Best Defense

The Air Force, once again, is leaving the field of strategic discourse to others

Yesterday I mentioned that I’d heard that the Air Force had decided to close its Strategic Studies Quarterly. Here is a comment on the possible institutional implications of that decision. By "Alejandro Estéban Teixeira Castillo" Best Defense guest PME columnist In times of relative fiscal austerity, organizations are likely to focus on their core competencies, ...

Yesterday I mentioned that I’d heard that the Air Force had decided to close its Strategic Studies Quarterly. Here is a comment on the possible institutional implications of that decision.

By "Alejandro Estéban Teixeira Castillo"
Best Defense guest PME columnist

In times of relative fiscal austerity, organizations are likely to focus on their core competencies, those tasks and processes that define their essence. The American military services have been directed to reduce their projected budgets substantially over the next decade and they, in turn, have been determining where funds have been allocated for nonessential tasks. The USMC, for instance, has determined that it will cut five of its 88 general officer positions and that these billets will be those on the Joint Staff.

As the Services prepare for a peacetime operations tempo, resting, resetting, and renewing their forces for the next conflict, they ought to devote more resources to thinking about how to more effectively and efficiently achieve the political goals of the nation. While certainly commanders’ action groups (CAGs), the Service staffs, and the Joint Staff will focus on vision statements and meeting budget caps, they will likely rely on the musings of external thinkers to provide arguments and justifications for their decisions. But where do these ideas come from?

One of the key venues for stimulating thought and presenting arguments to the professional community is the professional journals of the services. The USAF’s Air University started this genre when it published its Review in 1947, coinciding with the founding of the USAF as an independent service. As General Muir S. Fairchild’s memorandum establishing the Review demonstrated, service leaders at the time realized that a professional journal was essential to shaping the debate about the profession of arms so as to make room for air-centric thinking. The Naval War College followed suit in 1948 with its own Review, perhaps realizing that strategic thought needed to be encouraged at a time when nuclear weapons and fiscal austerity threatened the service’s budget. The U.S. Army was a latecomer to this genre, having suffered through being downgraded to a supporting element of national strategy with President Eisenhower’s policy of Massive Retaliation and the indignities of the loss in Vietnam. It began publishing Parameters in 1971 so as to help reinvigorate the professionalism of its force and to shape strategic thinking amongst the defense establishment. In doing so, it adopted a more strategic tone than either the Air University Review of the Naval War College Review, and quickly set the standard for the profession.

On its fortieth anniversary, the USAF unceremoniously cancelled the Air University Review and its content was redirected toward the tactically- and operationally-oriented Airpower Journal (today Air and Space Power Journal). The faculty of the schools at Air University regretted this decision, as it left the field of publishing strategic thought to the Army and Navy. This had a significant effect on strategic discourse within the profession of arms for a generation — to the Air Force’s detriment.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, airpower demonstrated its strategic potential in Operation Desert Storm, Operations Northern and Southern Watch, Operation Deliberate Force, Operation Allied Force, and Operation Enduring Freedom. In each of these, the USAF carried the primary burden of achieving the nation’s objectives: ejecting Iraq’s forces from Kuwait, deterring Saddam Hussein from massing his forces at the border of his southern neighbors, and supporting indigenous and irregular ground forces as they seized territory with an extremely light American ground force footprint in the Balkans and Afghanistan. This period was the culmination of all of the USAF’s dreams of demonstrating an independent, strategic impact in the service of the nation’s political objectives. Or so it could have argued.

But it did not because it lacked the venue to make its case. Where were these conflicts analyzed and the case for airpower made?

In Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations that sets the conventional wisdom for the foreign policy establishment, Eliot Cohen warned against the seductive "mystique" of airpower, with its promise of cheap and easy victory. Robert Pape, formerly of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, likewise argued that "the true worth of airpower" was its ability to support ground forces on the battlefield. He also made this argument in his 1996 Cornell University Press book Bombing to Win.

In International Security, a publication of MIT Press and the primary academic journal in the field of strategic studies, analysts such as Steve Biddle argued that the future of warfare still required closing with the enemy on the ground and that this was beyond airpower’s capabilities. RAND’s Daniel Byman and Matthew Waxman argued in "Kosovo and the Great Airpower Debate" that all components mattered, especially in Kosovo, and that focusing on only one instrument of military power would skew the analysis in an era of joint operations. In the same issue, MIT’s Barry Posen argued that Milosevic’s decision calculus was conditioned by the air campaign, but the proximate cause of his decision to cede the most valuable and sacred part of Serb sovereign territory was the withdrawal of Russian diplomatic support and the looming threat that NATO might begin to debate preparations to plan adding a ground aspect to its coercive campaign within a few month’s time.

