Why U.S. Needs Airpower Diplomacy

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Why U.S. Needs Airpower Diplomacy

Better use of the U.S. Air Force is the most cost-effective and flexible approach to boosting the American presence in the Asia-Pacific.

The November 15 announcement by U.S. President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard that 2,500 American Marines would be stationed at Robertson Barracks near Darwin wasn’t a surprise to many defense and foreign policy analysts. Signals of a change in the Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific policy have been evident for some time.

They began with the Department of Defense’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, which suggested that the United States was preparing for a strategic shift. The 2011 National Military Strategy, the Department’s strategy document, made the administration’s shift clear when it said, “The Nation’s strategic priorities and interests will increasingly emanate from the Asia-Pacific region.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent article in Foreign Policy, meanwhile, made the president’s “pivot” abundantly clear. For those who had any lingering doubts, last week’s announcement should clarify where U.S. foreign policy will focus in coming years.

Admittedly, the shift is long overdue and would have occurred much sooner had the events of 9/11 and the ensuing global “War on Terror” not occurred. But, with the war in Iraq over and the war in Afghanistan winding down, it’s finally possible for the United States to focus where it has long thought its long-term interest lie. There is, however, one question that remains unanswered: Can the United States afford a buildup in the Asia-Pacific?

Given the United States’ current financial woes and the insatiable appetite of the American people for entitlement and welfare spending, there’s good reason to question “the how” of a greater focus on the Asia-Pacific. Defense spending is already taking a 10 percent cut over the next decade, and with the congressional Super Committee failing to reach an agreement to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit, sequestration will ensure that defense spending declines by 20 percent between 2012 and 2021. This makes a buildup in the region, at least on paper, appear difficult.

What makes affording a shift to the region particularly difficult is the fact that the Asia-Pacific’s distances make operating in the region much more expensive than operating in the West. By contrast, Europe is a rather compact continent where the distance between Washington, DC, and Berlin is closer to half that of Los Angeles to Beijing. To make matters more challenging, existing U.S. bases in Japan and Korea, for example, are among the United States’ most expensive—even with significant financial support from the host nation. And to make matters even more difficult, in some cases, local populations no longer support a permanent American presence.

These challenges impose a difficult set of requirements on a new U.S. strategy for the Asia-Pacific. Such a strategy should demonstrate that it relies on U.S. assets best able to overcome the challenges of distance; it must prove cost effective; and it is sensitive to the domestic and strategic position of partner nations. One approach is particularly well suited to overcoming these challenges.     

Airpower diplomacy, also known as building partnerships by the U.S. Air Force, offers some distinct advantages over any alternatives. Best thought of as the non-kinetic application of air, space, and cyber power, airpower diplomacy is a form of soft power that’s useful in strengthening existing relationships and developing new ones—while protecting American interests. The U.S. Air Force has successfully employed airpower diplomacy in one iteration or another for more than six decades. Its strengths are in three distinct areas.  

First, airpower, broadly speaking, is able to overcome the distances that make the Asia-Pacific such a challenging region. As the single largest feature on the earth’s surface, the Pacific Ocean makes it difficult for the United States to respond quickly with men and material to unexpected events in the region. With airpower, there’s no place on earth that the United States can’t reach in less than 24 hours.

However, aircraft must land, which is why building partnerships—of mutual interests—with countries in the region is a critical component of airpower diplomacy. For many nations in the Asia-Pacific, walking a careful line between China and the United States is the unenviable position in which they find themselves. As the most advanced air, space, and cyber force in the world, the U.S. Air Force is a desirable partner for many countries. This provides a natural advantage for the United States. However, ensuring that the U.S. doesn’t overplay its hand is important if airpower diplomacy is to succeed.     

Second, airpower diplomacy is a cost-effective alternative to the use of force. Since it’s a concept that focuses on the application of soft power, airpower diplomacy is far more than just American aircraft sitting on the ramps of foreign airfields. It builds partnerships through economic ties, training and support of local forces, humanitarian relief, joint operations, and much more. For example, Fifth Air Force, based at Yokota Air Force Base in Japan, has provided assistance to victims of floods, typhoons, volcanoes, and earthquakes on numerous occasions in recent years. The Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami (2004), Burma cyclone (2008), Indonesian earthquake (2009), and the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami (2011) are some examples of where airpower diplomacy played a leading role in the United States’ response to natural disasters. In the case of the Indian Ocean and Tohoku earthquakes and tsunamis, a strong American response led to improved relations between the United States and Indonesia in the first case and the United States and Japan in the second. This was airpower diplomacy at work.

An often overlooked example of airpower diplomacy is the U.S. Air Force’s Inter-American Air Forces Academy (IAAFA) at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. There, students from across Latin America attend courses ranging from aircraft maintenance to professional leadership. The school’s broader objective is to build a community of airmen with the skills to lead capable air forces in their home countries—making cooperation with the United States more likely.

In these and many other instances, airpower diplomacy acts as a cost-effective way for the United States to build partnerships with nations that share common interests. And, by strengthening relationships, the United States is less likely to find itself in a costly conflict with what could have been a partner.    

Third, airpower and airpower diplomacy don’t require permanent large footprint bases that are both expensive for the United States and a political irritant for many governments in the region. With the U.S. pivoting toward the Asia-Pacific, a growth in the number of American main-operating bases in the region would be expected. Airpower diplomacy, however, focuses on the use of joint operations, short-term deployments, and other temporary measures, enabling the United States to maintain a regional presence—demonstrating commitment—while eliminating concerns of an American occupation.

Flexible operations and arrangements also have the added benefit of proving to be less of a stressor in the host nation’s relationship with China, which is becoming increasingly important for every nation in the region. The United States’ attempt to conduct what Secretary of State Clinton calls “forward deployed diplomacy,” a strategy in which American airmen operate with their host nation counterparts at bases owned and operated by the host nation, may prove a far superior option to one resembling Cold War NATO where up to several hundred thousand Americans were stationed in Western Europe.     

With its focus on a wide range of soft power tools, airpower diplomacy is well suited to serve a central role in American foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific. Simply put, no other U.S. military capability provides the speed and flexibility of airpower.

As defense and foreign policy officials in the Obama administration refine the president’s regional strategy, they may want to give airpower diplomacy and its mix of diplomatic tools significant consideration. After all, no other approach is as cost effective, culturally sensitive, and responsive to the requirements of a complex and changing region.

Dr. Adam B. Lowther is a member of the faculty at the U.S Air Force's Air University. The views expressed are those of the author.