American Airpower = Soft Power?

Robert Farley argues “there is simply no way for the Air Force to develop an independent service ‘soft power’ concept.”

Last year on The Diplomat, Adam Lowther of the USAF’s Air University argued that the United States should focus on developing “airpower diplomacy” in the Asia-Pacific region. By Lowther’s account, the pursuit of airpower diplomacy mostly involved the development of strong relationships with regional states in order to facilitate the basing of U.S. air assets in critical areas.  While the pursuit of bases surely demands deft diplomacy, this argument reveals that the Air Force remains substantially behind the Navy in how it conceptualizes its contribution to “soft” or “smart” American power.

The distinction between the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower and the 1991 Air Force White Paper Global Reach, Global Power is telling in this regard.  The former proposes a broad-based coalition for the maintenance of the maritime commons, while reserving capabilities to deter or defeat peer competitors.  The latter envisions a world kept in order by the flexibility and overwhelming threat of U.S. airpower. Both of these are visions of world order, with a linked conception between force and diplomacy, but we would not understand the Air Force’s contribution in traditional “soft” power terms.  While Air Force doctrine has matured in some ways since the 1990s, it retains this focus on hard power.

As Alex Vacca has argued, these different interpretations of force and the commons are bound up in the intellectual histories of airpower and seapower.  While Mahanian theory clearly supports an imperial project, it also lends itself to the kind of positive sum conception of maritime power found in the Cooperative Maritime Strategy.  Seapower enables commerce, and consequently maintaining the freedom of the seas has wide, if uneven, benefits for all nations. 

The theoretical history of airpower has a far more kinetic pedigree. Giulio Douhet and the early airpower theorists envisioned wars fought by city-destroying fleets of heavy bombers. While airpower theorists have mellowed over the years, the most important thinkers still conceive of airpower in kinetic, war fighting terms rather than in terms of systemic maintenance.  Navies only rarely fight pirates, but they do so much more often than air forces fight hijackers, or even drug smugglers. 

Moreover, Lowther’s conception of airpower diplomacy rests less on management of the commons than on preparation for high intensity, kinetic warfare. Establishing forward bases does in fact require the development of relationships between the United States and host countries, but there is little specific connection between such a policy and historical conceptions of airpower.  The United States Air Force, like other air services worldwide, plays little role in the day-to-day management of the air commons. The 2010 Center for a New American Security (CNAS) study “Contested Commons,” revealed very conventional thinking about airpower’s contribution to the air commons; the primary contribution of the USAF lay in its ability to punish rogue states and defeat anti-access systems.  The Navy makes a similar contribution, but also engages in a continual effort to ensure that maritime and littoral commerce can operate in a safe, secure manner.

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Simply put, the United States Air Force is not a tool honed for “soft” or “smart” power. Its understanding of the commons is at odds with the idea of a positive sum game. This is not to say that airpower (whether manifested in the USAF or otherwise) does not have a critical role to play in the future of U.S. defense policy in the Asia-Pacific.  Rather, it is important to specify the contribution made by each instrument of foreign and defense policy.  The Navy has devoted substantial intellectual and material energy to developing “smart” and “soft” power tools for engaging with diplomatic partners, and has indeed made such engagement a critical element of its overall approach to maritime security. The Air Force has yet to develop a conception of “soft power” more complex than “friends make the exercise of hard power easier.”

It may be that there is simply no way for the Air Force to develop an independent service “soft power” concept.  Not all tools are appropriate for all jobs, and we should be clear about these limits when we approach inter-organizational debates.