The Richard Andres article Up in the Air addresses the challenges the U.S. Air Force is facing and the conditions that have led to its current state of affairs.
In effect, Andres suggests, the USAF has been so busy locked in on doing what it does that it’s lost its focus on what the nation most needs it to do. The need-to-do job, the real purpose of the military is “to defend the global commons and the open international economic order by ensuring peace among the major powers.”
As have others, Andres also suggest that those who were looking out and looking ahead, including former SecAF Mike Wynn and CSAF General Buzz Mosley, were shown the door for speaking about reversing the USAF’s trend-line.
So what happened? Well, there were several fundamental changes.
For example, with the end of the Cold War, the perceived value of the nuclear deterrence mission–a major piece of the Air Force–waned.
Also, at the end of the first Gulf War, a USAF-level decision that all future platforms would need to be stealthy and high-tech (and yes, expensive and manned) drove the USAF away from the sort of platforms that today’s effort would most need in a more low-tech battlespace.
An unrelenting ops tempo, when combined with the 90′s-era desire for a peace dividend meant procurement efforts like the next tanker, the KC-X were deferred or, like the F-22, drug-out, to their great detriment.
More recently, the USAF was slow to react to Secretary Gates’ desire to get more UAVs into the current fight, convincing (or reaffirming) many of a USAF stuck in a manned-fighter paradigm.
All along the way, other nations (think China) have been catching up as technology proliferates (think of Russian anti-air systems that may end up in Iran) and are robustly building out their anti-access capabilities. The Navy may suffer greatly in this regard as well with the recent revelations regarding China’s DF 21 anti-ship missile.
Andres suggest several of the usual candidates-for-success when this topic is being discussed: having more integrated and coordinated air power by more effectively using Army, Navy, and Marine air assets and getting the new tanker buy underway, as it is the resource which provides longer-legs to all air assets, especially when we are “basing challenged.”
Speaking of basing, Andres advocates fewer European bases and using scarce political capital to acquire better access in the PACOM and CENTCOM AORs.
These are difficult to argue against and when I wrote on this general theme two years ago, I argued the Air Force has fallen because it often lacks vision and its leaders tend to be copies of those who have gone ahead of them. Andres wraps up with the similar thoughts.
The most profound challenge to the USAF may well be its own culture, and that is the sort of long-term turn that is very difficult for a command and control type of bureaucracy–like the Air Force– to make.