We need to sink some more battleships – metaphorically speaking!
It has been a wonderful thing for me to be a part of the air force from basic training at Lackland in 1951 through the glorious experience of flying B-47s for the Strategic Air Command to the Vietnam War and beyond.
And since retirement I’ve watched the air force grow into a superb force that has a problem unlike any ever encountered before by any service. A little look at history will provide some insight into what the average American currently thinks about the Air Force – and why. And from this perhaps we can make some inferences about how the air force is perceived.
Before we get into the history, lets look at the major problem first.
The greatest problem that the air force has is that it is simply too good at what it does. Worse, it makes being too good look too easy. But being so good raises problems. One of these is that the layman cannot comprehend the orders of magnitude by which the air force is better than any rival air force in history—even our own air forces in the past. There is no accurate analogy to the definitive superiority of the united states air force to all competing forces – it is better trained, more proficient, more safety conscious, more effective and has more combat experience than any other armed force in history.
And it is also more compassionate, for wherever there is a tsunami, an earthquake, a fire, a hurricane – the United States air force is there first.
The difficulty is that the American public just accepts and expects this. They’ve come to see the air force as a utility that you turn on and off as needed, as simple, effective and non-demanding as a light switch.
The army and marines go way beyond the public’s attitude. They expect the air force to perform on call as supporting firepower, not operating as a way of war unto itself. This basic problem of being too good is compounded by a unique cultural phenomenon of our era, one that accidentally conducts asymmetric warfare against the United States air force. That phenomenon is political correctness.
These two things, the overwhelming excellence of the air force and the present day malady of political correctness are at cross-purposes.
Political correctness has inhibited the air force from letting the public know the exact degree of its superb performance.
Because the public does not know, the Congress and perhaps even the Department of Defense don’t need to acknowledge just how good the air force is – or how much it needs.
Let me say here and now that this inhibition is not simply a part of the air force public affairs and communications process—far from it. It is inherent in the entire air force, and the entire air force will have to take steps to correct it.
Political correctness also affects us nationally. The brilliant victory in the 1991 gulf war somehow left a national politically correct impression that all future wars were to be short and fought with a minimum of casualties. This means no casualties for the United States of course, and as few as possible for the enemy.
That rotating roar you hear in the background is not engines running up; its warriors like Winfield Scott, U.S. Grant, Carl Spaatz, George Patton, Billy Mitchell and Curtis Lemay turning over in their graves.
And we should never forget that while we are thinking of short wars and minimum casualties our enemy in the global war on terror thinks of centuries-long wars and of total annihilation of the enemy—that is, total annihilation of all of us—including the political correct.
In other words, the asymmetric warfare imposed by political correctness has forced the air force to fight current wars in a manner best suited for the despicable enemy we are currently engaging. At present, the air force is prevented from fighting with all out and overwhelming force.
One of the things that the air force can do best, obliterate targets– has become a liability because collateral damage is politically incorrect.
This gives a fanatical enemy an undeserved advantage.
It sickened me to see our young army and marine combatants forced to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan as if it were a Stalingrad, battling from room to room, when the air force had solutions to the problem.
All this is exacerbated by the fact that the restraint imposed on the air force by political correctness conflicts with the needs of a media that must grind out news twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. And that media does not see incredible excellence as a big story.
It is the sad truth that an air force mission that uses satellites, lasers, GPS and precision guided munitions to plunk a single terrorist in the dark of night in the middle of nowhere does not have the media pizazz of yet another improvised explosive blowing up a yet another truck. Nor will it get the media coverage. There is a hideous slogan attributed to the media, to the effect that “if it bleeds, it leads, and if it burns it earns.”
I’m not suggesting that we are facing a disloyal media, far from it. I am suggesting that we are not making the case the air force deserves to make. The media exploits the cost of the air force, but never it’s value.
That’s part one, and more of it later. But now, I’d like to go back through a little history to remind us once again of the incredible foundation of individual human greatness upon which the air force is based. Let’s go back to the beginning.
It was 1908 and the wright brothers were close to completing the tests at Fort Myer which would satisfy the army signal corps’ requirements for a military “flying machine.” The experiment was marred by a crash. First lieutenant Thomas Selfridge became the first man to die in a powered heavier-than-air craft. The incident encapsulates the future of the air force: progress through personal sacrifice.
