There was a time when the Air Force wasn’t just co-equal with the other military services in the Department of Defense, but first among equals. That time is now long gone. After a smashing success in the 1999 Balkan air war — it defeated Serbia without assistance from ground forces — the Air Force gradually began to lose altitude in the political system, while the other services gained influence. Its nadir came in 2008, when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates forced out the Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff following an investigation of mis-steps in the management of nuclear weapons. The successors that Gates put in place were ill-positioned to protect Air Force franchises, and as a result the world’s preeminent air service is flying into a post-Afghanistan future with the oldest fleet in its history. General Mark A. Welsh III, the likely next Chief of Staff, will have to figure out how to reverse this downward spiral — which may require some soul-searching about institutional culture. I have written a commentary for Forbes here.
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