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NEWS | June 12, 2013

Learning from the past: Interwar period

By Lt. Col. Craig Punches 628th Logistics Readiness Squadron commander

For those who have studied history, the current opinions of the American citizens and Department of Defense budget climate appear to resemble the situation the United States faced during what has been called the "interwar period:" the time in American history between World War I and World War II, 1918 through 1939.

I bring this up since the similarities provide potential insights into how the Air Force can plan for future success in a fiscally constrained environment.

To put things into context, let me explain the situation during the interwar period to link the similarities to our current situation. World War I ended in a stalemate where more than 20 million people died in trench warfare that gained no economic or political benefit. In fact, the Russian, Ottoman and German empires collapsed as a direct result of the war. Suffering the deadliest conflict in human history, popular opinion had changed to believing that large-scale wars were a thing of the past. This is why World War I was commonly referred to as "the war to end all wars."

Although America entered near the end of the war and had substantially fewer casualties (116, 516) as a percentage of its population in relation to allies and enemies, the American psyche had been seriously impacted. This drove popular opinion to believe the U.S. would never again engage in major wars, and that we needed to withdraw to our borders to protect us from the outside world. Popular opinion, which drives budgets ... which drives military funding ... became overwhelmingly isolationist and paranoid about being dragged into another pointless European conflict. Believing there was no longer a need for a strong military, DOD budgets and forces were drastically downsized to the point of being unprepared for World War II.

The shift in popular opinion, combined with the observation in the 1920s that the British squelched a revolt in their Iraq colony with airpower only, shaped opinions in the use of military forces. Not having to transport and supply Army battalions, not having casualties from protracted land based warfare (casualties reduce domestic support), and not having ground forces giving the impression as occupiers, cemented the concept that airpower was the most economical (blood and treasure) method of military operations. Because of public opinions that guided policies, the Air Force (within Navy and Army) was adequately funded while the conventional Army took huge cuts.

Today, the American populace is psychologically fatigued from years of continuous war, which is causing a growing isolationist movement. This resonates to the same mindset as the interwar period where the general populace and strategic military planners rationalize away the probability of major wars out of national combat fatigue. Although, most, if not all, military personnel wished this were true, human history has demonstrated otherwise.

There are also budgetary similarities in that the interwar period was weary from the Great Depression while the current generation is dealing with the Great Recession. The current budgetary crisis caused by the debt, and the mindset of isolationism allowed military reductions, ensures DOD is the leading target for cuts.

Learning from the interwar period, the Air Force was able to mitigate economic effects by promulgating airpower theory that recognized the economics of airpower over land and sea power. The unparalleled speed, reach, range, flexibility and diversity, without having troops on the ground in enemy territory that can patrol American borders, as well as any place on earth, gives airpower the most bang for the American buck. The 1920s successful use of airpower to squelch revolts in Iraq as well as current successful uses of airpower with indigenous ground forces in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya, continues to validate that airpower is the most economic and effective military power. To ensure proper U.S. populous support of the most economical military power, we need Airmen able to speak the tenants of airpower since the U.S. populous support determines military budget. Not to mention, those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.