Air Forces and Asia: Interview with Robert Farley
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Air Forces and Asia: Interview with Robert Farley


One of our long term Flashpoints contributors, Dr. Robert Farley of the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky, has recently published a book titled Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force. In it, he makes the provocative case that the United States no longer needs an Air Force (as a separate department of the U.S. military at least). We sat down to ask a few questions about the argument and its relation to Asian history:

While you concentrate your book on the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force, the argument would seem to hold for any independent air force. What do the major Asian air forces look like?

This is a very interesting question.  Most post-colonial Asian states take the model of their former colonizer; Pakistan, India, and Malaysia all have independent air forces on the model of the RAF, for example.  Revolutionary states tended to adopt the Soviet or Chinese models, in which the air force was subservient to the army.  This includes China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Indonesia.  The Japanese case is complicated, but the JASDF is more or less an independent service within the Japanese Self-Defense Force.

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The PLAAF is, in particular, a very interesting case.  Historically, the PLAAF has been the very model of a subservient Air Force, committed to support of PLA ground operations.  However, the PLAAF has also been tasked with air defense, producing a different model than in the Soviet Union, which had distinct ground support and air defense services. The Vietnam People’s Air Force was designed along similar lines.  An air force that focuses overwhelmingly on air defense is a bit more defensible in practice than the sort of all-encompassing air force we see in the US and the UK, because there’s less need for collaboration with ground and naval assets.

As with all terminology, there are some definitional issues.  Most every country has some service or branch termed an “Air Force,” but the important questions are the extent to which that service has sufficient autonomy in planning, procurement, and training to be termed “independent.” Today, the PLAAF is taking on more aspects of an independent air force, but I don’t think that it yet carries the political heft of a fully independent service.

How have independent air forces played out in Asian history?

In World War II, neither Japan nor the United States fought with independent air forces.  The United States Army Air Corps was part of the U.S. Army, and the Navy had its own aviation branch.  The situation was similar in Japan, if a bit more equal in terms of total aircraft.  The Imperial Japanese Navy also had more responsibility for long range strategic aviation, including strike and reconnaissance.

Although interaction between the IJA and the IJN is regarded as historically bad, the main problems centered around politics and grand strategy, rather than around control of aviation. The Japanese system worked well enough for much of the war, until the demands of collaboration between naval and army air branches grew too great towards the end of the conflict.

On the American side, the tensions between the USAAF and the USN in the early stages of the war gave way to a fruitful division of labor in the later stages; the carrier arm of the USN cleared the way for the Twentieth Air Force to conduct the strategic bombing campaign of 1944 and 1945.

In Korea and Vietnam, tensions between the American services developed again, with the Army and Navy complaining about the commitment of the USAF to support of their operations. USN fliers in Vietnam also consistently outperformed their Air Force counterparts, to the enduring embarrassment of the USAF.

What are the implications of the U.S. Navy subsuming the U.S. Air Force for AirSea Battle?

The question of Air Force independence is central to how we think about AirSea Battle.  Like its namesake, AirLand Battle, AirSea Battle is intended to settle the differences between organizations and facilitate an integrated campaign. Unlike AirLand Battle, ASB involves the above board participation of the Air Force (ALB was Army doctrine).

If we folded the relevant assets of the Air Force into the Navy, we would still have a need for something like ASB, in terms of integrating all of the Navy’s capabilities in order to penetrate and defeat anti-access/area denial systems.  But the planning and debate surrounding ASB would happen primarily within the boundaries of a single organization, rather than as a negotiation between two.  This would considerably ease problems of planning, procurement, and assignment of responsibility, and might also ease the political problems associated with AirSea Battle by reducing the visibility of the discussion.

There is precedent for having a service to control all of the relevant air assets. The Soviet Navy, for example, flew its own versions of the major Soviet strategic bombers, using them as anti-ship missile platforms.  While the USN and the USAF undertook similar projects during the Cold War (B-52s armed with Harpoon missiles), and have explored using bombers in anti-shipping roles in the modern context (B-1Bs equipped to use LRASMs) , the bombers remain under Air Force control, meaning that bureaucratic barriers associated with training, terminology, and communications would need to be overcome for effective coordination.

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