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.