GROUNDED: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force

Robert M. Farley, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, 2014, 272 pages
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For nearly two centuries, On War, by Carl von Clausewitz, has been primer on the interface of war and politics and the nature of war itself. The basic argument of this work is that the U.S. Air Force has never been effective in dealing with the realities of war as described by Clausewitz. Rather, from the outset as a component of the U.S. Army, the Air Force has persisted in the delusion that it could lift the fog of war; that it could win wars without boots on the ground; that technology would inevitably bring improvement, supremacy, and domination of a clearly understood battlefield from a vantage point high in the air and even over the horizon. Rather than over the horizon, the Air Force was over the rainbow, according to this author. And the lure of technology and victory—without mud or blood (on our side)—seduced politicians of most persuasions during the century of airpower.

After laying out his argument that Clausewitz remains valid, Farley traces the development of airpower history from early in the twentieth century into the twenty-first. He deals with the wars and the interwar periods, the creation of the independent Royal Air Force, Billy Mitchell, Giulio Douhet, and the other advocates of airpower above all, and the changes in aircraft technology over time. He finds that advocates in and outside the service have consistently exaggerated the effectiveness of airpower, whether in the bombing campaigns of World War II or in the drone forays of the current era. Despite the myth, winning wars requires boots.

In fact, the delusional Air Force and its backers have hampered, if not endangered, the effort they were to have supported. The belief in strategic airpower minimizes close-air support and general assistance to ground forces. That’s an immediate battlefield problem. More serious is the way that the promises of cheap and easy victories influences the civilian government, non-veteran as it is, to venture into risky escapades that inevitably lead to introduction of ground forces after the air effort prove inconclusive.

Farley contends that the Air Force is not useless—merely an overpriced attractor for those who would throw around America’s weight on the cheap. He lays out a plan for integrating air resources into the Army and U.S. Navy; cites instances where reintegration has occurred, primarily Canada; and argues forcefully, if not convincingly, for the abolition of the free-standing air arm.

There is probably no real chance that any of the author’s suggestions will come to fruition. The Air Force lobby is quite strong, and its contractors are spread throughout the myriad congressional districts. Still, Grounded does raise interesting questions, challenges the status quo, and should give pause to those who might be inclined to assume that the Army of today is for now and always, ideal and immutable. Unstated is the question: If the Air Force can lose independent status, why not the Army and Navy too?

John H. Barnhill, PhD, Houston, Texas