Recently I was privileged to witness a small piece of history. While visiting a friend at the Pentagon, I stood next to the office door of Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne as he left the building for the last time. After he left, and while all the rooms were still empty, I was given a quick tour of the offices. Surrounded by giant paintings of airpower, it was difficult not to reflect upon the current situation and how he got there.
My friend is Special Assistant to Secretary Wynne, Dr. Richard Andres, and once the Secretary had left, we sat down and had a long discussion on current topics. Rick and I have discussed our opinions on air power and the military many times before, and while I consider myself to be service agnostic, Rick is very much biased toward the Air Force, and I think with good reason.
Something I’ve often heard Rick say, and I believe he is correct, is that the Army does not understand air power. Often their plans minimize its use, and their after action reports under report its effectiveness. Case in point, the surge in Iraq. While sitting in Ricks E ring office, he asked me point blank whether or not I believed a 20% increase (or “surge”) in troop strength could really make much difference to the situation. It was obviously a baited question, but it wasn’t one I had to think about much. To my mind, the increase could not have been that effective; there had to have been some fundamental doctrinal change in order for that small an increase to have had the dramatic effect that it’s had. Prior to this discussion, I’d already been pondering the issue for some time.
Sadly, civilians like me who do not have a clearance are left to fend for themselves when it comes to gathering information. Between the coverage of American Idol contestants and Britney Spears’ mental condition, we’re occasionally treated to an update of what’s going on in the world. Taken at face value, all we ever needed in Iraq was an extra 20% troop strength and we’d have had the place stabilized years ago. Unfortunately the penetrating analysis of CNN only goes about that far, but the more discerning among us know that that cannot possibly be the whole story.
But the Army hasn’t helped the perception. According to them, those extra boots on the ground was all that it took to better stabilize the country. Petraeus has even said as much in his testimony to congress and in the reports he’s signed off on in the field. So here is where Rick drops the bomb.
Rick’s office was unconvinced. So they initiated an investigation to see exactly what had changed, other than boots on the ground. As is turned out, not only had the number of troops on the ground increased by 20%, but air strike missions had also increased by 400%. What’s more, air munitions released had increased by over 1000%, all since the beginning of the surge.
What had changed was clear. It wasn’t the extra boots on the ground that was turning the tide, it was the increase in HUMINT and the ability to hit a target with precision munitions from the air within a time frame of only 7 minutes. Gatherings as small as only 3 insurgents were being targeted for strikes, while predators and forces on the ground monitored the movements of any suspected insurgent. This aggressive doctrinal change was preventing insurgents from gathering, planning, and pulling off operations. It was classic COIN (COunter INsurgency) operations, conducted almost entirely from the air. But if we accept the Army’s version of things, it never happened.
One reason that I like to consider myself service agnostic is that I happen to think that service rivalries are counter productive to the national interest. This discussion so far is but one example. Once upon a time, the defense budget was stated simply as an amount, and the services then vied with one another for their slice of that pie. The role of the SECDEF was more or less an arbiter of the struggle. The various services consistently requested 30% over what was available in order to justify an increase in their share. Because oversight between the services and their budget allotments was scarce, there were many overlaps in procurement, each vying to accomplish the same mission. It wasn’t until Robert Strange McNamara and his controversial “Wizkids” that this inefficient and redundant process was overhauled in the 1960s. Vestiges of it still remain today. The most apparent are the service rivalries.
As I said earlier, Rick is fond of saying that the Army does not understand airpower. He’s right, they clearly do not; so much so that they are unaware of the role air power has and is playing in Iraq. Once the news of the percentage increases I mentioned earlier circulate more broadly, the Air Force will certainly rub the Army’s nose in it, further discouraging the Army from wanting to think about airpower.
I was not at the Pentagon just to visit with Rick. I also met with several folks in the Irregular Warfare office in PA&E, OSD (Program Analysis and Evaluation, Office of Secretary of Defense). I had a long discussion there with one old timer who was very direct about the current situation at the Pentagon. He related that the perception of the Air Force among the other services and civilians was that they were arrogant. So much so, in fact, that it was hampering communication and cooperation with them.
The Air Force has good reason to feel proud of itself. They command the largest share among the services of the defense budget, at just under 30%, their capability is unmatched by any other nation, they are perhaps the most progressive of the services in soliciting new warfighting ideas from the civilian sector, and, as they are now demonstrating, can put in place an array of sensors and firepower that is very effective at COIN operations.
Unfortunately, all of this has been done in a culture that appears to take its own prestige too seriously. The figures on percentage increases I mentioned earlier were not just compiled to help build a broad consensus picture of force effectiveness in Iraq, they were also done to discredit the Army’s take on the situation. That is the sort of thing the old timer in PA&E was talking about. However, I’m not letting the Army off the hook either. That they should not even consider the contribution of the Air Force in the effectiveness of the surge in Iraq can charitably be described as petty. At worst it should be described as damagingly misleading, especially for future doctrine planners.
In the news we are lead to believe that Secretary Wynne (and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley) was fired due to the mistaken shipment of nuclear detonators to Taiwan. This is nonsense.
Right now the Air Force has a problem. Its fleet of transports and tankers are aging and need to be replaced. However, the policy in Washington, or at least that of the SECDEF, is that we are at war, and that all procurement must be for the war effort. Instead of obeying the policy of the civilian head of the DoD, Wynne went to congress and advocated to update the fleet. I’d have fired him too.
Wynne is correct to want to replace the ageing fleet. However, the outside observer must ask a simple question: why wasn’t the Air Force dealing with this problem before now? Given that the Air Force commands the largest share of the defense budget, and given that it seems to have had the foresight and budget to develop and procure a fighter plane that not even our own Navy is capable of flying against in a world where the adversaries we’re actually fighting don’t even have an air capability, one wonders what is going on in the planning. Again, it comes down to prestige over substance. As early as the 1960’s, Enthoven and Smith in their book How Much is Enough identify the tendency of the services to develop and procure new items at the expense of the readiness of the inventory they already possess. The F-22 is a classic example of this tendency.
Although I felt privileged to be present at the Pentagon as Secretary Wynne departed the building for the last time, there is no doubt in my mind that he deserved to be fired. Under his watch he allowed a culture to exist that valued its own prestige over readiness and cooperation. He defied his civilian boss in order to improve readiness of the Air Force infrastructure while billions of dollars were sunk into a fighter that is, by most measures, unnecessary. Perhaps the new Air Force leadership can make headway, but only time will tell.