The one constant in the U.S. Air Force’s 60-year history has been change, and the same will be true during the next 60 years.

The U.S. Air Force got its butt kicked in Vietnam. We grievously underestimated the threat of surface-to-air missiles—SAMs—and though the North Vietnamese pilots were derided as “gooks” and “gomers,” in terms of kill ratios they did more damage to the USAF than any other adversary, including the vaunted Luftwaffe, in its own or its predecessors’ history.

The Air Force had become fascinated with the nuclear mission, and every one of its combat airplanes was designed to carry a nuclear weapon. When they went up against elderly but light and maneuverable MiG dogfighters, it was like an S-Class Mercedes limo trying to road-race a Lotus Elise. Fight’s over.

It wouldn’t be the first time, or the last, that the Air Force had to remake itself and redefine its mission. In 1991 the Air Force entered the first Gulf War convinced it would be able to bomb so fiercely for a week or two that the Iraqi army would simply cry uncle. Didn’t happen, though after more than a month of missions, air power was successful in paving (or more likely unpaving) the way for a smartly run ground campaign.

Air power enthusiasts, however, interpreted Operation Desert Storm to mean that air superiority was the key to victory. It was only the most foresighted of analysts who questioned whether air power would be effective against insurgents, terrorists and guerrillas. And of course the Air Force turned out to be all but useless against the 9/11 attacks.

Brigadier General Paul J. Selva is the director of Air Force strategic planning, responsible for looking forward 10, 20 and even 30 years to help decide how the Air Force should fight in the future. It’s not easy. “Imagine asking Eddie Rickenbacker what Vietnam would look like,” General Selva says. “He’d probably have described it as something like what he was seeing from his Spad in World War I, only more of it and faster.”

The Air Force does some serious, and often productive, brainstorming. “We did some war gaming, back in the late 1990s, and asked ourselves what would happen if you could change the pace of warfare,” Selva recalls. “Could you build airplanes and weapons that traveled faster? Well, the fastest we could come up with was the speed of light—a laser. As a result of that thinking, an airborne laser is currently being assembled to demonstrate the potential of a highpower, long-range, chemical laser weapon optimized for defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles.”

The Air Force has one spotless record that determines much of what it currently does and plans to continue doing. “Since April of 1953 [in Korea],” Selva says,“no member of the U.S. military has been attacked from the air. That is a fairly long record of air dominance.”

And air dominance continues to be the Air Force’s main mission. “We don’t just go out and defeat other air forces simply to defeat air forces, but because doing that is a necessary precondition to victory,” says Selva. “You’ll hear our mission described as ‘to fly and fight in air, space and cyberspace,’ but that leaves out the implicit words, ‘in order to set the preconditions for victory.’ Because without winning the air battle, it’s difficult if not impossible to prosecute any kind of surface battle.”

Ever since Billy Mitchell’s rants, and before that the writings of Italian military theorist General Giulio Douhet, air power advocates have insisted that, properly employed, aviation could win wars on its own. One result of the first Gulf War bombing campaign, enhanced by misinterpretation of the “Shock and Awe” opening act of the second war with Iraq, was that latter-day advocates of this approach have argued that given a little more time, this might have turned out to be the case.

“The very vocal opinion that air power on its own can win a war is less prevalent today than it was,” Selva says. “However, the notion that air power is an absolute requirement to set the conditions for victory is an unassailable argument. The voices that would once have said, ‘the Air Force can be decisive’ today say, ‘without the Air Force, victory would not be assured.’ The Air Force is a necessary precondition to establishing the opportunity for victory.

“Victory on the battlefield requires destroying some portion of your opponent’s military. The exchange ratios we use to describe [typical ground warfare] are on the order of one casualty on our side versus four to six of the enemy. Add air power to the equation and the exchange ratio goes from one to 50 to as high as one to 100.”

One of the USAF’s most pressing PR—and therefore congressional funding—problems is that much of the public assumes the Air Force is on the sharp edge of high tech, with lots of Mach 2 miracle planes and invisible stealth craft of every sort. The truth is that the Air Force’s airplanes are on average older than all the Navy’s ships and all the Army’s tanks.

