DeM Banter: We can get upset, we can argue, we can pout, but in the end… this is the view of the USAF from several different sources. The good news… we have an incredible “greater good” leader at the helm…the bad news…there is a lot of work to do…and a good bit involves changing the culture of our service. Thoughts?
The U.S. Air Force is getting a new chief of staff, and he faces the Herculean task of reversing an institutional decline that threatens to permanently impair the service’s warfighting capabilities. The main reason for the decline is that America’s military spent the first decade of the new millennium fighting enemies with no air forces and no air defenses, so Pentagon spending priorities shifted to other areas. But the deeper problem is that the Air Force has never been comfortable with politics, and that disability can be downright lethal in a democracy.
You can see just how lethal by looking at the barrage of criticism General Mark A. Welsh III faced in Senate hearings to consider his nomination as the next chief. Senators were irate over not being consulted about Air Force plans to transfer or retire hundreds of planes in their states, and wanted to create a commission to review the future balance of active and reserve units within the force. If implemented, the idea would politicize the Air Force’s planning process and further hobble an already faltering institution.
These sorts of problems don’t usually come up for the other military services and they didn’t used to arise for the Air Force. Legislators from a particular state will complain about the movement of an aircraft carrier or the disposition of Army maintenance work, but it’s exceedingly rare for an entire legislative chamber to be up in arms over a service’s budget submission. How the Air Force got to this point is a cautionary tale about what happens to an institution that doesn’t foster the behaviors necessary to get along with diverse political constituencies.
When the old millennium ended, the nation’s newest military service — it became independent from the Army in 1947 — seemed to be on the flight path to a bright future. In 1999, during the final Spring of the American Century, Air Force fighters and bombers led NATO to a crushing defeat of Serbia in the Balkan air war, with little support from ground forces. John Keegan, whom a New YorkTimes obituary last week called the preeminent military historian of his generation, wrote that Serbia’s defeat proved “a war can be won by airpower alone.”
It seemed new technologies such as precision-guided munitions and low observables (“stealth”) had vindicated the long-held view of Air Force theorists that air power could be a “winning weapon.” Better yet, the victory was achieved not by indiscriminate bombing but rather through selective targeting of critical infrastructure — an approach championed by air-power enthusiasts since the 1920s. Air power thus appeared perfectly suited to an era of American economic and military dominance, an era of small wars in which the most technologically-sophisticated player would always prevail.
That dream didn’t last long. Only two years later, terrorists equipped with little more than courage and imagination attacked the icons of American power on 9-11, and the Air Force was nowhere in sight. The nation was dragged into the longest war in its history, fighting elusive adversaries that the service was ill-equipped to defeat quickly. It eventually figured out how to do the job, but the solution — unmanned drones — wasn’t what air-power proponents had envisioned for the world’s preeminent air service. The Air Force spent most of the decade supporting other services rather than leading the way.
That might not have been so bad if the Air Force had managed to hold its modernization program together until a “real” enemy came along. Most military experts realized the Al Qaeda would never pose the kind of threat to American survival that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had. And money was flowing freely to all of the military services during the Bush years. So it should have been possible for the Air Force to maintain the pace of modernization despite the focus on unconventional adversaries.
But it turned out that the Air Force’s internal bureaucratic and political weaknesses were too pronounced to keep the air-power story on track, so once the “shock and awe” stage of overseas conflicts had passed, the service began steadily losing altitude. The first big political setback came in 2003, when investigators determined that a senior civilian weapons buyer had biased competitions in favor of her future employer, Boeing. That turned into the biggest Pentagon procurement scandal since the Reagan years, and aborted a plan to jump-start modernization of aging aerial-refueling tankers by leasing a hundred from the same company.
The effort to purchase new tankers became a poster child for poor management practices. When the service subsequently ran a competition and sought to award the program to Boeing rival Northrop Grumman, the Government Accountability Office ruled the Air Force had failed to fairly apply its selection criteria and so the service had to start over. By that time, the 400 KC-135 tankers in its fleet — crucial enablers of the service’s global reach — were approaching an average age of 50 years. Today, four years later, the service still hasn’t managed to acquire a single new tanker, although it at least has awarded a development contract.
Shortly after the tanker program became embroiled in controversy, senior advisors around Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld began questioning a plan to replace the service’s radar and eavesdropping planes with a version of the same jetliner Boeing had proposed for the aerial-refueling mission. Being able to monitor hostile activity in the air, on the ground and across the electromagnetic spectrum is a core competency of the Air Force, but its Cold War fleet of sensor planes has grown decrepit with age. Rumsfeld’s advisors argued some of the missions should be done from space in the future. When the two sides couldn’t agree, the plan to replace the planes was canceled and so the service now is saddled with a costly collection of antique airframes to perform some of its most vital missions.