Let’s fast-forward eight years to when the 1st aero squadron went to war in Mexico, in terrain and against difficulties similar to those currently seen in the middle east. The war was also against a bandit leader with panache—Pancho Villa. But it was fought with totally inadequate equipment, Curtiss JNs that bent and shriveled under the ceaseless desert sun. Nonetheless great leaders such as Benny Foulois emerged.
Foulois’ Mexican campaign generated a phenomenon that would recur throughout our history, and that is: the congress and the public learned nothing from it. During the year that Foulois labored in Mexico, the United States spent $400,000 on military aviation. Germany was spending $45 million the same year.
Instead of taking Europe’s example, the feeble aerial assets of the United States were allowed to disintegrate. We would only do this three more times—after World War I, after World War II, and during the Clinton administration–and we stand in danger of doing it again in the wake of wars in the middle east and the budget pressures that will ensue over the next twenty years. In April 1917 when the United States entered World War I on the side of the allies, our army had about 57 airplanes, none of them suitable for combat. Great Britain, France and Germany all deployed efficient air forces of several thousand aircraft each. By 1918 the RAF had 29,000 planes in service.
But in the United States, budgets, an indifferent press and an uninformed public were all content with 57 airplanes. At least they were content until war came. Then the monies were unleashed, and over the following year the new U.S. Army Air Service had to buy foreign aircraft to engage the enemy.
But it did not have to buy talent. There came forward great leaders such as majors Carl “Tooey” Spaatz and Henry H. Arnold. And, of course Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, a maverick, who had a vision for the future. Mitchell immediately saw that aerial warfare was not decided in penny packets, but that you needed mass in air power just as you did with artillery or cavalry.
Under Mitchell’s leadership, great warriors arose, Eddie Rickenbacker and Frank Luke among them. And under Mitchell’s leadership there rose the concept of air power as a war-winning weapon. After the war Mitchell knew that concepts are difficult for the public and the media to grasp. So instead of concepts he gave a demonstration. The newly fledged u.s. army air service captured the imagination of the world, when his bombers sank battleships off the coast of Virginia. Mitchell made sinking battleships a metaphor for airpower. It had a resonance in the press that the public understood.
Today we need some new—if metaphorical—battleships to sink.
Controversial, argumentative, and egotistical, Mitchell nonetheless was the leader around whom his loyal followers closed ranks even as he threw himself on his sword for air power. Those loyal followers included Arnold, Spaatz, Ira Eaker, Robert Olds, and others, our forefathers. Working on a laughable shoestring of finances, enduring pitifully slow promotions, Arnold took eleven years to go from captain to major, and he was a fast burner—
these able leaders laid the ground work for the airplanes and the equipment that would be desperately needed in World War II.
In 1939 when World War II began in Europe, we did not have the production capacity, the training infrastructure or the combat experience worthy of our nation of 130,000,000. Our army ranked 16th in the world, behind Rumania.
Hap Arnold, as chief of the air corps, put himself at tremendous risk. He induced contractors to expand their industrial plants and civilian flight training schools—all without an assured budget from congress.
He took that risk on the basis of his stated philosophy, which was that air power was the business of every American. We need to get that idea reinforced in today’s public consciousness. Air power is the business of every American—but they’ve become jaded. We’ve got to “unjade” them. Now admittedly selling air power was simpler in those days. The press was a willing partner, and when the first Boeing B-17 rolled out in 1935, with its pitiful armament of five .30 caliber machine guns, it was proclaimed a “flying fortress” and thus gathered sustained momentum in the press. United behind great leaders such as Arnold, Andrews, Eaker, Quesada, and Spaatz the men and women of “the greatest generation” built the air force’s industrial capacity and military infrastructure to fight a long, hard war for freedom – in the flak-filled skies of Europe and across the dangerous pacific theater, American air power roared forward, fostering a new generation of great leaders —Curtis Lemay, Jimmy Doolittle, George Kenney, Hoyt Vandenberg, and Benjamin Davis—just to name a few.
Likewise, new heroes, forged in battle, appeared, including the nearly 700 war aces such as Richard Bong, Tom McGuire, Francis Gabreski, Hub Zemke and many others.
The airpower that Mitchell had envisioned was finally achieved in 1944, with total air superiority established in both the pacific and the European theaters. The victory that Mitchell had predicted for air power came about in 1945, when air power – I repeat – air power, no apologies, forced Japan to surrender without being invaded. Then the United States immediately began an incredible disarmament, shedding us of our weapons in frantic haste. Yet the Soviet Union did not disarm, but instead extended its sinister governance all across Eastern Europe. There was only one instrument believed able to stop the Soviet Union, and that was the United States Air Force, born on September 18, 1947.
