While the U.S. Air Force has a well-deserved reputation of being the most high-tech service and extremely successful at its job. This includes gaining (since 1945) and maintaining (ever since) air supremacy wherever it operates. The air force does, at times, have trouble adjusting to change. Thus when the Cold War ended in 1991 the air force was still largely doing business as they had done in the Cold War. But the technology and tactics of warfare were changing. The enemy was no longer large organized forces spread over huge areas. The foe was increasingly irregulars who were harder to spot from the air. The air force reluctantly adapted, in part because the army and CIA adopted new reconnaissance and surveillance techniques, like UAVs and constant surveillance.
As successful as these new air reconnaissance tools were they did not seem like a suitable long-term job for the air force. The other services disagreed and it took the better part of a decade after 2001 to get the air force to come around. In 2005 the air force deployed its first Predator UAV unit and in 2009 it put its first Reapers to work. They were following the CIA in this area, which caused some misgivings among senior air force leadership. But the army and Congress were calling for more of what the CIA was doing (armed UAVs for surveillance and attack) and the air force joined in.
What the CIA has pioneered was “persistent surveillance” with armed UAVs. The 24/7 observation by the UAVs enabled CIA or air force intel analysts to compile information about the target and order one or more missiles fired as soon as the key target was identified and located. This led to an ever growing list of terrorist leaders and their key subordinates killed in this way. At the same time this use of surveillance and precision weapons led to lower collateral (nearby civilian) casualties to plummet to historical, and remarkable, lows.
Air force traditionalists warned that in a conventional war this sort of thing would not work. Where the enemy had modern air defense systems and jet fighters the Predator and Reaper UAVs would be impractical because they would be quickly shot down. But that is not the type of war being waged now and it is pointed out to the air force that the military has to deal with what they are faced with, not just with what they prefer. Moreover, even in a “conventional” war there is still work for these new tactics and the tech that makes it possible. The air force still disagreed, but did not have a persuasive alternative. The air force still wanted more money for the stealthy F-34 and a new stealth bomber. This despite the fact that other nations were developing more and more sensors that could nullify stealth.
The air force has been in this positon before. This was seen during the 1960s when the air force and navy aviation suffered unexpectedly high aircraft losses because their aircraft and pilots were not prepared for the lower tech Russian aircraft used against them over Vietnam. This led aircraft to be again equipped with cannon because the new air-to-air missiles were not yet reliable enough to replace the “old fashioned” cannon.
Then came the concept of using your own aircraft for "aggressor (or dissimilar) training." This began in the 1969, when the U.S. Navy established the original "Top Gun" fighter pilot school. This was done in response to the poor performance of its pilots against North Vietnamese pilots flying Russian fighters. What made the Top Gun operation different was that the training emphasized how the enemy aircraft and pilots operated. This was called "dissimilar training". In the past, American pilots practiced against American pilots, with everyone flying American aircraft and using American tactics. It worked in World War II, because the enemy pilots were not getting a lot of practice and were using similar aircraft and tactics anyway. Most importantly, there was a lot of aerial combat going on, providing ample opportunity for on- the- job training. Not so in Vietnam, where the quite different Russian trained North Vietnamese were giving U.S. aviators an awful time. The four week Top Gun program solved the problem. The air force followed shortly with its Red Flag school. In the early 1980s, the Russians established a dissimilar air combat school, and the Chinese followed in 1987.
Over the last four decades the two American training programs have developed differently, and the entire concept of "dissimilar training" has changed. The navy kept Top Gun as a program to hone fighter pilot's combat skills. The air force made their Red Flag program more elaborate, bringing in the many different types of aircraft involved in combat missions (especially electronic warfare). But after the Cold War ended, it became increasingly obvious that none of our potential enemies was providing their fighter pilots with much training at all. In other words, the dissimilar training for U.S. fighter pilots was not as crucial as it had been during the Cold War. Actually, it had been noted that flying skills of Soviet pilots was declining in the 1980s, as economic problems in the USSR caused cuts in flying time. During that period American pilots were actually increasing their flying time. Moreover, U.S. flight simulators were getting better. American pilots were finding that even the game oriented combat flight simulators had some training value.
Because the Cold War was over and no similar foe had appeared, in the late the 1990s Top Gun and Red Flag found their budgets cut. But the programs remain, as does the memory of why they were set up in the first place. Now we find that China is continuing to improve its combat aviation, giving its fighter pilots more flying time. Chinese politicians maintain a bellicose attitude towards the U.S. and it is accepted that there is a need to increase American Top Gun training. Because of the new Chinese "dissimilar training" effort, the U.S. Top Gun and Red Flag schools were restored to their former prominence, sort of. The Chinese move is certainly a very meaningful one, as it shows that they are serious about preparing their pilots to fight and defeat Taiwanese and American pilots. Dissimilar training is how that is done.
The air force has another persistent problem that has not yet found a solution. This goes back a century, to when aircraft first became a factor in military affairs as they demonstrated their superior ability to see what the enemy was up. Most of the use of air power at the beginning was about reconnaissance, and preventing the enemy from seeing what you were doing. Between the world wars, the idea of using air power as an offensive weapon developed. This proved to be more of a factor at sea, than on land, where the reconnaissance was still the most useful service air forces provided. Strategic bombing was greatly misunderstood by air forces during, and after, World War II. Tactical bombing (and strafing) was more useful, because the fighter-bombers were providing reconnaissance at the same time they were attacking the enemy who were in the way of friendly ground troops.
The U.S. Air Force, however, was not a big fan of "tac air" (tactical air power), because they believed they could be more decisive with strategic bombing. The problem with World War II strategic bombing was that it was a blunt instrument. A lot of damage was inflicted, but it was, for all practical purposes, random. So while millions of German and Japanese workers were diverted (because they were dead, or had to deal with damage to homes and businesses) from the war effort by the bombing, there was no decisive effect, as the air force generals intended.
This was because of a problem the air force had then, and continues to have. It's called BDA (Bomb Damage Assessment). This is the business of figuring out what to bomb, and what the impact on the enemy is after you bomb. The U.S. did a thorough survey of the impact of strategic bombing on Germany and Japan, right after World War II. It was discovered that the impact of the bombing was far different from what BDA during the war had indicated. But that was largely ignored because, right after the war, it was believed bombing with conventional bombs had become obsolete. Nuclear bombs had made strategic airpower decisive, because pinpoint accuracy was no longer a factor.
But during the Korean War (1950-53) it was realized that no one really wanted to use nuclear weapons again, especially if the other side had them. Thus nuclear weapons became a threat, while conventional bombs were again the weapon of choice. But as experience in Korea (1950-3), Vietnam (1965-72), Kuwait (1991) and Kosovo (1999), Iraq (2003) and Lebanon (2006) demonstrated, the enemy on the ground continued to have an edge when it came to deceiving the most energetic BDA efforts. The only proven technique for beating the BDA problem was to have people on the ground, up close, checking up on targets. The U.S. Army and Air Force have developed special equipment and tactics to have teams of Special Forces troops on the ground to do this sort of thing. That's why air power was so successful in Afghanistan in 2001. BDA is still a problem, as well as believing that tech, not insight is the ultimate solution to all problems.