ICBMs to the Future

The Future of the U.S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Force | RAND. The nice folks at RAND lay out the best alternative for extending the cost-effective relevance of American ICBMs. Why is this important? Because it addresses upgrades currently underway in China’s Second Artillery Corps; and it invites additional expenditures in those upgrades. Let the escalation begin.

Allies on the High Frontier

English: Backdropped by a blue and white part ...

The unpiloted Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) approaches the International Space Station. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Strategic Imperatives for US–Japan Outer Space Cooperation
Crystal Pryor
East-West Center

December 7, 2012

The irony of publishing an essay advocating closer cooperation between the U.S. and Japan in the military sphere on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor is palpable, to the point where you wonder if the wags at the East-West Center did this on purpose.

Regardless of intent, Crystal Pryor brings up an issue that is easy to forget in these fraught times in the East China Sea: space. China is on a tear in space, accelerating its manned orbital program and beginning the long effort that will take taikonauts to the Moon. And let’s not forget – China has proven it can take out just about any satellite it pleases.

Pryor calls for closer peaceful cooperation between the U.S. and Japan in space, and little wonder: experience on the International Space Station revealed some avenues for cooperation. But Japan could be forgiven for having a hidden agenda. Space, even unmanned, is increasingly important to national security and economic growth, and Japan cannot defend its orbital interests alone. Overt military cooperation with the U.S. in space would be an outright provocation. Civilian partnerships, though, could lead to deeper ties if events develop.

Japan’s problem, though, is that NASA is in a torpor. It will have to either rouse the beast, or it will need to find ways to build alliances with the growing bevy of private space companies. Near term, bet on the latter.

Viewing the Pivot from the Air


A B-2 Spirit soars after a refueling mission o...

A B-2 Spirit soars after a refueling mission over the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday, May 30, 2006. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Summer 2013 issue of the Strategic Studies Quarterly is out, and the Air Force publication spends most of its space this quarter on Asia, China, and the Pivot. Starting with an excellent essay by David Shambaugh (“Assessing the US Pivot to Asia,”) the publication amounts to a quiet announcement that the Air Force Research Institute (AFRI) is now focused on China.

No surprise. But what is disappointing is the AFRI’s failure to ask the most difficult political question: does the USAF have the wherewithal – in doctrine, in training, in force structure, and (most critically) in equipment – to credibly face off against China in even the coldest of conflicts? Of all the services, this is most important to the Air Force, which was guided in its formative years by leaders who were shaped in the crucible of European wars and hardened during the Cold War face-off with the USSR in Europe. Tactical warfare over vast distances is not in the USAF’s DNA, and it is not in the DNA of the aircraft upon which it has chosen to bet its future.

What one can hope, however, is that the AFRI is leading the Air Force by its nose into a future that demands a different kind of air service by compelling the organization to contemplate its challenges and look itself in the mirror. The odds are long: the AFRI sits under the Air Force, and as such depends on the kindness of the very leaders it should be criticizing.

The USAF lacks what the Navy has in the Naval Institute, an independent forum of officers and senior enlisted people who can have an unimpeded conversation about the future of the service. That’s bad. There are Air Force officers with vision who understand that the future of the USAF as an independent service is on the line. That they must depend on an in-house organ to make their case makes it too easy to pull punches, to step back from the brink of saying what needs to be said.

Pick up the new edition of SSQ. If nothing else, it marks and important beginning of a conversation too long delayed.

Reign in the Drones

IAI Heron 1 UAV in flight. Location: NAVAL AIR...

IAI Heron 1 UAV in flight. Location: NAVAL AIR STATION, FALLON, NEVADA (NV) UNITED STATES OF AMERICA (USA) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies
Micah Zenko

Council on Foreign Relations
January, 2013

Have drones become the hammer that has turned every U.S. foreign policy challenge into a nail? Micah Zenko isn’t ready to go quite that far, but he does suggest that the lack of a policy framework to regulate their use hurts the U.S., and that we are best served long-term by helping to promulgate a set of international rules and norms to govern their use.

The piece is not directly China related, but given China’s active effort to develop its own unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) force, Zenko’s calls for international norms should bring China immediately to mind.

Perspective on China’s New Senior Services

“China’s Navy and Air Force: Advancing Capabilities and Missions
Greg Chaffin interviews Andrew S. Erickson
National Bureau of Asian Research
September 27, 2012

With the most recent changes in the Central Military Commission, the Chinese Navy and Air Force now have a degree of prominence denied them for the past six decades. With the growing importance of global trade and far-flung interests, these services look to be the focus of defense policy during Xi Jinping’s first term.

