Sam Seitz

Of all the military foreign policy options available to American policymakers, airpower is perhaps the most seductive. It can be deployed rapidly to any part of the world and is much less costly in terms of lives lost than the deployment of ground troops. Thus, it is unsurprising that airpower is frequently overemployed and misapplied by the United States. The problem, however, is more complicated than a mere overuse of airpower. Fundamentally, American policymakers have drawn faulty historical lessons and failed to seriously theorize about airpower. Consequently, airpower is frequently employed in an inefficient manner. Equally concerning is the Air Force’s doctrinal rigidity and seeming inability to develop platforms in a timely fashion. These shortcomings tend to undermine and limit one of airpower’s primary advantages: its flexibility. None of this is to suggest that American airpower is lacking in capability or talent. Instead, it is to argue that there are fundamental problems with the manner in which senior American leadership employs its air assets and designs its future force.

What is Airpower Good For?

Before further exploring the criticisms highlighted above, it is helpful to briefly consider the strengths and weaknesses of aircraft in achieving strategic and tactical ends. Perhaps the paramount advantage that aircraft offer is their ability to strike anywhere on short notice. As a result, airpower affords policymakers the ability to credibly hold any enemy at risk, thus expanding strategic flexibility and strengthening conventional deterrence. The ability to transit to and from a combat zone also makes airpower ideal for limited interventions, as it eliminates the need to occupy adversaries’ territories. This reduces the risk of potential casualties and lightens the logistical burden imposed upon the United States. Airpower can also act as a force multiplier by improving situational awareness and granting small ground teams access to an immense amount of exceedingly accurate firepower. The natural advantage aircraft have by virtue of their access to the proverbial high ground is only magnified by their advanced sensors and, at least in the case of remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), long loiter times. Nonetheless, airpower is not a panacea. It is relatively ineffective at eliminating resilient and dispersed enemies, such as insurgents, and is generally not cost-effective. The F-22 and F-35, for example, have hourly flight costs of $33,538 and $28,455 respectively,[1] and these costs do not even include the price of munitions, which can range from several hundred thousand to several million dollars.[2] In short, it is entirely plausible that the United States could be spending several hundred thousand dollars to destroy a $15,000 truck in Syria.

Drawing the Wrong Lessons from History

Just as with any other military platform, aircraft have both advantages and disadvantages. The trick is to design strategies, doctrines, and platforms that accentuate the advantages while minimizing the disadvantages. Frustratingly, this kind of optimization has been rare. Perhaps the most compelling explanation for this failure is that policymakers conflate aircraft, which are simply instruments of war, with military strategy. In other words, instead of recognizing airpower as a means to achieve a particular strategic end, policymakers perceive airstrikes as a strategy in and of themselves. This mistake is largely attributable to the so-called “unipolar moment” of the 1990s, which appeared to demonstrate the invincibility of American airpower. After all, the 1991 air campaign made the ground offensive in Desert Storm almost perfunctory, and the results of Operation Deliberate Force and Operation Allied Force seemed to suggest that victory is attainable through airpower alone.[3] These lessons learned are misleading, though. Airpower failed to end the threat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq despite the comprehensive and almost decade-long no-fly zones (NFZs) enforced by Operations Southern Watch and Northern Watch. And while airpower certainly played an important role in Operation Deliberate Force, victory was only made possible by the efforts of Croatian ground forces.[4] Airpower also failed to create a durable peace in any of these conflicts, as this condition is usually only accomplished via the deployment of ground forces. Indeed, peacekeepers remain deployed in the Balkans to this day![5]

