Small Wars Journal

Three Reasons Air Advising is Essential to America’s National Defense Strategy

Sat, 04/11/2020 - 12:11am

Three Reasons Air Advising is Essential to America’s National Defense Strategy

Ryan Hill

The U.S. Air Force has five historic and strategic core missions: Air and Space Superiority, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), Rapid Global Mobility, Global Strike, and Command and Control (C2).[1] These missions have served the nation well over the decades; however, as America changes its defense strategy, more may be required of its air service. The nation’s priority shift from countering terror to “long-term strategic competition” with near-peer competitors is a necessary measure; however, shifting priorities also involves shifting risk. As the U.S. seeks to avoid being outpaced and overtaken by global competitors, it is inherently and intentionally paying less attention to global terrorists. Doing so incurs additional risks in three primary areas: global destabilization by non-state actors, fading or replaced global influence, and the loss or atrophy of critical counterinsurgency and counterterror capabilities. In each case, the Air Force could play a major role in risk mitigation; however, this would require emphasis and growth in is Air Advising role, an area outside its five core missions. The Air Force has been conducting Air Advising operations for decades but has also sought to avoid being tied to it. Most of its advising is small-scale, ad hoc, or temporary in nature. This must change. Air Advising can play an essential role in reducing the risks incurred by the changes in the National Defense Strategy, but it will require the Air Force to embrace its Air Advising mission. The following is an explanation of each of the risks mentioned above and how Air Advising can be an effective instrument in mitigating each.

RISK: Global Destabilization by Non-state Actors

While near-peer competitors China and Russia are pressing to shift the world order, non-state actors constantly seek to disrupt that order. The world has witnessed and felt the devastating effects of attacks from Al Qaeda and ISIS and continues to deal with these resurgent groups and several other dangerous non-state terror organizations such as Al Shabaab and Boco Haram.[2]  These organizations punch well above their weight and represent a threat that could quickly become a major problem if left unchecked. To be fair, the National Defense Strategy (NDS) does not ignore terror, but it does deprioritize it, while simultaneously moving to a “resource-sustainable approach.”[3] Prioritizing high-end technology while being cost-conscious will certainly call for some trade-offs. However, America must be aware that as it spends money and focuses resources on great power competition to avoid the risk of a new cold war, it could be increasing the risk of another 9-11.[4]

The results of the priority changes can already be seen in the new way the U.S is approaching terror. The Defense Department has quietly shifted its goal from defeating terror to merely suppressing it. U.S. Secretary of Defense Esper recently referred to current operations against ISIS as “mowing the lawn,” explaining that “every now and then, you have to do these things to stay on top of it so that a threat doesn’t grow, doesn’t resurge.”[5]  This phrase is borrowed from the Israelis, who “mow the grass” by regularly suppressing terror threats from non-state actors such as Hezbollah and Hamas.[6] The strategy is based on the idea that wars against terror and non-state actors drag on and are not winnable in the same sense as wars against states. Instead, non-state terrorist organizations require regular suppression to keep them from growing out of control and becoming unruly.

Given the strategic priorities, this shift to mowing the grass is understandable, but it still comes with a very high price. Not only is it monetarily expensive to continue these perpetual global operations, America has many other factors to consider as well. There is an inherent risk to U.S. forces anytime they are engaged in these counterinsurgency and counterterror operations. Operating in foreign nations also increases the likelihood of political blowback if things go wrong. Additionally, the opportunity cost associated with using its own assets and personnel to accomplish this enduring mission is significant. Fortunately, the Air Force can provide a way to mitigate these risks.

MITIGATION: Enabling Partners to Mow the Grass

The U.S. can greatly reduce the risks associated with “mowing the grass” by enabling its partners to assume the role. Air Advising requires a much smaller footprint than combat operations, decreasing the overall exposure and risk to U.S. forces while simultaneously reducing its vulnerability to political blowback. Additionally, the overall monetary cost would be less than if the U.S. were to continue to mow the grass on its own, and it would free up U.S. assets for higher priority missions that only it can do. Enabling partners would greatly compliment America’s strategic shift from defeating terror to suppressing it, reducing critical risks.