To its credit, Parameters did address airpower topics and did publish the work of Air Force school faculty during this period. Current Air War College Dean Mark Conversino critiqued Bob Pape’s argument in Bombing to Win that "strategic bombing doesn’t matter" in his 1997 article, "The Changed Nature of Strategic Air Attack." Air War College professor Jeffrey Record called "Operation Allied Force: Yet Another Wake-Up Call for the Army" in the Winter 1999-2000 issue and argued that it "shed a harsh spotlight on the Army’s intellectual and structural inadequacy in the post-Cold War international security environment." In his 2002 "Collapsed Countries, Casualty Dread, and the New American Way of War," Record argued that "the war in Afghanistan also shows that modern airpower, under the right conditions, can achieve decisive strategic effects even against the kind of irregular, pre-industrial enemy once thought unbreakable by air attack."

These arguments were routinely leavened by those that downplayed airpower’s efficacy, however. Former Air University Review editor Earl Tilford argued in his "Operation Allied Force and the Role of Air Power" that Allied Force "looks like a win, but a rather ugly one" given the amount of effort and length of time that it took. Vincent Goulding’s "From Chancellorsville to Kosovo, Forgetting the Art of War" put forth the argument that despite the strategic success of Allied Force, "precision is insufficient" and combined arms was necessary in such operations. William Hawkins echoed this argument in his "Imposing Peace: Total vs. Limited Wars, and the Need to Put Boots on the Ground," and in his "What Not to Learn from Afghanistan."

After a decade of unprecedented and successful air operations, when airpower had finally met the promise of its early advocates — from pickle-barrel accuracy to strategic effects — the conventional wisdom reflected at best cautious optimism about its efficacy. This happened in part because the debate occurred as an away game for the Air Force, depriving it the ability to take the initiative and shape the collective strategic consciousness to its liking.

Without the Air University Review to offer considered arguments about these operations, the USAF allowed others in the defense establishment to establish the narrative about airpower, about the value of what the service brought to the fight, about the relevance of "flying, fighting, and winning in air, space, and cyberspace" to the conflicts of the recent past, and ultimately found itself at the mercy of those who "didn’t get it." Thus when the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and the Secretary of the Air Force attempted to make the case that certain capabilities were vital to the security of the nation, to its ability to project military power overseas, and to undertake expeditionary operations, they found themselves fighting an uphill battle. The prevailing strategic narrative had undervalued airpower and, even though they had the national interest at heart, their arguments sounded parochial, service-centric, and unconvincing. The environment of the Washington AOR had not been shaped; indeed, it had been neglected for a generation.

It was in this environment that Strategic Studies Quarterly was founded. In its five years of publication, it has addressed strategic issues of interest to the wider defense establishment but, following the lead of the Naval War College Review, it has given attention to those issues that particularly interest the USAF: airpower, nuclear deterrence, cyberwarfare, the rise of China, space, regional security in South Asia and Africa, and NATO. It has also given space for Air Force leaders to present their service’s views, including the Secretary of the Air Force, the Chief of Staff, and component commanders.

Yet it has also followed the lead of Parameters in that it has not directly advocated any particular point of view. The articles on nuclear deterrence for instance, have advocated and criticized reductions in nuclear forces. Those on China have argued that it is a rising peer competitor and that it is a budding partner for the United States. Those on cyberwarfare have debated the possibility and value of offense, defense, and deterrence as the basis for a strategy in this new domain. It has also addressed issues that are broader interest to the professional community: the relevance of Clausewitz’s On War, the value of intervention to American grand strategy, the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine, the relation of international relations theory to strategic thought, nation building and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq, terrorism, and "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell." By publishing quality arguments on topics of interest to the USAF and the defense community writ large but not explicitly advocating a particular line, it has brought the USAF back to the table to participate in the strategic dialogue within the profession with a presence and credibility that it had lacked.

Yet, in Sept. 2011, Air Education and Training Command decided to discontinue its publication. As with Air University Review before it, its contents will likely be redirected to Air and Space Power Journal. In a time of fiscal constraint, the Air Force will once again leave it to others to shape the national dialogue on strategic matters, roles and missions, and the problems facing the nation. The editors of Parameters, Naval War College Review, Foreign Affairs, and other journals will set the agenda, choose the topics of interest to them, and put forth the arguments that will form the conventional wisdom. Sadly, the USAF will be a second string team, its arguments always on the road looking for a field on which to play, and relying on the good graces of these others to let them have some play.

Another generation will likely pass before an Air Force leader realizes that they could have been shaping the conventional wisdom for years, rather than fighting it, when they press their case to other services, civilian policy makers, legislators, and the American people. In the meantime, the service will likely suffer.

"Alejandro Estéban Teixeira Castillo" is a pseudonym.  

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1
A decade of Global Thinkers

A decade of Global Thinkers

The past year's 100 most influential thinkers and doers Read Now

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola