Plaw on Farley, 'Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force'

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Plaw on Farley, 'Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force'
Robert M. Farley 
Reviewer: Avery Plaw

Robert M. Farley. Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force. Studies in Conflict, Diplomacy and Peace Series. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2014. 272 pp. $26.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8131-4495-5; $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8131-6557-8.

Reviewed by Avery Plaw (University of Massachusettes, Dartmouth)                   
Published on H-Diplo (December, 2014)                        
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

Robert M. Farley’s new book Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force is an interesting read worthy of attention even if it does not convincingly establish its central claim that the U.S. Air Force (USAF) should be eliminated and its assets distributed among the other two services (the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy). The book draws as ugly a portrait of the USAF as one plausibly can (while acknowledging the bravery, sacrifice, and patriotism of individual service members). But even taking Farley’s depiction at face value, it is far from clear that the failings of the USAF warrant its wholesale elimination, or that the country’s security would be enhanced by such a radical move.

At the core of Farley’s book are three basic arguments. The first is that the central claim that justified the creation of an independent U.S. Air Force in 1947 was wrong. The creation of the USAF was therefore an error that should now be rectified. The second is that the USAF culture is indelibly imprinted with false beliefs about air power and its implications for the conduct of war, and that these beliefs have led us to develop (or in some cases attempt but fail to develop) the wrong aircraft. The third argument is that the air force culture is irrevocably committed to a belief that the fog of war can be lifted and something like full knowledge of our enemies can be obtained through aerial surveillance and reconnaissance. The combination of these errors have not only misled us in the way that we have conducted armed conflict, but may also have affected the wars we have (sometimes unwisely) chosen to fight. In summary, Farley suggests that the creation of an independent USAF has tended to lead us to resort too quickly to military force while simultaneously undermining our military readiness and military success in the field. In short, the USAF has caused more harm than good.  

However, even if all of this were established on, let’s say, a balance of probability, it would still fall short of the ambitious goal of demonstrating that the USAF should be abolished. The main reason for this is that even if the USAF is defective in important respects, there would still need to be a clearly and substantially preferable alternative available before a step as radical as breaking up the USAF and distributing its parts between the other services would make sense. While the book does lay out a set of broad guidelines for how such a transition could be managed, and even specifies who should get some of the prize USAF assets, it does not show that the end result will resolve the main problems that Farley attributes to the current air force. It also does little to assure the reader that such a transition will not produce new and potentially worse problems. 

The one case study of the reintegration of independent military services that Farley describes, the Canadian case from 1967 (which reintegrated both the air force and navy into the army), produced distinctly mixed reviews. On the one hand, a few commentators have touted improved “officer professionalism” and some have suggested that it began a move “in a direction that emphasizes jointness and cooperation” (p. 177). Farley also suggests that “some money was saved” (p. 176), albeit without specifying any amounts or providing any numbers or documentation.[1]

On the other hand, critics offer comprehensive condemnations of the entire project. For example, military historian and defense analyst Geoffrey D. T. Shaw assesses it as follows: “‘The kindest and most liberal summation one could give to the [Paul] Hellyer reforms for unification and integration [of the Canadian Armed Forces] is that as a military/social experiment they were demonstrated not to work. In effect, none of the goals spelled out by Hellyer were attained in any meaningful sense. A blunter estimation, and in accordance with all the soldiers this writer has talked to, would have to state that the Hellyer plan was an unmitigated disaster for Canada’s Armed Forces’” (p. 177). In particular, critics point out that “unification incurred serious resistance in the services” (p. 175), leading for example to the resignation of high-ranking senior officers, including the commander of the Maritime Command and six other admirals, and to deepened hostility and skepticism between the military and civilian leadership. Relatedly, “the problem of morale received a great deal of attention from military critics of unification,” and Farley acknowledges that “although quantitative evaluations of changes in morale over time are difficult to come by, most anecdotal accounts suggest that morale in the Canadian forces dropped after unification.” Most important, in Farley’s own words, “the effort to break service culture failed almost entirely, as the individuals within the Air, Maritime, and Land Force Commands remained loyal to their units and home services” (p. 176). 

