The wild blue yon­der ain’t what it used to be

The Denver Post - - OP-ED - By Ge­orge F. Will

The air­craft ar­rayed around the spa­cious lawn of Max­well Air Force Base, home of the Air Univer­sity, mostly rep­re­sent long-re­tired types. The largest, how­ever, is a glis­ten­ing B-52 bomber, which rep­re­sents a still-em­ployed com­po­nent of the Air Force’s ag­ing fleet: The youngest B-52 en­tered ser­vice in 1962. Sons have flown the same plane their fathers and grand­fa­thers flew.

But, then, the av­er­age age of all the Air Force air­craft is 27 years; fight­ers, more than 30 years; bombers and he­li­copters, more than 40 years; re­fu­el­ing tankers more than 50 years. Amer­ica’s se­cu­rity chal­lenges change much faster — think of the Soviet Union’s demise and the Is­lamic State’s rise — than new tech­nolo­gies can be con­ceived, de­signed, ap­proved, built and de­ployed. The F/A-18 and the F-16 were de­signed about 45 years ago.

On April 15, 1953, two U.S. sol­diers in Korea were at­tacked and killed by a pro­peller-driven air­craft sup­port­ing Chi­nese and North Korean troops. Since then, no U.S. ground troops have been at­tacked by an en­emy air­craft. Such has been the per­mis­sive en­vi­ron­ment guar­an­teed by U.S. air dom­i­nance, not since Viet­nam has a U.S. pi­lot used his air­craft’s bul­lets to down an en­emy fighter plane.

The Air Force’s dom­i­nance in con­trol­ling the air and in sup­port­ing ground troops might have been what an F-16 pi­lot here calls a “cat­a­strophic suc­cess,” dis­tract­ing at­ten­tion from the rapidly evolv­ing chal­lenge of multi-do­main, com­binedarms war­fare on land, on and un­der the sea, in the air, and in space and cy­berspace.

From Dec. 8, 1941, through Aug. 5, 1945 — the day be­fore Hiroshima — there were no rad­i­cal tech­no­log­i­cal dis­junc­tions dur­ing World War II. Air­craft, air­craft car­ri­ers, tanks and radar were pre-pearl Har­bor tech­nolo­gies. Fu­ture wars, how­ever, will be won by information su­pe­ri­or­ity that pro­duces su­pe­rior de­ci­sions. Which means that China gave a chill­ing glimpse of the fu­ture when in Jan­uary 2007 it suc­cess­fully launched an anti-satel­lite weapon.

Be­gin­ning with the lib­er­a­tion of Kuwait in 1991, air­power has been the first, and some­times the only, re­course of pres­i­dents. In 1991, six weeks of air at­tacks en­abled U.S. ground forces to fin­ish Iraq’s army in 100 hours. In 1999, in three months of com­bat over Ser­bia and Kosovo, air­power suf­ficed to en­able diplo­macy to at­tain the po­lit­i­cal ob­jec­tives. In 1991, in the first night of the Gulf War air cam­paign, U.S. air­power struck more tar­gets than the Eighth Air Force struck in Europe in all of 1942 and 1943.

Th­ese re­cent episodes may, how­ever, be re­mem­bered not as har­bin­gers of fu­ture con­flicts but as punc­tu­a­tions end­ing an era. In this, its 70th year as an in­de­pen­dent ser­vice, the Air Force, like the other branches of the mil­i­tary, but more than any other, is be­ing re­quired to re­think its mis­sion in light of rapidly evolv­ing threats and tech­nolo­gies.

The Air Force is in charge of two legs of the nu­clear de­ter­rence triad — strate­gic bombers and Min­ute­man ICBMS — but also has been de­liv­er­ing 70 per­cent of the bombs against the Is­lamic State. For decades, the Air Force’s strate­gic role was de­fined by Pres­i­dent Dwight Eisen­hower’s con­fig­u­ra­tion of U.S. forces for long-range de­ter­rence of the Soviet Union in order to re­duce the need for mas­sive for­ward-based forces. In 2009, De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates said: “If the De­part­ment of De­fense can’t fig­ure out a way to de­fend the United States on a bud­get of more than half a tril­lion dol­lars a year, then our prob­lems are much big­ger than any­thing that can be cured by a few more ships and planes.” In­deed, safety might come from buy­ing fewer ships and planes, and more drones.

And de­vel­op­ing hy­per­sonic weapons that can strike any­where in the world in less than an hour. And elec­tro­mag­netic ki­netic weapons (rail­guns) with muz­zle ve­loc­i­ties of 5,000 miles per hour, twice as fast as the muz­zle ve­loc­ity of a high-cal­iber bul­let. Di­rected-en­ergy laser-based weapons oper­at­ing at the speed of light are about 134,000 times faster than rail­guns.

What Air Force peo­ple call “fast movers” — fighter planes, the fastest bombers — are mere plod­ders com­pared to weapons that are not far over the hori­zon. And com­pared to the pace of geo-strate­gic and tech­n­this is Roo­log­i­cal changes that chal­lenge even the fine Air Univer­sity’s ca­pac­ity to com­pre­hend them.

E-mail Ge­orge F. Will at georgewill@wash­post.com.

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