“As a young captain in the mid-1970s, one of the generals on our staff accepted delivery of a brand-new F-15,” Selva muses. “As a colonel, he flew that very same airplane over Iraq, patrolling the nofly zone. And his son, an F-15 pilot today, is flying that very same jet.” Selva’s gripe is that his military is operating more geriatric airplanes than is any other first-world air force. Some of our tankers are 47 years old, much of the bomber fleet is in its early 40s, C-130s are in their late 30s, and the frontline fighters vary in age from 17 to 23.

Ten years ago, some would have said the F-15 and F-16 should be the last manned fighters the Air Force would build. They’d be replaced by UCAVs—unmanned combat air vehicles. The benefits of UCAVs would be enormous, and removing pilots from danger would only be one of them. Without a pilot, there is no need for pressurization, oxygen, heating and cooling, instruments, multiple voice radios, armor or an ejection system. At least some of that weight savings can be used to build an airframe so strong it could pull many times the Gs a human pilot could withstand, making the airplane vastly more maneuverable than any manned opponent.

It hasn’t happened yet, and Selva says it’ll be awhile before it does: “It’s probably not likely for the next decade or two, possibly three, that we will take pilots out of the threat zone.” Selva says that sophisticated UCAVs are currently capable of some of what a fighter aircraft does, but because it takes a minuscule but perceptible time to transfer data between a ground operator and the air plane (typically via satellite), and because nobody has yet figured out how to make an unmanned fighter mimic the thought processes of a skilled human pilot—choosing and differentiating between targets in a rapidly changing combat scenario, say— there’s a lot of work on UCAVs that remains to be done.

Currently, however, dogfighting seems to be the least of the Air Force’s worries, since nobody—certainly none of our potential enemies—is developing a fighter as sophisticated and capable as the F-22, to say nothing of the F-35. Finding, reaching and attacking ground targets will constitute much of the future mission.

“Take your view out 20 years and look at what might be available in that future battlespace,” Selva warns. “It’s not unthinkable that an opponent might have a very highly integrated air defense system— radar, a command-and-control network and the weapons to go with them, predominantly missiles. That’s an asymmetry when viewed against our platform-centric Air Force. In order to take control of that airspace away from that enemy, we’re going to have to be able to impose our will on their anti-aircraft defense system as well as on the airplanes that are part of their air force.”

Second-rate countries able to blow us out of the sky? Remember, after all, that Serbia is the only country to ever have shot down an F-117 stealth fighter, largely thanks to innovative use of terrain and radar, and smart placement of its SAM batteries.

Will a super-SAM mean the end of combat aircraft? “I doubt it,” Selva says. “What it will mean is that the interaction between countermeasures and counter-countermeasures—the chess game that gets played between defensive- and offensive-systems developers—becomes a much tighter cycle. We have to quickly decide which technologies we think are the best investments.”

But today the enemy is what the Air Force calls “asymmetric”— not a relatively equal match-up with the other guy’s fighters or bombers but somehow dealing with our new enemies in the unconventional war on terror. Does an air force of any sort have a contribution in combat with IEDs, RPGs, car bombs, airliners as missiles and whatever else the bad guys come up with next?

“There’s an automatic presumption that just because the opponent is a disorganized insurgent force, the Air Force doesn’t have a contribution,” Selva admits. “That’s wrong. One of our missions is the detection of enemy insurgents: where they are, how they are operating, characterizing their behavior, collecting information, marking them as targets and prosecuting them as targets if that’s what the joint-force commander wants us to do.”

During the 1990s, the Air Force was confident that it could find, fix, track and target anything that moved, anywhere in the world, and that this would remake warfighting—that standoff precision strikes, one weapon/one target, would make large ground forces obsolete. (Remember all those infrared Desert Storm PR videos of smart bombs gliding through windows and down chimneys, apparently creating a nowhere to run, nowhere to hide battlefield?) The war in Iraq, however, has changed that thinking.

Change is something the U.S. Air Force is accustomed to. Eddie Rickenbacker might have figured future wars would be World War I writ large, but Air Force visionaries today are both technologically savvy and operationally experienced. They’ve flown dogfighters, tankers, cargo planes and fighter-bombers as well as desks. Their bailiwick extends from air support so close that friendly troops had better duck, to space and even cyberspace, where information rather than ordnance is the weapon.

Today they’re figuring out how to fight future generations of terrorists. Tomorrow it might be North Korea, Iran or even Pakistan after a civil collapse, each of which will require new sets of tools and tactics. And over everything looms the specter of China.

One thing the 60-year history of the U.S. Air Force shows: You can be sure they will figure it out.

 

Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.