The aircraft arrayed around the spacious lawn of Maxwell Air Force Base, home of the Air University, mostly represent long-retired types. The largest, however, is a glistening B-52 bomber, which represents a still-employed component of the Air Force’s aging fleet: The youngest B-52 entered service in 1962. Sons have flown the same plane their fathers and grandfathers flew.
But, then, the average age of all the Air Force aircraft is 27 years; fighters, more than 30 years; bombers and helicopters, more than 40 years; refueling tankers more than 50 years. America’s security challenges change much faster – think of the Soviet Union’s demise and the Islamic State’s rise – than new technologies can be conceived, designed, approved, built and deployed. The F/A-18 and the F-16 were designed about 45 years ago.
On April 15, 1953, two U.S. soldiers in Korea were attacked and killed by a propeller-driven aircraft supporting Chinese and North Korean troops. Since then, no U.S. ground troops have been attacked by an enemy aircraft. Such has been the permissive environment guaranteed by U.S. air dominance, not since Vietnam has a U.S. pilot used his aircraft’s bullets to down an enemy fighter plane (although air-to-air missiles downed enemy aircraft over the Balkans).
The Air Force’s dominance in controlling the air and in supporting ground troops might have been what an F-16 pilot here calls a “catastrophic success,” distracting attention from the rapidly evolving challenge of multi-domain, combined-arms warfare on land, on and under the sea, in the air, and in space and cyberspace.
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From Dec. 8, 1941, through August 5, 1945 – the day before Hiroshima – there were no radical technological disjunctions during World War II. Aircraft, aircraft carriers, tanks and radar were pre-Pearl Harbor technologies. Future wars, however, will be won by information superiority that produces superior decisions. Which means that China gave a chilling glimpse of the future when in January 2007 it successfully launched an anti-satellite weapon.
Beginning with the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, air power has been the first, and sometimes the only, recourse of presidents. In 1991, six weeks of air attacks enabled U.S. ground forces to finish Iraq’s army in 100 hours. In 1999, in three months of combat over Serbia and Kosovo, air power sufficed to enable diplomacy to attain the political objectives. In 1991, in the first night of the Gulf War air campaign, U.S. air power struck more targets than the Eighth Air Force struck in Europe in all of 1942 and 1943.
These recent episodes may, however, be remembered not as harbingers of future conflicts but as punctuations ending an era. In this, its 70th year as an independent service, the Air Force, like the other branches of the military, but more than any other, is being required to rethink its mission in light of rapidly evolving threats and technologies.
The Air Force is in charge of two legs of the nuclear deterrence triad – strategic bombers and Minuteman ICBMs – but also has been delivering 70 percent of the bombs against ISIS. For decades, the Air Force’s strategic role was defined by President Dwight Eisenhower’s configuration of U.S. forces for long-range deterrence of the Soviet Union in order to reduce the need for massive forward-based forces. In 2009, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who perhaps possesses broader knowledge and experience of national security matters than any American has ever had, said: “If the Department of Defense can’t figure out a way to defend the United States on a budget of more than half a trillion dollars a year, then our problems are much bigger than anything that can be cured by a few more ships and planes.” Indeed, safety might come from buying fewer ships and planes, and more drones.
And developing hypersonic (more than five times the speed of sound) weapons that can strike anywhere in the world in less than an hour. And electromagnetic kinetic weapons (railguns) with muzzle velocities of 5,000 miles per hour, twice as fast as the muzzle velocity of a high-caliber bullet. Directed-energy laser-based weapons operating at the speed of light are about 134,000 times faster than railguns.
What Air Force people call “fast movers” – fighter planes, the fastest bombers – are mere plodders compared to weapons that are not far over the horizon. And compared to the pace of geo-strategic and technological changes that challenge even the fine Air University’s capacity to comprehend them.
George Will is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @georgewill