But not only are the lessons misleading, they are also no longer applicable because the unique conditions that defined the “unipolar moment” no longer exist. Take the 1991 Gulf War, for example. During that conflict, the U.S. stood alone as the world’s sole superpower, and it was able to conduct Desert Storm within a broad coalition of nations and with the support of the United Nations Security Council. These unique circumstances allowed the U.S. to deploy the full might of its armed forces and conduct the kind of effects-based and comprehensive, as opposed to gradualist, campaign that Director of the Iraq Target Planning Group Lt. Gen. David Deptula considers so critical to the Coalition’s success.[6] Similar conditions existed in the Balkans, as Russia was too weak to seriously complicate NATO air operations despite its opposition to the campaign. And yet, even these relatively benign conditions proved enormously challenging for allied air planners. Serbia, for instance, had 44 vintage SA-3 and SA-6 surface to air missile (SAM) systems and no air superiority fighters capable of challenging NATO jets. Nevertheless, the Serbs were able to shoot down two NATO aircraft, including a stealth F-117. Their relatively antiquated air defense was also extremely difficult to suppress, necessitating the use of 743 HARMs, 1,500 towed decoys, and extensive electronic jamming. And even with the use of all of these systems, Serbian air defenses were still able to fire as many SAMs on the last day of the conflict as on the first.[7] As a result, airborne ISR platforms were forced to fly less than ideal orbits, impeding the gathering of intelligence[8] and leading to wildly misleading battle damage reporting.[9]

Today, the situation is much different and vastly more difficult. For all the problems that Serbia posed to NATO aircraft in 1999, Syria is orders of magnitude more challenging. For one, Syria has almost three times as many SAM batteries as Serbia did in 1999. In addition, it houses 4,000 anti-air artillery pieces and thousands of man portable infrared-guided missiles.[10] Adding another level of complexity to the current situation, Syria has large numbers of Russian forces both on the ground and in the air, which necessitates time-consuming deconfliction and prevents the kind of maximalist campaign employed in Desert Storm. All these difficulties are compounded by the fact that the U.S. has around 450 fewer fighters now than it did in 2003.[11]

Concerningly, Syria is still a relatively benign environment compared to other theaters in which U.S. aircraft may be forced to operate. It is, therefore, naïve to assume that the kind of crushing air dominance of the past can be replicated in the present. Moreover, the often exclusively air-focused campaigns of recent years threaten to negate the value derived from jointness in military operations. Policymakers seem to view airstrikes and ground operations in an “either or” framework, forgetting that the ground and air domains are complementary. This overly Manichean outlook unnecessarily limits American options and completely ignores the fact that campaigns that are excessively air focused – Libya and Syria, for example – are tactically successful but strategically incompetent. The U.S. can, of course, still employ airpower to achieve strategic objectives, but contemporary air operations are frequently more constrained and less effective than in the past.

Overly Confident Procurement Decisions

The problem is deeper than simply misapplying lessons from the 1990s though, and its roots lie in the culture of Air Force acquisition. Paradoxically, the U.S. Air Force is both too risk averse and too confident in its long-term forecasting to generate a force optimized for the types of contingencies American aircraft will be forced to confront. The F-22 and F-35 platforms referenced above are perfect examples of this dynamic, as they represent aircraft that are optimized to conduct high intensity operations against near-peer adversaries in contested environments. Yet the primary conflicts in which the U.S. has engaged in recent years are anything but high-intensity. This is not the first time that the Air Force has deployed aircraft to combat zones for which they are poorly suited. During the Vietnam War, for example, F-4 Phantoms designed to neutralize Soviet strategic bombers were deployed in a dogfighting role. Unfortunately, the air-to-air missiles of the F-4 were unreliable and the aircraft lacked an internal gun, rendering it extremely ineffective at dogfighting.[12] The U.S., therefore, suffered needlessly high losses to an objectively inferior North Vietnamese air force.