Of course this wasn’t true. The post war American air force had little capability–but fortunately the Soviet Union did not know this.
Led by the first secretary of the air force, Stuart Symington, and the first chief of staff, General Carl Spaatz, the newly formed air force took on the challenges of the post war world.
The air force’s first major test was when thirty soviet divisions blockaded Berlin, only to be defeated by the gallant Berlin Airlift. Initiated by Lemay, but conducted brilliantly by William Tunner, the Berlin Airlift was an amazing victory for air power. From this point on, in wars cold and hot, the air force took its place as the point of the spear in the fight against communist aggression.
Timeless leaders such as Vandenberg, Lemay and Bernard Schriever helped forge the air force into the most lethal air and space force in history. They guided the United States into its current preeminent position in space.
Lemay was not subtle. He sent a B-50, the Lucky Lady II, non-stop around the world in 1949, and commented that it demonstrated that the United States air force could drop atomic bombs anywhere in the world. The Soviet Union heard him.
And no one knew better than Lemay and these other leaders as to how much the air force depended upon its enlisted and non-commissioned officers to make the service operate. They proved time and time again that the real strength of the air force was not found in its weapons systems, but in its people. I won’t dwell on the frustrations of Vietnam where our superbly trained airmen, flying the best equipment in the world, were hobbled by the concepts of gradualism, micromanagement and idiotic rules of engagement
there American air power was held on a tight political leash from 1965 until December 19, 1972, when it was finally let loose in Operation Linebacker II.
Airpower did in 1972 what general Lemay had suggested it should do in 1965.
After Vietnam there was a new era of seemingly endless change as the air force led the way into the age of computers, space, information superiority, stealth, precision and persistence, the second in a series of transformations that the air force has conducted. The first of course was the widespread introduction of nuclear weapons. It is today in the process of a third transformation, with the fusion of command and control and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
The air force continued to soar, rising to new heights while overwhelming Iraqi forces in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
The Soviet Union read the writing on the wall and collapsed on Christmas day, 1991, going out with a whimper rather than a nuclear bang. Victory in the 46-year-old cold war was won by air and space power.
The cold war ended, but a new and insidious enemy emerged on September 11, 2001. The air force faced an uninterrupted series of new challenges, all over the world. Let’s stop for a moment and reflect upon those challenges and the current status of the United States Air Force.
First of all, there is no denying that there is another “greatest generation” inherent in our current officer and enlisted corps. They are superb. Simply put, there has never been in the history of the world, an armed force which can compare to the united states air force in lethality, flexibility and precision. This being the case, some questions arise, such as:
- Given the air force’s invariably accomplished performance, why are we having such a hard time defending the air force before the public, the Congress and other services?
- Why are we forced to rely on 50-year-old bombers, tankers and helicopters and forty year old fighters?
- Why do entrenched opponents to the acquisition of new air force equipment use terms such as – “unneeded, cold war relics” in their charges against our new F-22s and F-35s?
Here are some answers to these questions:
For starters, the air force is simply too good, even using ancient airplanes. The press and the public overlook the impossibly difficult things we do daily around the world, day and night. We’ve made incredibly difficult operations such as inflight refueling look routine. The same is true of the insertion of Special Forces and dramatic search and rescue efforts. Most people have no idea of the complexity, the danger, and the difficulty of such events. They just expect the air force to do it. We have to change this; we have to make the public see what is involved.
A perfect example of the public’s jaded outlook is modern precision bombing. It may have been a great mistake to televise the results of the bombing in the 1991 gulf war, for while the first bombs going into Saddam’s windows made people gasp, the fiftieth one made them yawn.
General Horner made the point that we suffered because we could not embed reporters in combat cockpits. Let’s fix that, electronically in fighters, in jump seats where ever else we can.
Some people and some agencies have an inferiority complex about the air force’s capability. This causes short memories and budget envy. We know that the air force is fully integrated into every combat operation by furnishing mobility, awareness, navigation, communications, weather and firepower. Yet this is overlooked by our sister services in the budget and transformation and QDR debates. Then there are people of ill will, in the press and out, who look eagerly to find something wrong with the air force. And, unfortunately, we do have failings.
