The Air Force is the smallest is has been since it was first created nearly 70 years ago. In addition to stop-loss, the Air Force recently has frozen any new civilian hires. Facebook has been filled with images of signs at Base Exchanges encouraging prior-service personnel to consider rejoining. As one four-star recently remarked, the Air Force is now almost too small to succeed.
There are many causes for the state of the Air Force today. Too much emphasis on a corporate culture versus a true warrior culture. Too much emphasis on "doing more with less" instead of adhering to the true mission values. Too much emphasis on the latest gadgets over airmen. Any of these warrants a separate essay as some other writers and bloggers have done. For me, the state of the Air Force today begins with two men from two different eras, Curtis LeMay and Merrill McPeak.
Curtis LeMay saw the USAF having two distinct parts, strategic and tactical. To LeMay, the strength of the USAF was in its ability to project power through long range, strategic strikes. Two-thirds of the nuclear triad are controlled by the USAF and those two-thirds (ICBMs and manned-bombers) were the sole purview of Strategic Air Command (SAC). SAC was the key in LeMay's mind to the whole reason the USAF existed as a separate service. Even the Navy with its carrier battle groups and its ballistic missile submarines could not strike as quickly and deeply in enemy territory as could SAC assets.
So absolute was LeMay's belief in the superiority of strategic forces, he laid claim to the one other capability truly unique to the USAF, long range air-refueling. By controlling the tanker fleet SAC held the rest of the Air Force, including the fighters of the Tactical Air Command (TAC) and air lifters of the Military Airlift Command (MAC), to their ops-tempo.
LeMay's view of the USAF created the need for large bases with large wings and lots of manpower to execute the mission. The strategic/tactical USAF was a huge behemoth and as long as the Cold War went on, there was little reason for it to shrink. It would also be why the Base Realingment and Closure (BRAC) would years later have such a target rich environment.
The supremacy of strategic over tactical would continue to dominate Air Force doctrine long after LeMay's retirement as Chief of Staff in 1965. But as often happens when you have a leader so absolute in his vision, his polar opposite is created in his midst. The polar opposite to the LeMay US Air Force would be Merrill McPeak.
LeMay's strategic-centric Air Force would find its litmus test in Vietnam, at the same time a young Merrill McPeak flew fighters. Instead of strategic airpower, air-to-air combat and close air support missions ruled the day. For McPeak, he would see the world in a complete opposite to LeMay's. Tactical aircraft, especially fighters, did the lion's share of the work in Vietnam, not the heavy manned bombers favored by LeMay.
McPeak's experiences in Vietnam caused him to resent and later rebuke the supremacy of SAC. Especially egregious to McPeak was the dependency TAC had on SAC tankers. In effect, TAC couldn't go anywhere without SAC's say so. No tankers meant no long range deployments for the fast movers, something that ate at McPeak for his entire career.
Then two things happened to finally break LeMay's strategic versus tactical legacy. The first was McPeak became Chief of Staff in October 1990. McPeak also got to see his view of fighter-supremacy validated in Desert Storm (a nuanced interpretation since it bombing missions, not air-to-air, that made a quick victory possible). The second event was the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. With a Soviet power to prepare against, SAC lost relevancy.
McPeak may be remembered more for his hideous uniform redesign, which made every look like airline pilots, but his real legacy is his shift from the "strategic versus tactical" view of the world to "theater versus global". McPeak renamed everything he could to get rid of the vestiges of the "strategic/tactical" Air Force of LeMay's era. Instead, McPeak would introduce "theater" to replace "tactical" and "global" to replace "strategic".
Using different terms may seem trivial but to McPeak, it signified an order of magnitude shift in how the Air Force would function. "Global" assets got the war fighters to the fight but it was the "theater" assets that would win the wars in the future. Manned strategic bombers and nuclear ballistic missiles just didn't fit into this new paradigm and with the fall of the Soviet Union, why should they?
Fighters could deliver the precision bombing that the early bomber pilots of WWII and even Vietnam could only dream about. McPeak represented what was often referred to as the "fighter mafia", those who knew their superiority based on the fact the flew fast-movers instead of slow-movers. Nothing showed this bias more than when McPeak reinstated the leather flight jackets for aircrews but managed to not include rotary wing pilots (only they guys charged with picking-up the fast-movers when they got shot-down).
McPeak aped the corporate world and instituted "total quality management" (TQM) creating a whole subculture of trainers and facilitators to make the Air Force as efficient as corporate America. As a result, each unit would have to develop a mission-statement. Almost all of those mission statements had the words "world-class organization" or "global" in it. Nowhere were the words "strategic" or "tactical"to be found. The long range effect of this fascination with corporate America can be seen in the Air Force today.
Senior leaders are more bureaucrats than actual leaders of men and women. There is no way a Curtis LeMay or Robin Olds would exist in today's Air Force. Officers and NCOs have to plod through mind-numbing meetings under the pretense of developing "consensus" but in actuality, this meetings beat any innovation down and fosters group-think.
