By Jason Criss Howk
29 June 2022
Submission to the 2022 Irregular Warfare Essay Competition
Near the end of April 2022, the UK’s top diplomat, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, called-out other nation’s timid responses to Russian atrocities by stating, “this is a time for courage, not caution.” She urged nations to support the Ukrainians with tanks and jets. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has continuously called on friendly nations to send fighter jets to help him turn the tide, and protect his citizens.
How can the U.S. employ an air force that is actually allowed to be in the fight?
By letting other nations hire one.
As a soldier who served in an Air Force unit, I can vouch that the Air Force is not sitting this war out for lack of patriotism or bravery. This inability to use one of our most powerful branches of the armed forces is about avoiding escalation. What better “American way” to avoid official U.S. entanglement in other nation’ wars than to allow the free market to provide the solution—with a little help from our irregular warfighters.
While most of the U.S.-based companies provide contractors to the DOD, State Department and other friendly nations that have a background in infantry and SOF skills, what they should have for hire is an air force. Imagine how differently the war in Afghanistan might have turned out if the Afghan government could have contracted a Wing of close air support aircraft and “SOF” as the U.S. withdrew its forces. Imagine how quickly the Russian mechanized and armor columns entering Ukraine could have been stopped with a squadron of A-10 Warthogs roaming the skies at the request of President Zelenskyy.
As the nature of war, and risk of escalation has shifted, the United States must shift its thinking. The USAF is an internationally recognized excellent air service, but it is not what we need to stop the spread of tyrants like Putin.
Nations around the Pacific would gladly hire a contract air force made up of seasoned American pilots recently departed from active-duty service. This air force-for-hire could be seconded to our allies’ defense forces, and should operate within the laws of warfare.
With a U.S. trained and highly skilled air force in the skies, our U.S. SOF elements that can quietly slip into places like Ukraine, Japan, and Afghanistan would be able to more easily assist the military in those nations. The “elder” pilots in this contract air force would have trained closely with our SOF for decades. This type of company also allows the continued U.S. mentorship of the pilots and air crews in our partner nations. While it would be a drain on our commercial airline recruitment pool, why should we simply let this massive training investment be used to haul families to Disney.
Beyond increasing the security bubble of our allies, and better utilizing the talents of our top “older” pilots, a company that runs a private air force is actually a great thing for the defense industry. The amount of money that some nations will be willing to rent an “air force” for could help our airplane industry keep their assembly lines running when USAF and USN orders are slow.
There are risks of course, but balanced against the speed in which tyrants can steal land from their neighbors, the risks seem small. Our pilots are the best in the world, the chances are low that they will all of the sudden miss their targets and cause massive collateral damage. Our pilots are professionals, they will follow the laws of war and any further stipulations that the U.S. government might place on the company.
Yes, other large nations will also shift towards fielding military contractors with combat air capabilities, but our pilots would quickly dispatch their aircraft if they met in combat. Our hypothetical contract Air Force, maybe called Blue Skies, would quickly become the industry model and help shape the standards that other companies around the globe would try to emulate. Letting the Russians or Chinese lead in this industry would be a disaster.
Now is the time to think about how we can get our SOF into the fight early enough to make a difference; and what better way to fight well in irregular wars, than to ensure the continuity of the top-notch air support that our SOF have become accustomed to in larger open wars.
Jason Criss Howk is a retired Army South Asia Foreign Area Officer who has worked on Afghanistan portfolios since 2002, and continues to do so as the Director of Global Friends of Afghanistan. Jason is a professor at the USAF Special Operations School, and writer with over 200 bylines in dozens of outlets. He is an award-winning book author and horrible guitarist.