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

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