Who says the Air Force isn’t agile? Next week it will finally get around to fixing the misleading name of its next-generation fighter, and it only took a decade of deliberations to decide. The Raptor stopped being just an air-superiority aircraft a long time ago, but it took pressure from the defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his unforgiving Air Force secretary, James Roche, to pound the service’s fighter mafia into submission.
The change in Raptor designation is a curious tale about the mismatch between bureaucratic and warfighting cultures — a seemingly minor shift that actually speaks volumes about how the Bush Administration is pushing the Pentagon to change. It’s no secret that the Air Force has emerged as primus inter pares — first among equals — in America’s post-Cold War military posture. That doesn’t reflect an airpower bias, it simply recognizes that the Air Force has led the way in defeating three different enemies over the last dozen years. The service has so thoroughly infused the fruits of the information age into its force structure that no adversary can now resist its onslaughts.
But this revolution in warfighting has not been matched by a transformation in bureaucratic culture. When James Roche became secretary last year, he inherited an air staff with processes and procedures that would have looked familiar to Curtis LeMay. The bureaucracy was slow and ingrown, so much so that it often seemed to lack the capacity to explain its warfighting breakthroughs to outsiders. Roche saw the problem and made cultural change his top priority. So did Air Force chief of staff Gen. John Jumper, who has tirelessly attacked against old-think at headquarters and in the field.
But bureaucracies are accustomed to waiting out change agents. It took a threat from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to really shake the place up. The threat came in the form of this summer’s weapons review, which raised the possibility of again cutting Raptor — this time to less than a quarter of the number of airframes proposed by Secretary Cheney a decade ago. Air Force leaders were forced to confront what a poor job they had done of explaining Raptor to the rest of the political system.
Everybody knew the air-superiority story, but most people didn’t realize how the threat had shifted from enemy fighters to sophisticated surface-to-air missiles and radars. As it did, Raptor’s capabilities were radically transformed to encompass precision strikes against ground targets, electronic warfare, reconnaissance, and connectivity for supporting joint forces. It even had acquired cruise- missile defense capabilities no other plane could match.
Raptor’s new designation is a belated attempt to explain these capabilities to outsiders, before the centerpiece of future airpower strategy suffers another blow. The service doesn’t believe it can assure air superiority without the plane (JSF is much less agile and stealthy). But one reason for preserving air superiority is so that Raptor can bring all its other capabilities to the battle. That’s the part of the story the overdue name-change addresses.
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