The Best Defense

Not so fast, Lt. Col. Cooper! First, let's discuss the value of right sort of airpower to support national security strategy

By Liesl Carter

Best Defense guest respondent

Over the past week, there have been three articles on Best Defense discussing Air Force Total Force. As a colleague of Luke Ahmann and someone who has sat across the table from Mr. Al Robbert from RAND, I am inclined to focus my comments on their discourse, but the latest article in this series, by Lt. Col Tom Cooper, makes an important point about airpower and how the current tit-for-tat cost comparison debate detracts from the critical need to focus our efforts on what is the right air component our nation. Lt. Gen Charles Stenner echoed these sentiments when he said, "I am done with dueling costs." So, I agree cost comparisons are only as strong as the assumptions they are founded on and do not advance the question of "What is right for our nation's defense?"

During the past decade, the strength of our total air force has been tested and has proven to be exceptional. The active and reserve components are equally ready and capable of meeting the operational airpower requirements of the combatant commanders. And I agree with Lt Col Cooper that "the Air Force embraced the reserve component as a cheaper way of ensuring capacity was available for the nation to provide airpower." This statement recognizes that the airpower discussion cannot be divorced from a force structure decision. While Lt Col Cooper would like the cost discussion to disappear, a critical conversation about the force structure needed to provide airpower is imperative.

If cost is set aside, then what are the right principles that should guide the proper mix of active and reserve components? Lt Col Cooper's point -- that the required airpower needs to support national strategy -- is the key. This strategy requires the air force to maintain a certain capability and capacity to meet a future spectrum of conflicts. The service also needs to ensure these forces are accessible. While these factors of capacity, capability, and accessibility have associated costs, there are other intangible factors that should also be part of any force structure equation. These include the effects of force structure decisions on the civilian-military gap and the retention of human capital. With these five principles (capacity, capability, accessibility, civilian-military relations, and retention of human capital) in mind, what force structure best supports the airpower required for our nation's defense?

The new Strategic Defense Guidance states the military will be able to "deter and defeat aggression by any potential adversary" and that we will be able to "project power despite anti-access area denial challenges." The military will do this by protecting "its ability to regenerate capabilities that might be needed to meet future, unforeseen demands, maintaining intellectual capital and rank structure that could be called upon to expand key elements of the force," and embracing the concept of reversibility. These national strategic priorities drive a force structure that maintains the most capability (e.g. modernized A2AD weapons and niche skills) and most capacity (airmen and equipment) available. It also requires the maximum retention of human capital possible, so as not to lose the operational experience gained over the past decade.

Cutting the reserve component is not the solution. By keeping a larger proportion of force structure in the reserve component, the Air Force supports the national priorities, embraces the concept of regeneration and reversibility, and maintains the highest level of experience and rank necessary to meet an unknown future. While cost comparisons, such as the RAND study, are interesting, they are a small piece in a much larger puzzle, and neglect the concept of value. The whole picture must consider what airpower capability and capacity is required to support the strategic guidance while maximizing the intangible value of the force. A move towards maintaining a larger proportion of the total air force in the reserve component is what will provide the best airpower for our nation's defense.

(Note: Interview conducted with Lt. Gen Charles E. Stenner on February 22, 2012)

Liesl Carter is currently a national security fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. She has served in both active and reserve components of the U.S. Air Force, and is an airline pilot in her civilian role. She holds a B.S. from the U.S. Air Force Academy and an M.A. from George Washington University.

Air Force

The Best Defense

From his captivity inside the Beltway, Tom calls for end to All-Volunteer Force

I had an article in yesterday's Washington Post that said that. Basically, I argued that the AVF has made it too easy to go to war and that we should re-connect the U.S. military to the American people by having a draft. (See Adrian Lewis for more on this.)  

--Bill Arkin says I am "dead wrong." He says I think this way because I am being held "captive inside the Beltway."

--Spencer Attackerman says my diagnosis is correct but my remedy would fail. He doesn't speculate on whether I am being held, or if so, where.   

--Some rightists saw my pro-draft argument as leftist.

But I think Rubber Ducky is right.

Lots of old guys like generals think that a resumption of the draft is a non-starter. I am not sure that is a view held by the younger set. Here is a note I got from a smart observer of the military:

I have a bunch of Facebook friends who are majors and lieutenant colonels. It has been fascinating to me that about 75 percent of folks at that rank agreed with your op/ed on abolishing the AVF. Among the Army GOs I think you would be hard pressed to find a single person who would take that position. One of the LTCs made the point that the generals hate the Draft era force because they blame it for Army's failings in the late 60s and early 70s. The bias is that the AVF never would acted in that manner. The younger guys don't see it that way.

Anyway, I found my very unscientific survey interesting. It does suggest there might be a pretty big generational gap on a issue where I thought everyone in the Army agreed. I am not FB friends with enough NCOs to know how they view it.

It suggests there might be more maneuver room on this issue in the future. 

Tom again: Anyway, here is the complete article that ran in the Post yesterday:

Since the end of the military draft in 1973, every person joining the U.S. armed forces has done so because he or she asked to be there. Over the past decade, this all-volunteer force has been put to the test and has succeeded, fighting two sustained foreign wars with troops standing up to multiple combat deployments and extreme stress.

This is precisely the reason it is time to get rid of the all-volunteer force. It has been too successful. Our relatively small and highly adept military has made it all too easy for our nation to go to war -- and to ignore the consequences.

The drawbacks of the all-volunteer force are not military, but political and ethical. One percent of the nation has carried almost all the burden of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the rest of us essentially went shopping. When the wars turned sour, we could turn our backs.

A nation that disregards the consequences of its gravest decisions is operating in morally hazardous territory. We invaded Iraq recklessly. If we had a draft, a retired general said to me recently, we probably would not have invaded at all.

If there had been a draft in 2001, I think we still would have gone to war in Afghanistan, which was the right thing to do. But I don't think we would have stayed there much past the middle of 2002 or handled the war so negligently for years after that.

We had a draft in the 1960s, of course, and it did not stop President Lyndon Johnson from getting into a ground war in Vietnam. But the draft sure did encourage people to pay attention to the war and decide whether they were willing to support it.

Resuming conscription is the best way to reconnect the people with the armed services. Yes, re-establishing a draft, with all its Vietnam-era connotations, would cause problems for the military, but those could never be as painful and expensive as fighting an unnecessary war in Iraq for almost nine years. A draft would be good for our nation and ultimately for our military.

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