Let's do the math. Currently the United States has 126 C-5s, a hundred C-17s and 158 C-141s. In late 1999, when the U.S. sent a 133 man communications unit (and 500 tons of equipment) to join the East Timor peacekeeping operation, six C-17s and one C-5 were required. Moving a Patriot battalion, essential for shooting down enemy ballistic missiles (SCUDs) and aircraft, requires 98 C-17s. What the air force transports are needed for is moving heavy or bulky military equipment (like missile launchers, missiles, armored vehicles or trucks.) The military has, for many decades, signed up civilian airlines in a program that allows the air force to take over many civilian air transports to move troops and whatever equipment can fit in cargo containers (or the overhead racks). A simple yardstick for the ability to move stuff by air is the "ton mile." That is, how many tons can be moved one mile by all the aircraft available. Currently the U.S. Air Force has a capacity of some 49 million ton miles. The farther you want to move stuff, the fewer tons can be moved. Simple math. But there's a catch. The air force transports only supply 29 million ton miles, the other 20 million ton miles come from the civilian passenger transports.
Getting There First With, What?; A familiar headline goes something like "Pentagon reluctant to get involved in (name your favorite overseas hot spot.) The generals are quite wary of sending troops to far off battlefields. And the reasons are not political, but logistical. Gone are the days when the president would order the troops to some distant nation and everyone would wait for weeks while the troops got on ships and slowly steamed off to war. We expect instant response, and that means flying the troops in. The trouble is that in too many cases we don't have enough aircraft to get there fast with enough troops to do the job. Get there fast with not enough and you just get a lot of Americans killed.
The US Air Force's Air Transport Command controls nearly all the military's freighter aircraft. While the air force is supposed to deal fairly with the other service's transport needs, it doesn't work out that way. This became especially true after the cold war ended. Before that, America had built up a network of airbases near likely battlefields. Europe and Korea were the two big ones, and the air force knew all it had to do was fly more warplanes in and go to war. But with the Soviet Union gone, the next battlefield could be in a lot of out of the way places. So the air force prepared to fly all the equipment, munitions, fuel and technicians to anywhere. They organized Air Expeditionary Wings (AEWs) that would, in many cases, tie up 70 percent of the air transports in the first weeks of an overseas wartime emergency.
The navy and marines never planned on using the air force's heavy lifters much. So it's the army that is fighting the air force for a larger share of the available ton miles. The army needs a lot of ton miles. Even the new lightweight army Medium Brigade has 10,500 tons of armored vehicles. Take them 8,000 miles and you've used up 84 million ton miles. Add in the other equipment in the brigade and you're way over a hundred million ton miles. Remember, the air force can only move 29 million ton miles of heavy equipment a day.
The army wants to get people to the hot spot fast, feeling that troops on the ground are the best solution to such problems. The air forces disagrees, believing that getting air power there first will work best. The army says that it's approach is tried and true, the air force says that times have changed and the AEW approach makes more sense with all the new technology. The air force rests its case on what it did against Iraqi forces in 1991, and what it thought it did against the Serbs in 1999. In the Arabian desert, the air force was very effective. But this has been the case with warplanes versus tanks in the desert since the 1920s. Bombing the Serbs was an exercise in futility that the air power advocates have not come to terms with yet. Then there is the problem of the many peacekeeping situations where you are faced with many lightly armed enemy infantry on the ground. Air power has a particularly difficult time with this kind of target. And these situations are the ones most likely to require a lot of friendly infantry on the scene in a hurry. Smart bombs have a hard time dealing with irregulars lurking in the bush.
Many air force commanders really believe that modern air power is the most efficient way to deal with emergencies. There was a similar conceit in the 1600s, when nations possessing fleets of cannon armed ships realized that they had more firepower than any army. Before too long, everyone found out that all that fire power had its limitations. While some targets were very vulnerable (port cities, enemy shipping), many others were not. When it comes to warfare, one weapon does not fit all situations.
As you read this, the debate continues among the generals about who gets to use the scarce air transports. While sending in the infantry first is known to work, it also gets American troops killed. Air power is much less likely to result in friendly losses and this is a big selling point that has nothing to do with solving the peacekeeping situation on the ground. In fact, getting the peacekeeping job done is not as important as looking like you are doing something, and doing it fast. Thus, as we have already seen in Kosovo, when the cry goes up to "stop the slaughter" in some out of the way place, the American solution will not be to get in the bad guy's face, but shoot at him from way up in the sky. At least three miles up. So no stray gunfire will damage American aircraft. It's high tech and it's fast, but it isn't war.