By Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.
The forced resignation of the Air Force's top civilian and uniform leaders last week is the latest chapter in a chronicle of decline that has been unfolding for decades. The political influence of U.S. air power has gradually ebbed away since the cold war ended, and the resulting vacuum has been filled by representatives from other services, most notably the Navy.
Air Force officers today are largely excluded from the uppermost tier of the joint command structure, and have grown accustomed to being out of step with the priorities of senior political appointees running the Pentagon. Some proponents of air power offer conspiracy theories to explain why the Air Force has fallen to the lowest point in its sixty-year history. But an honest appraisal of what happened suggests that the service's wounds are mostly self-inflicted.
Perhaps the greatest defect of Air Force leaders in recent times has been their failure to adapt to the changing demands of a transformed global security environment. The Air Force won its independence from the Army and became first among equals in joint military counsels by offering a theory of strategic bombing that seemed uniquely responsive to the geopolitical rivalries of the industrial age. The promise of air power at its inception was that it could hit the "vital centers" of enemy power, and thus bring speedy victory that avoided the static trench warfare of World War One.
A generation later, nuclear weapons made air power even more potent -- not so much as an agent of victory, but as a tool of deterrence. However, U.S. defeat in Vietnam signaled that the source of danger was shifting to elusive, unconventional aggressors, and the Air Force failed to change as fast as the threat did.
Resistance to change is common in large, regimented institutions, but in the Air Force it was made worse by cultural insularity. Unlike the Army and Navy, who have located their service academies and war colleges close to the nation's centers of economic and political power, the Air Force chose to site its academic institutions in remote locales such as Colorado Springs and Montgomery, Alabama. In these isolated places there was little opportunity for cosmopolitan cross-currents to influence the education of airmen. Air power doctrine was passed down as dogma rather than as a living body of ideas, and that produced senior officers who lacked the worldliness of their Navy counterparts.
One symptom of this cultural insularity is a widespread political obtuseness within the Air Force that leads it to misjudge what power brokers outside the service want or will support. For example, during the Bush years the service has expended considerable political capital in resisting the efforts of civilian leaders to buy more B-2 bombers, increase spending on space systems, and accelerate the development of unmanned surveillance aircraft.
If it had simply said "yes" in each case and conserved its capital for the really hard fights like keeping the F-22 fighter in production, the Air Force today would have a bigger budget, better capabilities, and more goodwill among senior policymakers. By refusing to deal with the political system on its own terms, the Air Force has handed other services with superior political skills control of the entire joint command structure.
A final defect has been the Air Force's inability to communicate with outsiders in a way that makes its capabilities and needs compelling. This is a problem for all the services, but the Navy and Marine Corps have worked much harder to improve their outreach abilities.
Because the Air Force has lost the capacity to speak clearly, few Americans are aware of what it is doing in the global war on terror; fewer still realize it may be more relevant to future conflicts than the other services.
It is sad that Secretary Wynne and General Moseley are ending their service to the nation on such a negative note, but it would be downright tragic if this moment did not lead air power advocates to rethink the way they do their jobs.