Andrew S. Erickson of the U.S. Naval War College and Harvard University offers his perspective on why this is the case and what it will mean for the world in a thoughtful interview with Greg Chaffin of the NBR.

On the Rack: Strategic Studies Quarterly

Demilitarized Zone, North Korea

Demilitarized Zone, North Korea (Photo credit: yeowatzup)

Strategic Studies Quarterly
Winter 2012

The SSQ for Winter 2012 is out and on the racks. There is nothing specific about China in this edition, but a couple of articles might capture the imagination of China hands.

USAF Colonel Vincent Alcazar offers some thinking about how to counter “anti-access/area denial” strategies pursued by potential adversaries, including China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. Interesting to note that Russia is back on the boogey-man board.

RAND’s Bruce Bennett offers some ideas on deterring North Korea from using WMD. What is fascinating about the article is its underlying assumption: deterrence depends on the actions of the U.S. and the Republic of Korea. The hint is clear: US planners no longer feel they can count on China’s help in addressing the Korean nuclear threat.

As always, a half dozen excellent reads. It is telling, though, that most of the contributors in this Air Force publication are not serving or former USAF officers. One wonders if there is a brain drain sapping the formerly deep intellectual pool of America’s air service.


Defending China from the Air

English: Navy Army Air Force fight the enemy p...

English: Navy Army Air Force fight the enemy poster (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“China’s Aerospace Power Trajectory in the Near Seas”
Daniel J. Kostecka
Naval War College Review
Summer 2012

Over the past four years, a growing meme within the U.S. Naval and Air Force communities has been China’s growing air and space capabilities, especially in the coastal seas of the Western Pacific. That meme has turned into a formative doctrine called “Air-Sea Battle” that the Navy and Air Force are promulgating as a means of demonstrating their continued relevance to U.S. defense.

No surprise, then, that writing on China’s air and sea capabilities has been increasing, and that the tone of the professional writing is starting to get shrill. Naval analyst Dan Kostecka offers a more measured analysis, concluding that while China has made impressive strides in capabilities, the less glamorous but essential doctrine, training, and hardware that would make for a truly invincible shield is not there.

Kostecka identifies several vulnerabilities that weaken China’s efforts in the region. While he does not come out and say it, the Air Force and the Navy would do well in their early Air Sea Battle concepts to focus on exploiting those weaknesses rather than countering the strengths. It’s a thoughtful, smart piece and one that offers a long-overdue counter to the Write Bigger Checks approach to national defense.

Fixing America’s Aviation Business

Cover of "Securing the Future of U.S. Air...

Cover via Amazon

While it may look healthy from the outside, the aviation industry in the US is in trouble. Overcapacity and price wars are squeezing domestic air service; mediocre cabin service and foreign competition are sucking profits out of international routes; fuel prices threaten to rise; demands for reduced emissions are growing shrill; and a flying public wants the airlines to deliver a better travel experience than they are currently offering. Given the vital role of aviation in the nation’s economic infrastructure, how to solve those problems?

No simple answer has come to light, but in Securing the Future of U.S. Air Transportation: A System in Peril, the National Research Council (NRC) identifies the most urgent issues and lays the groundwork for someone to come up with a vision for the future.

This is a different approach than what James Fallows took in Free Flight: Inventing the Future of Travel, a book that rejected the “fatter planes, bigger airports” default America has been pursuing for the past two generations. Where Fallows posited a future where safer small planes offering point-to-point air taxi services begin to displace the bus-like experience of airline travel, the NRC says that it is time to create a long-term systemic vision for the future of the industry that will guide it forward, rather than deal with the individual challenges of system capacity, environment, safety, or, in Fallows’ case, passenger experience as isolated issues.

While the NRC frames the issues that require that vision, the authors succumb to the engineering-based urge to fix the immediate problems that they say plague the industry rather than offer the vision itself. There is superb, thoughtful stuff here, but seven years after the book’s publication we are still waiting for that vision.

Finding Stuff from Above

As the U.S. Armed Forces increasingly rely on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or “drones”) to gather information about current or potential battlefields, the time has come to remember that the skills that count among the people controlling those aircraft are not limited to remote-control airmanship. Equally important are the other abilities that give drones their value.

Most important among those skills is figuring out what you are seeing when you look down from above. For that reason, the RAND corporation has re-issued a series of papers from the early jet age about how to conduct aerial reconnaissance. This makes fascinating reading for the aviation buff, and would be fun for anyone who spends way too much time checking out Google Earth as well.

