Two years ago, after months of internal debate, the U.S. Air Force decided to award Combat Action medals for officer and enlisted personnel who experienced combat on the ground. All the other services have such an award, and polls of air force personnel indicated that 80 percent of them are in favor of the idea. Since then, nearly 5,000 of the Combat Action medals have been awarded. About 78 percent of those who applied for the award got it. Documenting getting shot at would usually do the trick.
The air force has traditionally emphasized air combat. However, about ten percent of air force personnel are basically light infantry, whose main job is protect air bases. It's not that airbase security troops have not come under fire in the past, it's just that this never happened often enough to make a lot of people feel it warranted official recognition. But Iraq changed all that, with about half the casualties being inflicted on support troops. That's triple the rate of past wars. These new combat veterans included thousands of sailors and airmen who volunteered to help the army out with support tasks in Iraq. The navy and army came up with a Combat Action award for these support troops, and the Marine Corps allowed troops hit by roadside bombs to get the marine Combat Action Ribbon. Now all the armed services provide recognition for the road warriors of Iraq, whose main job is to move supplies, or just move around, in support of the combat troops, and deal with armed resistance they encounter along the way.
The air force generals, most of them pilots, finally gave in to the reality that air force support troops faced a lot more danger during three months on the ground in Iraq, than did air force pilots flying jets 10,000 feet overhead. This was not easy to accept. But the fact is that the USAF dominance of the air has increased, decade after decade, since World War II. Thus it's gotten to the point where, if you are in the air force and want some combat action, volunteer to run supply convoys in Iraq, and forget about all that flying stuff.
This is reinforced by the fact that, in the last half century, only three U.S. Air Force pilots have become aces (destroying five or more enemy aircraft.) There may never be any more aces. In nearly a century of operations, only 816 American air force fighter pilots have become aces. Most (87 percent) of those were in World War II. There were 39 aces in the Korean war, and only three during the Vietnam war. In the last ten years, seven pilots scored two victories, and three shot down three aircraft. None scored four or more victories.
Since World War II, the U.S. Air Force, along with American naval aviation, have become the dominant air power on the planet. Moreover, the availability of nuclear weapons has restrained the major world powers from fighting each other directly. So the only wars are between second and third rate proxies, versus American fighter pilots. These smaller nations tend to see their air forces destroyed on the ground, or have too few aircraft in the air to allow American pilots to become aces. The biggest threat to American pilots is anti-aircraft fire, either bullets or missiles.
The future of air combat is in unmanned aircraft, including robotic fighters that no human pilot could overcome. This is because the unmanned aircraft can undertake maneuvers that the human body cannot handle. Too tight a turn at too high a speed causes human pilots to black out. Robotic aircraft do not have this problem. Moreover, a robotic aircraft would be run by software, that could possess a better degree of situational awareness than any human pilot. This isnt science fiction, as many current warplanes have many of their functions run by computers. This is often done because a human simply could not make flight decisions, and execute them, fast enough to prevent the aircraft from crashing. Braking systems on many automobiles use the same technology. Its not a revolution in technology that is creating the robotic fighter, but an evolution. The ace is becoming extinct.