Navy Enthusiasts Get Air Diplomacy Wrong

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Navy Enthusiasts Get Air Diplomacy Wrong

Adam Lowther responds to Robert Farley’s critique of the U.S. Air Force’s use of “soft power.”

Robert Farley’s recent critique of a 2011 article I wrote for the Diplomat makes some interesting points, yet requires a reply.

Two points deserve particular focus:

First, Farley writes, “The USAF remains substantially behind the Navy in how it conceptualizes its contribution to ‘soft’ or ‘smart’ American power.” To substantiate this claim, he compares the Navy’s latest strategic guidance from 2007 to an Air Force document written immediately following the Soviet Union’s demise. If Farley would like to compare apples to apples, it is more appropriate to pair the Navy’s Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power with the Air Force’s Global Partnership Strategy (2011). In the latter, readers will find a broad overview of the many soft power activities the U.S. Air Force currently conducts. For example, the Global Partnership Strategy mentions 86 different security cooperation programs and activities the USAF employs as part of its soft power efforts. The Air Force’s Aviation Enterprise Development program is worth highlighting because so few are aware of its role in promoting the development of modern civil aviation practices and infrastructure across the developing world. Here, air advisors work with host nations to develop the practices that an advanced nation relies on to ensure safe, secure, and efficient aviation. Remember, this is only one of 86 programs or activities.   

What may be surprising to many readers is that the USAF and USN engage in many, if not most, of the same types of soft power activities. This should actually come as no surprise since each service is tasked to perform their respective missions within their domains.

As a former U.S. Navy sailor, I have some experience in “maintaining the global commons.” What Farley does not address is why the Navy is focused on the global commons. The simple fact is that since the end of World War II, demonstrating relevance is proving increasingly difficult for a Navy built around large combat fleets. Where the Air Force has successfully adapted its platforms for missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, the Navy is fighting to remain relevant and justify its share of the golden mean. Focusing on soft power and the global commons is a shrewd move in a tightening budgetary environment.

While Navy supporters like to point out that 70% of the earth’s surface is covered by water, they seem to forget that 100% of the earth’s surface is covered by air — with no place on earth out of the U.S. Air Force’s reach. This is a point that is not lost on nations in the Asia-Pacific. It plays a major role in explaining why so many allied and partner nations are actively seeking to work with the USAF across a spectrum of activities.

America’s adversaries understand that airpower is the United States’ greatest asymmetric advantage. Thus, improving the capabilities of allies and partners is an attractive area of collaboration for them and allows America to conduct diplomacy from a position of strength.

Second, Farley writes, “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.” This point fails to acknowledge the concrete diplomatic efforts (system maintenance) of the U.S. Air Force. The USAF plays a pivotal role in the International Telecommunications Union’s diplomatic processes related to spectrum management and satellite communications. And as the leader within the American space community, the Air Force has and continues to play a central role in promoting the peaceful use of outer space along with providing space situational awareness to the international community. 

The Air Force has focused less on soft power missions in regard to traditional airpower operations over the past 20 years, but for good reason. When the Army and Marine Corps left Iraq after Desert Storm (1992), the Air Force stayed behind for Northern Watch and Southern Watch, which lasted until Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) began in 2003. At the same time the Air Force was maintaining no fly zones over Iraq, airpower was playing a central role across the Balkans — winning a war from the air in Kosovo (1999). Before Airmen had time to rest and refit, Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) (2001) began in Afghanistan and is now in its second decade. Constant operations are ensuring that the Air Force remains focused on combat operation, rather than contemplating theories of warfare.

The last time Airmen really had the time to reflect on what they had learned and what might come to pass were the interwar years. It was during that period, when Billy Mitchell and Hugh Trenchard developed the theory behind strategic bombing.        

Fiscal realities will inhibit the Air Force from engaging airpower diplomacy at its full capacity. With a shrinking fleet of aircraft and a declining number of Airmen, senior leaders are and will continue to make tough choices between conducting soft power missions and organizing, training, and equipping to fight and win the nation’s wars. The demand for airpower has remained high over the past two decades. That is unlikely to change in coming years. Offering means by which the USAF can effectively and efficiently perform both roles is an area where an opportunity to contribute exists.    

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.