Hickam AFB, Hawaii – Walking up to Pacific Air Forces Headquarters, one immediately notices the pockmarked exterior of the building. The holes are not from neglect, but are a solemn reminder of December 7, 1941, when Japanese carrier-launched aircraft devastated U.S. naval and air forces on the island of Oahu.
In preserving the wounds of that day, the U.S. Air Force keeps alive a stark lesson on the centrality of airpower to conflicts past, present, and future.
Yet, America is at risk of forgetting the lessons of the opening act at Pearl Harbor. If current trends continue, the U.S. may lose our air dominance, imposing untold costs on our servicemen and women around the globe.
The Japanese attack on Hickam, Wheeler, and Bellows Fields is the forgotten story of Pearl Harbor. Like millions of tourists, I visited Pearl’s naval memorial sites, including the battleship USS Missouri and the somber USS Arizona Memorial. The new visitor’s center at the naval base provides an excellent introduction to the tragedy of that day, with explanatory markers and films (along with a huge gift shop designed to appeal to everyone). The short boat ride to the Arizona and the bus ride to the Missouri on Ford Island are equally quick and efficient. Yet most visitors hardly are aware that the attacks of December 7 began not at the naval base, but on the airfields located adjacent to the base and around Oahu.
The Japanese attacked Hickam and its sister fields first for one simple reason: they had to control the skies or risk the failure of their plan. The Imperial Japanese Navy may have delivered the strike force to the waters off Hawaii, but success hinged on avoiding an air-to-air fight that could have decimated the invaders.
As the scars at Hickam show, the Japanese prevailed, destroying U.S. Army Air Corps fighters and bombers on the ground. The planes, famously, had been parked wingtip to wingtip, the better to guard against sabotage. In the slaughter, a few P-36 and P-40s managed to get off the ground, engaged the enemy in dogfights, and ultimately downed 10 Japanese planes.
Yet for men on the ground, the attack was merciless. What is today Pacific Air Forces H.Q. was on December 7 the main barracks, housing 3,200 men. The mess hall and roof took direct hits and today, after passing the very flag that flew on that morning, one walks through the interior courtyard, looking at hundreds of shrapnel and bullet holes on all walls.
One interior metal staircase still boasts two bullet holes in its steps, mute testimony of the lack of hiding places on that bloody day. In all, 244 American servicemen were killed at the three airfields, and another 450 were wounded, while 76 aircraft were destroyed. With control of the skies assured, the attack then moved on to the naval base, devastating the Pacific Fleet and inflicting massive casualties, including 1,177 men on the Arizona and 429 on the USS Oklahoma alone.
Such are the costs of not having air dominance. America learned the lesson of Hickam Field well and built a balanced combat force during and after the war that ensured U.S. air superiority for the next 70 years. Fighters, bombers, lift, and tankers all meshed to form an air shield over U.S. interests in peacetime and troops in wartime.
The last time an American soldier was strafed on the ground by enemy air forces was in the Korean War. This air dominance has effectively removed an entire layer of operational planning from U.S. campaigns, as the U.S. Air Force can concentrate on directly attacking enemy forces and supporting ground troops and not worry about enemy air forces.
Yet since the fall of the Soviet Union and in the counterinsurgency wars that define Iraq and Afghanistan, air superiority has not been an issue. Unfortunately, the result is an increasing neglect of America’s air forces. As much as the Navy, the Air Force provides a unique global reach and presence for America. Indeed, given the vast distances the U.S. must cover in order to fight wars, provide humanitarian assistance, and keep an eye on crisis spots, the Air Force is even more crucial in ensuring timely, nearly instantaneous response.
But in current defense plans, the Air Force has to keep flying 30-year old fighters until the new F-35 comes on line only slowly later in this decade. In the meantime, it will retire 250 F-15s and F-16s before they can be replaced by the F-35, putting further stress on combat readiness and ability to contribute in Afghanistan.
Last year, the White House killed the F-22 program, prematurely ending production of the most advanced fighter in the world, and leaving Air Force commanders with a fraction of the F-22s they need to ensure air superiority and to use as the most flexible intelligence asset in the sky.
Bombing runs are carried out by bombers built as long ago as the early 1960s, and our planes are refueled by half-century old tankers.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates canceled, then restarted the next generation bomber program, meaning there will be no new bomber at least until 2025, and the Pentagon has been trying to kill the C-17, America’s most advanced transport plane, even as demand for airlift operations is prematurely aging the fleet.
Some may question why the U.S. needs such a large air force, when no other country has even a fraction of our capabilities. But no other nation has America’s global responsibilities, either.
A modern, balanced air force is a central ingredient in America’s defense strategy, and is the prerequisite to being able to intervene in the earliest stages of a conflict.
Moreover, American airmen will soon face more capable adversaries, as other nations are building up their air forces, most notably China, which is introducing advanced fighter aircraft and new weapons designed to keep U.S. aircraft carriers at bay, and Russia, which has just test flown a fifth-generation challenger to America’s F-22.
Even more worrisome, countries such as Iran and North Korea are installing integrated air defenses that only our tiny fleet of F-22s can be assured of penetrating. Our capability of entering any airspace we want to will be steadily degraded in coming years, reducing the credibility of our defensive alliances with countries such as South Korea and Japan.
In response to these trends, the Pentagon and Air Force need to come up with a comprehensive recapitalization program and adequately fund research, development, procurement, and fielding of a balanced fleet. The F-35 should be aggressively produced, but the Defense Department needs to re-evaluate whether America's future fighter force will be able to the high-end jobs required.
In addition, planning for the next generation bomber must quickly move ahead, the Air Force must resolve the long-running tanker replacement debacle, and adequate funds for the full C-17 program should be ensured.
In short, the budget ax being wielded by Secretary Gates must not chop down the supports on which America's first line of defense rests. In this, Air Force leadership is needed to make the case in the halls of Congress and on Main Street as to the necessity of American airpower to our global role.
American air forces may keep their superiority for another decade or two, but without a comprehensive commitment to maintaining air superiority, U.S. soldiers, sailors, and Marines may one day no longer operate under friendly skies. That would present a future president with very difficult choices over how many casualties he would be willing to incur to protect American interests.
A visit to Hickam Air Force Base (now owned by the Navy and serving as a joint facility) is a powerful reminder of the cost of not controlling the skies. The post-World War II world has been one shaped in no small measure by the power of the U.S. Air Force. To lose that dominance would change nearly every calculation made by our leaders in trying to keep peace in the world.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
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