Same Wars, Different Fights: The Army and Air Force Visions

This article was originally posted on The Strategy Bridge.  We are sharing it here due to its outstanding contribution to  airpower dialogue.
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188th FW A-10 Warthog Fires Maverick

The Army of 2025 and Beyond will effectively employ lethal and non-lethal overmatch against any adversary to prevent, shape, and win conflicts and achieve national interests. It will leverage cross-cultural and regional experts to operate among populations, promote regional security, and be interoperable with the other Military Services, United States Government agencies and allied and partner nations. Leveraging the Total Force, it will consist of a balanced, versatile mix of scalable, expeditionary forces that can rapidly deploy to any place on the globe and conduct sustained operations within the full range of military operations. Composed of agile and innovative institutions, Soldiers, and Civilians, the United States Army of 2025 and Beyond provides strategic advantage for the Nation with trusted professionals who strengthen the enduring bonds between the Army and the people it serves.[i]

The United States Air Force will be a trusted and reliable joint partner with our sister services known for integrity in all of our activities, including supporting the joint mission first and foremost. We will provide compelling air, space, and cyber capabilities for use by the combatant commanders. We will excel as stewards of all Air Force resources in service to the American people, while providing precise and reliable Global Vigilance, Reach and Power for the nation.[ii]

The joy and torture of being human is that we only know our individual, finite, fragile moment. The visions of our futures that we create are informed by these moments. The world has changed since the American military rebuilt itself in the 1980s. In 1980, agrarian modes of organization, especially in conservative military organizations, were effective means of mass organization. Centralized controls based on the Levee ‘en Masse had not been obsoleted by updated modes of war making, and the military had no reason or means of re-thinking itself. But in the 1980s globalization and the information age began to devolve from nation states to the individual. And the collapse of the Cold War created frontiers that America was not ideologically or cognitively ready to step into and dominate. This is the institutional moment in which the U.S. Army and Air Force have created their visions of the future.

The U.S. Army as an institution had to re-learn how to defeat this new threat in the mountains of Afghanistan and cities of Iraq. It had to re-learn to build regional expertise and understand of the environments in which it was fighting. It had to re-learn how to thrive in complex human and physical environments. It had to learn to fight enemies who were leveraging the increased power of the information age; combine hard power with soft power. The Army had to learn to fight connected individuals, operating in societies that with which it was not familiar.

The recently released Army Vision reflects this new reality. The goal of thriving in complex, alien environments by building a broad base of regional expertise and soldiers who understand the strategic components of complex systems is now reflected in the Army’s vision for the next decade. Interoperability, balance and versatility, scalability (i.e. purposeful organization), expeditionary, agility, and innovation are goals of their organizations. More importantly, these are also driven down as goals of the soldier.

The Air Force, meanwhile, has not seen the same threats to their supremacy that the Army has. Globalization and the growth of individual power has not yet extended into the high technology, high cost world of air power and devolved its capabilities to non-state actors in a meaningful way. Instead, the Air Force has had to find its ability to support the joint partnership by providing air power in close coordination with the tactical elements of the Army. The goal for the Air Force has been to drive access to air power down to the ground user who needs it. This too is reflected in the Air Force’s vision.

This comes from the difficulties that the Air Force experienced coordinating air power with Army units in Operation Anaconda. The initial removal of the Taliban regime is held up as a glowing example of air power enabling small units and coalition partners to defeat larger conventional forces. But operation Operation Anaconda was a disaster of inter-service coordination. Combined Joint Task Force Mountain did not believe that it needed as much air support as it ended up requiring and did not closely coordinate its planning with the Combined Air Operations Center or Air Liaisons in the area. The Air Force and Army were both caught flat footed when Al Qaeda resistance was heavier than expected and the Air Force had to scramble to provide support, sometimes with disastrous consequences.[iii]

High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAVs offer an important high footprint persistent platform for ISR and networking payloads.

High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAVs offer an important high footprint persistent platform for ISR and networking payloads.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued, there came a growing focus on integrating Air Force members into Army units in order to improve coordination at both the staff and tactical levels. The demand for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets saw the Air Force begin to increase its capital and manpower investments in both manned and unmanned ISR platforms and work to bring these to soldiers at the tactical level.[iv] This experience was formative for many Air Force leaders. Internally, there have been massive changes in the Air Force over the last 10 years. A lot of the major commands may be the same or small variations on consistent themes. But the missions, aircraft, people, and mindset are very different inside those commands than they were 15 years ago.

The Air Force vision is highly focused on providing air power to the joint user. It begins with a joint ethos, building trusted relationships with the combatant commander, and advocating for air power’s compelling capabilities. Subordination to the joint fight has overcome the early airpower advocate’s hubris.

It is also a very inward-looking vision. The Air Force vision comes from lessons learned fighting enemies with a very limited ability to damage it. The Air Force is not worried about enemy threats to its ability to operate. It is worried about the challenge of working with joint partners. This is not a vision that is worried about technical, tactical challenges. It is concerned with organizational, operational challenges.