So it is far from clear that the Canadian model offers a viable means of addressing the defects that Farley attributes to the USAF. It is also worth noting that the Canadian military of the mid-1960s is a very different, very tiny, kettle of fish compared with the contemporary U.S. military, with nothing of the latter’s high stakes, technologically cutting-edge procurement processes, or the enormous military industrial complex that supplies them. Moreover, as Farley notes, “Canadian military aviation has lacked a truly strategic component since the 1950s” (p. 178), whereas the strategic goals are important to U.S. aviation. It is finally worth noting that Canada was not at war in 1967 as the United States is at present, and is likely to continue to be, at least in the somewhat ambiguous sense of the long war against al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

So even accepting Farley’s central arguments at face value, I think that there remain reasons to be skeptical of his ultimate conclusion (i.e., we should abolish the USAF). But on closer examination, there are also some telling criticisms that can be raised against his three main lines of argument. Central to these lines of argument are three cultural tendencies Farley sees as endemic in the USAF: “The USAF has three distinct and enduring cultural tendencies that create political and military problems for the United States. The first is the belief in the uniquely decisive effect of airpower, which leads to problems with other military organizations. The second is the fascination with aircraft as objects of technology rather than as aspects of national power. Finally, confidence in the essential transparency of war, as opposed to the fog of war, colors the air force understanding of politics and conflict” (p. 29). 

Farley argues that each of these rejections reflects a fundamental “rejection of [Carl von] Clausewitz,” which, in his view, “is part of the DNA of the U.S. Air Force” (p. 30). Farley thinks, by contrast, that Clausewitz’s thought reveals the problems with an independent USAF, and particularly with the three cultural traits identified above. He writes: “The implications of a Clausewitzian analysis of USAF independence should be clear. In addition to creating artificial bureaucratic barriers that reduce the efficiency of war fighting, an independent USAF exhibits cultural traits that reduce its contribution to U.S. National Security. Confidence in the decisiveness of airpower creates a bureaucratic and procurement reality that leads to a lack of readiness and capability in wars that actually demand the disarming of the enemy. The fascination with technology and equipment helps produce procurement and doctrinal decisions based less on cost-benefit calculation in terms of the national interest and more on parochial organizational desires. Finally, disbelief in the fog of war leads to wildly optimistic assessments of the course of particular wars and military campaigns” (p. 40).The overall effect of these cultural traits, in Farley’s estimate, is to lead us to overuse military force while simultaneously undermining its effectiveness and inflating its cost. By contrast, in his view we would be better served by an integration of USAF assets into the army and navy because the most important uses of air power today and in the future are tactical and require close cooperation between air, land, and sea forces. Integrating the USAF back into the army and navy would therefore contribute to better preparation and use of military force, as well as providing better perspective on when and how we should go to war.

One important objection that could be raised to Farley’s first argument against the USAF is that there is at least some evidence that strategic bombing can have independent decisive effect. By an independent decisive effect Farley means that the “air force could win victory in war without interference or assistance of the army or navy” (p. 91). Part of the allure of this promise is the idea that “the enemy can be defeated without being disarmed” (p. 132)—that is, the air force can fly over enemy forces in the field and blow up the enemy leadership; key command and control, transportation, and communication infrastructure; industry supporting the war effort; or enemy population centers (on the World War II model), until the enemy is compelled to surrender. Farley contrasts these strategic goals with tactical efforts, like close air support, which focus on gradually destroying enemy forces in the field (i.e., disarming the enemy). 

There is at least one case that suggests that an independent decisive effect is possible, specifically Kosovo in 1999, where a three-month North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bombing campaign forced the retreat of the Serbian army. Farley acknowledges this case but argues that the circumstances were very peculiar and at any rate it may have been the threat of a ground campaign, or the powerful effect of unified Western opposition, that really forced the Slobodan Milosevic regime to back down. There are also other cases in which he also acknowledges that air power has had a significant impact, such as the Linebacker I bombing campaign in Vietnam in 1972 which destroyed a great deal of key infrastructure in North Vietnam, stalled a major offensive, and brought Hanoi back to the negotiating table. Still, Hanoi’s plans were delayed, not abandoned. This case therefore falls short of independent decisive effect. Indeed, in detailing the many cases in which strategic bombing has been disappointing in relation to the standard of independent decisive effect, Farley carries the balance of the argument that air force enthusiasts have sometimes exaggerated the potentially decisive effectiveness of air power alone.

