Book Review – Grounded: the Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force

by Jeong Lee, a freelance writer.

Grounded PhotoIn the aftermath of the sequestration in place since last year, the United States Armed Forces find themselves struggling to justify their raisons d’être. This was precisely the argument I made when I advocated the merger of U. S. ground forces and the need to rethink how the United States projects its military power abroad.

If anything, my experience as a conference speaker for the 7th Asia Pacific Security Conference held in Singapore in February only affirmed my belief that each service within the United States Armed Forces has trouble justifying its existence to the public. When I asked our luncheon speaker, General Herbert J. Carlisle, the Commander of the US Pacific Air Forces, about Professor Robert Farley’s Foreign Affairs article which advocated disbanding of the US Air Force, the general waffled, saying that he “would have to defer to General Welsh [the Chief of Staff of the Air Force] for answers.” Then, moments later, the general decried Farley’s article for not taking into account the fact that the USAF is “uniquely equipped” to handle diplomatic missions between Asian air forces through the so-called “mil-to-mil” exchanges to ensure interoperability, and humanitarian missions. Further, the general regurgitated the Air Force’s “Five Core Missions” involving the dominance over cyber and space domains to support his position. Needless to say, I was disappointed with General Carlisle’s vague answers.

In any event, Professor Farley’s book, Grounded: the Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force, which is expanded from his controversial article last year, does an excellent job of refuting claims made by his detractors. Central to Farley’s argument is the Clausewitzian approach to warfare. In his recent interview with me, Farley told me that to the extent that the Clausewitzian approach to warfare remains germane to how the United States wields its military might, “the question is whether his thinking continues to give us a handle on the reasons for using military force, and on how the use of military force affects political outcomes.” For this reason, he argues in his book that “The rejection of the Clausewitzian approach to war led to the pursuit of a system of airpower organization…[that has] put technology and  military theory before politics.”[1]

In this readable and informative book, Farley sets the frame for the discussion by limning the underpinnings of American airpower and its utility as well as the service traditions of the USAF to make the case that “The combination of affectation for technology and [blind] drive for autonomy” has led “policymakers to underestimate the risks of military action” in addition to exacerbating the toxic interservice rivalries with other services.[2] To corroborate his assertions, Farley adopts historical analysis throughout the latter half of the book. By juxtaposing the origins of the Royal Air Force with those of the USAF in Chapters 5 and 6, the professor argues that both air forces failed to demonstrate “how military tools work to create political outcomes.”[3]

As if to bear this out, recent history of warfare is replete with examples whereby blind infatuation with technology combined with vicious interservice rivalries failed to deliver decisive victories for the United States. From the Korean War to the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where “modern American airpower would operate on behalf of small U.S. and allied formations,” America’s recent wars served to render null the efficacy of air dominance envisioned by airpower advocates such as Colonels John Boyd and John Warden.[4]

On the whole, Farley’s arguments are persuasive and well-reasoned. Nonetheless, despite the right diagnosis for the problems bedeviling America’s implementation of geopolitical strategy abroad, I find flawed his recommendations for the alternatives. For instance, while Farley may be correct to advocate folding the Air Force back to the Army and the Navy, I am skeptical of his proposals for implementing such reorganization. Farley recommends  that in the event that the USAF should be disbanded, the “Navy [sh]ould become…the ‘stage-setting’ service, focusing primarily on the defense and maintenance of liberal international order…[while] the Army would become the ‘warfighting’ service.”[5] But such suggestion is bereft of proper context in that it overlooks the fact that both services exist for warfighting purposes. Second, through such recommendations, Farley seems to tacitly acknowledge the supposed need to maintain America’s hegemony around the globe. However, as I have argued previously, in times of waning national power, there is a better alternative to strident militarism which only alienates the global citizens from the United States.

Perhaps most problematic is the premise that the United States could consider the Canadian model in merging the Air Force with the Army and the Navy. Although he may be right to argue that the object lesson of the Canadian service merger in 1968 had been that one should readily adapt to changing circumstances as they arise, he contradicts his own premises by conceding that the Canadian model has wrought mixed results at best.[6]

Despite flawed recommendations for restructuring the United States Armed Forces, Farley is right to note that “Change in institutional structure…simply [recognizes] that the environment has changed sufficiently.”[7] Rather than simply eliminate one particular service branch merely for the sake of efficiency in warfighting doctrines and strategy, however, the United States should rethink the idea that it requires a military tailored for imperial policing in face of its waning might.

— Robert M. Farley, Grounded: the Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2014), 244 pages.

[1] Robert M. Farley, Grounded: the Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2014), p. 3-4.
[2] Ibid., Chapter 2
[3] Ibid., pp .82
[4] Ibid., Chapters 6-7
[5] Ibid., pp. 169
[6] Ibid., pp. 174-178
[7] Ibid., pp. 167

About Jeong Lee

Jeong Lee is a freelance writer and an MA candidate in International Security Studies Program at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. His writings on U.S. defense policy issues and inter-Korean affairs have appeared on various online publications.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, English, History, Jeong Lee, Technology.

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