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America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress

America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress edited by Winslow T. Wheeler. Stanford University Press, 2009, 272 pp.

In a speech of 21 April 2008 to the Air War College at Maxwell AFB, Alabama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates implored his listeners to “become . . . forward-thinking officer[s] who [help] the Air Force adapt to a constantly changing strategic environment,” offering Col John Boyd as an example of the kind of officer needed to lead our military to success in the twenty-first century (“Remarks to Air War College,” http://www.defense.gov/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1231). The notion of whether or not Secretary Gates’s fondness for Boyd extends to respect for the ideas of his associates and modern-day acolytes will be tested in the months ahead as the Defense Department faces the budget realities of an economic downturn. A Center for Defense Information book, America’s Defense Meltdown includes essays from Boyd’s successors in the military-reform movement that chart fresh approaches to old defense issues. Many of the ideas detailed here will probably crumble under scrutiny; nonetheless, this short tract is worth reading for the sheer number and variety of innovative ideas it offers.

The book’s 11 chapters adhere to Boyd’s maxim regarding defense priorities: “people, ideas, hardware, in that order” (p. 19). The first chapter, written by Lt Col John Sayen, USMC, retired, cogently defends Boyd’s priority principle, and the chapters that follow paint a portrait of a people-ideas-hardware US military. Airpower-minded readers will want to pay particular attention to chapters 7 and 8.

Col Robert Dilger, USAF, retired, and Pierre M. Sprey, who contributed chapter 7, “Reversing the Decay of American Air Power,” examine airpower in twentieth-century conflicts, seeking to undermine Giulio Douhet’s theory that strategic bombardment of enemy heartlands can win wars by itself (p. 129). They contest the claim that strategic bombardment played a central role in defeating Iraq in the first and second Gulf Wars and question the usefulness of airpower in a wide range of circumstances. They praise airpower only for close air support (CAS) missions, pointing to German Stukas and US P-38s, P-47s, and P-51s in World War II as examples of successful interdiction platforms. Dilger and Sprey contrast this success with the tremendous losses and limited results of Royal Air Force, US Army Air Forces, and German Luftwaffe strategic bombers (pp. 131–44). Similarly, they criticize the first Gulf War’s strike campaign for utilizing the F-117 and applaud their own A-10 CAS efforts against fielded units of the Iraqi Army (pp. 149–52).

Based on this historical analysis, the authors envision a new procurement schedule of 4,000 CAS fighters; 2,500 forward air control aircraft; a reduced buy of 100 KC-X tankers; 1,000 dirt-strip airlifters akin to the C-27J; 1,100 austere air superiority fighters; and 200 F-35s—an outline rooted in a preference for large-number acquisitions, an aversion to high-tech airframes, and a belief in the supremacy of CAS over independent air operations. Dilger and Sprey seek to “procure only aircraft and weapons of the utmost austerity, stripped down to the only capabilities directly required by actual combat experience” (p. 159).

The premise for the authors’ procurement outline emanates from faulty historical analysis filled with assertion and little documented support. Focusing particularly on the Gulf Wars, Dilger and Sprey question—without citation—the stealth capabilities of the F-117 and criticize the fighter-bomber for its small payload and low production numbers. Their analysis excoriates all stealth capabilities without discussing alternatives for penetrating contested airspace. Furthermore, they advocate the purchase of large numbers of airframes—claiming unimaginably low purchase prices—without discussing the resulting long-tail costs in personnel, ramp space, fuel, and maintenance. Emphasizing numbers of tails—rather than capabilities inherent in the fleet—ignores the lessons of the effects-based-operations construct. Despite the logic of their advocacy for an austere CAS airframe, particularly in the face of conflicts with nonstate actors, creating an entire Air Force around this singular mission set seems shortsighted.

In chapter 8, “Air Mobility for a New Administration,” James P. Stevenson, author of The Pentagon Paradox, offers a primer on air-mobility terms and concepts, introducing readers to strategic and tactical airlift, air refueling, and special air-mobility operations. He makes a few key recommendations for the new administration, advocating “increased emphasis on aerial refueling, strategic sealift and specialized air, with a decreased emphasis on strategic and tactical airlift” (pp. 172–73). Recognizing the need for cost savings in mobility operations, Stevenson sees financial gains in cutting back on the C-5 and C-17 for strategic airlift of outsized cargo and supplementing these airframes with fast sealift and an expanded Civil Reserve Air Fleet. Similarly, he claims significant cost benefits by increasing the “building partner capacity” capability, which would emphasize utilization of allies’ tactical airlift to decrease demand on the US fleet. Although brief, insufficiently sourced, and at times vague—at one point recommending that the Air Force “develop innovative options” (p. 176) to reduce the cost of strategic airlift—this chapter contains ideas worthy of serious examination.

In his Air War College speech, Secretary Gates claimed that “an unconventional era of warfare requires unconventional thinkers.” America’s Defense Meltdown succeeds as a repository of unconventional ideas in Colonel Boyd’s tradition. Its recommendations, which address Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force issues, are worth due consideration in the budget battles ahead if only for their power to stimulate debate that will eventually lead to workable solutions for today’s defense challenges.

1st Lt Michael J. Arth, USAF

Cannon AFB, New Mexico

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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