The End of Key West?
The Secretary of Defense, Mr. Donald Rumsfeld, dropped in on Saturday, and I got to ask him some questions. On the subject of the Key West Agreement, Mr. Rumsfeld said that people in the Pentagon do not operate under "antiquated agreements".
The "Key West Agreement" is the colloquial name for an agreement reached in 1948 between the various branches of the U.S. military. Until that time, the Army and the Navy had each essentially maintained their own air forces. After World War II, though, it was felt that the time had come for an independent Air Force. Which raised the obvious question — which parts of the Army and Navy air forces would be given to the new service, and which would remain where they were?
This was a more contentious question that you might think, because it impacted directly on the amount of money each service would be budgeted. If the Air Force was going to handle the planes on Navy carriers, for instance, that would be a huge chunk of money leaving the Navy’s budget and going into the Air Force’s. And like good bureaucrats everywhere, the service chiefs had no interest in surrendering any part of their budget.
The agreement reached in Key West didn’t end up giving the Navy’s planes to the Air Force. What it did do, though, was give the Army’s "tactical air support" mission — the mission of flying air strikes in direct support of troops on the ground — to the Air Force. And that decision has had pretty far-reaching consequences.
The first consequence was that the Army has consistently complained ever since that it doesn’t get the quality of tactical air support that it should. The Air Force, they complain, is full of wanna-be fighter jocks who spend all their time and money on sexy new fighters to shoot down enemy planes, paying less attention to the comparatively less romantic mission of dropping bombs on bad guys on the ground.
There is some merit to this complaint. The most effective air support plane ever developed is the A-10 Thunderbolt II, a slow, ugly beast built around an enormous cannon. It is a nightmarishly powerful killer of ground forces, especially vehicles. But it can’t dogfight enemy planes — it’s designed to fly low and slow, not high and fast — so the Air Force brass has never really taken it into their hearts; they’ve mostly retired the A-10 to the Air National Guard these days, which tells you the priority they give the ground-support mission.
The other consequence of Key West was that the Army, left without its own internal air support and facing lukewarm enthusiasm for the mission from the new Air Force, decided to get creative. In 1948, when Key West was hammered out, the helicopter was still a newfangled invention, so Key West didn’t specify anything about which service should own helicopter operations. Seeing the potential of the helicopter, the Army seized on this loophole and began hanging guns and rockets off of choppers — creating a heli-borne air force of their own, and making an end run around Key West’s assignment of the tactical air mission to the Air Force.
For decades now, that’s how things have worked: the Air Force flies the air-support planes, and the Army flies the air-support choppers. But this decade, evidence has started to pile up that the day of the helicopter on the modern battlefield may be over. During the invasion of Iraq, for example, the Army’s 11th Attack Helicopter Regiment attempted to strike the Republican Guard’s Medina Division, only to be turned back by the high volume of ground fire they encountered — a defeat which led to a rethinking of the Army’s doctrine of using choppers en masse to strike deep behind enemy lines. Similarly, the Israelis ran into serious trouble deploying helicopters during their incursion into Beirut this summer.
All of which is why, if they have truly abandoned Key West, it’s probably good news for everybody: the Air Force can ditch a mission it doesn’t want, the Army can develop heavily armored aircraft like the A-10 rather than depending on helicopters, and the grunts on the ground can get the air support they deserve. Of course, I’d be curious to see what the new Secretary of Defense has to say on this issue, rather than the old one…