Success breeds complacency, or so the old saying goes. For a military force, that's a particular issue, and one that could seriously endanger the future endeavors of the United States Air Force. In a new piece at War on the Rocks, retired Lt. Gen. David Barno and Dr. Nora Bensahel, of the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C., break down how the USAF's absolute dominance of the skies over the Middle East and Afghanistan could hamper its future successes.
The pair point to the change in warfare over the decades. In World War II for example, the US Army Air Corps and later Army Air Force were exceptionally effective, fighting back agains the Luftwaffe and dominating the skies by war's end. But more than that, they were familiar with sacrifice. According to Barno and Bensahel, there were more US airmen lost in Europe than marines in the Pacific, as Axis air defenses shredded entire bomber crews. Later, in Korea, USAF pilots set themselves apart against Chinese, North Korean, and even Russian pilots, while the Vietnam conflict saw pilots come to grips with advanced air defenses.
But with the Gulf War, it's like someone switched the game's difficulty from Very Hard to Very Easy. Saddam Hussein's air defense network, for example, wasn't as thorough or as deadly as North Vietnam's. Combined with brilliantly effective planning, US forces steamrolled the Iraqi Air Force and its air defenses with minimal losses – today's USAF hasn't lost an aircraft to an enemy fighter since 1991 or an air defense network since 2003. Today, the biggest danger to pilots and aircraft are training accidents.
This evolution of conflict has bred an Air Force that's gotten used to its dominance, Barno and Bensahel claim. They haven't faced a true challenge since Vietnam, but more than that, they're not familiar with loss. The pair claim today's USAF lacks the resiliency and willingness to sacrifice that allowed it to dominate the skies of Europe, Korea, and Vietnam.
But there are ways of fixing it. The War on the Rocks piece is thorough and excellent, giving an in-depth look into how success can actually harm a military force in a way that isn't immediately apparent. Check it out.