The more important criticism of Farley’s first main line of argument is that the link between his claim that independently decisive strategic effect is doubtful and his conclusion that the USAF should be abolished is weak. His logic seems to run something like this: (1) “the air force won its independence on theories of the decisive effect of airpower on war,” that is, essentially, that strategic bombing could produce victory without “the need to disarm the enemy,” in other words, without having to destroy enemy ground forces (pp. 1, 30). (2) “The air force cannot provide independent decisive effect” because “as an empirical matter, the death and destruction caused by strategic bombing seem to actually increase the strength and vitality of these networks [which it targets]” (pp. 183-184). (3) But “if the air force cannot provide independent decisive effect, and instead exists only to support the other services in their aims, then it becomes harder to justify the organization’s independent existence” (pp. 183-184).

But I would suggest that this argument has two serious weaknesses. First, I think that it trades on a false dichotomy (between decisive independent effect and mere tactical support of other services). Effects can be independent and significant without being decisive. And there can consequently be good reasons for having an independent air force, even if one largely accepts Farley’s case that air power enthusiasts like Giulio Douhet, Billy Mitchell, Hugh Trenchard, and John Warden overestimated the prospect that strategic bombing would produce decisive effects.

Second, I would suggest that even if the argument for creating the USAF in 1947 was overstated, that realization alone would not necessarily warrant dismantling the USAF now. The reason is that the justification required to sustain an existing organization (here the USAF) is less demanding than that required to make the massive investment required to create that organization in the first place, and that even if the latter standard cannot be met the former may still be. In particular, the claim that air power can have substantial independent effect may be sufficient to warrant continuation of the USAF (even if it might not have warranted creating it). Moreover, it may in fact be that that the argument for substantial effect should have been (and perhaps even would have been) sufficient in making the case for an independent USAF in the first place.

Farley also presents some interesting evidence in support of his second main line of argument concerning the USAF’s obsession with technology, often without due consideration for what might be tactically useful. A key point here is that the USAF often makes bad procurement decisions, due in part to its emphasis on (for Farley, dubious) strategic rather than tactical goals. This is particularly apparent in regard to its fleets of strategic bombers. For example, Farley points out that the air force never used its 384 B-36s or its 2,032 B-47s or its 116 B-58s in combat. None of this expensive aircraft turned out to be adaptable to the kinds of conventional, asymmetric wars that the United States actually fought. Farley also points to some shocking ill-judgment and waste in relation to fighter procurement, in relation to the F-22 and F-35, for example. At the same time, he charges that the USAF has evinced little interest (and even tried to scrap) more tactically oriented aircraft like the A-10 Thunderbolt II or “Warthog,” and has shown inadequate enthusiasm for helicopters for tactical air support/close air support and air mobility. Certainly, Farley calls attention to what seem to be some cases of disturbingly bad USAF judgments in procurement priorities, but he cannot establish that such imprudence is indelible. Indeed, he acknowledges that a group of pilots with the USAF, the “Fighter Mafia,” was able to drive the developments of more practical aircraft, in particular the F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft. As he notes, “together, the F-15 and F-16 have amassed a remarkable record of success” (pp. 112-113). So while Farley is able to raise serious concerns about waste and poor judgment, he is unable to show that these problems could not be addressed within the existing institution.

Farley’s third argument again concerns the USAF’s indelible culture, here its denial of the “fog of war.” In essence, Farley charges that “air force fascination with analysis suggests a world without the ‘fog of war,’ in which consequences of certain actions can be determined with some specificity” (p. 36). However, he insists that “the state can see only certain things,” for example “planners will almost never have access to critical precise information about enemy capabilities and motivations” (pp. 37, 36). In his analysis of the Vietnam War, he remarks that “the fog of war remained, preventing the United States from fully penetrating either North Vietnamese decision making or the structure of the North Vietnamese economy” (p. 112). Obviously, exaggerating our knowledge of targets and their importance leads to errors in the planning and conduct of bombing campaigns. But Farley also stresses broader strategic errors over whether we should be conducting bombing campaigns at all and even over the armed conflicts with which we become involved: “The idea that uncertainty can effectively be eliminated tends to overstate the predictability of war, which in turn makes war more appealing to risk-averse civilian political leaders” (p. 36).