Marshall’s Airman

Lieutenant General Frank Maxwell Andrews

Image via Wikipedia

The history of war is written not only by the victors, but the survivors. How much better we remember those who made it through the fight than those who fell, even when the fallen fought on the side of the victors.

One of those soldiers who fell in the allied cause was General Frank M. Andrews, who died in a B-24 crash enroute to take command of the U.S. Air Force in Europe in 1943. Andrew’s most important role in his career predated the war, when he was the organizer and commander of the General Headquarters Air Force (GHQAF), and as such the man who pulled the U.S. Army’s U.S.-based aviation units into a single, integrated operational force. if General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold is the man best remembered as the commander of U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II, it was Andrews who made Arnold’s efforts possible.

Andrews was the officer, arguably, who sold Army Chief of Staff George Marshall on both the concept of strategic bombing applied in Europe during the war, and on the primary weapon used in that effort, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber.

In Frank M. Andrews: Marshall’s Airman, a brief but engrossing biography published by the Air Force History and Museums Program, historian DeWitt Coop goes further. He suggests that Andrews, in his advocacy of an independent air arm and the first commander of GHQAF, was one of the leading architects of an independent air force that came into being after the war. Coop thus places Andrews in that aerospace pantheon of air visionaries who, like Billy Mitchell, made an independent air force possible.

History has not been kind to Andrews or his vision. Andrews was virtually forgotten after his tragic death, eclipsed by Arnold, LeMay, and others who survived him. The ultimate benefits of the strategic bombing campaign he was to have led in Europe, once taken as a given, are now a matter of hot debate among historians. And the value of an independent air force, appreciable in a day when few non-aviators understood the role of aviation on the battlefield, is now much less so in an era of pervasive aviation, unmanned aerial vehicles, and combined-arms doctrine. But there was no way of knowing any of that then, and at no point has it been suggested that Andrews was anything but sincere in his beliefs.

I am a member of what I believe to be a small group of historians who think that we have more to learn from failed beliefs, doctrines, and strategies than winning ones. Understanding Frank Andrews, what he believed, and why he believed it offer us a mirror for our own passionately held beliefs, whether in war, in business, or in life.

PLAAF: Shaking the Heavens and Splitting the Earth

j-10a seen at zhuhai airshow

Image via Wikipedia

Shaking the Heavens and Splitting the Earth is a new RAND Corporation monograph that describes how the People’s Liberation Army Air Force has reached a turning point in its development. No longer a motley collection of weed-grown bases and Soviet hardware, the force is beginning to transform itself into a thoroughly modern air arm.

Keeping in mind that funding for this effort came from a U.S. Air Force that is determined to justify the skyrocketing costs of its new air-superiority fighters, the book offers important food for thought. China faces an expensive effort in modernizing both its air force and its navy at the same time, and the challenge of creating the training and doctrine to mould the new hardware into an effective fighting force should not be underestimated.

A good read for followers of Chinese defense policy.


The 31 Initiatives: A Study in Air Force-Army Cooperation

While ostensibly documenting an example of cooperation between the air arm and ground forces, the subtext of this book from the Office of Air Force History is more revealing. Getting the Army and the Air Force to work together is apparently more difficult than assembling a Sino-foreign joint venture.

There has always been resentment between the grunts on the ground and the knights of the air. This study reveals that the divisions are far deeper than that, and it begs the question about where those divisions come from. A fascinating read.

Ten Propositions Regarding Air Power

We conver a lot of publications on the matter of air power on this blog, mostly because the U.S. Air Force has made a respectable library on the topic available to the world for free.

But the other reason is that while I believe in the importance of air power as an instrument of both warfare and statecraft, I believe that its application outside of the envelope of conventional war has been misguided for decades for a lot of bad reasons, starting with bad doctrine. The resulting waste of national treasure, tactical opportunity and strategic advantage is nothing short of tragic.

The coverage in this blog is designed to provide an entree into the thinking behind all of that, as well as some of the thinking that is trying to guide air power back onto track.

What makes Ten Propositions Regarding Air Power so interesting is that the book enumerates some of the core assumptions that guide current air power doctrine. It is a fascinating read, if for no other reason than it offers a back door into the collective mind of the U.S. Air Force.

For the record, the ten propositions (all of which are expounded at length) are:

  1. Whoever controls the air generally controls the surface.
  2. Air Power is an inherently strategic force.
  3. Air Power is primarily and offensive weapon.
  4. In essence, Air Power is targeting, targeting is intelligence, and intelligence is analyzing the effects of air operations.
  5. Air Power produces physical and psychological shock by dominating the fourth dimension – time.
  6. Air Power can conduct parallel operations at all levels of war, simultaneously.
  7. Precision air weapons have redefined the meaning of mass.
  8. Air Powers unique characteristics necessitate that it be centrally controlled by airmen.
  9. Technology and air power are integrally and synergistically related.
  10. Air Power includes not only military assets, but an aerospace industry and commercial aviation.

