I don’t like believing in conspiracy theories. But the “Pentagon Reformer” obsession with close air support at the expense of everything else is drawing my attention. The theory goes like this.
Starting in the late 1970s, there was a small group that came to be known as the “Defense Reform Movement”, which I wrote about at length here. The Reformers, already having lost most of their procurement battles by the time of the Gulf War, were totally crushed by the decidely not poor performance of the US military in that conflict.
This was in large part because of poor decisions on their part. In the past post, I mentioned that the popular image of high-tech weapons working put the Reformers on the opposite side of what they’d been used to. There were two others that hurt them. The first was that the reformers at this part largely ignored the politics of intervention in favor of focusing on an artificial technothriller war freed from restrictions. The second was that they had, from the start, a “chicken little crying wolf” attitude towards the military. Nothing it could do (except make A-10s) was right.
In 1991, the US got as close to that artificial war as it was going to get, with well-known results. While the Iraqis were a hapless enemy, and while much performance was exaggerated, there was still much the American-led coalition did to earn the victory. Most importantly, the claim that the new equipment was too ‘complex’ to go into a combat environment without breaking down was disproven.
In this environment, the Reformers stumbled. Pierre Sprey just kept yapping about how electronic junk was weighing down the aircraft and how the ideal air force was souped-up radarless F-5s and tiny radarless jet sturmoviks with nothing but 30 mm cannon. More just promoted the A-10 and just flailed around for criticism of everything else. One, William Lind, actually turned the trend towards unconventional war towards his benefit, aided by his er-interesting cultural views, but that’s another story.
But whether past or present, the Reformers have always, always screamed for CAS. Sprey talks of interdiction and strategic attack as totally useless, and talks only of close support, as shown in his rather misleading and biased ‘history’. (Yes, the battlefield-centric Luftwaffe was dominated by big bomber barons just because they built planes other than the underpowered, short-range Stuka.)
The neo-Reformer dominated War is Boring tells a similar tale, citing Sprey. I could go on and on-jets were in a very difficult position in that time period as performance improved so quickly that planes built as first-rate air superiority fighters soon became slow ground attack hand-me-downs, that those jets were nonetheless better for attacking defended targets (their speed made them harder to track and hit), that of course the Army wanted ground support planes and doctrine tailored to its view, and that it’s been sixty-five years since Korea and fifty since Vietnam.
I could also point out that in the Gulf War, air force commander Charles Horner essentially agreed with the Refomers and followed the actual plan reluctantly. Horner had the not-unreasonable concern of the Iraqis attacking into Saudi Arabia while the Coalition buildup was still in its weak, early phase. Thus, far from being a swashbuckling, deep-strike, blow-up-every-palace fetishist, he actually wanted an army-centric approach focused to holding this hypothetical attack off as much as possible.
But enough of that. Now I want to talk about the CAS Conspiracy. The conspiracy goes like this-the Pentagon Reformer focus on CAS is part of a deliberate “chain the beast” strategy. By taking away the tools of ‘easy’ military intervention-the long-range strike aircraft, the cruise missile, etc.., they can thus further the cause of noninterventionism by tying the hands of the policymakers.
Note that in political terms, I’d actually agree with most of their non-interventionist viewpoints. But the strategy is still a puzzling question. On one hand:
-Effectively all Reformers were/are politically opposed to every military action fought by the United States since the movement’s introduction. They were quiet about it for political reasons (especially in the 1980s, not wanting to appear like reflexive McGovernists).
-Thus the ‘chain the beast’ strategy makes sense given this context-shrink the capabilities of the USAF to prevent and hinder ‘limited’ interventions, while insisting you’re interested in keeping them strong for the unlikely-to-impossible ‘big war’ to avoid a backlash.
On the other:
-This implies much more coherence than it appeared they had. The Reform Movement was a loose, vague group based largely around opposition. Even if they had wanted something like this, there’d be doubts about having the skill to do so.
-Correlation is not causation. Pierre Sprey’s obsession with numbers above all else could be driving the push for thousands of cheap aircraft more than any deliberate strategy.
-The very incoherence would prevent such a strategy from being formulated. Some may have preferred it, some may have just been narrow in their views.
What do I think? I’m going with Other-3, that such a theory might have been considered by many, but that the movement was too disorganized to adopt such a concrete goal by itself. Sometimes my thoughts on it change, but it just seems the most right.