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Wrestling the Initiative from Airpower

February 5, 2010

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.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 6, 2010 8:13 am

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 2/6/2010, at The Unreligious Right

  2. February 5, 2010 4:11 pm

    Some good points. It is always about balance.

    There should always be enough ships. However there has to also be enough air power. Any Navy ship without friendly air cover can get killed; AEGIS or no.

    As for Vietnam, it was Linebacker II and the B-52 and….remember that needed USN air power from ships for SEAD/DEAD… that brought the North to the Paris Peace Table.

    As for the comment above about German U-boats for get that it was the closure of the air gap in middle 1943 that started killing off the U-boat.

    But again, balance is important in land, sea, air conversations. Sustaining control of the air is the first step in any war. Without that; expect a lot of casualties.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 5, 2010 1:21 pm

    Vic, sadly we may have to wait unti the Navy loses ships for them to realize their fleet is too small. It’s the same every war.

  4. February 5, 2010 12:21 pm

    No, it is toyitis. They love their toys, and so do we to come here and read about them. The Chinese say that the U.S. adopts nifty new tech but can’t use it well because the necessary social changes don’t happen. I agree and that pattern goes back as least as far as “the happy times” when German U-boats were happily sinking all kinds of ships within sight of U.S. shores with little response. The same pattern showed in the lack of adjustment to ways of doing things in Hawaii to prevent Pearl harbour when everybody knew the screws had been tightened on Japan. Social – cultural changes are slow – and can be deadly slow. The “old age” pattern is normal when an entity is unable to change to renew itself. The real question is whether the huns/mongol horde is coming from within or from without to clean things up.

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