I would love nothing more than to debate each of these in detail, but I leave it to you to make your own call on reading this compact book. And best of all, like so much on The Peking Review, it is free.

Autonomy of the Air Arm

This interesting history describes the background behind the autonomy U.S. Air Force and its split from its mother service, the U.S. Army. The informal 1947 government accords which laid out the roles and missions of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, known as the Key West Agreements, were a triumph for Air Force supporters.

Throughout the service’s history it has been in the Air Force’s best interest to remind senior civilians in the Pentagon and Congress occasionally why there was an autonomous Air Force in the first place. Hence this book. The arguments herein are primarily that the Air Force was a de facto autonomous service from its early beginnings in 1907, and that its formal separation from the army was a mere formality after years of divergent evolution. There is some evidence to support this position, and the book makes an excellent case that the air arm does not belong under the oversight of an infantryman.

What has become the case over the years, however, and with the authors of this work either miss or studiously avoid discussing, is the Air Force’s pathway of divergence from the Army continued throughout the Cold War and its aftermath. Today we have not just an autonomous air service, but one that appears to be developing increasingly independent of the strategies, doctrine, and tactical considerations that drive the other three services. At some point between 1947 and 2001, the Air Force crossed a line between autonomy and independence.

This is no simple matter of semantics. The matter has reached the point where the Junior service now no longer provides the aerial support required by sister services. This issue is part of what drove Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to appoint Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz as Air Force chief of staff in 2008. Gates and his successors are going to have to contend with an Air Force is growing in budget hunger, even as it falls its ability to deliver airframes on target and drifts further away from the integrated approach to conflict championed by its sister services.

American political theatrics being what they are, at some point, not only the autonomy but the existence of the air arm will be called into question in the parts of Washington where decisions of this nature can be made. Shutting down the Air Force in America’s political climate would be impossible. But until the service shakes its thinking clear of the conflict that created it (World War II) and the conflict that formed it (the Cold War), it will struggle to retain relevance in an increasingly budget conscious capital, China bogeyman or no.

Dangerous Thresholds: Managing Escalation in the 21st Century

A sobering PDF book from the folks at the RAND Corporation, who subtly let the Air Force know that miscalculation is getting easier, not harder, in a world where the rules are no longer agreed between two guys at either end of a hotline.  The Air Force cannot be too happy to hear this. More than any other service, most of the punch that the air arm can deliver comes from strategic weapons, and this book appears to make a quiet case for even more careful control over weapons of mass destruction.

Airborne Assault on Holland

Waves of paratroopers land in the Netherlands ...

Image via Wikipedia

This book gives us the perspective of the US Air Force on the story made familiar in Cornelius Ryan‘s epic A Bridge Too Far. As you read through this account, even if you’re familiar with the events of Operation Market-Garden, you’ll realize that the Air Force’s side of the story has not been well told.

What is most fascinating about this account, however, is the Air Force’s own admission that while it did everything that it could to help beat back stiff German resistance, airpower was unable to secure the victory. This must come as a sobering realization to airmen dedicated to the proposition that air power is decisive in battle. Clearly at a tactical level in World War II, this was not the case, despite the presence of some of the best close air support tacticians, practitioners, and equipment ever produced.

If you have read other accounts of this campaign, you’ll find this work to be of great interest.

Air Warfare and Air Base Air Defense 1917-1973

McGuire Air Force Base

Image via Wikipedia

In his foreword to this excellent PDF book, Air Force historian John F Kreis notes that most histories of air warfare revolve around the actual combat, and far too few if any examine the issue of combat support or, as he does in this volume, air base defense. The author believes that this is an oversight, and I would agree.

Some of history’s more renowned tactical air commanders, most notably Air Force Major General Claire Chennault, commander of the Flying Tigers and later the 14th US Air Force in China in World War II, were late to discover that their ignorance of the challenges and necessity of air base defense undermined and sometimes erased their successes in the air.  It was almost as if, once liberated of the ground, these otherwise fine aviators and leaders forgot that it existed.

In this comprehensive (if not exhaustive) tome,  Kreis examines the entire topic of air base defense from the perspective of all the countries involved in combat, starting in World War I, and running all the way through the Vietnam War.  Despite hints that the air arm has learned its lessons about base defense, the author suggests that there is still more to be learned. Indeed,  if the recent experiences of the US Armed Forces and NATO in Afghanistan are any indication, air base defense remains as vexing as ever for both air and ground commanders.

