Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force

  • Published

Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force by Robert M. Farley. University Press of Kentucky, 2014, 244 pp.

As the title suggests, Robert M. Farley—assistant professor at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce—posits the United States should disband the US Air Force and parcel out its assets and capabilities to the US Navy and US Army. He bases his argument on the organizational culture of the Air Force, which he maintains allowed airpower advocates “to silence Clausewitz in World War I, to render him obsolete in World War II, to ignore him in Korea, to co-opt him in the wake of Vietnam, and to celebrate his demise after the first Gulf War” (p. 3). Clausewitz stands at the center of Farley’s methodology, which uses a small portion of the Prussian philosopher’s work as a foil to examine US airpower. Specifically, Farley identifies three Clausewitzian “problems” with airpower: “the tendencies of airpower theorists and practitioners to (1) reject the need for disarming the enemy as a means of military victory; (2) detach military issues from political context; and (3) reject the ideas that the ‘fog of war’ creates uncertainties that cannot effectively be remedied” (p. 65). By rejecting these Clausewitzian truths, Farley concludes, the Air Force creates unnecessary and avoidable interservice rivalry, forces the adoption of duplicative and expensive weapons systems, and seduces policymakers to undertake ill-advised military actions due to the promise of quick, decisive, and bloodless action from the third dimension.

While many—including this reviewer—will have a difficult time accepting Farley’s thesis before the first page is turned, he gives many reasons to remain skeptical after the second page because of the way he arrives at his conclusions. The main problem with his methodology is that it lacks context. He isolates the US Air Force from the dynamic interservice environment that is the Pentagon, and he selectively insulates the Air Force from its nuanced past and its current characteristics. This, in turn, causes problems with his Clausewitzian framework. When making the argument that the Air Force rejects the necessity of disarming the enemy, he points to John Boyd as the latest in a long line of airpower theorists to reject this (questionable) Clausewitzian dictum. Farley charges that while Boyd did engage with Clausewitz, he nevertheless argued that “a full appreciation of the OODA loop and the use of modern airpower technology could eliminate the need to disarm the enemy, at least in the traditional sense of the term” (p. 115). Farley, however, does not appear to be aware of the similarities of Boyd’s ideas to land power theorists of the past nor of his influence on land warfare theorists of today. One recent commentator on land power specifically credits Boyd’s ideas for the evolution of his own thinking on maneuver warfare: “Maneuver means Boyd Cycling the enemy, being consistently faster through however many OODA Loops it takes until the enemy looses his cohesion—until he can no longer fight as an effective, organized force.” The writer is William S. Lind, author of Maneuver Warfare Handbook, which is on the US Marine Corps commandant’s reading list, as is a biography of Boyd. Thus other services do not rigidly seek to “disarm” the enemy, as Farley would like us to believe.

Farley also suggests airmen unwisely believe they are able to move beyond another Clausewitzian axiom: the uncertainty and chaos of war. The Air Force’s fascination with technology and analysis “suggests a world without the ‘fog of war,’ in which consequences of certain actions can be determined with some specificity” (p. 36). However, notions of technology allowing commanders to obtain and exploit battlespace awareness came not necessarily from airmen, but from the US Navy—most notably VADM Arthur K. Cebrowski and ADM Bill Owens, both of whom began their collaborative work on “lifting the fog of war” (the title of Admiral Owen’s book) in the early 1980s.

Moreover, much of his analysis covers the beginnings of US airpower while glossing over the most current US Air Force thinking. A quick reading of Air Force doctrine, for example, demonstrates that—contrary to Farley’s views that airmen attempt to divorce military operations from their political moorings (the third pillar of his methodology)—in truth, USAF doctrine explains that “War is an instrument of policy, strategy, or culture . . . by the achievement of (or failure to achieve) the strategy and policy objectives of nation states” (Volume I: Basic Doctrine). And far from being able to lift the fog of war, USAF doctrine plainly states that “Uncertainty and unpredictability—what many call the ‘fog of war’—combine with danger, physical stress, and human fallibility to produce what Clausewitz called ‘friction,’ which makes even simple operations unexpectedly and sometimes even insurmountably difficult” (ibid.).

While Farley’s methodology is suspect, it should not come as a surprise that his conclusions are also questionable. It is stretching history to claim—as he does—that independent airpower is the major cause of often bitter interservice rivalry. He completely overlooks the conflicts of interest between the Navy and the Army that punctuated their relationship prior to the era of heavier-than-air vehicles. One only need look, for example, at the Santiago de Cuba Campaign during the Spanish-American War, specifically the bitter Navy-Army feud. No air component commander can be blamed for the inability of the Army and Navy to cooperate in this instance.

Clearly, Farley has an ax to grind and throws every critique against the Air Force in the hopes they will somehow convince the reader that indeed the US Air Force should be abolished. He spends six pages, for example, discussing the morality of the use of drones against terrorists “in countries where the United States does not engage in direct combat,” only to conclude that the use of drones in the war on terror “has largely been executed by entities other than the air force” (p. 158), and he ends one chapter recounting the well-known incidents of B-52s carrying nuclear weapons from Minot AFB and the nuclear parts shipped to Taiwan. He does not tie them to his overall thesis but merely ends this diversion by concluding awkwardly that the events were “disquieting” (p. 139).

This is a deeply flawed book. Indeed, many of the problems he raises apply to the entire defense establishment. In the end, one wonders exactly why he chose to write a book that seeks the death knell for a key member of the joint force instead of one that attempts to improve the defense establishment as a whole, where many of the problems he seeks to fix are located. Disbanding the US Air Force is no tonic or silver bullet to fix what ails the Department of Defense.

Kevin C. Holzimmer, PhD
Air Force Research Institute

"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."