range I-Hawk missile batteries and replaced them with the short-range Stingers usable only in the absence of low cloud cover. Having retired its radar-guided missiles, the Army elected not to replace them with ground-launched versions of the highly effective Air Force/Navy AMRAAM air-to-air missile. When the 2005 inauguration rolled around and the United States needed a medium-range, all-weather missile battery to defend the capital, the Army had to borrow one from Norway.

The Army could afford to neglect its own air defense responsibilities precisely because the other services pick up the slack. American air superiority in the air is so pervasive that the last few times an enemy even tried to execute a ground counteroffensive against U.S.forces (the Battles of the Bulge in 1944 and Kafji in 1991), the adversary waited for poor weather in the hope that they could get by under conditions in which neither side had air superiority. Both of those counteroffensives were forlorn hopes. The weather cleared, and soon enough the clouds and fog were replaced by an aluminum and steel overcast.

There is a host of very good reasons that the Army is addicted to airpower. The speed, range, and flexibility within the air domain allows forces to move rapidly, maintain the high ground, and shatter the plans of the adversary’s ground forces. Control of the air ensures that you can stay in supply while denying the same benefit to the enemy. A ground force forced to fight under a hostile air umbrella is on an inexorable slide to destruction.

The cultural predilection for occupying territory requires that you be able to get there, fight there, and stay there, and the U.S. Army cannot do that alone.

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We have the enemy surrounded. We are dug in and have overwhelming numbers. But enemy airpower is mauling us badly. We will have to withdraw.

-Japanese message to 15th Army HQ, Burma / India theater, 1944

The Army isn’t going to act as an anti-access enabler unless it is providing logistical support and communications or bothers to deploy its point defense systems to defend US air and naval facilities against cruise missile attack. The idea that the Army would lead the anti-access fight inverts the absolutely necessary sequence of events. Sealift has to get the Army to the fight, and the Navy is going to have to fight for the maritime superiority necessary to do it on, over, and under the waves. Without air superiority, the Army’s fielded forces won’t be able to see very far, move very fast (if at all), or fight very long.

Not all victories need to be achieved at the point of a bayonet, and not all battles can be fought that way. There are good reasons to have a capable, ready army as a key component of the joint force. Enabling the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps in an anti-access environment isn’t one of them. The Army isn’t immune to the lure of airpower. It’s addicted to it.


Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions over Iraq and the Former Republic of Yugoslavia and taking part in 2.5 SAM kills over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Colonel Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of US Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ricky J. Best