Rebellion in the Air Force?

by The New Republic | September 28, 1963

The Air Force's ruling hierarchy is in open defiance of its Constitutional Commander-in-Chief, and in some ways the situation bears a growing resemblance to the fictional story-line of last year's best-seller Seven Days in May, the account of a nearly successful military coup by an Air Force general in protest against a nuclear arms treaty just concluded with the Russians. Not that I think a "putsch" is in the offing. The more likely prospect is that there will be an attempt to enlist the of the USAF's rank and file to elect a President who is believed to be more tractable to the Air Force's demands--obviously Senator Barry Goldwater, a major general in the Air Force Reserve who has long been its outspoken and uncritical supporter on the Hill.

Ironically, two years ago the new Kennedy Administration had the full endorsement of the USAF. It had named the Air Force to manage all future military space programs, ending the threat to that service's space ambitions from the Army and Navy; it also was responding to urgent requests for additional billions for Minuteman ICBMs and to keep more bombers on airborne and ground alert.

In an amorphous military organization of nearly a million men, it might be difficult to know "what the Air Force thinks" if it were not that the USAF has a voice which always speaks with authority, if unofficially; this is the Air Force Association (AFA). AFA's own voice is a monthly publication, known as Air Force Magazine/Space Digest, financed by advertisements from USAF's aerospace contractors and supplemented once a year by an AFA "Statement of Policy" proposed by the board of directors during the Association's annual convention. This statement is always approved without change by those in attendance.

An Alarmist Statement

The most recent evidence of open defiance of the President by USAF's ruling hierarchy, confirming early storm warnings, was a harsh statement opposing the nuclear test ban treaty issued on September 12 during the recent AFA convention in Washington. This came after top USAF officers had had full opportunity to make known their views in closed Senate subcommittee hearings and while the treaty was up for ratification.

Secretary of the Air Force Eugene Zuckert, long considered a friend of the Air Force, found the AFA policy statement "so immoderate" and "alarmist" that he abruptly canceled his scheduled appearance at an AFA reception held in his honor. The AFA then released a statement saying that those of its members who are in the Air Force on active duty were not entitled to participate in the drafting of such policy statements or to vote on their acceptance. This would leave the vote up to retired Air Force personnel and aerospace industry contractors in attendance. The latter, making up about 70 percent of those present, could not be expected to vote against a proposal by their best customer!

Thus, while this AFA disclaimer is literally true, its implications are hogwash. Anyone who has followed these annual policy statements or the Air Force Magazine knows that they never deviate one iota from official Air Force views as enunciated in budget hearings and public speeches by top USAF officers. Whenever the Air Force seeks, or plans to seek, funds for a new weapon, that weapon receives overwhelming endorsement editorially in Air Force Magazine. No Soviet satellite ever hewed more closely to the Moscow party line than the AFA follows the party line of the ruling clique of Air Force officers.

If the recent AFA statement is "alarmist," it merely follows in the pattern of earlier statements which always warn of dire consequences unless more funds are given to the Air Force to satiate its ravenous appetite. (It now consumes about 20 percent of the total federal budget.) The AFA never seems to worry about military threats to the nation which would not enhance the Air Force's budget.

The AFA's 1960 statement of policy, issued during the closing hours of the Eisenhower Administration, began this way: "Historically, the US has risen to its full stature only in times of grave emergency. Such an emergency exists today." The AFA then proceeded to criticize "the dangerous strategic concept of so-called 'minimum deterrence' [which] is undermining the nation's defense effort. . . . The shrinking margin of our deterrent posture, already thin enough to encourage Soviet ventures into nuclear rocket blackmail, must be widened with all speed and at all costs." (Italics added.)

Like a small boy sitting on Santa's knee, AFA listed its urgent desires: "SAC must be modernized, dispersed and hardened, with a substantial portion made mobile on the ground and in the air, ICBM production and deployment must be accelerated. The B-70 Mach 3 bomber program must . . . be given stature as a full-fledged weapon system. The number of aircraft maintained on airborne alert must be raised to a meaningful level--at least double the present programmed rate." The rest of the list included air defense, early warning and tactical air needs.

The Air Force hoped the new Administration was listening. But what about the outgoing Eisenhower Administration? Had it been as niggardly as this AFA statement would imply? During the last year of the Truman Administration, while the Korean War was in progress, the Air Force had received $4.7 billion for new aircraft, missiles, research and development. In 1960, the year of the foregoing AFA statement, the Air Force received nearly $8 billion for the same items, an increase of 70 percent over the 1952 figure.

