I have always believed that no one is born great. They achieve greatness by how they respond to major challenges and life decisions. No one would have called Harry Truman a great man when he was a Senator or even Vice-President. But it was the way he responded to challenges of being President at the start of the Cold War that defined him for all time. War often creates the opportunity for individuals to achieve greatness. Just think about Abraham Lincoln, FDR, Winston Churchill, George Marshall, Hap Arnold and Chester Nimitz.
The men recently tapped to lead the U.S. Air Force have the opportunity to achieve greatness. That is the good news. The bad news is that they have the opportunity because the Air Force is in very bad shape. Generals Mark Welsh III and Larry Spencer have taken over stewardship of their service at a time of continuing, even growing troubles. Some these problems, such as a declining budget, the need to reset equipment worn out by decades of intense operations and supporting service personnel and their families, are true for all the services. Others, however, are unique to the Air Force. These problems include: the lack of a strategic vision for the Air Force in a time of great uncertainty and change for the military as a whole, continuing problems with its premier acquisition program, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), an internal row over the balance between Active and Reserve Components in smaller force structure and growing challenges both operational and technological to American air dominance.
There are really two Air Forces, one that provides critical support to Joint and Combined Forces in such areas as strategic and theater lift, ISR and communications and the other that can readily dominate hostile skies, spread an umbrella of protection over U.S. and friendly forces and strike literally any target on the face of the Earth rapidly and with devastating force. But which Air Force will the nation call for most in the decades to come? How much should the Air Force tie itself to supporting the needs of the other services and how much attention must it devote to maintaining and improving in other core competencies such as air and space superiority and global attack? The Air Force needs to answer these questions as part of articulating a strategic vision that makes the case for the unique capabilities it provides in both war and peace.
The future of the Air Force, indeed of U.S. airpower, is closely tied to the fate of the F-35 program. Those who want to cancel the program and simply buy more F-15s, 16s and 18s need to explain how planes designed in the 1970s will be able to deal with the threats of the mid-21st Century — and those threats are advancing rapidly. While the Pentagon has sought to shift blame for the program’s problems onto the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, it too must share responsibility. It does little good for program managers to lambast the contractor for problems that it had a hand in creating. While the Joint Program Office is responsible to all three services that will field the JSF (and close to a dozen foreign countries), this is really the Air Force’s baby. Generals Welsh and Spencer will have to keep a close eye on the F-35 program at this critical point in its evolution.
General Welsh became chief just in time to adjudicate an ugly fight between the Air Force and the Air National Guard/Reserve. As part of its downsizing effort, the Air Force had proposed cutting a number of Guard and Reserve formations arguing that in the last restructuring it was the Active Component that bore the brunt of reductions. For attempting to be strategic, thoughtful and reasonable, the Air Force had its head handed to it by a combination of national, state and local politicians, adjutants general and local media. General Welsh has to mend fences, assure politicians that their concerns will be addressed and also preserve critical capabilities for the entire Air Force. Not an easy task.
These issues might not loom so large if the dominance the U.S. has enjoyed in air power were not being challenged. The combination of advanced air defenses, long-range ballistic and cruise missiles and new competitors in the arena of air combat are threatening perhaps the singular U.S. asymmetric military advantage of the past sixty years: dominance of the air. The F-22 program was terminated in 2009 by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates largely based on the belief that no other country was even close to fielding stealthy aircraft. Today, China is reported to have two stealthy fighters close to initial fielding, the J-20 and the J-31. Russia plans to deploy its stealthy fighter, the Sukhoi PAK FA T-50 in a couple of years. Without air superiority, the United States will be shut out of regions of the world such as the Persian Gulf and East Asia that are vital to our economic security.
Generals Welsh and Spencer know that the Air Force faces some of the most daunting challenges since its creation in 1947. How they respond to them could well determine the fate of their service and their standing among the generations of great Air Force leaders.
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