The Death of the U.S. Air Force & The Rise of the U.S. Air Machine Force

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; U.S. Air Force Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; U.S. Air Force “boneyard” in Arizona.

The Death of the U.S. Air Force?

The Air Force is taking a lot of incoming fire these days.  The Boston Globe just ran an opinion piece that called for scrapping the organization.  University of Kentucky scholar Rob Farley has supported the same, both in Foreign Affairs as well as his new book, Grounded In simple form, the argument is that the Air Force organization is redundant, and that such redundancies ought to be the first to go in a budget-constrained era. A reasonable question is asked: “Why does the navy’s army have an air force?”  Since there already is an air combat wing in each of the other services – why not just fold the Air Force’s portfolio into the Army and the Navy – just think of the administrative cost savings!

That’ll never happen.  Bobby Kennedy may have had time to “dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”  I don’t.  Let’s change the subject to a much more important trend: over the past decade the U.S. Air Force has undergone a radical transformation and has reached a tipping point – it could now be called the “U.S. Air Machine Force.”

Let’s start with some basic figures.  In 2005, only about 5% of military aircraft were drones; today that figure is up to 31% and climbing. More importantly, the Air Machine Force is currently training more drone pilots than traditional pilots.  [Note: Sorry, Air Machine Force, I know you prefer “remotely piloted vehicle,” but when all the major dictionaries prefer “drone,” that’s what the rest of us will use.]  And, perhaps most interestingly, one of my exchange cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy recently mentioned that they’ve taken down a traditional fighter aircraft in the mess hall there to make room for a drone. Thus, Air Machine Force cadets eat under the technology that has replaced many of them in the cockpit.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

There are many important questions that need discussing in this space: Are we moving away from the human control of warfare?  Or is this just “what’s next?” This essay will not attempt to answer, but merely raise some of the challenges ahead. These powerful trends matter significantly to the members of the Profession of Arms that will serve in this new Air Machine Force.  But they matter equally to the entire military because what is happening there is coming to the other services.  The Air Machine Force is just the canary in the coal mine.

Today’s Issues with the Air Machine Force

The first issue the new Air Machine Force raises: should we ever leave a person in the cockpit if we don’t have to?  Professor Martin Cook, in a lecture at Oxford University on March 8, 2011, had this to say on the matter:

“If you really want to annoy a cadet or an Air Force officer, say ‘why would you ever [use] a human being to defend an airspace if you don’t have to?’

If what you want is close air support in Afghanistan, why not build a solar-powered, long loiter aircraft that you can park at 60,000 feet with a whole bunch of GPS guided weapons on them so that the joint tactical air controller on the ground can send coordinates up to that thing and have them drop. You don’t have to refuel it, it can cruise over the battlespace for days on end.  It would be objectively a better way to deliver airpower to a battlespace.

What reason do you have not to do it? If you really press Air Force people, and I think this is changing now – but the one reason [they give is] that it’s not cool. It’s just not cool.”

What does it mean for the Profession of Arms if we are not in harm’s way or threatened with bodily harm?  Does it matter?  Is this just the next iteration in standoff technology, or is this something entirely new?

The second issue comes from P.W. Singer of the Brookings Institution.  He gave a lecture that was broadcast on Australian National Radio on December 3, 2011, entitled “The Morality of Robo-Wars.” He specifically addressed the increasingly shifting demographics of air combat:

“One of my other favorite stories is about a high school dropout. He dropped out of high school and he wanted to make his dad proud of him again.  So he enlisted in the U.S. Army.  The recruiting sergeant looked at his high school transcript and he asked him ‘what would you like to be in the Army?’ He said, ‘I’d like to be a helicopter mechanic.’  He looked at the transcript and said, ‘I’m sorry son, you’re not qualified to be a helicopter mechanic, because you failed your high school English class. Would you like to be an Unmanned Aerial Systems operator instead?’  He turned out to be incredible at this, he turned out to be a natural. It wasn’t that he was a natural, it’s really that he’d spent his entire life training for this playing video games. He was so good [at] it that they brought him back from his first deployment.  They promoted him, they made him a Specialist, the second lowest rank in the entire U.S. military. And then they made him an instructor in the pilot training academy.  Because of this technology, this young man found himself, he made his dad proud of him again, he’s serving his nation.

I told this story at last year’s U.S. Air Force National Convention, they didn’t like the story, of a 19 year old, high school dropout, who’s not just an instructor in the pilot training academy right now, but has taken out more targets, saved arguably more American lives, than every single F-22 pilot combined. The jet fighter pilots look at him the way the knights looked at the peasants, just when the peasants were given guns.”

So, as one might expect, the new Air Machine Force is changing our pilot force.  But just as the shift changes the “tooth,” it impacts the “tail” – the new Air Machine Force needs a radical adjustment to its workforce to maintain these different air combat vehicles. Consider economist Tyler Cowen’s observation from his new book, Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation (page 21) [Note: See also Los Angeles Times article]:

“General Philip M. Breedlove, US Air Force vice chief of staff, works with military drones. He recently remarked, ‘Our number one manning problem in the air force is manning our unmanned platforms.’ This includes workers to fix and maintain the drones and analysts to sort through the subsequent video and surveillance feeds. According to the air force, keeping an unmanned Predator drone in the air for twenty-four hours requires about 168 workers laboring in the background. A larger drone, such as the Global Hawk surveillance drone, needs about 300 people working in the background to make the mission feasible. To compare, the operation of an F-16 fighter aircraft requires fewer than 100 people for a single mission.”

