Wrestling the Initiative from Airpower
New Thoughts for a New Era
Certainly the use of manned aircraft is important in warfare, and has been for about 100 years. It is not however all important, and an excuse to neglect the training and equipping of traditional means of combat, such as land and seapower. The most powerful bombing armadas are useless without some support from naval fleets and armies to back them.
Despite what you might hear, there is little doubt it was airpower which won the Battle of Britain. This should not be a reason for the Army and Navy to feel shortchanged, but an acknowledgment on how at certain decisive points in a campaign the air forces are most crucial. While airpower can win battles, the final victory still depends on numerous ships, like those which ferried the millions of tons of supplies so crucial is keeping Britain alive and fighting. Also these same vessels were needed to ferry the millions of troops to the continent to physically seize, occupy, and destroy the German war-making apparatus.
Now is the time for the Navy especially to seize back the initiative from airpower advocates. Rejecting the myth that planes can substitute for seapower has given us smaller fleets filled with hard to build vessels under the assumption they can only operate under the forbearance and protect wing of the fighter bomber. This may have been true in times past, but the warfighter now carries much of his own airpower with him. Drones, V/STOL planes, helicopters, precision missiles, all in the decades since the World Wars have not lessened our need for aerial firepower, just made us less dependent on a central, inflexible bureaucracy. In so doing, close air support is less concentrated but more effective.
Destroying the Myth
Earlier on land, during the October War between Israel and Egypt, the latter for a time destroyed the myth of the Israeli Air Force invincibility by the use of surface to air missiles and old fashioned anti-aircraft artillery. Since then, Western aerial armadas seem to have made a decisive comeback, through the use of sophisticated tactics, anti-SAM missiles, and stealth technology, though this can be deceptive. The current dominance of airpower has only come at immense costs and dramatic reductions in numbers of planes. The once mighty USAF seems to be dieing of old age, replacements programs are floundering, and the collapse of manned air now seems only a matter of the last surviving F-15 or F16 airframe.
The sea service must prepare itself for this inevitable collapse with a renewed emphasis on hulls in the water. A Navy cannot survive without ships, any more than an army without troops. A surface fleet might exist without aircraft carriers, but the carriers could never control the sealanes, or even survive on their own without essential escort ships, mines ships, antisubmarine ships. The surface combatant and the submarine are the new capital ships, the core of the fleet, and they themselves need assist from smaller vessels, frigates and corvettes which will allow these high end vessels to guard against the rare but likely major conflicts.
The American and British air forces are reducing their force structures to accommodate a handful of very expensive and supposedly invincible superfighters. Apparently, the fewer multi-mission planes are supposed to perform the functions of many other fighters, and thus be cheaper to operate. Proof of the folly of this plan can be seen by the large quantities of older legacy planes, F-15s, F-16s, and Tornado’s which continue to soldier on, as superfighters aren’t very useful for low tech COIN fighting. They are now joined by cheap UAVs, which can be purchased sporadically as needed, often adapted from off the shelf designs, instead of a decade’s long and politically controversial aircraft program.
Rejecting the Illusion
The Admirals must reject the illusion that airpower is a substitute for hulls in the water. It has never been and never shall be. Not in the 1940s when fighters and bombers were constructed in the hundreds of thousands, and the navies possessed tens of thousands of ships and small craft. Not even during the Vietnam War, when the jet fleets reached their stride, and ships were still required to interdict arms smuggling along the Mekong Delta and elsewhere. Certainly not today, with plentiful aviation capable vessels in the arsenal of the world’s fleets, and the same planes have shrunk from thousands to a few hundred, while the pirates and peer threats multiply against the Navy everywhere.