Balanced Airpower, Not Bombers: How the Air Force Found Its Way

January 29, 2019

Has the U.S. Air Force lost its way? Has it lost sight of its core business and role? That’s what naval historian Jerry Hendrix provocatively claims in an already widely discussed article the National Review. Drawing on a clear historical narrative, Hendrix urges the Air Force to invest far more heavily in long-range bombardment. While he raises some interesting questions, his analysis suffers from several significant flaws, including lack of evidence and problematic assumptions about the Air Force’s historical and current trajectory. It is true that long-range strike has been an important Air Force mission and should continue to be, but he goes too far in suggesting that the “core of its mission is long-range strike.”

The Air Force’s historical development can be explained as a series of mood swings between “strategic” bombardment — which tend to be ardent and long-lasting — and short-lived flirtations with “tactical” airpower, or support for what occurs on the battlefield. The last thing the Air Force and the U.S. military as a whole need is another shift back toward strategic bombardment in an institution still struggling to treat all of its children equally. Unless U.S. strategy necessitates such a transformation — a justification that Hendrix does not wrestle with fully in his article — the Air Force should consider how it can maintain a balanced approach to airpower. But Hendrix just suggests that the B-21, unlike the short-legged F-35, provides the key to defeating anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems. Unfortunately, the A2/AD challenge cannot be solved simply with range, unless one assumes that the B-21 does not require air superiority. Unfortunately, one also cannot count on the continued asymmetric advantage provided by stealth. The B-21 also requires sustainment and enablers like tankers that cannot be staged completely out of the continental United States.

Hendrix’s argument echoes the origins of the infatuation with strategic bombardment can be traced back as early as World War I. Rather than learn the lesson that airpower generally worked most effectively in support of joint warfare, some British and U.S. airmen insisted that the potential of strategic bombardment to overfly the enemy’s fielded forces and end wars quickly and decisively could not be ignored. As a result, the Army Air Corps chased the alluring dream of strategic bombardment in the inter-war period. It invested most of its resources in long-range strategic bombardment while neglecting tactical airpower prior to 1941. Yet, by the end of the war, strategic bombardment made up only 24 percent of its efforts. In addition to all those bombers it wanted for an independent victory, it needed 100,000 fighters, more than 24,000 transport aircraft, and other resources that it had not adequately anticipated. This tendency continued through the Vietnam War, when the theory of strategic bombardment dominated the Air Force’s institutional culture. Despite the need to prop up an independent, non-communist South Vietnam, airmen determined that they needed to bomb North Vietnam back to the “stone age.” In other words, they demonstrated a preference for waging a conventional war against North Vietnam, as demonstrated by the changes they made after the war.

Hendrix highlights the significant period of transition after the Vietnam War known as the “rise of the fighter generals.” While he is correct to note the ascendance of fighter pilots into positions of leadership, he errs in claiming that air supremacy trumped “long-range-strike capability.” Fighter pilots learned from Vietnam that they needed to learn how to take out SAM sites. But this was not the ultimate end; rather, they wanted to ensure their fellow fighter pilots spent more time bombing Hanoi and Haiphong and less time as “guests” at the Hanoi Hilton. As such, they began to see improved fighters such as the F-15, F-16, and the F-117 not only as capable of achieving air superiority but also of “strategic” attack. They also sidelined Strategic Air Command, bitter at the limited and largely safe role bomber pilots had played in the air war against North Vietnam. In short, fighter pilots viewed themselves as replacing bomber pilots except in rare instances of all-out nuclear war.

Even in the heady days of World War II, the Army Air Forces had not viewed air superiority as a means in and of itself. Indeed, air superiority not only enabled the long-range strategic bombardment that Hendrix believes is so essential but also the joint invasion of Normandy. The long-range air superiority missions over Germany in the spring of 1944 paid dividends in the clear skies over Northern France for precisely the kind of missions that Hendrix derides — short-range fighter missions providing ground support.

As the character of war has changed since the days of massive fleets of bombers battling their way to and from Germany during World War II, so, too, has the Air Force. As ardent airpower advocates argued after Operation Desert Storm, the shift to precision weapons had redefined long-standing concepts of mass. Retired Air Force Gen. David Deptula explained, “In some cases, a single aircraft and one PGM [precision-guided missile] during the Gulf War achieved the same result as a 1000-plane raid with over 9000 bombs in World War II.” It is certainly reasonable to propose that the Air Force carefully evaluate its assumptions about mass and precision in light of the 100 B-21 bombers it plans to purchase, but Hendrix does not make this suggestion. Rather, he just insists that the Air Force needs more bombers.

Hendrix’s suggestion harkens back to the years before September 11, 2001. In the wake of Operation Desert Storm and Operation Allied Force, the Air Force moved to reembrace long-range attack at the expense of other missions. Deptula and others pushed the Air Force back in the direction of its historical preference for independent strategic attack, a clear challenge to the so-called “rise of the fighter generals.”

This development challenged Tactical Air Command’s (TAC) transformation after Vietnam, when — for the first time in Air Force history — serious headway had been made in cooperating jointly with the Army. Indeed, in one of the most shocking statements to come out of an Air Force general’s mouth since Billy Mitchell’s court-martial, the head of TAC, General Robert D. Russ announced that “everything that tactical air does directly supports Army operations.” During this period, TAC worked closely with the Army’s new Training and Doctrine Command to help develop AirLand Battle doctrine. It also made significant headway in healing the deep rift between the Army and the Air Force over long-standing disagreements. Most importantly, perhaps, it developed the A-10 and worked to counter charges that the Air Force long had neglected close air support.