Happily, the F-22 and F-35 are both perfectly capable of performing the missions with which they are tasked. Unhappily, they are woefully inefficient at these missions due to their inordinately high operational costs. Both planes are crucial to American airpower, but by investing so heavily in such high-end, specialty platforms, the Air Force has placed the overwhelming majority of its eggs in a single basket. This strategy is even riskier than it seems, as the kinds of platforms developed by the Air Force require many years to develop, procure, and deploy. As one CNAS report notes, “the pace at which successive generations of new weapons platforms are developed and deployed has, over time, slowed significantly. This trend has, again, probably been most significant in the Air Force, particularly among combat aircraft.”[13] Consequently, it is hard to rapidly adapt to changing priorities and tactical imperatives. When this entails deploying fifth-generation air superiority fighters against disorganized insurgents, it is simply wasteful. But when this means sending the wrong platform against a capable adversary, it is catastrophic.

The core issue is the Air Force’s procurement policy, not its budget. After all, R&D funding has been flat while defense budgets have been, on average, increasing moderately over the past two decades.[14] Platforms are extremely advanced but fairly conservative, prioritizing stealth and maneuverability over other features. This is not a problem in and of itself, but it becomes troubling when paired with the extremely long and protracted lead times involved in aircraft development. In other words, there is nothing wrong with adhering to a suite of capabilities that have proven effective, but there is a problem when future platforms, which will not be deployed for 15-20 years, hew too closely to status quo assumptions. As one Mitchell Policy Paper aptly puts it, “the USAF is facing a 35-year gap between fielding air superiority platforms… This would be an eternity during industrial-age aircraft development; it’s even worse for the fast-paced world of aircraft development in the information age.”[15]

In order to position itself well for future developments and contingencies, therefore, the Air Force should do a better job of hedging its bets by embracing a more modular and adaptive set of platforms. After all, “The larger the bet and the deeper into the future you go, the higher the number of black swans and known unknowns ready to rain on your parade.”[16] High-end fighters will certainly be necessary for the foreseeable future, but sinking one trillion dollars into a fighter program in a world of rapidly changing technologies and evolving great power relations is simply imprudent.

The Air Force has begun to move away from this focus on big-ticket platforms by embracing the “system of systems” concept.[17] “System of systems” seeks to create a distributed network of sensors within a battlespace to improve situational awareness and increase network resilience. Specifically, the hope is that while any one sensor platform is easier to destroy or jam than a traditional ISR or fighter platform, the sheer number and variety of sensor platforms creates a degree of durability that cannot be replicated by a single platform.

However, there is more room for growth. A 2015 CSBA study convincingly argues that current combat aircraft features are becoming less important for operational success. In particular, it claims that we are approaching the limits of stealth capabilities and are also approaching the point at which close-range dogfighting becomes obsolete. The authors of the report, therefore, support the development of platforms that are less expensive and rely on range, speed, and payload to achieve operational objectives.[18] These platforms would be relatively inexpensive and easier to produce, as they would not require the unique shapes and precision engineering of stealth aircraft. This would also allow for larger payloads, as weapons bays would not be constrained in size by the need to incorporate stealth features. As a result, aircraft could be more modular and adaptable, carrying a wider range of payloads to the battlespace. One such configuration, based on the Navy’s “distributed lethality” concept, would be an arsenal ship. This aircraft would not itself be a penetrating aircraft but could enhance the capabilities of penetrating fighters by acting as a missile repository. Instead of opening missile bays and engaging active radar, thus losing its stealthy signature, a fifth-generation fighter could enter contested airspace and simply relay target information to the non-stealthy arsenal ship, which could then fire standoff missiles.[19] This kind of flexibility and adaptability would also allow the Air Force to better perform both irregular and high-intensity warfare, as cheap, modular aircraft and sensor swarms are as valuable for ISR in Afghanistan as they are for supporting integrated air defense system (IADS) suppression in China.

It is also worth noting that, if the CSBA report is correct in its assumptions, it may actually be a positive development that the Air Force’s fleet of aircraft is shrinking. In the short-run, this situation presents problems for readiness, but it also suggests that the Air Force is free to experiment with new platforms and doctrines, as it is less burdened by a massive fleet of aircraft for which it has little use. The advantages of this circumstance become clear when one looks back at World War Two. In the interwar period, France held massive amounts of surplus military equipment while the Germans were almost completely disarmed. As a result, the French designed their doctrine around the equipment they had while the Germans designed their equipment around a doctrine that worked.[20] In other words, France was burdened with its antiquated forces while Germany could freely innovate novel tactics and platforms. The summer of 1940 suggests the German approach was the superior one, so perhaps the Air Force should appreciate and embrace the fact it is, at least in the short-term, moving closer to Germany’s interwar position.


