Why the U.S. Army Is Stuck in the 19th Century

09.02.14 9:45 AM ET

It’s unlikely that the U.S. Air Force will be abolished in anyone’s lifetime, whatever University of Kentucky professor Robert Farley, author of Grounded—The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force, may think.

A few commentators have already raised the obvious issues: that the USAF already provides essential enablers to the Army and Navy, rather than being obsessed with bombers and independent airpower; that neither the Army nor the Navy would be well suited to take over things like space launch and operations, or airlift; and that not much money would actually be saved without eliminating entire missions.

But Farley’s book makes a bigger argument: that the case for an independent air force is based on the false assertion that airpower can win wars on its own. In doing so, the book exemplifies a toxic, and irrational skepticism toward airpower, and only airpower, which pervades some military thinking.

The founding philosophers of independent airpower—Britain’s Lord Trenchard, America’s Billy Mitchell and Italy’s Giulio Douhet—shared a gut-level desire to avoid a repeat of World War 1. Their heirs, World War 2’s bomber generals, promised to defeat Germany and Japan from the air, almost unaided. This did not happen. So what? At best, it is a classic strawman argument to challenge 90-year-old claims that nobody asserts today.

But let’s dig a little deeper. Farley’s criterion for “winning” is whether airpower succeeds at “disarming the enemy”—a goal borrowed, with full and frequent credit, from the early 19th-century Prussian philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz.

It would be easy to conclude from contemporary American military writing that Clausewitz has been the go-to guy on strategy since the appearance of his classic book, On War, in 1832. But that’s not the case. The U.S. Army’s zealots of what I call “boot-centric warfare” zealots rediscovered him after Vietnam, when the Army needed to explain its defeat. Clausewitz’s definition of military strength—the product of fighting capacity and the national will—was an academically respectable way of saying that Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara had stabbed the troops in the back.

Clausewitz’s view that warfare inevitably increases in intensity, to the maximum capacity of the belligerents, sits well with advocates of a large army. “Go big or go home” is not in Clausewitz, but it’s unlikely that he would d have greatly objected to that sentiment.

But Clausewitz’s acolytes forget what the Prussian sage’s world looked like. Clausewitz was more a man of the 18th century than the 19th, dying two years after the Rainhill Trials in England demonstrated the first practical steam locomotive. Napoleonic land warfare, like the wars of Greece and Rome, moved at walking pace, from the raising of forces to the day of battle. Troops lived off the land and often died on it (not until World War I did combat kill more soldiers than disease).

Once you raised it, a massed army was wasting away, whether it fought or not, or whether it advanced, retreated, or stood still. It was the least flexible weapon of the pre-nuclear age—as was demonstrated in 1914 when the use-it-or-lose-it logic of mobilization converted Bismarck’s “damned foolish thing in the Balkans” into catastrophe.

Modern military tools are much more versatile in space, time and scale, but conflict is accordingly less likely to fall inside the range of a disciplined Prussian model. That’s one reason why arguing over whether or not unaided airpower can disarm the enemy is futile. In the modern world, boots on the ground can fail on that standard too. Iraq has by conventional standards been disarmed twice since 1991. It does not seem to have done much good.

But reverting to a land-sea duality that predates the age of steam is an absurdity, not only because air-land and air-sea teaming are universal and inevitable, but because of a stark fact: Neither ground nor sea forces can operate without air and space, but airpower can produce effects—reconnaissance, airlift and attack, for instance—without ground or sea support.

And while abolition of the air force is unlikely, the factions that believe in the primacy of boots on the ground are influential.

Whether or not you love the Marine Corps’ short takeoff, vertical landing F-35B version of the Joint Strike Fighter, there is no doubt about its roots: It’s what happens when a combat aircraft is shoehorned into the doctrine and infrastructure of a surface-warfare force. In the case of the F-35B, the Marines’ insistence on a jet that can use short runways or operate from ships without catapult and arrester gear results in a heavy, expensive and complicated aircraft with less range and payload than its contemporaries.

The Air Force’s new Long Range Strike Bomber, being developed in secret to attack targets deep inside heavily defended territory, was challenged at very high levels. Marine Gen. James Cartwright, as vice-chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advocated for a common tactical-range unmanned aircraft and pushed hard for the Conventional Prompt Global Strike concept of non-nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles. Both those ideas were flawed. CPGS has never overcome a showstopper argument (how does the target or anyone else know it’s not a nuke?) and a sub-1,000-mile-range system defines a sanctuary zone for the adversary.

Early airpower theorists were not only repelled by trench warfare. They were reacting to brother officers who variously saw airplanes as very long-range artillery, fast but flimsy torpedo-boats or horses that could jump over really big hedges. They would be rightfully surprised to see similar attitudes surviving a century later.

This column also appears in the latest issue of Aviation Week & Space TechnologyFor more of Sweetman’s columns, see: