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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Air Power Blues: Changing Roles for U.S. Air Force Spark Emotional Debate
Air Power Blues: Changing Roles for U.S. Air Force Spark Emotional Debate
Advocates of “air power” who long for a return to the days when the U.S. Air Force dominated the nation’s war planning and operations must be sorely disappointed these days.

The rhetoric from blue-suit leaders as of late paints a picture of an Air Force that is becoming more accepting of being a “support” player in current wars and is in no hurry to start building the next whiz bang generation of aerial superiority weapons.

The mood was captured in a speech that Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz delivered to the Air Force Association’s annual convention earlier this month. In an effort to cheer up the troops, Schwartz suggested that the Air Force should by no means feel “threatened” because ground warfare has garnered the spotlight and greater political clout within the Pentagon. The Air Force, he said, “Remains an essential element [of U.S. national security] and will find itself in an increasingly significant role in the 21st Century, although we perhaps are not currently cast in the marquee roles that we fulfilled in previous decades.”

Schwartz reassured airmen that “We will find our capabilities in even higher demand, and ourselves increasingly influential in shaping — at times even controlling — aspects of this environment.”

These statements may be satisfactory to young officers and airmen who have grown up in an era when the Air Force’s primary roles in war have been transportation, aerial refueling and operation of unmanned surveillance aircraft, most of which are flown remotely from U.S.-based facilities.

But such rhetoric has certainly stirred anxiety among retired generals, corporate executives from top defense contractors and pundits who see this shift in posture as a dangerous sign that the United States is giving up on air-warfare dominance.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates — cast as the villain who is robbing the Air Force to pay the Army — has repeatedly dismissed criticism that he is undermining U.S. air power. What he is doing, Gates said, is rebalancing resources to bolster ground-warfare capabilities that for a long time have been neglected.

The air power crowd is not buying it, though. The Air Force’s recently retired deputy chief for intelligence Lt. Gen. David Deptula has forewarned that the United States has a “geriatric Air Force” and is losing its air power edge vis-à-vis China and Russia. “For the first time, our claim to air supremacy is in jeopardy,” Deptula said at the Air Force Association’s convention.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., former deputy Judge Advocate General, also has echoed Deptula’s concerns and has publicly slammed the news media’s glowing portraits of Gates as a reformer who has not specifically explained why the Air Force "bugs" him so much. “On his watch the service has declined markedly in size, reputation, and combat power,” Dunlap wrote in The First Defense blog.

Deptula and others also have been fretting about how the Air Force will fare in the Pentagon’s budget wars. Although the Air Force has seen a rising budget in recent years, they worry that in a zero-sum funding environment, combat aviation will be vulnerable. As proof, critics cite the Air Force leadership dithering on how to go about developing new “long-range strike” systems to replace aging bombers.

The long-range strike program was supposed to get under way two years ago but has been held up over internal disagreements over what these future systems should do, and how much they should cost.

Dunlap fears that in the current fiscal climate, the program will continue to be pushed back. “Although the ‘seeds’ of the next-generation bomber are in the current budget proposal, those who consider the need for an advanced manned penetrating bomber as indispensable to the nation’s security may be disturbed by Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright’s recent comments that seem to question its relevance given ‘the wars we’re in,’” Dunlap wrote in a soon-to-be published article.

Dunlap also sees ominous signs in Schwartz’ comments about “calibrated ambition” being the theme for a reshaped Air Force. Schwartz said the Air Force “will be aiming for simple sufficiency in areas where it’s been accustomed to dominance.” To Dunlap, these statements portend a decline of the U.S. Air Force as a power player at the Pentagon.

Contractors have been wary of criticizing their customer for downscaling grand ambitions of pricey, futuristic weapons. But they have nonetheless voiced concerns about a lack of guidance from the Air Force to industry on future investments. Schwartz and other senior officials, for instance, have touted Air Force plans to organize and equip for “irregular warfare.” To industry, such imprecise messages only create confusion.

“For industry to be able to invest in irregular warfare capabilities, we need a definition that we can work of, and invest of,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Daniel "Fig" Leaf, vice president of Northrop Grumman Defense Systems. “It’s one thing to say ‘irregular warfare,’ and then have a definition that is as broad as the Pacific Ocean,” Leaf said during a recent online discussion hosted by Aviation Week & Space Technology Magazine. “If we are going to invest our corporate research and marketing money, we have to understand what it is we are addressing in irregular warfare,” Leaf said.

As to how the Air Force will cope with its aging fleet, that also is up in the air, no pun intended.

The next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is slated to replace 25-year-old F-16s, but amid reports that deliveries of JSF may be delayed, it’s not clear what the path forward is to keep current aircraft in service, said Gen. William M. Fraser III, head of the Air Combat Command. There are several “modernization initiatives” being contemplated, Fraser said at the Air Force Association conference. The bomber fleet, too, is a concern, he said. “We need to so something with the B-1.” For now, the biggest priority at ACC is to deploy enough unmanned aircraft to combat zones. The growing demand for aerial surveillance is stressing ACC’s ability to train enough operators, Fraser said.

The future bomber? Fraser said that’s also TBD.

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