The U.S. Air Force is the most capable and impressive air force in the world, and this is true despite the shortcomings at both a policy and procurement level identified above. As this paper has attempted to demonstrate, however, there are many areas where airpower could be better optimized to more efficiently and effectively realize operational goals. Specifically, the U.S. needs to do a better job of theorizing how best to use airpower in a more multipolar world complicated by the increasing employment of hybrid warfare. Air Force leaders also need to continue to move away from “too big to fail” projects like the F-35 and instead pursue more iterative and modular platforms in line with the “system of systems” concepts. This diffuses risk, decreases the time needed to adapt platforms to new requirements, and lowers the risk that future platforms are too closely based on antiquated technology and strategic imperatives.

However, there is a more general lesson for those seeking to use airpower: Focus on capabilities, not platforms and previous operations. What is important are the advantages accrued from operating in the air domain, not the particular aircraft and sensors operating in that domain. Put another way, policymakers should avoid the trap of becoming stifled in their thinking by the previous designs and uses of aircraft. NFZs were reasonably effective in the Balkans, but they are a poor choice for Syria. Stealth has proven to be a major advantage for American air forces, but there is good reason to believe it is becoming less important. None of this is to say that NFZs and stealth aircraft have no utility, but it suggests that the way in which policymakers think about airpower must change from focusing on how to use a platform to how to use airpower more broadly. Perhaps in the future, air superiority fighters will simply not be effective. Were this to be the case, it would not make sense to think about the problem in terms of how to design the next air superiority fighter. Instead, policymakers would have to conceive of the problem more broadly, asking how to achieve air superiority in general. To take the platform for granted risks conflating one possible means to an end with the end itself.

As noted above, air is a unique domain, as it is the only physical domain that touches every part of the planet. This allows air forces to respond rapidly to any part of the globe and makes them ideal for strike and ISR missions. As decisions are formulated regarding the employment and acquisition of airpower in the future, it would be prudent for policymakers to focus primarily on maximizing the advantages derived from operating in the air domain. Everything else – platform acquisition, tactical employment, and historical mission areas – should be secondary. This is not an easy feat to accomplish, as strategic cultures and parochial biases exist in the Air Force just as they do in every other organization. Moreover, the complexity and cost of air platforms tend to generate institutional conservatism and slow adaptation. Yet by continuing to move toward a constellation of flexible systems capable of being procured over years instead of decades, working to eliminate “too big to fail” projects, and constantly reassessing and optimizing to the strategic environment, the U.S. Air Force should be able to maintain its position as the preeminent air force on the planet.



[1] John P. Roth, “Fixed Wing and Helicopter Reimbursement Rates,” Office of the Undersecretary of Defense Comptroller, October 2, 2015, 2.

[2] “Program Acquisition Cost by Weapons System,” Office of the Undersecretary of Defense Comptroller, January 29, 2018, 13.

[3] David Deptula, “Planning and Executing the Air Campaign” in Desert Storm: 25 Years Later (Arlington, VA: The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, 2017), 18.

[4] Robert Owen, “Operation Deliberate Force,” in in A History of Air Warfare, edited by John Olsen, 201-224 (Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2010), 211-212.

[5] Michel Martin, “Why U.N. Peacekeepers’ Job Has Become More Dangerous In The Past 5 Years,” NPR, January 28, 2018.

[6] Deptula, 20.

[7] Mike Benitez and Mike Pietrucha, “Political Airpower, Part 1: Say No to the No-Fly Zone,” War on the Rocks, October 21, 2016.

