Leadership: The USAF Absorbs A Wake-Up Call


June 22, 2008: Everyone is down on the U.S. Air Force these days. Long criticized as being detached, and obsessed with developing and buying the latest (and most expensive) aircraft and technology, the air force was largely a victim of its own success. Critics should not forget that the U.S. Air Force has been the main reason the U.S. has dominated the skies, worldwide, for the last 65 years. That was no accident; it took a lot of effort and imagination. A certain amount of myopia regarding jet fighters, and how to shoot down everyone elses, was necessary to obtain that air supremacy. Without it, winning on the ground is difficult, if not impossible. Let's not forget that the zoomies are, above all, winners.

But the air force generals have burned a lot of bridges behind them. The army, navy and marines all have their own air forces, and resent constant air force attempts to take control of everything that flies. This latest flap, involving the firing of the Secretary of the Air Force (a civilian) and the Chief of Staff of Air Force (the senior officer, in effect the military commander of the air force), was the tail end of years of growing dissatisfaction with how the air force thought of itself. The other services believed the air force had an inflated view of what air power could accomplish. The air force long preached, and practiced, the concept that wars, or at least ground battles, could be won from the air. The other services disputed this assertion, but the air force made a powerful case, especially when there wasn't a war going on, and constantly got th biggest chunk of the defense budget. That did not go down well with the services either.

Then came a big change, when GPS guided weapons began to show up a decade ago. It wasn't just the JDAM (GPS guided) bombs, but GPS guided rockets and artillery shells, plus laser guided missiles from UAVs. While the air force loved technological change, the GPS revolution turned out to be a bit much. Suddenly, the air force was not needed as much for its traditional ground support missions (there has been little air combat since the 1970s). Consider the numbers. One JDAM bomb does the work of 300 dumb bombs, and does it with much less risk to friendly troops on the ground, or to the aircraft dropping the bomb (which can now do so at high altitude, out of range of gunfire.) That's great news, except that it means much less work for the air force. One heavy bomber and a few jet fighters can provide all the air support needed for Iraq (or Afghanistan). Air force commanders have to order F-16 and F-15 pilots to stay at high altitude, to avoid getting hit. For a "combat pilot", that hurts. The only warplanes allowed to go down and dirty are the A-10s, which were long scorned by the pilots of "fast movers" (jet fighters.) No more.

The air force has been so successful that there are no more aces (pilots who have shot down five or more aircraft.) It's not that the U.S. Air Force pilots are not capable, it's just that no one wants to take them on. It's seen as suicidal. In the current war, the air force had to come up with a combat badge for support troops, because the only air force personnel getting shot at where the airmen who volunteered to help the army out with logistics and security jobs on the ground. Air force pilots seethe at the injustice of it all; airmen truck drivers who have seen more combat than fighter pilots, and have the combat badge, scars and war stories to prove it. It really hurts.

The air force also took a lot of heat for screwing up their strategic weapons units. The ICBM troops, in particular, had been treated poorly in the last two decades, and had lost the discipline and thoroughness they had long been famous (or infamous) for. This all came from the era (1950s-60s) of General Curtis LeMay, a very capable, and over-the-top SAC (Strategic Air Force) and later Air Force commander. Many air force old timers trace the current problems to the post Cold War trend of officers acting, and thinking, more like business executives, than "fighting generals" like LeMay.

It's future shock time for the air force. The other services, and the Secretary of Defense, agreed that the air force was not handling it well. The new leadership (the new chief of staff is a transport pilot) is expected to ease up on the F-22 obsession, and pay more attention to UAVs and reconnaissance for the army, as well as air transport and electronic warfare. But many air force officers believed in the goals of the former management, and are not taking well to all these changes. So it's not over yet, but the air force has, as far as the other services are concerned, received a long overdue wake-up call.


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