Tag: Air Force

Clear Strategic Thinking About Drones

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

Note: Last week (on October 7, 2014) I had the privilege of speaking at the West Point Philosophy Forum on the subject of “Killer Machines” (aka drones).  A representative version of my remarks follows:

…we should start with the proposition that drones are simply another, arguably more effective and more efficient, variant of airpower. Drones are a tactical weapon that should be “neither glorified nor demonized.”  So how should we think strategically about this new airpower tool?

Unfortunately, in invoking strategy, many look to simple “cost benefit analysis” (Stimson Report, p. 11). Journalist Tom Ricks prefers a different term, the “Law of Conservation of Enemies.”  Or, more famously, right here at West Point this past May 28, the Commander in Chief stated that in using drones, “our actions should meet a simple test: we must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.”

The problem with this analysis is that it considers each strike on it’s particular tactical merits. For example, did “we” finish that engagement +1 or -1?  We end up seeking a series of tactical victories in the hopes that the overall picture will end up favorable to “our” side.  This is the rough equivalent of a football team measuring the net thrust of an offensive versus a defensive line (i.e. who pushed who in what direction, and how far).  You can see how it might be a useful indicator, but must acknowledge that this only tells one part of the game’s story.  

Beyond this narrow tactical focus on “sum of battle,” there is more to thinking strategically about a particular tool like drones.  We should look to other measures; how we can use this weapon in a sustainable and comprehensive way; will this produce a durable strategic effect consistent with our vital national interests?


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Drone Warfare: The Sky’s the Limit

By First Lieutenant Jimmy Byrn

The sailors of the U.S.S. George Washington never saw it coming. In a matter of minutes the bridge was in flames, the flight deck severely damaged, and hundreds of personnel wounded or killed. They hardly had time to launch their own aircraft before they were swarmed by scores of fast-moving, heavily-armed robots with no fear of death and the ability to outthink even the smartest human being. And worst of all, this was only the first wave.

This scenario is no longer the stuff of science fiction movies. The possibility of planning for an event such as this may be mere decades away and the world is going to have to contend not only with new conventional drone doctrine, but also the question of where to draw the line with respect to the use of drones in conventional warfare.

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Technology, Organizational Design, and Future Jointness

By Professor Robert Farley

Major Cavanaugh’s post brings to the fore one of the most critical issues facing any defense establishment: the relationship between technology and organizational design. How does the way in which we structure our military organizations affect military technological innovation? The short answer is that institutions both shape and manage technology.  The services set priorities for procurement and innovation that lead to technological transformation.  This is as it should be; specialists in land, air, and naval warfare know what they need, and should have a hand in pushing the defense industrial sector in the right direction. At the same time, organizations have to respond to disruptive, unanticipated technological change.  Military success over the last century had depended on having the capacity to manage such change.

Yet we struggle with major reform to our institutions; bureaucracies have ways of protecting themselves, often by mobilizing political influence. Institutions are good at pointing out how important they are, and what critical roles they play in existing structures. But granting that the technological environment in which we plan for and fight war in the future will differ considerably from the environment that exists today means that we have to consider how our institutional arrangements will shape the future. 

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The Last Jet Fighter: The Strategic Consequences of Structural Trends in United States Fighter Aircraft Development – by Christopher M. Davis

“As you know, you go to war with the Army you have.” [1] 

   Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, 2004


When speaking to American soldiers in Kuwait, a participant confronted then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about the lack of up-armored vehicles to protect personnel from improvised-explosive devices (IEDs). By the time of the town hall meeting in December 2004, IEDs had killed 252 American servicemembers. These deaths accounted for 25% of the total deaths caused by enemy action in the same time period. Rumsfeld explained the problem with the quote above. In the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter identified the problem: “[The Pentagon] believed these wars would be over in a matter of months. Accordingly, since it normally takes years to develop new capabilities, the Pentagon saw little value in making acquisitions unique to the environments of Afghanistan and Iraq that would be irrelevant by the time they were ready.”

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Reader Riposte: The Death of the U.S. Air Force & The Rise of the U.S. Air Machine Force

Note: What follows is a very thoughtful email, in response to my essay, “The Death of the U.S. Air Force & The Rise of the U.S. Air Machine Force.”  Due to the specific nature of the writer’s role in piloting unmanned aircraft, the Air Force has asked him not to divulge his name (only initials). I wonder if the organization would ask the same for an A-10, F-15, or F-35 pilot?


Dear Major Cavanaugh,

I read your recent post about the future of the Air Force and the related role that Remotely Pilot Aircraft (Merriam-Webster be damned) have to play. While the article is in many ways compelling, I believe that it broadly misinterprets the effects of RPAs on the future of strategic thinking in the Air Force and beyond. Instead, I believe that RPAs have a valuable role to play in achieving strategic ends instead of tactical goals.

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The Death of the U.S. Air Force & The Rise of the U.S. Air Machine Force – by Major Matthew Cavanaugh

The Death of the U.S. Air Force?

 The Air Force is getting crushed these days.  The Boston Globe just ran an opinion piece that called for scrapping the organization.  University of Kentucky scholar Rob Farley has supported the same, both in Foreign Affairs as well as his new book, Grounded In simple form, the argument is that the Air Force organization is redundant, and that such redundancies ought to be the first to go in a budget-constrained era. A reasonable question is asked: “Why does the navy’s army have an air force?”  Since there is already an air combat wing in each of the other services – why not just fold the Air Force’s portfolio into the Army and the Navy – just think of the administrative cost savings!

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