By Robert Spalding III
This week’s guest post comes from Col Spalding, CFR’s own Air Force fellow and a former B-2 wing vice commander. This post is adapted from a larger piece out today in the National Interest.
The thousands of troops massed on Ukraine’s border have instantaneously changed our strategic perspective. For the past 12 plus years the Air Force has been heavily engaged in kinetic operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. For most Americans, airpower is now synonymous with killing terrorists.
For most of its history, however, the primary mission of the United States Air Force has been to deter war. While that deterrence is most often associated with the two legs of the triad, the ICBMs and bombers, airpower has been used effectively in other ways to deter war.
The Berlin airlift is heralded as a victory for the United States Air Force. It showed the enormous compassion of America as well as its ability to rapidly deliver goods and services anywhere in the world.
Yet it also showed we would stand against Soviet aggression. Few know that Truman sent nuclear-capable B-29s to England as a not so subtle threat in support of the airlift. The Soviets did not have to guess at their possible uses in the event they decided to shoot down one of the C-54 Skymasters.
This subtle interplay between the air forces charged with nuclear deterrence and those charged with airlift and conventional operations is little known outside of the United States Air Force. The unspoken promise is that the former always back stops the latter.
This happened again during the Korean War. While Airmen fought and died in the skies over Korea, nuclear-capable B-29s stood a cold and calculated watch from England and Guam. The clear message was that those Airmen in the skies of Korea were protected from Soviet escalation by a stronger power.
Today we are faced with the growing threat of war in Eurasia. It may be time again to call for airpower.
Colonel Robert Spalding III, U.S. Air Force, is a Military Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was most recently vice commander of the 509th Bomb Wing based at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, where he was responsible for preparing and maintaining United States’ only B-2 wing. He also commanded the 509th Operations Group where he launched B-2s to protect civilians during Operation Odyssey Dawn. He holds a PhD from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and speaks Chinese-Mandarin as well as Spanish.