The Army has been the dominant joint partner in the last 15 years of war. The Army believes that this will continue into the future, as small wars and hybrid wars are won by boots on the ground closing and finishing the enemy. Either through destruction or engagement with counterinsurgency tactics. The Army will be “…interoperable with the other Military Services, United States Government agencies and allied and partner nations.” The difficulty for the Army is finding a way to fold itself into joint concepts like AirSea battle and the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons. We will have to wait for more information to come out this fall to see on paper how the Army will be rolled into the joint fight in more conventional operations.

These two visions are a result of the last 15 years of fighting experience that the Army and Air Force have built. They are both highly divergent, and also complimentary. The Army has taken the brunt of the changes that have occurred in the global civilization since the fall of the Soviet Union and is now learning to operate against connected and individually powerful enemies who operate in complex social and urban terrains. The Air Force has been finding its connection to its joint family, overcoming the hubris of early airpower advocates and finding a voice in the joint fight. The two services probably fight better together now than at any other time in the past. But can that hard won cooperation be sustained with such radically different visions of their futures?

Kurt Degerlund is an Active Duty Officer in the USAF who writes on leadership, airpower, and international relations. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent those of the US Air Force, the Department of Defense or the US Government. You can follow him on Twitter @kjdegs.

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One thought on “Same Wars, Different Fights: The Army and Air Force Visions

  1. The author should be applauded for his refreshingly corporate view. With an unnerving shift in global context and in a time of such financial paucity and military scrutiny, adopting a holistic approach to military solutions has become more important than ever. Moreover, if policy ambitions are maintained at the global scale, the sheer diversity of mission sets demands that we do things differently. That requires a common view, integrated solutions and shared innovation. At a more grand scale, collegiate thinking has to extend towards better integrating our trusted partners and allies. We must share the burden. To successfully confront the surge in complexity, whether in the Pacific, the Da’esh Crescent or a renascent Russia, we must march together.

    No one is arguing that to represent the uniqueness of one’s own service is misplaced loyalty. After all, advocacy forms a essential element of esprit de corps. But it is equally important to recognize that this should never be at the expense of our collective aim – to secure national objectives. Force can constituted and applied in many ways, depending on the desired outcome. But the strategic qualities of humility and to be comprehensive will remain constant.

    There is no better example of what can happen when colloquialism, internecine strategy and moral weakness combine than Operation ANACONDA (as though we needed reminding). Even as I observed the confusion from the relative comfort of a CAS wheel, tried to distinguish friend from foe and unravel the convoluted reality, I had already lost two of my closest American friends. Pride should never exclude common sense and our most basic obligations never be obscured by egotism. The tragic irony was not lost in subsequent analysis that identified the ‘..often detrimental effects of bespoke single-service cultures that are purposefully inculcated into our officer cadre’, which in this specific example, divided and conquered from within.

    Most disturbing perhaps, is the monotony of this basic lesson from which we are seemingly unable to learn. Sure, a lack of inclusivity has long mired joint outcomes but when there is a deep swathe of historical evidence to support the intrinsic value of harmonization, we should collectively hang our heads in shame at the consequences of not being morally stronger – either in the planning room (had we been present), to identify shortcomings or vulnerabilities, or worst case, during the immediate signs of failure.

    But I also applaud the author’s brave optimism – that through 15 years of shared adversity, the status of service integration is about as good as it has ever been – a nexus of political and operational pressures have forced us to better interact and interoperate. There is little doubt over the need to maintain and protect those rare and special relationships. I, as only one example, have no greater respect than for those who I have served to protect, in the land, maritime and air environment. But it is perhaps naïve to promote this undertaking as a simple one – true integration requires time, resource, stamina, compromise and a deep-rooted trust. There is no room for narrow-mindedness. It is the joint thinkers, surely, willing to forego their ‘..individual, finite, fragile moment’ who are best-suited for senior leadership positions. The enduring, irritating dilemma is that wide, more strategic loyalty is not necessarily the best way to excel within the realm of one’s own service.

    And for the pessimists, just as things looked bleak enough, the dawning of the emerging context is also stacked against us – an ‘operational lull’, fast-approaching changes in the administration and concurrent strategic reviews of our military expenditure infer that the tedium of single-service posturing is likely to return – nay, is positively encouraged. So it should be no surprise to the author that disparities exist between our views of the future or our respective service’s role within it – cynically, narratives are too easy to shape and sculpt so that they better justify investment and relevance.

    So divisive have these narratives become, in fact, that we risk undoing everything we have already learnt – unnecessary bravado creates only one thing – deep-rooted, mutual skeptism. We must reward those who best form joint military teams, recognize and value each other’s impressive expertise, and think comprehensively – it is a valid tactic, a formidable strategy and our only hope of survival.

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