Looks like I’m not the only one asking what the Air Force should be…

Look, despite the title of a recent post, I don’t seriously advocate dismantling the Air Force. But there are real questions about where the service is, and where it is heading.

It is the job of Schwartz, the Air Force’s top general and a onetime cargo pilot, to mediate between the old and new pilot tribes. In August 2008, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates tapped him to lead the service, the first chief of staff in Air Force history without a fighter or bomber pedigree, reflecting Gates’s frustration with the service’s old guard.

A quiet and introspective leader, Schwartz has turned his attention to dismantling the Air Force’s rigid class system. At the top of the traditional hierarchy are fighter pilots. Beneath them are bomber, tanker and cargo pilots. At the bottom are the officers who keep aircraft flying and satellites orbiting in space.

Schwartz has also pushed to broaden the Air Force’s definition of its core missions beyond strategic bombing and control of the skies. New on his list: providing surveillance imagery to ground troops waging counterinsurgencies. Today, the Air Force is flying 40 round-the-clock patrols each day with its Predator and Reaper unmanned planes, an eightfold increase over 2004.

“This is our year to look up and out . . . to ask big questions,” Schwartz said in an interview. “Who are we? What are we doing for the nation’s defense? . . . Where is this grand institution headed?”

There is also certainly a tension between two competing issues. Fighting the current wars, versus making sure we have tools and training to fight the next war.

Secretary of Defense Gates fired the last Secretary of the Air Force, and the last Chief of Staff of the Air Force because he didn’t think they were focusing enough on providing what the ground forces need in this fight, namely Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR)- usually through unmanned aircraft like the Predator and the Reaper.  Gates has also pushed the Air Force to buy a light combat aircraft suitable to low-intensity conflict, based most likely on a turbo-prop trainer aircraft. It makes little sense to wear out a $40 million dollar jet droning around in circles at $10,000 an hour on the off chance someone will need air support.  Gates’ thinking is that in the long run, it is cheaper to buy a small number of low-end planes to handle missions like this, and leave the fast-movers to missions that only they can fill.

But there’s a real worry that the Air Force might go “whole hog” on the force structure best suited for a permissive environment just as several potential adversaries are increasing the capabilities of both their air forces and their ground based air defense systems.

Of course, all this is taking place in an environment of fiscal austerity (does Bagram AB even have a golf course?) and in an environment where a program as trivial as the Air Force’s next Search & Rescue helicopter is bogged down in multiple lawsuits.

8 thoughts on “Looks like I’m not the only one asking what the Air Force should be…”

  1. Hate to say it, but they brought this mess onto their own heads. And like the Navy and their shipbuilding mess, they’re not setting themselves up very well for the upcoming budget wars.

  2. Much has already been said in the 2/23 post but I agree that assets should fit the mission. Reapers and Super Tacanos (Or Texans etc) are a good fit for COIN operations.
    I just hope we don’t take our eye off the air superiority ball in the long run. It’s a moving target that no one seems to aim at during budget cutting.
    P.S. The JSF is not the answer either.

  3. I am sort of in an outside on the inside spot. I work at Edwards and being an Old Navy Airdale, have often been puzzled by the way things are done.
    But the need for an Air Force that is more than just the fighter guys on top and the rest. And the super duper, high tech approach is not always the answer but the basically high tech mixed with the low tech as in the case of the Reapers and using the AT-6 in the COIN/CAS role is a pretty good idea.

  4. @wilko

    Seems to me the answer to the air superiority question is about 500 F-22s. Next step: figure out how to get a hook on it, build a Navy variant, and give the USN a real air superiority capability it hasn’t had since… when?

  5. Of course, that’s not quite true either. The F-14 wasn’t an air-superiority fighter, so much as a fleet air defense fighter. The driving concept behind its design was the ability to seek out and destroy Soviet Long Range Naval Aviation bombers and destroy them, hopefully before they launched their salvos of missiles at the carrier battle group.

    I guess the last pure air superiority fighter for the Navy would be the F-8 Crusader.

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