[8] Benjamin S. Lambeth, NATO’s Air War for Kosovo: A Strategic and Operational Assessment (Santa Monica CA: RAND Corp., 2001), 111.

[9] Ibid., 129.

[10] Benitez and Pietrucha

[11] James C. Ruehrmund and Christopher J. Bowie, Arsenal of Airpower: USAF Aircraft Inventory 1950-2016 (Arlington, VA: The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, 2018), 44-48.

[12] Wayne Thompson, “Operations Over Vietnam, 1967-1973,” in A History of Air Warfare, edited by John Olsen, 107-126 (Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2010), 111.

[13] Steven Kosiak, Is the U.S. Military Getting Smaller and Older? (Washington, D.C.: CNAS, 2017), 2.

[14] Ibid., 3.

[15] Alex Grynkewich, “An Operational Imperative: The Future of Airpower,” Mitchell Institute, July 2017, 3.

[16] Benjamin Jensen and Neil Hollenbeck, “The Futures Problem: Why Big Organizations Have Problems Making Long-Term Forecasts and What to Do About It,” War on the Rocks, November 21, 2017.

[17] Cheryl Pellerin, “DARPA uses open systems to boost airpower,” U.S. Air Force, March 31, 2015.

[18] John Stillion, Trends in Air-to-Air Combat (Washington D.C.: CSBA, 2015), 58-59.

[19] Kyle Mizokami, “The Pentagon Is Building the “Arsenal Plane,” a Giant Flying Battlewagon,” Popular Mechanics, February 2, 2016.

[20] Robert H. Scales, “Forecasting the Future of Warfare,” War on the Rocks, April 9, 2018.


Deptula, David. “Planning and Executing the Air Campaign” in Desert Storm: 25 Years Later (Arlington, VA: The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, 2017).

Grynkewich, Alex. “An Operational Imperative: The Future of Airpower.” Mitchell Institute, July 2017.

Jensen, Benjamin and Neil Hollenbeck. “The Futures Problem: Why Big Organizations Have Problems Making Long-Term Forecasts and What to Do About It.” War on the Rocks. November 21, 2017.

Kosiak, Steven. Is the U.S. Military Getting Smaller and Older? (Washington, D.C.: CNAS, 2017).

Lambeth, Benjamin S. NATO’s Air War for Kosovo: A Strategic and Operational Assessment (Santa Monica CA: RAND Corp., 2001).

Martin, Michel. “Why U.N. Peacekeepers’ Job Has Become More Dangerous In The Past 5 Years.” NPR. January 28, 2018.

Mike Benitez, Mike and Mike Pietrucha. “Political Airpower, Part 1: Say No to the No-Fly Zone.” War on the Rocks. October 21, 2016.

Mizokami, Kyle. “The Pentagon Is Building the “Arsenal Plane,” a Giant Flying Battlewagon.” Popular Mechanics, February 2, 2016.

Pellerin, Cheryl. “DARPA uses open systems to boost airpower.” U.S. Air Force. March 31, 2015.

“Program Acquisition Cost by Weapons System.” Office of the Undersecretary of Defense Comptroller. January 29, 2018.

Robert Owen, Robert. “Operation Deliberate Force,” in A History of Air Warfare. Edited by John Olsen. 201-224 (Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2010).

Roth, John P. “Fixed Wing and Helicopter Reimbursement Rates.” Office of the Undersecretary of Defense Comptroller. October 2, 2015.

Ruehrmund, James C. and Christopher J. Bowie. Arsenal of Airpower: USAF Aircraft Inventory 1950-2016 (Arlington, VA: The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, 2018).

Scales, Robert H. “Forecasting the Future of Warfare.” War on the Rocks. April 9, 2018.

Stillion, John. Trends in Air-to-Air Combat (Washington D.C.: CSBA, 2015).

Thompson, Wayne. “Operations Over Vietnam, 1967-1973,” in A History of Air Warfare. Edited by John Olsen. 107-126 (Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2010).