Soon after taking office, the Kennedy Administration sought increased funds beyond those originally programmed by the previous Administration to meet some of these Air Force requests; yet in September, 1961, things still looked bleak to the AFA. The AFA's statement of policy began: "In this, our 15th anniversary year, with the nation in grave peril, we respectfully acknowledge the heavy responsibility that weighs upon our new Commander-in-Chief. And we are well aware that it is far easier to advise than to decide." Having made this disclaimer, AFA then proceeded to advise President Kennedy that he should "declare a National Alert" to provide for a number of Air Force needs, many of them the same as AFA had listed a year earlier. Interestingly, in view of events of the last two years, the President sent a warm message to the AFA convention, assuring the delegates of his "deep interest in the proceeding,"

It was during the next 15 months that friendship faded--not because Defense Secretary McNamara ignored the AFA's advice, but because he followed it too closely. The advice was contained in AFA's policy statement released in the fall of 1959 calling for a "sweeping reorganization of the national defense establishment." "The Reorganization Acts of 1947 and 1958 have proved conclusively that a piecemeal approach to unification, based on compromise, evades the basic problems rather than solving them," AFA had said. "Any unification act worthy of the name must provide a framework for ruthless elimination of marginal systems regardless of how service traditions and rivalries might be affected." (Italics added.)

Air Force Magazine of January, 1961, had repeated the same recommendations for the benefit of the new Administration. Under AFA's proposed reorganization, "the predominance of service influence in the formulation of defense planning and performance of military missions must be corrected. At present, defense planning represents at best a series of compromised positions among the military services. . . . There is a clear need for defense interest rather than particular service interest," the magazine said. "No longer can this nation afford the luxury of letting each service strive to develop in itself the capability of fighting any future war by itself. . . . We cannot afford such waste. . . ."

In 1962, Defense Secretary McNamara did precisely what the AFA had recommended in 1959 and in 1961. The trouble, insofar as the Air Force was concerned, was that some of its own "sacred bulls" were being
gored. For example, McNamara cancelled Air Force plans to install several hundred Minuteman ICBMs, armed with thermonuclear warheads, on railroad cars which were to be kept in almost continuous motion
along the nation's rail system. This would have subjected the missiles to so much vibration that it is doubtful if they could have hit their targets when the buttons were pushed. Additionally, there were questions of whether the Air Force officers manning the trains would join the Railway Unions or vice versa. After studying the supersonic B-70, McNamara reached the same conclusion as his predecessors, that it should remain a development program until the weapon and the need was demonstrated.

Mac the Knife


But what finally brought down the wrath of Air Force bomber generals on McNamara was last year's cancellation of the highly-touted Skybolt air-launched ballistic missile. The cost of developing the missile not only had exceeded original Air Force estimates by several hundred percent, but developmental work was so far behind schedule that by the time the Skybolt might be available, the B-52's destined to launch the missile would be on their last legs.

This was not the kind of "ruthless elimination of marginal weapon systems" which Air Force Magazine
had in mind.

To make matters worse, the Air Force was disturbed because the Administration decided to increase the number of nuclear powered Polaris submarines and step up their production rate. Only a year or two earlier top Air Force officers were privately saying that, "If the Navy ever gets approval for more than a dozen Polaris submarines, the Air Force is finished." The Kennedy Administration upped the number of Polaris submarines on order to 41.

After studying the status of the Army's ability to handle a small limited war situation, and finding that many of its arms were of World War II vintage, the Administration also had decided that funds were needed to modernize this branch of the service. The Army had received less funds for new equipment than the Air Force or Navy during the previous decade, but it had squandered much of what it had received to develop long-range guided missiles in an effort to usurp the USAF's strategic role.

While the Air Force continued to claim that the threat of thermonuclear retaliation will be as effective in deterring even minor Communist incursions as it was 10-15 years ago when the US had practically a monopoly on both nuclear weapons and long-range delivery systems, the Administration had the temerity to suggest that changing circumstances made such threats less credible and that we therefore had to strengthen our conventional (non-nuclear) forces. This challenged the very basis of the Air Force's strategic doctrine under which the junior service (in terms of age) had been the senior service in terms of its share of the defense budget almost since its creation.

While top Air Force officers may tolerate or even encourage debate of its plans by junior officers, once a decision has been reached, it is doubtful if Chief of Staff Gen. Curtis LeMay or SAC chief Gen. Thomas S. Power would brook opposition, particularly if carried on outside channels in the public press.

Yet this is precisely what top officers in the Air Force now are doing in defiance of their Commander-in-Chief, the President. This might be dismissed as being of no serious import were it not that these same officers are the custodians of 90 percent of the nation's thermonuclear power and long-range delivery systems. In these hands rests the life-or-death of the Soviet Union, and in retaliation, the life-or-death of the US.

In recent testimony before the Senate Preparedness Investigating Subcommtttee, SAC's boss. General Power, said our thermonuclear power is "in mature moral hands." Is it?

By Raymond D. Senter

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