As politicians and media talking heads discuss “failures of generalship” and a “broken army” in somber tones, a quiet revolution is underway in the United States Air Force: a fundamental revitalization of America’s youngest service’s warfighting ethos.
The United States Air Force is commonly perceived as the “high tech” service, a conglomeration of skilled technicians intent on developing and acquiring the latest technology. To the extent the American public even thinks about its performance, it’s usually in the context of beautiful flying machines, performing flawlessly at an air show. Support and empathy — as well as Congressional concerns — are reserved for "the troops," meaning the Army and Marines, seen as bearing the brunt of the battle in Iraq.
And that is as it should be. But, the Army and the Marines aren’t in this fight alone. Fighting alongside them are Airmen — sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, who take the awesome technology American industry produces and keep it flying and fighting, conducting high and low combat air patrols over the modern battlefield — as well as America’s cities. They deserve no less empathy and support than our sons and daughters, sisters and brothers driving convoys, saving our wounded, and fighting on the ground in Iraq: some 24,000 of those deployed are Airmen too.
Because modern technology evolves quickly and costs a lot of money, some argue that the Air Force is a drain on national resources, chasing expensive technology seemingly for its own sake. Worse, as recent Senate Armed Services Committee deliberations suggest, it is also perceived as a convenient cash-cow to be tapped to get more funds to "support the troops," without having to sacrifice pet projects, or legislate allocation of a higher percentage of the GDP for national defense at a time of war.
Last, and perhaps most perniciously, there’s a disassociation in the mind of the American people and their elected officials between the Air Force and the blood, sweat and tears that make up the enduring reality of war. Think about it: the one Service who has been in continuous combat the longest — 16 straight years in South West Asia, with "minor" detours to win another war in the Balkans, spread its wings over America’s cities after 9/11, and deliver life saving supplies in the wake of hurricanes and tsunamis — is set apart from "the troops" to whom we owe support.
Is it a piggy bank to be raided for other purposes?
Think about this too: the mission of the Air Force is to fly and fight in air, space and cyberspace–to go after the enemy, to control the battlespace, and secure freedom to attack and freedom from attack. And it does it pretty darned well The last time an American soldier was killed by enemy aircraft was 1953. Desert Storm is commonly called the "100 hour war" — that’s how long the ground campaign lasted — because airpower made it so. Operation Allied Force in the Balkans was won without a single American "boot on the ground". Brutal dictatorships were toppled in Afghanistan and Iraq in record time, with the Air Force inflicting most of the damage to the enemy So, how can anyone argue–as was, indeed, argued in front of the SASC — that the Air Force is sitting on the sidelines and, thus, instead of garnering recognition and support, it should sacrifice its technological edge to finance the admittedly needed growth in landpower?
This isn’t about inter-service rivalries or competing claims on resources. This is about the Air Force reclaiming its rightful place in America’s pantheon of heroes — and, thus, in American hearts.
With these imperatives in mind, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley, issued a “CSAF Vector” that defines a new direction for the USAF. The publication was deliberately timed to coincide with the 65th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. April 18, 1942 is a date worth remembering, for it foreshadowed the American way of war and the manner in which World War II will end — just four months after the "day that will live in infamy," the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. On that day, 80 Airmen, led by Jimmy Doolittle, flew 16 B-25s into the heart of Imperial Japan to deliver a simple message: we’ll go after you, exploiting the range and payload that are the heart and soul of airpower, and bring you to your knees by inflicting death and destruction the likes of which were never seen. Three years later, Imperial Japan signed the instruments of unconditional surrender without the unimaginable bloodshed that would have ensued if airpower didn’t obviate the need for a ground invasion of the Home Islands.
This tradition of uncommon honor, valor, devotion, and mission-first attitude makes up the cornerstone of the USAF’s recent rededication to the enduring warrior ethos and shared Warrior Virtues. All are reflected in the Chief’s Vector, as well as the accompanying Airman’s Creed. Its words are as simple as they are profound. They speak for themselves: “I am an American Airman, guardian of freedom and justice, my nations’ sword and shield, its sentry and avenger. I defend my country with my life.” Airmen are the guardians who patrol the skies over our cities and maintain an ever-vigilant over-watch over both foe and friend. They are the air bridge to provide humanitarian assistance around the globe — and supply, support, and evacuate our ground warriors. Airmen are the top cover for troops in contact in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, just like in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, Airmen fly into danger to deliver death and destruction to those who would do us and our allies harm. Only Airmen are — at once — warriors, wingmen and leaders. And only Airmen truly never leave a comrade behind: combat search and rescue is a sacred duty for Airmen and the motto "so others might live" is taken quite literally by those who fly Vietnam-era rescue helicopters into places the devil himself doesn’t dare to tread,to pick up downed warriors — U.S. and allied, Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force.
As the Air Force flys and fights around the globe in the defining struggle of our generation, prepares for tomorrow’s uncertainties, and pleads for attention in the halls of Congress, one thing has definitely changed. Anywhere one finds the Air Force, one will find wingmen, leaders, and warriors. One will find Airmen.