The Pentagon was built to wage wars abroad, but much of its war-making has been inside the building. Interservice rivalry is a hackneyed phrase that fails to convey either the brutality of the bureaucratic infighting over budgets and resources that has always defined the place, or the actual cost in blood, treasure, and a succession of shaming military defeats that have resulted from the Pentagon’s endemic in-house competitiveness. For more than 70 years, the very structure of America’s military establishment has been tragically misaligned, and you don’t have to be a peacenik to think it’s time for a major reform.
In 2014, under pressures both of shrinking funds and of dramatically shifting strategic needs, this can begin to change. And, as a heretical article in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs dares suggest, the place to start might well be the abolition of the US Air Force.
When the Pentagon opened in the thick of war, in 1943, the US Navy was reluctant to move its command offices there for fear of being dominated by the Army. Even in wartime, the two services were already treating each other like enemies: The Army Air Forces refused to commit tactical bombers in support of Navy operations against German U-boats in the North Atlantic; the Army and the Navy fought separate wars in the Pacific. Ultimately, General Douglas MacArthur resented having to accept the Japanese surrender on a battleship, which so happened to be President Harry Truman’s beloved USS Missouri — a “Navy trick,” as the Army brass called it.
The National Security Act of 1947 was supposed to end such squabbling. But, by creating the United States Air Force as a stand-alone branch of the military, the overhaul made it worse. Before joining an arms race with the Kremlin, the Pentagon ran one with itself. In assessing dangers posed by Moscow, each of the services sounded alarms about Russia more with an eye on its own budget needs and desired weapons than any actual Soviet threat. The Air Force, seeking sole custody of the atomic arsenal, led the way in this, roundly preempting the Navy’s atom-bomb-capable supercarrier with its long-range strategic bomber. Undeterred, the Navy developed its own air force anyway, and so did the Army, with helicopters. The Air Force created myths of “gaps” — first bomber, then missile — that existed only in the minds of wing-wearing planners, and only long enough to ignite an explosion in Air Force warhead acquisition — again, overwhelming the Army and Navy as much as the Soviets.
But with the dawning of the age of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Navy decisively struck back with the Polaris submarine and a nuclear attack force that would prove to be far more invulnerable than either lumbering bombers or sitting-duck ICBMs. To this day, the most stable leg of the nuclear deterrence triad remains the submarine missiles, even as Air Force strategic bombing has long since proved to be irrelevant in asymmetrical wars, whether against the Vietnamese, Iraqi insurgents, or Al Qaeda.
Defense scholar Robert Farley’s Foreign Affairs article is entitled “Ground the Air Force,” and proposes folding it “back into its two sibling services.” After transitional costs, this would not only reduce the massively expensive redundancy of separate air power entities, but would remove one of the main engines of self-defeating inter-service rivalry. Moreover, abolishing the Air Force would merely ratify changes that are already happening: The redefinition of air power around pilotless drones is eviscerating the bomber-jacket culture of fly-boys; as the Air Force’s Minuteman nuclear missiles age into irrelevance, the officers in charge of them are failing tests and acting out. In other words, the Air Force’s responsibilities have eroded.
Whether the creation of the Air Force in 1947 was itself a mistake, rooted in fallacies about strategic bombing during World War II, is debatable, but few institutions have undergone less structural or ideological change across these decades than the Pentagon. Universities, churches, journalism, retail marketing, public schools, transportation, broadcast companies — all such enterprises have had to reimagine themselves again and again, while the Army, Navy, and Air Force have been walled off from pressures to change by coalitions of contractors, Congress, and surprisingly durable myths of invincibility.
But the wind-sock has shifted. Instead of tinkering around the edges of a bloated, unaffordable, and often ineffective national security establishment, the time has come for a major reinvention — starting with the Air Force. Off it should go into the wild blue yonder.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.