By the time the plan for replacing Air Force sensor planes was killed in 2007, a different kind of problem had appeared that eventually would shake the service to its roots. A pattern of mistakes in the handling of nuclear weapons led to an investigation that so disturbed Defense Secretary Robert Gates he requested the resignations of both the Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff. Gates said at the time that their removal was due solely to findings of poor stewardship in the nuclear-weapons program. However, he was also angry over the Air Force’s perceived foot-dragging in providing surveillance drones to troops in the field, and he was sick of bickering between his advisors and Air Force leaders over the fate of the service’s prized F-22 fighter.
Whatever the mix of motives leading to the purge of Air Force leaders in mid-2008, it formalized what many airmen already sensed: their service’s influence had reached a low ebb. An institution that dominated military councils in the early years of the Cold War now was sometimes excluded entirely, and the sea services seemed to be winning most of the plum assignments to head joint commands. One signal of air power’s waning influence came in 2007, when a Marine general and admiral were replaced as chairman and vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by an admiral and a Marine general. The previous practice had been to rotate such assignments among all four services. However, the outright removal of the Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff, and their replacement with Gates proxies, was a new low.
Under the circumstances, it was hard for the new Air Force leaders to gain credibility within the service or defend air-power franchises in joint deliberations. Their perceived power was further undermined when Gates, held over into the Obama Administration, proceeded to kill some of the Air Force’s top modernization programs in April of 2009. Among other things, he killed its top-of-the-line F-22 fighter at barely half of the service’s stated requirement; canceled its planned next-generation bomber despite the dwindling number of bombers in the active fleet; terminated a future combat search-and-rescue helicopter that had been the service’s number-two modernization priority; and deep-sixed a revolutionary communications satellite at the heart of Air Force global networking plans.
In partial compensation for this bureaucratic carnage, Gates promised to accelerate purchases of the Air Force’s single-engine F-35 fighter, a lower-cost fighter based on the design of the twin-engine F-22. However that commitment did not outlive Gate’s tenure as Secretary of Defense, and Pentagon planners have been scaling back near-term buys of the F-35 ever since. Most of the new fighters in the Air Force’s five-year spending plan have now disappeared, and so the service must scrounge for money that can be used upgrade to Cold War fighters until something better comes along. Meanwhile, each new budget year brings the cancellation of additional programs once thought critical to the future of air power.
So here is the Air Force that General Welsh will be inheriting when he becomes Chief of Staff. Its bomber fleet, once the backbone of the service’s posture, is a grab-bag of antiquated and dissimilar airframes that could not sustain global operations against a peer adversary. Most of the aircraft in its aerial-refueling fleet are around 50 years old, based on an airframe designed in the early 1950s. Its radar planes and other sensor aircraft are of similar vintage, with no replacements in sight. Its fighters and attack aircraft are being replaced at such a slow pace that venerable Cold War airframes will need to be equipped with new electronics. And its fleet of helicopters for retrieving downed pilots is on its last legs, frequently out of service for repairs.
The nicest thing you can say about this picture is that the service has acquired a sizable number of surveillance and attack drones over the past decade, which will serve the nation just fine if future enemies are as ill-equipped with air defenses as the Taliban. Air Force managers have also done a good job of rescuing the nation’s military-satellite constellations from a series of destructive mistakes made in the Clinton years. But the traditional core of the Air Force, its fleet of manned aircraft, is older than ever before — so old, in fact, that the safety of flying some of the most aged planes is becoming an issue.
This deterioration in the sinews of America’s air arm cannot be attributed to lack of missions or money or mental capacity. The air fleet has been in heavy demand since the Cold War ended; December 17th of last year was the first day in 20 years that no Air Force plane flew over Iraq. Money has been plentiful for much of that time, so much so that the five-percent of human beings who call themselves Americans now account for nearly half of all global military spending. And anyone who has sat through Air Force meetings at the Pentagon knows the service is full of smart officers and enlisted personnel (it may have too many of them).
So what has held the service back, when the need for new aircraft is so clear? Other than the blessing of not having to deal with enemies who know how to fly planes, one possible cause to consider is institutional culture. The top leaders of the Air Force are all pilots, and they’d much rather be flying an F-16 over some remote air base than serving in a Pentagon desk job. The warfighters of other services probably feel the same way, but in the Air Force aversion to all things political seems more pronounced. The Navy, in contrast, never seems to lose sight of the need to tell the sea power story to politicians and listen to their responses. It also understands how to get its various communities into alignment before going forth to battle the other services.
Air Force leaders might benefit from studying the Navy’s example. They would learn that constantly being at loggerheads with their reserve component is no way to make progress in the political system, and that failing to consult with the representatives of local communities guarantees Air Force plans will be resisted when they reach Capitol Hill. People who have dealt with the incoming chief say he is a natural leader who thinks clearly and has exceptional interpersonal skills. He will need all the inspired leadership and mental acuity he can muster to pull his service out of the downward spiral in which it now finds itself. If the Air Force doesn’t start buying a lot more planes, and soon, historians will remember this period of its history as the institutional equivalent of a “controlled flight into terrain.”