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.