The Air Force just cannot shoot down the idea that the government could save money by getting rid of the service.
During a speech in September, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh spoke passionately about how the roughly 143,000 service members who are part of the other services’ air arms cannot fulfill all of the missions carried out by 690,000 active-duty, Guard and Reserve airmen.
“I’m getting really frustrated with hearing over and over again this comment about ‘Why do we need an Air Force?’ ” Welsh said at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference. “You’ve got to be kidding me. We’re not past that yet?”
“There is one Air Force in America and you’re it,” he added. “So let’s shoot this one in the head.”
But a guest columnist for the Boston Globe has proposed doing precisely what Welsh says is anathema to national security: abolishing the Air Force.
“The wind-sock has shifted,” James Carroll wrote in a Jan. 6 column. “Instead of tinkering around the edges of a bloated, unaffordable, and often ineffective national security establishment, the time has come for a major reinvention — starting with the Air Force. Off it should go into the wild blue yonder.”
Carroll could not be reached by press time. His piece relies heavily on arguments made by Robert Farley, author of the upcoming book, “Grounded: The Case For Abolishing The United States Air Force.”
Farley told Air Force Times that he is arguing the Air Force should be merged with the Army and Navy, not firing all 690,000 airmen. This move would allow the military as a whole to shrink by eliminating redundancies among the services.
Farley, a professor at the University of Kentucky, thinks the military should go back to how it was structured before the Air Force became an independent service. Ultimately, such a move would curb how often the military would be used, he argues.
“As far back as the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, [civilian policymakers] have found air power too attractive because of the promise of relatively cheap, relatively efficient war,” Farley said in a Jan. 8 interview. “Putting the Air Force back into the Army creates more perspective with respect to what war really costs and what the prospects of war really are.”
However, retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, former commander of U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, said it is “foolish” to think the Air Force can be absorbed into the Army. “In terms of needing to have a separate air arm that focuses on air power, it’s proven to be extraordinarily effective,” said Barno, now part of the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
The Air Force declined to discuss this issue beyond what Welsh has said publicly.
In December, Welsh said at the American Enterprise Institute that the Air Force allows ground forces to attack — and protects ground forces from enemy air attacks. “Since the Korean War, this nation has deployed about 7 million men and women at arms to different contingencies around the world, and tens of thousands of them have died there,” Welsh said. “None of them have died as a result of enemy air attack. That doesn’t happen by accident.
“This requires an Air Force. The Army and the Marine Corps, the Navy cannot do this on their own, not for a theater-size event. They can do it over their organic units but not to support a theater commander. That’s why nations have air forces.”
Retired Gen. Charles Horner, who led the air war during Operation Desert Storm, said those who advocate getting rid of the Air Force do not understand that there are times when one service needs to take the lead in the fight.
“The Army is so parochial about the basic concept of what war is, they think war is where armed forces clash on the battlefield,” Horner said in a Jan. 9 interview. “War can take all kinds of forms and in some wars, like Desert Storm, the preferred way of resolving the issue is to avoid clashes on the battlefield because they induce large casualties.”
The other services don’t have the Air Force’s expertise to take over Air Force missions, said retired Air Force Gen. Chuck Wald.
“Would you hire a dentist to do brain surgery?” said Wald, former head of U.S. European Command.
The Air Force will never be eliminated because it is “the most indispensable of all the services,” said retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a senior scholar at the Air Force Academy, in a Jan. 9 email.
“The [column]exhibits no comprehension of joint doctrine; why each of the services are required because of the time dimension required to learn how to master control of the domains of land, sea, air, space, and cyber; or the potential of air operations to minimize casualties in achieving national security objectives,” he said.