For more than 60 years, the Air Force has trumpeted itself as the service of glamour, its pilots ruling the skies, soaring, diving, bombing, and strafing from far above—yet still commanding the clash of armies on the ground. In movies, they wore white scarves and set the girls' hearts aflutter.
But all that is changing in ways that few outsiders understand. A fierce fight is on for the mission, culture, and identity of the Air Force, and the Top Guns are losing. This is the real story behind a passionate political struggle this past summer over a major weapons system, the F-22 Raptor, the world's most sophisticated fighter plane.
On its face, the F-22 debate was a straightforward budget battle. The Air Force had 183 of the stealth fighters in its fleet, and another four on the way. It wanted $4 billion for 20 more planes in the next year—a down payment on 200 more it hoped to build in the next decade, for a total of 387.
For years, senior Air Force officers had pushed for the F-22 with an intense, almost messianic passion. Congress complied, largely because huge sums of money were at stake. (The Air Force had shrewdly spread the plane's contracts and subcontracts across 46 states.) But the request came at a time of economic calamity, mounting national debt, and a shift in thinking about military requirements. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said no, and President Obama announced he would veto the entire defense budget if it contained money for even one more F-22. The project was killed, story over.
But the struggle goes much deeper than that, and its consequences are more profound. To understand why, you need to go back to the beginning: 1981, the height of the Cold War, when the F-22 was born.
Its mission was air-to-air combat—keeping control of the sky during a major war, so that bombers could reach their targets, and soldiers down below could fight without worrying about enemy aerial attacks. With its stealth technology (making it much less visible to radar) and high-tech electronics (making it more powerful at longer ranges), the plane was designed to shoot down the latest Soviet combat planes with greater ease than anything else in the sky.
But the first operational F-22 didn't roll onto a runway until the end of 2005, after nearly a quarter century of delays, technical setbacks, and massive cost overruns. By that time, the Cold War was long over.
No country on earth had an air force remotely capable of going up against the latest versions of the U.S. F-15 and F-18 fighter planes, much less something newer. Many in Congress, and some civilian analysts in the Pentagon, wanted to cut our losses and kill the F-22 outright. But defenders of the plane were more powerful. To them, the Air Force meant fast, agile planes dogfighting high in the sky. To kill the most advanced fighter plane was tantamount to killing the Air Force. So they did what they do best: they put up a fight.
They were fighting against history. From 1947 to 1982, all 10 generals who served as Air Force chief of staff were bomber pilots. From 1982 until last year, all nine generals who occupied that position were fighter pilots. In 2008, a new era in warfare was beginning, and Secretary Gates asked President Bush to appoint a different kind of chief of staff: Gen. Norton Schwartz. He came up through the ranks flying neither bombers nor fighters but C-130s, the bulky cargo planes that haul troops, weapons, and supplies from bases and supply depots to the battlefront. "Airlift," as this duty is called, is a vital mission; the Army, Marines, and Special Forces couldn't mobilize swiftly without it. But it's unglamorous. The Air Force brass had never valued it as highly as missions that involve fast combat planes or bombing targets deep behind enemy lines—until now.
Just as the Vietnam War paved the way for the rise of the fighter pilot—before then, much higher status was given to pilots of nuclear bombers—the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are demanding a new Air Force culture. "War is the great teacher of innovation, the great stimulus to thought in military affairs," says Ashton Carter, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and logistics. The present wars, he adds, "have challenged the cultures in all the services…There's a heated competition to be relevant."
Iraq and Afghanistan are very different wars from the war the F-22 Raptor was designed to fight. (Not one of the advanced aircraft has flown a single mission over either theater.) The enemy isn't a foreign government, but an insurgency; there are few "strategic" targets to bomb and no opposing air force to go after. So the main Air Force role is to support American and allied troops on the ground. This means two things: first, airlifting supplies (General Schwartz's specialty); second, helping the troops find and kill bad guys.
For this second mission, the Air Force has been relying more and more on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with names like Predator, Reaper, Global Hawk, and Warrior Alpha. Joystick pilots located halfway around the world operate these ghost planes. They pinpoint their targets by watching streams of real-time video, taken by cameras strapped to the bellies of the UAVs. Many of the aircraft also carry super-accurate smart bombs, which the joystick pilots can fire with the push of a button once they've spotted the targets on their video screens.
The first UAVs were used in Yugoslavia in the '90s and during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. They proved so effective that, when the war in Iraq became an insurgency, every American soldier, Marine, and Special Ops officer wanted one overhead to help find and destroy snipers' nests, roadside bombs, and other threats. Gates noticed this growing demand for the unmanned planes soon after taking over the Pentagon at the end of 2006, in the last half of George W. Bush's second term as president. Gates's top priority was cleaning up the mess in Iraq, and UAVs seemed to be a potent tool. He ordered a crash program to build more of the planes, as well as the infrastructure to support them.
But senior Air Force officers, including the chief of staff at the time, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, didn't seem motivated to put the UAVs into action over Iraq. Gates would grumble that the troops were at war but the Pentagon wasn't. "Trying to get Moseley to move on this was like pulling teeth," a senior Pentagon official recalls. "Gates was terribly frustrated." An Air Force pilot who worked inside the Pentagon at the time agrees: "There was a big resistance to unmanned systems within the Air Force because they're not very sexy. The attitude was 'Airplanes without pilots in them? That's not what we're about!' " (A half century ago, Gen. Curtis LeMay, then the head of the Strategic Air Command, opposed development of the intercontinental ballistic missile, which he feared would supplant the long-range bomber. He didn't want the Air Force to become, he said, "the silent silo-sitters of the '60s.")