Air Advising is also one of the most efficient ways of enabling partners. While airpower cannot control land, it can be very effective in mowing the grass and suppressing extremist activities in the counterinsurgency and counter-terror role. Airpower can reach into the hinterlands, where insurgents and terrorists often find strongholds, denying them safe-havens and disrupting their plans. It is also a great compliment to ground troops, providing soldiers with on-call firepower and increased speed and range. Empowering partner nations through robust Air Advising initiatives also provides the U.S. with a sustainable network of well-trained capable partners around the globe that can work in concert to keep terror networks at bay.

RISK: Global Influence Fading or Being Replaced

As the U.S. turns toward great power competition, it is important to keep in mind that it is more than a contest between military capabilities; international influence and cooperation is also a stake. Prosperous trade and effective defense are dependent on healthy international relationships, and the U.S. must be proactive in maintaining and fostering its partnerships. It is no secret that China has been drastically expanding its foreign investments though its Belt and Road initiative and Development Institutions. The communist nation has become the largest trading partner with several nations in South America and Africa and is in an all-out effort to become a “world economic leader.”[7] Many are afraid U.S. influence around the globe is being threatened by China’s massive push.

On the other hand, the way China is conducting business makes its own relationships vulnerable and provides opportunities for the U.S. to step in as a more reliable and ethical partner. The danger of doing business with China is starting to come to light. For example, when Sri Lanka had difficulty paying a debt to China, the Chinese acquired a 99-year lease on an important and strategic port in their nation. Several countries, such as Pakistan, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Tanzania have also perceived the risks involved in dealing with China and have scaled back on their agreements.[8] Corrupt and unethical business practices along with China’s lack of contribution or concern for international threats or humanitarian aid leaves a lot of opportunity for the U.S. to take the high ground and increase its influence through its empowering support.

MITIGATION: Air Advising Provides Opportunities for Influence and Relationship Building

America can help its partner nations secure their borders and protect their citizens, making way for greater economic prosperity and a more stable and peaceful existence. Empowering partner nations also increases goodwill and compliments America’s efforts in Great Power Competition. Not only does Air Advising provide partners with an alternative to China’s precarious dealings, the mission creates teamwork and relationships while pursuing common interests. The U.S. has an opportunity to influence these nations by demonstrating genuine commitment. Air Advising efforts paint America as a partner that assists nations in obtaining their own objectives and maintaining their own sovereignty, something China fails to do.

America’s partners have a vested interest and strong desire for security in their own regions. Because the U.S. shares these interests, it can comfortably assume a supporting role as it trains and enables these partner nations to take the lead in their own defense and security. Assisting and advising in the realm of airpower is particularly effective, delivering a source of firepower with real and psychological effects. A robust investment in Air Advising also communicates that the U.S. is making a meaningful and substantial commitment to its partners’ sovereignty and stability. Even without the increased tactical capacity, possessing airpower capability grants governments prestige and a sense of legitimacy within their own borders, another benefit that partnering with China fails to offer these nations.

RISK: Loss of Critical COIN Skills and Expertise

Another risk that transitioning focus and finance to great power competition presents is a degradation in counterinsurgency and counterterror skills. The NDS implies that the past two decades of focusing on terror has led to “a period of strategic atrophy” in which America’s “competitive military advantage has been eroding,” referring to its high-intensity warfighting and technical capabilities.[9] Shifting focus in the other direction will no doubt result in a similar decline in the low-intensity warfighting skills the U.S. has acquired in the last 18-plus years. Such a loss of competence could be devastating considering that great power competitions, such as the Cold War, often result in proxy wars which involve non-state actors looking to subvert allied governments. Low-intensity warfighting abilities may be exactly what is required on the battlegrounds on which any great power war may be fought.

This eroding of capabilities is even more significant when one recognizes that these are not skillsets that are quickly regained. Low intensity conflict differs from high intensity conflict, not only in its scope and scale, but in its nature. Counterinsurgency and counterterror are not a lesser version of conflict, like playing junior varsity instead of varsity; it is a different game altogether. Non-state terrorist organizations lead insurgencies that take place among the population, with an enemy that blends in and has no respect for the Geneva laws of war or ethical norms. This point is highlighted in the Joint Counterinsurgency Manual, which states that “[Counterinsurgency] is distinguished from traditional warfare due to the focus of its operations— a relevant population—and its strategic purpose—to gain or maintain control or influence over—and the support of that relevant population.”[10] The document goes on to say that “Warfare that has the population as its focus of operations requires a different mindset.” It took several years for the U.S. military to understand and adapt this mindset in combatting terror networks, and it is in danger of losing this mentality as the force transitions back to a “more lethal” focus.

