Attrition: Knowledge Replaces Bodies

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May 28, 2007: The U.S. Air Force has fewer people on active duty today, 334,000, than at any other time in its history. However, if you add in reservists (181,000), strength is a bit higher than it was when the air force was formed (from the U.S. Army Air Force) in 1948. The air force also has slightly more officers on active duty today (65,000) than it did in 1948, but that's a reflection of the growing importance of technology. Air Force personnel today have much more education than they did sixty years ago, and that is reflected in higher pay and, on average, higher rank.

The lower number of active duty troops mainly reflects the larger amount of technology, and knowledge, being used in warfare. Consider, for example, the differences between a World War II bomber, and a modern one. The principal World War II bomber was the B-17, which weighed 29 tons, had a crew of ten, and could carry three tons of bombs to targets 1,500 kilometers away. In current dollars, each B-17 cost about $2.2 million. But that was because over 12,000 of them were built. If bought in much smaller quantities, as is typical in peacetime, each B-17 would cost over $10 million. Now compare that to a modern bomber of comparable size (or at least weight), the F-15E. With a max weight of 36 tons, an F-15E can carry up to seven tons of bombs three or four times as far as the B-17, and has a crew of only two. But this $50 million dollar aircraft is much more than five times as lethal as the B-17. That's because of guided bombs. A B-17 carried a dozen 500 pound bombs, but it took over 300 of these unguided bombs to guarantee a hit on a target below. The smart bombs of the F-15E guarantee a hit with two bombs (actually, it's 1 point something, because there are occasional system failures with smart bombs). The smart bombs also glide 40 kilometers or more, allowing the F-15E to avoid most anti-aircraft fire.

Thus the big difference between these two aircraft was knowledge, as manifested in more, and better, technology. This has been a trend that has been ongoing for over a century, and continues. The technology requires fewer people, to achieve the same results, or results that were impossible in the past. The air force is not the only component of the armed services that is undergoing these simultaneous personnel shrinkages, and increased capabilities.

There have been other changes as well. Todays air force is nearly twenty percent female (and about half of them are officers) Back in 1948, only a few percent of personnel were female. There are fewer pilots today, and more technicians and engineers. Everyone is paid more, lives better and uses a lot of much more expensive equipment. These trends show no signs of stopping.

 


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