I took an unscientific poll, asking the simple question “what do you think about the air force”? Many responded as I expected – that it was the most powerful and efficient force the world had ever seen. Almost everyone made an obviously genuine tribute to the air force’s proficiency in warfare.
They recognize that the air force is dominant in space, and that space will be a battleground in the future. They also want a manned air force presence in space. Some were more specific in their praise, noting specific areas in which the air did not get sufficient credit: among these were:
- The victories in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
- The tremendous internal reforms that it has conducted in transforming itself – arguably, alone among the services.
- The remarkable job it is doing in the middle east with air borne sensors detecting improvised explosive devices, intercepting enemy communications, protecting convoys, and medevac’ing the wounded.
But there was a significant percentage that put their fingers on what are, in the final analysis, minor but glaring blemishes. The topics that bothered people most were these:
- The super high cost of weaponry.
- The extended time period required to procure new equipment, as in the case of the F-22, and the tankers.
- The erroneous idea that the air force is not concerned enough with close air support.
The fact is that modern weaponry is expensive. And in regard to the acquisition process it, is painful to remember that the North American P-51 Mustang went from contract to roll out in 117 days, while the Lockheed P-80’s time from contract to first flight was 143 days. And it can still be done. Remember in the Gulf War, the GBU-28 bunker buster went from demand to drop in a mere 26 days. Many also feel that weapons like the F/A-22 are intended for a cold war enemy that no longer exists. Similar questions are raised about the F-35.
This is because most of the public is unbelievably blind to the real threat of China as an emerging super power that possesses and has threatened to use nuclear weapons. We haven’t’ sold the concept of future threats and as a result there is a real danger that F-22s and F-35s may be put on budgetary life support. And here is the worst of all, the farthest from the truth – many think that the role of the air force has changed from being primary in Operation Desert Storm and Kosovo to being secondary to the army in Operation Iraqi Freedom and subsequently.
We know this is absurd, but we haven’t made the absurdity evident. A few maintain that we have not defined our mission; that defining it merely as air and space superiority is no longer enough. This is the last item and it stems from media personnel that I know and respect. They state that the services are all equally open and polite to the media, but that the army, navy and marines are more aggressive than the air force in getting their stories out.
They say the air force seems less forthcoming. As an example they cite the recent Iraq war that they say was–from a public perception standpoint–an all navy, all marine, all army show – what a travesty! We conducted the most brilliant air campaign in history, but were too worried about host nation sensitivities to tell the story as it should have been told. And then they noted that the public is deluged with pro-navy entertainment vehicles, including “Top Gun,” “Jag” and “A Year in the Life of the Blues.”
There is no corresponding air force programming and there could and should be. Jag episodes probably cost $500,000 each—13 a season would be less than $7 million—not chicken feed, but priceless.
Some former air force people responded to my question, some with famous names that you would recognize instantly. They generally had two lines of thought. One of them was that in today’s air force, with its inevitable drift toward political correctness, Curtiss Lemay would never have made Major, and Dick Bong would have washed out of flying school. They wonder if men like Moody Suter and others could have made the great contributions they did in today’s p.c. climate.
And there was another a continuing refrain, to the effect that political correctness had destroyed the officers’ club atmosphere, and that the camaraderie that grew up in Friday night beer calls has not been replaced by an equivalent. No one argues that drinking is good; no one believes that alcohol is a benefit. But there is nonetheless the sense that something is missing in the bonding.
In general terms, we need to be far more conscious of the effect that the media has on the public. We need to get embedded not only in the local media, but at every level on up to the very top executives in the networks.
We should pursue the media with a relentless salesmanship that forces our stories forward – the navy does, the marines do, the army does, sort of – we don’t, we simply don’t. If we do, we can become embedded once more in the psyche of the American public and thus into the conscience of the congress.
Now securing the attention of the media is more difficult today than it was in General Mitchell or General Arnold’s time. You cannot sell the public on the F/A-22 with a nickname, as was done with the flying fortress. This means that the communication of the truth about the air force has to become as advanced, as refined and as complex as current air force technology. And it has to be communicated by the air force as an entity not just by public relations offices.
This effort has to be ongoing. We have to make the F/A-22 as understandable to the public as their SUVs, and do the same with every one of our programs. In short we have to become as good at telling the world about ourselves as we are at conducting air and space warfare. We should remember Mitchell and how his sunken battleships became a metaphor for airpower.
We need to sink some new battleships – metaphorically of course – to fix in the public’s mind just exactly how superior its air force is.