MITIGATION: Air Advising Cadre Preserves COIN Mindset, Skills, and Expertise

Air Advising units preserve the critical mindset and skills that the U.S. has been developing and mastering over the last two decades. Air Advisors, training forces that fight against non-state actors, would preserve the “small wars” mindset within the force. They would maintain the skills and preserve the many hard-earned lessons learned from operating in a non-contiguous battlefield where the principles of restraint and legitimacy are valued and balanced with those of mass and offense. Advisors could then be used as potential cadre to pass on the skills and perspective when needed.

Not only does institutionalizing Air Advising preserve a capacity for counterinsurgency operations, it could also provide it. Even in high-intensity conflicts, the military requires the competencies employed by experts in low-intensity conflict. The skills that these units would teach (and by necessity practice) on a daily basis could be used in missions such as reconnaissance, close air support in permissible environments, securing and guarding the rear area during offensive phases of war, or providing security coverage for friendly troops during stability operations. The training units could take on an additional role and become somewhat of a ‘convertible force,’ transitioning from a training unit to an operational unit if and when the need arises.


The National Defense Strategy describes the difficult choices the U.S. has had to make as the strategic environment contains both near-peer competitors striving to shift the global balance of power and non-state actors attempting to threaten global stability. With limited resources, shifting priorities also include shifting risk. So, while the U.S. begins to strengthen its stance vis-à-vis China and Russia, it is forced to reduce the funding and resources going toward suppressing non-state threats. Through the mission of Air Advising, the Air Force can produce a network of partners to counter the network of non-state terrorist organizations that threaten global stability. Embracing Air Advising as a core mission will also provide the U.S. with a promising way to counter China’s growing influence in developing nations. Finally, this mission ensures that America retains much needed low-intensity conflict expertise and capability. Air Advising can greatly reduce the risks the U.S. is taking in shifting its defense priorities, but to so, the Air Force must embrace it as a core mission.

End Notes

[1] “Air Force Core Missions,” U.S. Air Force, accessed April 2, 2020,

[2] Antonia Ward, “Do Terrorist Groups Really Did? A Warning,” The RAND Blog, April 9, 2018,; Lweendo Kambela, “Terrorism in Africa: A Manifestation of New Wars,” Accord, June 24, 2019,

[3] James Mattis, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge, (Washington D.C.: Defense Publishing, 2018), 4,

[4] Josh Rogin, “Pence: It’s Up to China to Avoid a Cold War,” The Washington Post, November 13, 2018,

[5] Shawn Snow, “Esper Says US Forces Combatting ISIS in Libya ‘Continue to Mow the Lawn’,” Military Times, November 14, 2019. _campaign=EBB%2011.15.19&utm_term=Editorial%20-%20Early%20Bird%20Brief.

[6] Efraim Inbar & Eitan Shamir, “’Mowing the Grass’: Isreal’s Strategy for Protracted Interactable Conflict,” Journal of Strategic Studies 37:1, 65-90,'Mowing_the_Grass'_Israel's_Strategy_for_Protracted _Intractable_Conflict

[7] “China’s Growing Influence: Is America Getting Left Behind?,” U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, October 2019,

[8] Ibid.

[9] Mattis, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, 1.

[10] Joint Publication 3-24: Counterinsurgency, April 25, 2018, III-4,

About the Author(s)

Lt Col Ryan Hill, U.S. Air Force, is currently a Military Professor at the U.S. Naval War College. He is graduate of the U.S. Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies and the U.S. Naval War College. Lt Col Hill is a command pilot with over 2,500 hours in the A-10 and A-29, has combat experience on the ground and in the air in Afghanistan, and served as commander of the 81st Fighter Squadron.



Fri, 09/24/2021 - 6:15am

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