Air Force may be getting obsolete

March 06, 2001|By Jack Kelly

PITTSBURGH -- The Air Force and I were born less than a week apart, and we seem to be going into decline at about the same time.

The Air Force was a product of the National Security Act of Sept. 15, 1947, which also gave birth to the Defense Department, the CIA, and the National Security Council.

The Air Force has long been regarded as the most astute politically of the armed forces, routinely grabbing the lion's share of the annual defense budget.

This seems still to be true. Ahead are plans for the F-22, a fighter that will protect us from a threat no nation is presenting, and the Joint Strike Fighter, which would be used by the Navy and the Marine Corps as well as by the Air Force.

But appearances can be deceiving.

While the Air Force always has excelled at the tactical maneuvering needed to get funding for its programs through the Pentagon bureaucracy and Congress, it has lacked strategic vision. The blunder of the Strategic Air Command may have been a portent of things to come.

SAC once was the most important military command in the world. Arguably, its commander was the third most important man on the planet, after the American president and the Soviet Communist Party chairman.

When space systems first started coming online, SAC was the logical place to put them. But SAC was interested only in manned bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Now Space Command in Colorado Springs is flourishing while SAC has joined the mastodon and the dodo bird.

The Air Force's problem is that the technological sun is setting on the day of the manned aircraft, especially the tactical fighter-bomber, which is most favored by the current Air Force hierarchy. Pilots are being pinched out of the cockpit by space systems above them, remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) below them and, increasingly, "smart" weapons.

In the Persian Gulf war and in Kosovo, we used satellites to guide bombs dropped by aircraft to their targets. If we had armed satellites, or military space stations, we could dispense with the middlemen in most instances.

Technology is improving so rapidly that the chief barrier to more effective combat aircraft is the pilot. We can design aircraft that turn on a dime, but we can't design people who can live through the experience.

RPVs have a number of other advantages: If you don't have a pilot in your plane, you can make it smaller. Smaller is more maneuverable and harder to detect on radar and cheaper to build. If it's shot down, you don't have to worry about somebody's husband, son or father getting killed or becoming a prisoner.

Cruise missiles are increasing their range and speed and becoming capable of performing evasive maneuvers. If a bomb can fly so well by itself, there is less need for manned aircraft to carry it part of the way.

The Navy and the Army have an inherent protection against obsolescence, no matter how stupid its admirals and generals. We will always need ships, even if the Navy persists in building mostly the kinds of ships for which we have diminishing use.

In land warfare, there is still no substitute for troops on the ground.

But though we've devised many new ways to kill the poor bloody infantryman, and invented lots of new gear for him to carry, we haven't yet figured out another way to do his job, or how to win a war if his job isn't done.

The Air Force has no similar built-in protection. A missile can as easily be defined as long-range artillery as an aircraft. And the Air Force, for bureaucratic reasons long ago overtaken by events, permitted the Army to retain the lead role in missile and air defense.

If fighter-bombers are largely supplanted by space systems, RPVs and cruise missiles controlled by other services, the strategic rationale for a separate Air Force diminishes virtually to the vanishing point.

A separate Air Force makes strategic sense only as an aerospace force, with an emphasis on space systems. Rocket scientists may not be as glamorous as fighter pilots, but at least they have a future.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. His e-mail address is jkelly@post- gazette.com.

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