Air Force Core Values

W.J. Astore

I was thinking today about my old service branch’s core values. No — not “more fighters, more bombers, more missiles” or “put bombs on target” or “jet noise is the sound of freedom” or “show me the money!” or that old Strategic Air Command classic, “peace is our profession.” No — the core values all airmen are supposed to uphold — integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do, in that order, sometimes abbreviated as integrity, service, excellence. How’s the Air Force doing here?

Not well, I’m afraid. Think of “integrity,” which I think of as truth-telling. Over the last 20 years, and indeed over the life of the service, going back to 1947 and before, the Air Force has consistently overestimated the accuracy of its bombing and consistently underestimated the number of civilians and non-combatants killed by that bombing. And that’s putting it charitably. In reality, the Air Force has conspired to advance an image of airpower as surgical and precise when it clearly isn’t, and indeed never has been. My old service branch advances this image because it’s good for the Air Force. It’s really that simple. Such image-making, i.e. lying, may be good for the Air Force budget, but it isn’t good for integrity. Nor is it good for America or those unfortunates on the receiving end of U.S. munitions.

Turning to “service before self,” I think of a system that when I served often stressed and rewarded self before service. For example, the promotion system in the military was structured to reward the hard-chargers, the overachievers, Type-A personalities, the thrusters and the true believers. Perhaps this is true of most bureaucracies, but the emphasis on ticket-punching and hoop-jumping in the Air Force was conducive to a narrow form of achievement in which “service” played second fiddle, when it played at all. Another way of putting it is that a certain kind of personal selfishness is more than acceptable as long as it advances institutional goals and agendas — a quite narrow form of service, if one is again being charitable.

And now we come to “excellence in all we do,” which brings to mind all kinds of disasters, such as drone strikes that kill innocents, or wayward generals, or cheating nuclear missile crews, and so on. But I’d like to focus on recent procurement practices, such as the lamentable F-35 jet fighter, which was supposed to be a fairly low-cost, high-availability fighter but which even the Air Force Chief of Staff now compares to a Ferrari, i.e. super-expensive and often in the shop. From tankers that can’t refuel to fighter planes that can’t shoot straight to nuclear bombers and missiles that the country (and, for that matter, humanity) simply doesn’t need, the Air Force’s record of excellence is spotty indeed.

What are we to do with a service that is so unwilling or unable to live up to its core values? Well, as usual, accountability and punishment are out of the question. I guess we’ll just have to give the Air Force more money while hoping it’ll reform itself, because you know that strategy always works.

The F-35 “Ferrari”: It costs a lot and is often in the shop, but it looks kinda sexy. Too bad the F-35 was supposed to be a reliable workhorse, not a temperamental stallion. Interestingly, the inspiration for the Ferrari symbol of a prancing horse came from an Italian fighter pilot during World War I.

Abolish the Air Force?


W.J. Astore

Back in January, James Carroll had an op-ed in the Boston Globe that called for eliminating the Air Force as a separate service.  He claimed that the Air Force’s strategic components (its nuclear ICBMs and manned bombers) were now largely irrelevant, that the Air Force’s tactical mission could be folded into the Army and Navy, and that unmanned aerial vehicles or drones would soon largely replace manned surveillance and attack planes.

By folding the Air Force into its two older rivals, the Army and Navy, Carroll suggested the Pentagon would be forced to economize, the magic coming from reorganization.  I highly doubt that.

OK.  I’m a retired Air Force officer, so I’m biased.  But there are certain things the Air Force does, certain skills the Air Force has, that won’t be easily duplicated and probably will be lost in a bureaucratic war touched off by elimination and reorganization.  Here’s a quick list:

1.  The Air Force concentrates on air and space, just like the Army concentrates on land and the Navy on sea.  These are unique elements, requiring unique services with specialized mindsets.

2.  The Air Force is not just about fighter planes and nuclear missiles.  Much of the Air Force’s mission is in the less glorious aspects of air and space control.  Missions like cargo transport, tankers for aerial refueling, aerial and satellite reconnaissance, and the like.  Do we really believe the Army and Navy will adequately focus on and fund these vital missions?

3.  The U.S. Air Force was hardly the first independent air force in the world.  Great Britain saw the need for an independent air force in 1918 when the Royal Air Force was created.  (The USAF had to wait until 1947, i.e. after World War II.)  An independent air force reflects the technological revolution inaugurated by the Wright Brothers in 1903 and the inherent reach and power of aerial vehicles.  This is especially relevant to “island” nations such as Great Britain — and the United States.

4.  Related to (2), the Air Force has a wide range of missions, to include aerial intelligence-gathering, AWACS (airborne warning and control) and vital national command planes such as Air Force One.  Again, are these missions truly suited to the Army or Navy?

5.  In the chaos that is war, there’s something to be said for military continuity and tradition and experience.  Eliminating the Air Force and folding it into the Army and Navy will generate enormous internal friction within the Pentagon, possibly destabilizing a national defense system that is already less than optimal in its stability (as well as its wisdom).

The Air Force today certainly has its problems.  It’s the most top heavy of the services, with far too many colonels and generals.  It spends way too much on under-performing aircraft such as the F-35 Lightning II.  It’s always shied away from adequately funding the close air support mission, which is why the Army pursues its own fleet of attack helicopters.  Since its early days, it’s placed way too much faith in the efficacy of bombing, so much so that it’s generated its own Strangelovian caricatures, men like Curtis LeMay.

That said, the last thing we need is more internecine warfare in the Pentagon.  Eliminating the Air Force is not a recipe for cost-savings.  It’s a recipe for a bureaucratic bloodbath that will ultimately hurt rather than help America’s national defense.