Gates wanted to nudge the naysayers aside. He got his chance in June 2008, when two Air Force scandals erupted. In one case, electrical fuses for ballistic-missile warheads were mistakenly shipped to Taiwan. In another, a bomber flew over U.S. territory carrying live nukes. Gates used the opportunity to fire Moseley and the civilian secretary of the Air Force, Michael Wynne. Gates, who had been a Minuteman ICBM crewman in his youth, was genuinely shocked by the two incidents, says one senior military officer, who did not want to be named because he did not want to be publicly drawn into interservice politics.
"But," the officer adds, "they weren't the only reasons these guys were fired. Gates was looking for some excuse, and this was a pretty good one." (Moseley and Wynne did not respond to requests for comment.)
The Air Force lobbied Gates to appoint another fighter pilot, but Gates wanted Schwartz for the job. Schwartz, who had intended to retire at the end of the year, was just wrapping up a tour as head of the Air Force's Transportation Command. (Just before that, he had been deputy commander of the Special Operations Command.) Gates liked his pragmatic bent and his eagerness to cooperate with the other services.
Gates had just forced the Army to buy a fleet of expensive new armored personnel carriers, called MRAPs, and he needed the Air Force to get them to Iraq quickly. Schwartz leapt to the task. Gates figured that, as chief of staff, Schwartz would embrace unmanned aerial vehicles. He did.
In an e-mail, Gen. David Petraeus, who commands the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, praised Schwartz for doing "a particularly impressive job of accelerating" the deployment of UAVs, and helping the troops on the ground. This sort of joint effort may sound unremarkable, but in the annals of Army–Air Force relations, it's practically revolutionary.
In 2007, the year before Schwartz became chief, UAVs were performing 21 combat air patrols at any one time, for a total of just over 100,000 hours. By 2011, they'll reach 54 patrols and almost 350,000 hours. For now, the joystick pilots have to be certified fighter pilots as well.
But Schwartz says this requirement will be dropped, mainly because there aren't enough fighter pilots to fill the growing demand for UAV crews. "There's no need for them to be pilots," one senior Pentagon official says. "It's sort of like a union regulation."
This year, the Air Force will train more joystick pilots than new fighter and bomber pilots. "If you want to be in the center of the action, this is the place to be," Schwartz says. "It's not a temporary phenomenon…It's a sustainable career path. I've made that very clear." Lt. Col. Travis Burdine, a Predator pilot-from-afar, has gotten the message: "We all joined the Air Force to go flying, but word on the street is that job satisfaction is very high [manning a joystick]. Every day we're doing this, we're in the thick of the fight. We fly 36 [combat air patrols] a day. Where they're happening, the hottest 36 things are going on."
It's not hard now to imagine a time when the dominant combat leaders of the Air Force have no physical contact with airplanes. "We're opening an aperture," Schwartz says. "How do we define a warrior-airman? The definition is expanding." Whatever happens, he says, "the trend lines are inescapable: we increasingly will become less of a manned aviation force." C. R. Anderegg, the Air Force historian, says that just as the generals of the 1950s and '60s were predominantly bomber pilots, and the generals of the 1970s and '80s were mainly fighter pilots, so a lot of the generals in the coming decades may be UAV joystick pilots. "It's going to be pretty hard for a promotion board, picking the next one-star generals, to pick a colonel who hasn't commanded a UAV wing over a colonel who has. The UAV commander has the experience, and he has a larger, less insular view of the battlefield than, say, an F-22 pilot at Langley."
Many fighter-pilot generals—the most fervent advocates of building more F-22s—continue to resist these changes. Their motives aren't entirely parochial. Many worry that 187 F-22s simply aren't enough for the long-term needs of national defense. "The concern among many leaders in the Air Force," says one general, "is that this obsessive focus on today's wars is jeopardizing our security in the future." These generals imagine a future war against, say, a resurgent China or a revitalized Russia.
Gates gets that. But the official Air Force studies that justify a fleet of 387 F-22s assume the United States fights two major wars simultaneously against foes that each possess an air force nearly equal to ours. Such a scenario is dubious and, in any case, very distant. It was, in fact, these studies that convinced Gates that he was right to halt the program at 187 planes. "It's very difficult to come up with two very sophisticated threats that might materialize at the same time," says a senior officer who has supervised analytical studies about weapons needs. Even if the nearly impossible came true—if the U.S. did fight two wars at once against major powers—at least one Pentagon analysis concludes that F-35s could handle the second threat nearly as well as F-22s, according to a senior officer who participated in the study. The F-35—a smaller, cheaper plane, which Gates wants to buy in large quantity—is not quite as good as the F-22 in shooting down planes but much better at destroying surface-to-air missile batteries.
On July 17, the Senate voted to stop the F-22 program by a margin of 58–40—a more lopsided margin than administration officials had predicted. It was not a party-line vote: 15 Democrats voted to continue production; 15 Republicans voted with Obama and Gates to kill it. (The F-22's floor managers were Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., representing Lockheed Martin, the chief contractor, and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., representing Pratt & Whitney, which makes the engine.) The vote went the way it did because Gates, a widely respected Republican hawk, provided cover for opponents of the program.
In a speech the day before the Senate acted, Gates declared that it was no longer possible to design and buy the most sophisticated weapons systems "to keep up with or stay ahead of another superpower adversary, especially one that imploded nearly a generation ago." He might have added that the Air Force has to change its culture to keep up with the times. The glamour days are over, and a new era has begun.