Wherefore the Air Force? A Review of Robert Farley’s “Grounded”

Robert Farley, Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2014). 

The future of the U.S. military may be in Canada’s past, contends Robert Farley. The book’s main argument is that an independent air force negatively impacts U.S. defence and security. Every branch of the military has its own parochial interests, but those of the USAF are the worst because they are most anti-Clausewitzian—meaning that they are most likely to ignore the ‘fog of war’, the need to disarm the enemy, and the fact that politics supersedes military action.

According to Farley, the idea of airpower as a ‘strategic fix’ has helped legitimize the USAF as a stand-alone service while perpetuating a myth that almost any political objective can be achieved by the right application of force from above. While airpower itself makes the U.S. stronger, he claims, the appropriation of (strategic) airpower by the USAF detracts from this strength by distorting the proper understanding of warfare. As he notes, the list of those who bought into “the promise that airpower can deliver quick, cheap, decisive victories” is long and not exclusively American. It begins with Winston Churchill and ends (for now) with Bill Clinton and “most other NATO leaders” during the 1999 Kosovo war, or with the civilian policymakers in charge of Israel Defence Force campaigns against Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in 2009.

While airpower itself makes the U.S. stronger, he claims, the appropriation of (strategic) airpower by the USAF detracts from this strength by distorting the proper understanding of warfare.

Farley discusses diverse reasons why it would be rational for the U.S. Army and Navy to swallow up the USAF’s missions and assets, but Clausewitzian theory is the main one. Searching for a more rational design of military institutions, he examines both Soviet and Israeli experience—but finds most promise in the path blazed by Canada’s Defence Minister Paul Hellyer half a century ago that unified Canada’s tri-service structure. This policy recommendation comes in full awareness of the curious afterlife of that military reform, and of the fact that the USAF stands no chance of actually being abolished in the future (barring some unpleasant ‘black swan’ event).

This book has been several years in the making. Farley’s original “Abolish the Air Force” piece appeared in 2007 in The American Prospect, and since then he has engaged audiences in different venues including Lawyers, Guns and Money, a blog he co-founded a decade ago. His argument has elicited reactions from the highest echelons of the U.S. military, including from the USAF Air Force Chief of Staff at the 2013 Air Force Association conference. (“Let’s just shoot this one in the head,” reportedly said the general.) Farley has helpfully collected links to his main engagements on his blog, in addition to rigging the book with multiple social media feeds. (Assuming the mean of 15 words per tweet, to date there is about two chapters-worth of material relevant to his argument on Twitter alone). In a few more months, I imagine every air force officer in the world—to mention just one target audience—will be familiar with Grounded.

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Farley likes to provoke and polemicize, but his is not a breezy book (à la, say, Thomas P.M. Barnett’s Pentagon’s New Map). Rather, it is a work of careful scholarship that reaches provocative conclusions only after a long review of key conceptual, theoretical, and historical questions in the study of armed forces and society, as well as in the study of causes and conduct of modern wars. The writing is also neither pretentious nor portentous; for anyone with even a modicum of interest in security and defence studies, Grounded will be a joy to read. As for experts, they are bound to find it illuminating for many reasons, not least because it is exceedingly rare to find an author who can discuss theories of Giulio Douhet, Hugh Trenchard, Billy Mitchell, John R. Boyd, or John Warden as authoritatively as those of James Scott, James Q. Wilson, or John W. Meyer.

It will be interesting to see what Farley does next with his subject matter. It is notable that conditions under which the USAF-induced distortions are likely to affect the White House, the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and similar kitchens of power (to say nothing of actors such as the media or mass publics) fall outside the scope of the book’s argument. The same goes for conditions under which the ‘strategic’ culture of airpower dominates within the USAF.

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Lastly, although the chapter on the evolving legal and moral requirements of strategic bombing provides an excellent review of the key issues, it stops short of reflecting on the ways in which broader dynamics of modernity might enable not simply systematic targeting of civilians from the air, but also systematic forgetting of the true cost of war. On this dimension, historians (such as David Edgerton, Susan Grayzel, Sven Lindqvist, Michael Sherry, Yuki Tanaka, Marilyn B. Young), sociologists (Michael Mann, Martin Shaw) and geographers (Derek Gregory, Ken Hewitt) have supplied us with no shortage of perspectives that can contribute to our understanding of how air campaigns became a commonplace (or “excessively attractive”, in Farley’s words) form of (liberal) democratic warfare. An attempt to integrate insights drawn from these more ‘critical’ literatures into an institutionalist explanation of contemporary warfare might well end up being as provocative as Grounded.

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