By Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.
There was a time when proponents of air power were too blunt for their own good. British Air Marshall Hugh Trenchard complained that Billy Mitchell tried "to convert his opponents by killing them." Gen. Curtis LeMay told a visitor to his Strategic Air Command headquarters that he didn't care what U.S. plans were for nuclear war, because he had his own plan. Defense secretary Dick Cheney fired Air Force chief of staff Michael Dugan for "poor judgment" in talking too openly with reporters.
Those were the good old days. Today, the Air Force has become so politically correct that nobody can figure out what it’s saying.
For instance, in 2005 Air Force leaders issued a revised mission statement, arguing that "our mission is our guiding compass, and it must be clearer than ever before." The statement began, "The mission of the United States Air Force is to deliver sovereign options for the defense of the United States..."
Sovereign options? Sounds like a mission statement for currency traders rather than war-fighters. Whatever happened to “Global Reach, Global Power?”
Muddled language constantly gets the Air Force in trouble.
Last week, the service responded to a Government Accountability Office report on flaws in the award of a helicopter contract with a statement that said the Air Force "believes it can comply with the intent of the recommendations more narrowly." As Leslie Wayne reported in the New York Times, an Air Force spokesperson was unable to clarify what the statement meant by "narrowly." What it meant was that the service wants to address the sole issue GAO raised -- cost calculation -- rather than holding a whole new competition. So why didn't the Air Force just say that?
The week before, there was another snafu when a remark by Air Force chief of staff Michael Moseley was misinterpreted as signaling support for splitting the contract for future aerial-refueling tankers between two teams. The Air Force actually can't afford to do that unless it gets a billion more dollars per year for the program. What Gen. Moseley meant was that the future refueling fleet would contain more than one type of aircraft, just as it does today. But by failing to correct a reporter's mistake quickly, the service sowed confusion among legislators and investors.
And then there is the case of Boeing's announcement on March 2 that it would have to start shutting down the production line for the C-17 cargo plane because the Air Force had indicated a need for only two more of the planes. You'd never guess from this bleak assessment that on the day it was made, the service was formulating plans to seek dozens more of the planes. For some reason, the Air Force thinks outsiders can read its mind without getting a formal expression of intent.
In fairness to the Air Force, its current chief of staff is more articulate than any of his recent predecessors, and much more committed to telling the air power story clearly in public. But sometimes it seems like he is fighting a service culture that prefers secrecy to securing adequate support for its mission.
This is the missing piece in the explanation of why the Navy always seems to get what it wants out of the political system, while the Air Force seems to get nothing but trouble. It's not that the Navy has a better story to tell, it's just that it knows how to tell the story.