The question, scrawled on a Pentagon whiteboard last fall, captured the strange and difficult moment facing the Air Force.
“Why does the country need an independent Air Force?” the senior civilian assistant to General Norton A. Schwartz, the service’s chief of staff, had written. For the first time in the 62-year history of the Air Force, the answer isn’t entirely clear.
The Air Force’s identity crisis is one of many ways that a decade of intense and unrelenting combat is reshaping the US military and redefining the American way of war. The battle against insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq has created an insatiable demand for the once-lowly drone, elevating the importance of the officers who fly them.
These new earthbound aviators are redefining what it means to be a modern air warrior and forcing an emotional debate within the Air Force over the very meaning of valour in combat.
Since its founding, the Air Force has existed primarily to support its daring and chivalrous fighter and bomber pilots. Even as they are being displaced by new technology, these traditional pilots are fighting to retain control over the Air Force and its culture and traditions.
The clash between the old and new Air Force was apparent in the aftermath of the 2006 strike that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the Al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq. Predator crews spent over 630 hours searching for Zarqawi and his associates before they tracked him to a small farm northeast of Baghdad. Minutes later, an F-16 fighter jet, released a 500-pound bomb that locked onto a targeting laser and killed Zarqawi.
The F-16 pilot, who faced no real threat from the lightly armed insurgents on the ground, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the same honour bestowed on Charles Lindbergh for the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
The Predator pilots, who flew their planes from an Air Force base outside Las Vegas, received a thank-you note from a three-star general based in the Middle East.
It is the job of Schwartz to mediate between the old and new pilot tribes. He has turned his attention to dismantling the Air Force’s rigid class system. At the top of the traditional hierarchy are fighter pilots. Beneath them are bomber, tanker and cargo pilots. At the bottom are the officers who keep aircraft flying and satellites orbiting.
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