Leadership: The Love-Hate Relationship With Flying Robots

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March 22, 2006: The U.S. Air Force is undergoing another shift in leadership, as defined by the type of warplane the generals spent their formative years piloting. After World War II, the bomber pilots monopolized the air force leadership, and heavy bombers got a disproportionate share of the air force budget for a long time. But during the Vietnam war, the fighter-bomber did most of the work, and after that war, most of the fast-track officers were successful fighter bomber jocks. Until recently, the fighter-bomber pilots ruled.

But now it's shifting again. Not quite back to heavy bombers, but to "long range strike" with aircraft, missiles or whatever new rolls out of the lab. Most importantly, there are fewer real combat veterans in the competition for running the air force in the next few years. The air force has been so successful at getting the job done, while protecting its pilots, that few of them really experience combat any more. At least not in the traditional sense of getting shot at a lot. Flying a warplane can still be very scary at times. And then there are the A-10 pilots, who do go down and dirty, and get shot up. But the A-10 "hog drivers", like the FACs (Forward Air Controllers), who serve with the ground troops, are not considered mainstream air force. The A-10 has always been something of an outcast. Neither fast, not especially pretty, the A-10 pilots were more like army helicopter gunship pilots. A bunch of real roughnecks, but not really fit to run the air force. Old school combat pilots, some would say, but few hog drivers got fast-tracked. Same deal with the FACs, although these guys are actually pilots who spend some time on the ground, serving with those thugs in the army. While this is supposed to build a bond with the soldiers, the general attitude in the air force is that the experience is more a form of pollution.

But now it's the second century of powered flight, and the air force generals, who take pride in their history of technological pioneering, and use of bleeding edge equipment, are staking out the "global strike" territory. This is a concept where the air force guarantees bombs or missiles on any target on the planet within hours, 24 hours max. This gives a shove to the navy, whose carrier aircraft are always infringing on jobs the air force considers its own. The air force already has the heavy bombers (B-52, B-1, B-2) which, with aerial refueling, can reach any target in the world within 24 hours (from the time someone decides what must be done). But there are only about a hundred of these "heavies" available, and most of them are aging fast. So plans are afoot for the next generation bomber, that will be a "global strike" aircraft, and may have no humans on board. Despite the fact that it puts pilots out of business, billions are being budgeted to build robotic warplanes. The prototype of the robotic global strike aircraft already exists in the form of the Global Hawk recon aircraft (which is now replacing manned U-2 aircraft.) A more muscular Global Hawk will likely replace heavy bombers, and many smaller ones as well. The air force generals see the future, and are working with it whether they really like it or not.

 


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