Moammar Gadhafi was killed last week by Libyan rebel forces on the ground, but his regime would never have met its end if not for the Western air power that targeted his troops from the skies. As Washington considers slashing $500 billion from the defense budget over the next decade, the lessons of Libya should give pause to anyone whose plans will reduce the U.S. military's ability to control the air. The United States cannot fight in the future with a hollow Air Force.
Allied air power saved the Libyan revolt from being crushed at least once, if not twice, this past summer. Nearly 8,000 allied strike sorties kept Gadhafi's forces on the defensive, destroyed their command-and-control network, and eliminated much of their supply infrastructure. Much of the direct air-combat activity was borne by the British and French but, as then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted, without U.S. air-refueling tankers, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, the NATO missions would have been severely hampered and largely ineffective.
Considering the broad range of U.S. interests and commitments around the globe, the capabilities offered by the U.S. Air Force will remain essential national assets. As Mr. Gates argued shortly before leaving office, in the post-Iraq/Afghanistan future, the U.S. is more likely than not to be unable or unwilling to commit large numbers of ground forces to overseas campaigns.
If the Army loses up to 10 brigade combat teams and shrinks by as many as 75,000 troops, and with the Navy at its smallest size since World War I, there will be fewer traditional military options for projecting U.S. power and deterring or defeating adversaries. Any land and naval forces sent into harm's way will be smaller, with fewer reserves to call upon. And all of this will be happening while China develops missiles to target American aircraft carriers and modernizes and expands its air forces, including developing a fifth-generation fighter-bomber. The result will almost certainly be an increased burden on the U.S. Air Force.
Fighting from the air reduces U.S. casualties on the ground. Air power can significantly destroy an adversary's strength, making follow-on operations far easier. The Air Force's unique global airlift and air-support capabilities, and long-range targeting and precision bombing, provide the umbrella under which ground forces and naval forces can act with impunity and assured lethality.