The echoes of these debates continue to reverberate today as the Air Force struggles to juggle all of its responsibilities. Yet Hendrix fails to offer a justification for upsetting that balance while urging that the long-range mission is so vital to future great power conflict. Instead, he spends much of his efforts portraying today’s Air Force as focused too much on air superiority as its reason d’etre rather than long-range strike. This is a problematic conclusion, although perhaps an understandable one. After more than a decade of fighting in largely uncontested airspace, the Air Force finally realized — as it watched the rise and modernization of the Chinese and Russian militaries — that it needed to refocus on the importance of air superiority. It understandably had lost sight of this key mission in Afghanistan and Iraq, where it flew where it wanted at times of its own choosing.

As such, the Air Force has urged airmen to reevaluate what air superiority looks like, particularly in an Anti-Access/Area-Denial environment where U.S. forces will struggle just to get to the fight. This can be seen, for example, in its Air Superiority Plan 2030. There, the Air Force explains how air superiority enables almost everything the U.S. military does:

In modern military operations, achieving this level of control of the air is a critical precondition for success. Air superiority provides freedom from attack, freedom to attack, freedom of action, freedom of access, and freedom of awareness. Importantly, it also precludes adversaries from exploiting similar advantages. As such, air superiority underwrites the full spectrum of joint military operations and provides an asymmetric advantage to friendly forces.

The Air Force clearly recognizes how many capabilities of all U.S. services rest on its ability to secure air superiority. At the same time, it is the not-so-proud parent of a short-legged fighter, the result of the enormous tradeoffs required to field not only a joint strike fighter but an international one that resulted in a final product that made no one happy.

There is a middle ground between Hendrix’s demand for doubling the number of B-21 bombers and the 1,700 fighters the Air Force plans to buy. But the worst error would be to go too far in investing in long-range strike at the expense of other air power capabilities. While it might be true that the Air Force has gone too far down the road in appearing to embrace as its primary mission “supporting the eighteen-year-old with a rifle,” it would be a mistake to substitute long-range attack. Hendrix also conveniently ignores the issue of cost. While the F-35A variant has settled to costing about $90 million per aircraft as it reaches operational readiness, the B-21 is anticipated to cost $550 million per aircraft. Double the number, as suggested by Hendrix, and add in the budget overruns and it is easy to anticipate a program nearing the staggering costs of the F-35.

And all this because Hendrix insists that the Air Force should refocus its concentration. But to strike what, and for what effect? What is the end goal of Air Force planning for potential great power conflict? What role will long-range strike have in achieving national security objectives? How can the United States develop a joint strategy that brings a variety of capabilities to the fight? These are the questions that Hendrix should be raising instead of bashing the Air Force for purportedly investing in short-range fighters because flying them is “fun.”

As Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein has counseled, one should not even begin discussions by talking about platforms. When asked about what mix of manned and unmanned platforms he envisioned for the next 20 years, he replied that he was “trying to move us beyond what is almost a twentieth-century discussion” about the best type of platform. And Goldfein is a fighter pilot.

Hendrix may be correct about the need for more bombers, but he has not made a compelling case that he is right. And to argue that long-range bombing is the Air Force’s primary mission is to ignore how rarely that has been proven to be the most effective use of airpower in wartime. He should listen to the Air Force more before attempting to rewrite its mission statement.

That does not mean that the subject is not worthy of serious debate. Mike Benitez recently has suggested that the Air Force must pare down the core competencies it is seeking to balance as it reevaluates its identity and its purpose. He seeks to stimulate discussion more than to provide an answer to what those core competencies should be. He does, however, challenge the Air Force’s rhetoric that traces a clear trajectory from its core missions of 1947 until today. In other words, the Air Force argues that it has the same core missions it did in 1947, even if it describes them in different wording.

As a starting point, I would suggest that the Air Force readjust its current missions to provide a more straightforward mission set than the current one, which is as follows:

  • Air and space superiority
  • Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance
  • Rapid global mobility
  • Global strike
  • Command and control

A streamlined approach stressing the application of power while balancing “strategic” and “tactical” missions consists of the following:

1) Air, cyber, information, and space superiority, because they critically enable all joint operations

2) Battlefield support, to include roles such as close air support and interdiction, that are required of the Air Force on the heels of obtaining complete or localized, short-term superiority

3) Long-range strike, another joint mission shared with other services including the Navy

4) Air mobility, a capability more unique to the Air Force

This list adds battlefield support to the Air Force’s core missions while removing command and control, which helps to enable all operations but is not an application of airpower in and of itself. Rather, it is an organizing principle common to all military services. This simplification is offered in an effort to continue the conversation about the continued balancing act of USAF airpower in a joint context. In other words, this is not just a conversation for the Air Force but for the nation.


Dr. Heather Venable is an Assistant Professor of Military and Security Studies at the Air Command and Staff College, where she teaches classes on airpower and the historical experience of combat. She has a PhD from Duke University and a forthcoming book on the Marine Corps’ organizational culture from Naval Institute Press.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lance Cheung

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