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Do We Really Need The Air Force?


President Obama will also face heated partisan battles over the budget he sent to Congress last week. The $3.9 trillion request includes cuts to the U.S. military, which grew exponentially with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Under the plan, the number of troops will drop to a level not seen since World War II. The Air Force would lose its Cold War-era tank busters and U-2 spy planes. But there would be great investment in high-tech planes and guidance operations systems. One academic has an even bolder idea for reorganizing the military. He says the U.S. needs air power but not an Air Force. Disband it and divide its assets between the Army and the Navy. Robert Farley is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. He's also the author of "Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force." Robert Farley, thanks so much for being with us.

ROBERT FARLEY: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, this is a provocative argument. I mean, the Air Force has been a key component of every war since its inception in 1947. I mean, it's clear that in the current financial climate the U.S. military is likely to reduce in size. But why focus on the Air Force? Why is the branch to go, you say?

FARLEY: Well, the reason that I focus on the Air Force is that everything we do in terms of modern military operations, whether it's peacetime or its wartime, involves cooperation between air assets, ground assets and sea assets. The reason we designed the Air Force in 1947 is 'cause we envisioned that there might be a way for the Air Force to fight independently. They might be able to have independent decisive effect in war. And what we found really over the years is that pretty much all war is joint, all war is cooperative. It always requires the services to work together. And in particular, everything the military does requires air. And so it makes more sense in my view to tear down that wall that exists between the sea and the land so that you have all capabilities you need within single organizations.

MARTIN: For generations, there was talk, though, that the wars of the future were going to rely solely on air power. Surgical airstrikes that can limit damage on the ground, reduce American casualties. You write that 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq changed that thinking.

FARLEY: Well, really, I think that the entire history of the Cold War changed that thinking and in virtually every war that we fought since 1947, there's been this vision of decisive, independent air power. It was there in Korea. It was there in Vietnam. It was certainly there in 1991 in the Gulf War and it's certainly been apparent in the wars on terror. But in every case, that vision of air power which can solve war all on its own has fallen short. There's always been a requirement that air power has to work cooperatively with land power and sea power.

MARTIN: Would the Army, Navy and Marine Corps be able to sustain that added responsibility?

FARLEY: It would be a significant short-term expense, there's no question. Sometimes I laughingly say that we would need to find thousands and thousands of more uniforms. But that's actually true and that would be an expense. But I think in the long term what we would find would be that supply would be simplified, logistics and training would be simplified. The weapons that we buy would make more sense in terms of how we think about future threats. In the long term, we would actually have a more rational and more cost-effective military.

MARTIN: The reality of this actually happening, though, as you probably realize, is extremely low because this is not just a matter of downsizing and reallocating assets. The Air Force, like other branches, has a distinct history, lore and culture. I mean, there's an emotional attachment that generations of air men and women feel towards this branch.

FARLEY: That sort of culture is extremely important to how our military organization can function, right? The United States Army also has a rich tradition. The United States Navy has a rich tradition, especially in aviation. So, it's a legitimate concern about sort of the espirit de corps of what future airmen, future aviators will have. But I think you can build an identity around being a soldier who happens to be an aviator, rather than an aviator specifically.

MARTIN: And isn't the counter-argument always, you can't predict what the next war is going to look like and who wants to be responsible for getting rid of an Air Force right before a conflict arises where the Air Force is the necessary tool to combat that threat?

FARLEY: Sure. But one of the ways you can deal with that problem is to create military institutions that are as flexible as they can. An army that can tack between ground power on the one hand or air power on the other hand rather than specifying organizations that are going to be good at one thing and then suck up a third of the budget.

MARTIN: Robert Farley is an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky. He joined us from the studios of member station WUKY. Thanks so much for talking with us.

FARLEY: Thank you.


MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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