Article Published in The Colorado Springs Gazette
On the eve of a new millennium, the U.S. Air Force is the most powerful military aerospace organization in the history of mankind. Its diverse inventory of over 4,000 combat-ready aircraft dwarfs the air forces of other nations in size and sophistication. Its constellation of high-tech communications and reconnaissance satellites surpasses the orbital assets of all other militaries combined. And its 1999 budget of nearly $80 billion exceeds the amount that any other country spends on its entire defense establishment.
Every facet of Air Force technology feels like it is on the cutting edge, from the Airborne Laser program that will revolutionize missile defense to the Joint Stars surveillance system that can track all the ground traffic of a Los Angeles rush hour from a single plane to the stealthy F-22 fighter that has the on-board processing power of three supercomputers but the radar cross-section of an insect. Even venerable airframes like the C-130 transport are being equipped with digital electronics superior to those found in the front-line fighters of most nations. And the people who operate and support Air Force systems are generally considered to be the best trained, most proficient in the world.
This certainly doesn’t sound like an organization that should have doubts about its future, but it does. In fact, some observers believe the Air Force is in the midst of an identity crisis. The service probably has a bright future. The challenge is deciding which future to pursue – – a puzzle that is hard to sort out in the absence of a big, urgent threat to focus priorities.
Much of the media coverage of Air Force issues focuses on near-term problems of relatively little long-term importance. The controversy surrounding the Kelly Flynn affair, for example, obscured the fact that women have been smoothly integrating into all aspects of Air Force operations for a generation, and are now entering the most senior leadership levels (it is no coincidence that the Air Force was the first of the armed forces to have women serve as service Secretary and Under Secretary).
The heavy loss of pilots and other skilled personnel to the civilian economy in recent years is a more serious concern, but it should be resolved as soon as a combination of improved compensation and fewer civilian opportunities slows the exodus. It’s hard for the all-volunteer force to compete with a robust economy, but economic progress tends to be cyclical and there is little doubt that Congress will come up with the money to preserve the Air Force’s core competencies.
The real question for the long term is what those competencies should be. That debate is unfolding behind the scenes among the Air Force’s most senior uniformed leaders, and it seems to center on three tradeoffs. First, how shall the preservation of key warfighting skills be reconciled with the service’s emerging role as a global peacekeeper? Second, what mix of aircraft is best suited for future conflicts? And third, how aggressively should the Air Force pursue space technologies that are already transforming it into an “aerospace force.”?
Warfighting versus Peacekeeping
The issue of warfighting versus peacekeeping is the most pressing question, because the high operating tempo of Air Force units in numerous overseas peacekeeping and “peace enforcement” missions is a major reason why personnel are prematurely leaving the service. The frequency of overseas deployments from homeland bases today greatly exceeds the practice during the Cold War, producing family strains in a service that is largely married and tied to local communities. It is a problem that may persist for decades as America polices the post-Soviet peace in places like Bosnia and Iraq.
During the Cold War, most overseas missions were conducted from forward bases ringing the Sino-Soviet periphery. Airmen often were stationed at those bases for years, and if they were married, their families frequently went with them. But as access to Eurasian bases becomes problematical and more missions are performed on an ad hoc basis from facilities in the U.S., the challenges of family and unit cohesion grow. Training, morale and readiness may all be harmed.
Deploying to overseas peacekeeping operations is not necessarily helpful in preserving warfighting skills. It often impedes the ability of units to train for the most challenging missions they may face in future conflicts. But such deployments may be the most important role the Air Force performs during the early decades of the next century. After all, which is better — fighting and winning World War Three, or preventing it from happening in the first place? The Air Force has to be prepared for both eventualities, which is a tough tradeoff.
Bombers versus Fighters
A second strategic choice that Air Force leaders are grappling with is the proper mix of aircraft for future conflict. This tradeoff actually has two dimensions: bombers versus fighters, and aircraft versus munitions. The main reason the Air Force achieved independence from the Army in 1947 was that national leaders became convinced — particularly after the advent of nuclear weapons — that long-range bombers would revolutionize warfare. They did, but throughout the Cold War there was a rivalry within the Air Force between the proponents of heavy bombers like the B-52 and those who favored fighters. The latter were essential to achieving air superiority while the former were essential to exploiting it.
But as fighters were gradually equipped with the capacity to effectively attack ground targets – – thanks largely to the appearance of smart bombs – – and the superpower nuclear competition waned, versatile fighter-bombers like the F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Falcon became more and more of a challenge to heavy bombers. The climax of this rivalry came in the 1990’s, when Air Force leadership dominated by fighter pilots agreed to terminate production of the stealthy B-2 bomber at a mere 20 planes, leaving the service with a force of barely 200 heavy bombers (many of them more than 30 years old).
It’s clear that next-generation tactical aircraft such as the stealthy F-22 fighter will have unprecedented ability to precisely destroy ground targets, not to mention sweep the skies of enemy aircraft. But tactical aircraft have less range than heavy bombers, making overseas base access critical to operational effectiveness. A single B-2 bomber can destroy a dozen targets in one sortie from remote bases, while fighters carry fewer munitions and usually must be based closer to the action. With no next-generation bomber likely to be produced for at least a decade, the Air Force will have to continuously upgrade its remaining bombers to guard against the possibility its tactical aircraft are “locked out” of places like the Persian Gulf region.
One solution to this problem might be to construct mobile offshore bases for tactical aircraft that are secure from terrorists and the shifting preferences of regional political leaders. Another possibility would be to supplement the bomber force with thousands of long-range munitions such as air-launched or sea-launched missiles. The latter option is more in keeping with Air Force tradition, but potentially very expensive: at $1 million each for air-launched cruise missiles, it would have cost $40 billion to strike all 40,000 targets attacked in
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