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Why "Next War-itis"?

[ 0 ] June 29, 2008 |

Why does the Air Force have more trouble getting over the Cold War than either of the other services? The Army has rebuilt itself in response to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the Navy shifted focus to the littoral in the 1990s and to maritime maintenance in this decade. Particularly in the case of the Navy, procurement strategies have followed suit; whatever you want to say about the DD(x) and the LCS, they are NOT platforms intended to fight the Soviet Union. The Air Force? Not so much…

Gates expressed doubts that the United States will get into a shooting war with a “peer competitor” like Russia or China any time soon. After he was fired, the outgoing Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. “Buzz” Moseley, echoed those sentiments. Not [Michael] Wynne.

“My response to Secretary Gates in that interchange was my brother was shot down in Vietnam by a Russian surface-to-air missile that was sold to the North Vietnamese,” Wynne said. “I never considered Vietnam to be a peer competitor. But I lost my brother to the fact that some peer sold the weapon that killed him.”

Wynne’s defenders in the Air Force are equally unapologetic. While Gates has spent months railing against the military-industrial compl ex’s fixation on a showdown China or Russia — “next-war-itis,” the Defense Secretary called it — Air Force Maj. Gen. Charlie Dunlap, writing in the Tampa Tribune, says “the entire defense establishment nevertheless suffers from a ‘This-Waritis’ contagion.” Which means the bureaucratic and strategic battle that ousted the Air Force’s chiefs is far from over.

Right… because we certainly should pay much more attention to a notional, fifteen years away war against potential enemies over whom we have presumptive dominance than to the wars that we’re actually fighting. Good catch, Chuckie.

The larger problem for the Air Force is that both the Army and Navy have long traditions to borrow from, such that they are capable of “re-inventing” themselves while retaining a sense of identity. Both the Army and the Navy can also borrow from the histories of foreign military organizations; the Navy rather self-consciously styles itself as the modern equivalent of the nineteenth century Royal Navy. The Air Force lacks historical traditions to borrow from, both because it is such a new service, and because it has been a worldwide leader since its inception. Put briefly, the Air Force only knows the Cold War; it only understands conflict in terms of great power struggle, and as such all future planning (in contrast to short term compromises) will be oriented around that organizational purpose. To ask the Air Force not to think in terms of great power war is to ask it not to be the Air Force, but rather some other organization born at some other time for some other purpose. As such, Gates cleaning out of the brass isn’t really going to amount to much; it is literally in the DNA of the Air Force to act in this way.

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