This book belongs in the library of even the casual military historian.

Air War Over South Vietnam, 1968-1975

Cessna A-37B Dragonfly attack planes of the So...

Image via Wikipedia

Historian Bernard Nalty gives us a look into the way the air war in Vietnam changed after the Tet Offensive in 1968. His selection of dates is not arbitrary. The growing opposition to, politicization, and micromanagement of the war after Tet, as well as the shift of operational responsibility to the Republic of Vietnam Air Force (RVNAF) changed the way in which the air war was conducted, and arguably gives a preview of the challenge faced in air warfare in our current conflicts.

Keep in mind that this is a service history, published by the U.S. Air Force. Political considerations and bias do enter the report and should be accounted for. But this makes the candor with which Nalty examines a few of the less flattering aspects of the period – the drugs and personnel issues, the over-extension of the B-52 force – the more interesting.

It is also worth noting that while Nalty’s aim is to tell the story of the air war, he does not limit himself, and provides a great deal of context and general history. As such, this book is a worthy addition to any library on the war.

Air Superiority in World War II and Korea

On May 21, 1982, four retired U.S. Air Force generals – James Ferguson, Robert M. Lee, William Momyer, and Pete Quesada – sat down at a table in the officers’ club at Bolling Air Force Base and took a hard look at the lessons they and the air service had learned in the course of their careers. Free of the constraints placed on serving general officers, the four have a far more frank discussion than they would have had while in uniform, and through this pdf book the reader gets to be a fly on the wall.

You can feel the ghosts in the room: Mitchell, Spaatz, LeMay, Chennault. A superb and fast read, and oral history at its best.

Air Power in Three Wars: WWII, Korea, and Vietnam

From left to right, an A-10 Thunderbolt II, F-...

Image via Wikipedia

This pdf book examines the evolution of air power and air power doctrine from 1939 to 1971 through the eyes of one U.S. Air Force officer, General William Momyer, who lived and commanded through the three wars.

The three-and-a-half decades covered in this volume witnessed the most fecund period of technological advances in military aviation, and the evolution of air power from an uncertain, secondary role in warfare to a core position in tactical and strategic thought.

What is fascinating to watch, though, is how doctrine did not develop so much as ossify in the face of battlefield experience and the vagaries of Presidential grand strategies. Momyer, unconsciously, is a living example of this paralysis of thinking that suffused Air Force command. The lessons he learned in World War II colored his views of Vietnam: the proper role of air power in that conflict, he suggests, was to take the war to the North and, presumably, even north of Friendship Pass.

In this Momyer exposes himself as a proven tactician and commander but a failed strategist, and in this he has much company from among his peers. It was the rare and career-reckless officer during that period who questioned the Holy Trinity of Strategic Bombing, Missile Forces, and Air-to-Air warfare, and Momyer rose to four stars worshiping at the alter of Billy Mitchell, Carl Spaatz, and Curtis LeMay.

But Momyer’s strategic failings do not make his memoir less interesting, and he offers lessons that we ignore today at our peril. His calls for de-centralized command and control, flexibility of forces and of thinking, and strong close-air support balance his open disregard for interdiction, his devotion to strategic bombing, and his call for massive “shock-and-awe” applications of airpower in an age where such thinking was already failing to address a new strategic reality.

Air Power for Patton’s Army: The 19th Tactical Air Command in the Second World War

Otto P. Weyland

Image via Wikipedia

One of the most consistently underrated factors in the Allied victory in Europe during World War II is the quality of tactical air support to the troops on the ground. Each for its own reasons, the Army and the Air Force tend to underplay the importance of tactical air support to their operations.

By delving into how General George S Patton worked with his counterpart at the XIX Tactical Air Command, General Otto P. Weyland, this book underscores how strong air-ground coordination actually changes the traditional rules of battle, and arguably was much of the secret sauce behind Patton’s successes in his advance across France, Germany, and Czechoslovakia.

A fascinating read for historians of the period.

Air Power and the 1972 Spring Invasion

As the ground war in Vietnam was handed over to local Vietnamese forces as a part of Richard Nixon’s “Vietnamization” strategy, the leaders of the Republic of Vietnam could still call on a substantial U.S. air contingent to support operations.

This book is designed to prove the necessity of air support to ground operations. In this it succeeds. Where it has appeared to fail is in convincing the leadership of the Department of the Air Force to shift focus to air support and interdiction instead of the Cold War imperatives of air superiority and strategic bombardment.

A subtle and thought-provoking read.