However, even if aerial reconnaissance and surveillance cannot entirely eliminate the fog of war, they can sometimes pierce it. This capacity has been enhanced by the increased employment of drones. In fact, as Farley recognizes, “one of the key attractions of drones is their ability to clear away some of the fog of war” (p. 158). Indeed, as he notes, “if neoclassical airpower theory is about leveraging intelligence and surveillance to achieve political and strategic effect, drones are the ideal platform” (p. 156). 

Farley does raise some concern about the civilian toll of drone strikes in Pakistan as reflective of imperfect intelligence, but the data being collected from media reports and on the ground suggests a sharply improved degree of accuracy in recent years which in turn suggests a growing skill at peering through the fog of war. For example, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which focuses on reporting any possible civilian casualty, has offered the following numbers from 2012 to 2014: in 2012, between 13 and 63 civilians were killed, representing approximately 12.5 percent of total fatalities for the year (of between 199 and 410); in 2013, between 0 and 4 civilians were killed, representing 1.32 percent of total fatalities (of between 108 and 195); and in 2014, 0 civilians are reported killed, representing 0 percent out of total fatalities for the year (of between 87 and 139).[2] These numbers suggest that the vast majority of those being killed are militants, and that the number and proportion of civilians killed have been falling rapidly. It is worth stressing that this is in an environment where the United States has no boots on the ground and where the enemy combatants not only fail to distinguish themselves from civilians but also actively hide among them. All of this suggests that drones have an impressive potential to pierce the fog of war when employed cautiously (whether or not they are always used that way). Farley responds to the Pakistan case by suggesting that these strikes were carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) rather than the air force, but recent reports have suggested that the CIA strikes are in fact flown by the air force under command of the CIA.[3] The key point, however, is that while Farley may have a point that the fog of war cannot be eliminated, there is growing evidence that air power can contribute to diminishing it. Moreover, there seems little evidence that the USAF is institutionally incapable of taking advantage of the enhanced surveillance capacity of new aircraft like drones.

In summary, in presenting his three main arguments, Farley exposes some serious concerns about the USAF, but falls short of firmly establishing his central claim that the USAF should be abolished. Obviously it is an ambitious claim, and has drawn a good deal of attention to the book, and that is a good thing because the criticisms he makes of the USAF are important and do need to be addressed moving forward. In particular, the need for better cooperation between the services, particularly in the kind of irregular warfare that we are engaging in today and likely will be conducting in the future, comes through very clearly. But a careful reading of his book also indicates plenty of areas where the USAF has recognized problems and made improvements (even paying more attention to Clausewitz). It is notable, for example, that the recent air campaigns from Kosovo to Afghanistan to Iraq and Libya are among the more successful and in the latter cases have featured a good deal of close air support. So while I did not find the book wholly persuasive in establishing the case for abolishing the air force, I did find it making a powerful case for reform which may gain a wider audience by invoking the idea of abolition.


[1]. The footnote that Farley provides (Canadian Military History Gateway, “Naval Resistance” [March 29, 2011], refers to a web-page maintained by the Canadian Military History Gateway with one paragraph detailing the Royal Canadian Navy’s hostility to unification. There is no data on (and little mention of) cost savings.

[2]. “Get the Data: Drone Wars, Obama 2012 Pakistan Strikes,” The Journal of Investigative Journalism (January 11, 2012),; “Get the Data: Drone Wars, Obama 2013 Pakistan Drone Strikes,” The Journal of Investigative Journalism (January 3, 2013),; and “Get the Data: Drone Wars, Obama 2014 Pakistan Drone Strikes,” The Journal of Investigative Journalism (January 11, 2014),

[3]. Chris Woods, “CIA’s Pakistan Drone Strikes Carried Out by Regular US Air Force Personnel,” The Guardian (April 14, 2014),

Printable Version:

Citation: Avery Plaw. Review of Farley, Robert M., Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. December, 2014.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Categories: Book Review
Keywords: Book Review, US Navy