The Problem with “Airpower”

By Tom Flounders

 Airpower is defined as “the ability to project military power or influence through the control and exploitation of air, space, and cyberspace to achieve strategic, operational, or tactical objectives. ” – Air Force Doctrine Volume 1, Chapter 2

The United States Air Force’s definition of airpower is merely a description of all Air Force activities. The use of this term in the USAF’s lexicon is unnecessarily confusing because a common understanding of the term does not include operations within the Space and Cyber domains. Therefore the definition of Airpower should not include Space and Cyber activities as part of the doctrinal definition of airpower as it needlessly makes a simple, common sense term confusing.

When used by American Billy Mitchell in “Winged Defense,” airpower simply meant the ability to do something in or via the air. This definition generally held true through the Vietnam War as General Momyer argued for centralized command and control of all air assets, to include the Army’s air assault helicopters and the USMC’s aviation assets.  And in 1990 and 1991, General Colin Powell’s description of the use and effectiveness of airpower for air strikes in Iraq focused on air planes of all types achieving their operational objectives in support of overall victory. Obviously, the operational environment today is more complex  than in 1925, 1968, or 1991, but operations in the space, air, and cyber domains certainly have not merged into a single term described by “airpower” in the last twenty-five years.

As the fledgling USAF integrated an increased number of programs, capabilities, and capacities into their formation, the definition of “airpower” gradually morphed into including all of these responsibilities. However, that conflates the common joint force understanding of the term with the USAF’s force en total. In fact, the Joint Force sees the term itself as self-explanatory. Joint, Army, and Marine Corps doctrinal documents do not bother to specifically define the term airpower (in the Joint Force’s parlance it is two words: air power.) This is despite the fact the Army’s Doctrinal Reference Publication 1-02 uses an average of 50 words to define single word terms such as counterattack, destroy, and secure.

However, the understanding of the term should not discount the ability for aircraft to make impacts on the other domains. Airpower should not exclusively mean operations within the air domain. History clearly demonstrates the ability for airplanes to achieve significant effects in the other domains. Whether it is ground attacks by fighter aircraft, jamming within the electromagnetic spectrum, or attacking naval assets in the maritime domain, airpower provides a flexible, adaptable tool for commanders to use to great effect. But to haphazardly lump in vast swaths of the USAF’s unique capabilities into a single term does those airmen a disservice.

Within the current doctrinal construct, the USAF essentially asserts that it achieves its role within the Joint Force by exercising airpower. This is vague and confusing. Therefore the Air Force should recognize the unique aspects of its three main components of air, space, and cyber operations individually and doctrinally state that it is no longer an airman’s responsibility to solely be “airminded” but instead to plan, coordinate, and exercise assets that affect the air, space, and cyber domains by separating them from the doctrinal definition of “airpower” and giving them a doctrinal definition in their own right.

Tom Flounders is a Major in the United States Army and is an armor officer. He is a student in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration at the Air Force Command and Staff College and a Senior Editor of Over the Horizon.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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