Air power: lessons from Libya
With resources thinning and China rising, the U.S. Air Force is all the more vital--yet it's due for major budget cuts

Senior Airman Nathanael Callon/US Air Force

A C-130J Super Hercules from the 37th Airlift Squadron, Ramstein Air Base, Germany, waits to be loaded with cargo March 21, 2011, here in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn.

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  • Gadhafi's regime would have never met his end if not for Western air power @michaelauslin

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  • If Army and Navy shrink, there will be fewer traditional military options left for deterring adversaries

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  • Air combat reduces US casualties on the ground and significantly destroys adversary strength

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Moammar Gadhafi was killed last week by Libyan rebel forces on the ground, but his regime would never have met its end if not for the Western air power that targeted his troops from the skies. As Washington considers slashing $500 billion from the defense budget over the next decade, the lessons of Libya should give pause to anyone whose plans will reduce the U.S. military's ability to control the air. The United States cannot fight in the future with a hollow Air Force.

Allied air power saved the Libyan revolt from being crushed at least once, if not twice, this past summer. Nearly 8,000 allied strike sorties kept Gadhafi's forces on the defensive, destroyed their command-and-control network, and eliminated much of their supply infrastructure. Much of the direct air-combat activity was borne by the British and French but, as then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted, without U.S. air-refueling tankers, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, the NATO missions would have been severely hampered and largely ineffective.

"Even as funds shrink, the Air Force must continue all its air operations, modernize its tactical fighter and tanker fleets, build a new long-range strike bomber, maintain its global airlift tempo, and increase its capabilities in space and cyberspace."--Michael Auslin

Considering the broad range of U.S. interests and commitments around the globe, the capabilities offered by the U.S. Air Force will remain essential national assets. As Mr. Gates argued shortly before leaving office, in the post-Iraq/Afghanistan future, the U.S. is more likely than not to be unable or unwilling to commit large numbers of ground forces to overseas campaigns.

If the Army loses up to 10 brigade combat teams and shrinks by as many as 75,000 troops, and with the Navy at its smallest size since World War I, there will be fewer traditional military options for projecting U.S. power and deterring or defeating adversaries. Any land and naval forces sent into harm's way will be smaller, with fewer reserves to call upon. And all of this will be happening while China develops missiles to target American aircraft carriers and modernizes and expands its air forces, including developing a fifth-generation fighter-bomber. The result will almost certainly be an increased burden on the U.S. Air Force.

Fighting from the air reduces U.S. casualties on the ground. Air power can significantly destroy an adversary's strength, making follow-on operations far easier. The Air Force's unique global airlift and air-support capabilities, and long-range targeting and precision bombing, provide the umbrella under which ground forces and naval forces can act with impunity and assured lethality.

Yet the Air Force is rapidly aging, with 30-year-old fighters and half its bomber force dating back to the 1960s. And the Air Force already receives the lowest percentage of defense resources (around 23%) of any major service.

To shoulder the burden of increased responsibilities, the Air Force will need the resources to improve its capacity to act globally. But funds for procurement, maintenance and operations are already projected in the 2012 budget to decline by over $2 billion, and some inside the Pentagon expect annual cuts of $10 billion or more in a few years, even before any sequestration-imposed cuts.

Even as funds shrink, the Air Force must continue all its air operations, modernize its tactical fighter and tanker fleets, build a new long-range strike bomber, maintain its global airlift tempo, and increase its capabilities in space and cyberspace. If the U.S. intends to remain the world's premier power-projecting nation, then we will have to adequately fund the aerospace force that allows us to reach anywhere on Earth at any time.

Air warfare will not be the answer for every battle we enter, but it may become our most visible means of force projection in an era of smaller Army and Navy units. From the high plateau of national security decision-making, a future president and his top commanders will expect readiness, not excuses, when they order the Armed Forces to destroy the enemy.

Being able to operate in both open and contested skies will ensure that any U.S. land and sea forces we send into combat will remain completely protected from the air, as they have been since the Korean War and as Libya's freedom fighters were this summer.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI

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