The last issue the new Air Machine Force creates is the pervasive, negative optics which surround drone warfare.  Many consider it unfair to visit organized violence on others without the corresponding threat to oneself.  Akbar Ahmed’s book The Thistle and the Drone is a powerful argument for this point.  One might also reflect on the question from an audience member at a Boston College event on civil military relations in 2009; she disparagingly referred to drone strikes as “institutionalized cowardice.” Accurate or not, this is a perception shared by many.

Potential Future Issues with the U.S. Air Machine Force

In the same 2011 lecture, P.W. Singer discussed the Air Machine Force trend carrying us to war with greater frequency in the future. After mentioning the fact that “The last time the United States declared war was back in 1941,” he suggests that now “we have a technology that literally takes those barriers [to going to war] to the ground” because we don’t need to risk our citizens when engaging in warfare.  As an example, he states that the United States has “carried out more than five times the number of airstrikes using unmanned systems into Pakistan than we did with manned bombers in the Kosovo War just ten years ago.  But unlike the Kosovo War ten years ago, we don’t call it a war, and I think the answer to this riddle goes back to this technology.”

Perhaps most chillingly, Singer assessed that this is just the beginning of a machine age of warfare:

“The interesting thing, though, is that when we talk about these PackBots, when we talk about the Predator drone, remember we’re actually talking about the very first generation.  We’re talking about the version of the Model T Ford or the Wright Brother Flyer. We’re really at the ‘horseless carriage’ stage of all of this, if you think about the way we describe them, we call them ‘unmanned systems’ like back then we called them ‘horseless carriages.’ We couldn’t wrap our heads around what they actually [were]. That horseless carriages were automobiles; unmanned systems are actually robotics.  The point that I’m making is that that’s what’s happening right now.”

Hey Army, Navy, Marine Corps: The Machines Are Coming

It would be vindictive and incredibly unfair to sit back and enjoy the death of the human Air Force.  One can imagine how this might happen: the other services celebrating the irony that the Air Force got eaten by the very technology it wrapped itself in. Many in the Army probably share Thomas P.M. Barnett’s view that if “there’s something truly valuable to contest, a country’s manned forces still need to occupy and control it; otherwise, nothing is achieved. Wake me up when drones can set up local government elections in Afghanistan or reconfigure Mali’s judicial system.”  In sum, the tech folks at DARPA can’t crack this landpower nut!

Maybe not yet, but they’re already trying.  Note the recent rollout of the “Pentagon-financed humanoid robot named Atlas.” Atlas is “designed to perform rescue functions in situations where humans cannot survive.”

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This is a natural progression in humans relationship with technology.  I highly encourage readers to consider Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s new book The Second Machine Age – or, much better, Kevin Kelly’s (former editor of Wired magazine) article, “Better Than Human: Why Robots Will – And Must – Take Our Jobs.”  Kelly makes a very reasonable, powerful argument:

“Two hundred years ago, 70 percent of American workers lived on the farm. Today automation has eliminated all but 1 percent of their jobs, replacing them (and their work animals) with machines. But the displaced workers did not sit idle. Instead, automation created hundreds of millions of jobs in entirely new fields,” occupations like “appliance repairman, offset printer, food chemist, photographer, web designer – each building on previous automation.  Today, the vast majority of us are doing jobs that no farmer from the 1800s could have imagined…It may be hard to believe, but before the end of this century, 70 percent of today’s occupations will likewise be replaced by automation.”

For all those reasons, Kelly counsels us human folk not to fret: “This is not a race against the machines. If we race against them, we lose. This is a race with the machines. You’ll be paid in the future based on how well you work with robots.”  Besides, in the military sphere, according to Georgetown Professor Rosa Brooks, it “could very easily turn out to be the case that computers are much better at” applying discriminate military violence than humans. Professor Chris Coker of the London School of Economics agrees: “Technology is making humans the weakest link in warfare.”

Maybe they’re right.  Consider the following occurrence, reported by Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair.  On March 21, 2011, an Air Force captain took off as a navigator in an F-15 from a base in Italy “on his first combat mission.” He was heading for Libya and was eventually shot down over that country.  Having had to bail out, Lewis reports that as the captain “floated down, he felt almost calm. The night air was calm, and there was no sound, only awesome silence.  He didn’t really know why he’d been sent here, to Libya, in the first place.  He knew his assignment, his specific mission.  But he didn’t know the reason for it.” [Bold print added for emphasis].

This officer could have come from any branch of service.  Here one finds a commissioned officer, a captain, a member of the Profession of Arms, on a mission in which he will very likely take human lives and destroy significant amounts of property on behalf of the American public.  Yet beyond his immediate operational mission he can’t answer why it is that the American people have asked this of him.  He was wholly unable to connect his tactical actions to American national policy. Is this OK for the Profession of Arms? Should that sense of context not be a basic warfighting requirement for those with the privilege of holding a commission?  As JFC Fuller put it in The Foundations of the Science of War (p. 96): “There must be a reason for each action carried out during a war, and…it must be a good reason or a bad reason; and if we have no reason at all, which has frequently happened in war, we reduce ourselves to the position of lunatics.”

If we desire to maintain our advantage over the drones, then this example from Libya is precisely what we do not want.  The members of the Profession of Arms don’t simply “service targets.” We ought to continually strive to be skilled and discriminate conductors of the symphony of violence – that also know why the orchestra has assembled for the performance.  If we don’t live up to this ideal, then maybe it is time to start sending in the drones.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.