Look at the way the Air Force has reacted to sexual assault. First it created another layer of bureaucracy of "coordinators" to run around and do briefings and conduct investigations. Instead of making commanders and first sergeants more accountable, the Air Force has now broken the handling of sexual assault cases completely away from the chain of command. This sounds good, even efficient, except it means the very people responsible for creating a culture that does not commit sexual assaults now have no vested interest in making sure their commands are successful.
All of this is occurring at a time when societal norms are chaining and more and more of the troops are suffering from PTSD. Corporate America doesn't have to face these challenges while still flying jets and shooting the enemy. But I digress, back to Lemay and his transformational language.
In eliminating all vestiges of LeMay's "strategic/tactical" vision, he unwittingly also started the demise of the Air Force by forgetting the one thing LeMay's vision understood. The understanding by LeMay was that the Air Force was uniquely qualified to do something no other service could do. McPeak's vision did not see a unique vision for the Air Force, instead by making the Air Force more corporate he de-emphasized the core mission of the service.
Why do I say that given that McPeak was first and foremost a fighter pilot (the warrior elite of the USAF)? He emphasized corporate management techniques to the exclusion of developing a warrior ethos. He rightly recognized the role of the Air Force in getting everyone to the fight but in so doing, he relegated the nuclear forces (the one thing the Air Force had that no one other than the Navy could do) to second-class status. So would begin a slow descent into irrelevancy as we will see.
McPeak also took the tankers away from SAC (now renamed Strike Command) and placed them under Air Mobility Command (formerly MAC). Tankers do provide some lift capability but their real role is allowing the Air Force to go anywhere by refueling aircraft. Again a subtle change but one that added to making the Air Force less relevant. Now the Air Force was becoming more about getting others to the fight and less about winning the fight.
The new, leaner Air Force was ripe for the BRAC commissions. Big, Cold War era bases were scattered all over the world and big money could be saved by closing these facilities. Unfortunately, it also meant the Air Force would start to get smaller as a result. The world-class, global Air Force could do its job just fine, went the thinking, from stateside bases. Fewer bases means fewer aircraft and fewer personnel.
McPeak's vision also fit nicely into the Clinton Administration's view of not actually waging war, just popping off a few cruise missiles whenever someone acted up. If cruise missiles wouldn't do, you could just send a few fighters armed with precision weapons and do the same thing. But wait, if unmanned missiles are just as successful (plus more cost-effective), why do you need manned aircraft?
The Global War on Terror would seem to be custom made for the post-McPeak Air Force. Smaller, even more precise munitions had been develop allowing fewer aircraft to drop more ordnance, striking more targets per sortie. Unmanned drones would first start by providing near continuous monitoring of the battlefield. Then someone got the bright idea that if the drones could just shoot at the very things they were watching, that would be even more awesome! Hence Predators and Reapers became the high-demand resources that Washington knows and loves.
In unmanned aerial vehicles McPeak's was vision of a lean, global reach power never better realized. The Air Force could be on call 24/7, 356 days a year, without the need for the massive bases of the LeMay era. Drone operators can operate from stateside bases with only the need for a minimal runway and maintenance facility for the drones to operate from. Bases now could be smaller requiring fewer people. Lean and efficient, just like the way corporations downsize to improve their bottom line.
Unfortunately the new leaner, more efficient Air Force is no longer unique amongst the services. The end-strength of the Air Force today is the same as the US Marine Corps (which is not a separate service). All branches of the US military operate drones so the justification to keep a separate branch is eroding. Oh wait, the Air Force still flies fighters! Air Force senior leaders are finally admitting that there are not enough F-22s and the F-35 is costing too much that there won't be enough to replace the legacy fleet. The woes of the F-35 just keep coming such as requiring 27 hours of maintenance for every 1 hour of flight time and that's just routine maintenance. That means even when all of the F-35s are fielded they will spend more time in the hangar than in flight.
The Air Force has in the meantime ignore its other assets. It has taken years to get the new tanker designed and approved (after many scandals). The C-17 is being flown into an early retirement with no new long range airlifter in sight. The mighty A-10, the darling of the ground forces, is being forced into retirement with no replacement in sight (no, the F-35 can't do the same job).
Now we come full circle to LeMay, the US Air Force nuclear forces. Scandals have plagued the long-forgotten missile wings. Missile launch officers were discovered to be cheating on the proficiency tests on a large scale. Bombers have been flown with armed nuclear missiles by accident and with no one realizing it until the aircraft had landed. But perhaps the most egregious sin of all is that we have pilots now flying our primary bomber, the B-52, who are the grandsons of the first crews. The B-52 is not scheduled to be retired anytime soon which means soon the great grandsons of the original crews could be piloting the great grandfathers.
There are no more LeMays or even McPeaks in the Air Force any longer. A combination of the consensus-builing bureaucracy along with the current White House that has fired any four-star that doesn't agree with Mr. Obama has created this void. With no real leaders left, and an environment the cannot produce any, the Air Force will most likely by brought back under the US Army. It would make lean and efficient sense.