Will: 150 Seconds Over Baghdad

So aged are many Air Force planes, a colonel who calls himself a ''61 model'—he was born in 1961—has flown a tanker made in 1957.

Montgomery, Ala.—Two and a half minutes. That is how quickly ground troops in Iraq can receive requested close air support from "the iron over head." The request might pass from a ground unit to a forward air controller, to an intelligence analyst, to someone who does risk assessment (should air power be used against a sniper? A building? A city block?), to a combat lawyer who advises the commander if the risk is consistent with the rules of engagement and the laws of war. Based on that advice, the particular munition or angle of attack axis might be changed.

At the Air University here at Maxwell Air Force Base, officers are studying their service's new roles. Time was, air power's primary purpose was to attack massed enemy forces, or the enemy nation's "vital center." Insurgencies have neither. Yet in "the long war" against terrorists, air power is, Air Force people insist, "our asymmetric advantage." The enemy has no comparable capacity for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

During World War II, on average, only about 20 percent of a plane's bombs fell within 1,000 feet of its target. So, a force of 1,000 airplanes—with 10,000 crewmen in jeopardy—would have to drop 9,000 bombs to destroy the target. Precision munitions guided by GPS or lasers make today's small inventory of aircraft—some of them stealthy—astonishingly efficient, even in counterinsurgency operations close to friendly ground forces and civilians.

That inventory is, however, older than it has ever been—on average, 24 years old. And further aging might be another cost of Iraq. Multiple deployments of Army and Marine units have so frayed those services that there is an emerging consensus that they should be enlarged. Expansion is necessary only because of Iraq, which for years will serve as a powerful warning against manpower-intensive "preventive" interventions and occupations. And all the services' budgets are menaced by the demographic fact that dominates all federal budgeting—the explosion of entitlement spending because of the retirements of 77 million baby boomers, which begin in four months.

Any expansion of the Army and Marine Corps will come at the expense of the urgently needed recapitalization of the Air Force, which has just 180 long-range bombers (94 B-52s—theyoungest of which was built in 1962—65 B-1s and 21 B-2s). The average age of its tanker fleet is 45. Without tankers, long-range bombers are not long range, and aircraft cannot be kept aloft to surveil the battlefield and offer quick response for ground support. A colonel here who calls himself a " '61 model"—born in 1961—has flown a tanker made in 1957. Flying combat missions, hurrying casualties to out-of-theater hospitals, maintaining the "air bridge" of "bullets and beans" that keeps U.S. forces supplied—all these duties make the Air Force susceptible to the stresses afflicting the rest of America's overextended military. The other services have been at war in Iraq since March 2003; the Air Force has been since 1991, enforcing the no-fly zones.

Air Force personnel will be forgiven for feeling that their contributions are underappreciated—again. Americans whose understanding of the European theater of World War II derives from entertainment such as "Band of Brothers" and "Saving Private Ryan" might not know that the fatality rate among U.S. air crews was 40 percent higher than among U.S. ground forces.

In World War II and the 1950s, new planes were constantly added to the inventory. Today's aircraft are much more capable but also more complex and expensive and can take decades to develop. The development of the F-22, now being deployed, began 21 years ago. Imagine the challenge of matching technologies to threats that are decades over the horizon.

Although American ground forces have not been attacked from the air since Korea, the Air Force must plan for the possibility that the rise of a "near-peer adversary"—perhaps China—will put the USAF in the precarious position of being, as an officer here says, "one technology away from not having air superiority."

Air power was born during the most unintelligently fought, and for that reason the most calamitous, of wars, World War I, when generals, reflexively resorting to romantic—and anachronistic—notions of offensives, fought machine guns with young men's chests.

The Air University, a means of intellectual recapitalization, was created in 1947, the year before the Air Force became an independent service. The university's mission, which is increasingly urgent as military history disappears from the curricula on American campuses, could be indelicately expressed in the words of the Spartan king quoted by Thucydides: "The Nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools."