Best Defense

The Air Force as a military service: a colonel responds

This speaks for itself, so take it away, Lt. Col. Kelly “K Mart” Martin. She’s a veteran KC-135 pilot who recently commanded the U.S. air base in Baghdad and is now a colleague of mine at CNAS, the little think tank that could: A short time ago, the host of this blog deemed it appropriate ...


This speaks for itself, so take it away, Lt. Col. Kelly “K Mart” Martin. She’s a veteran KC-135 pilot who recently commanded the U.S. air base in Baghdad and is now a colleague of mine at CNAS, the little think tank that could:

A short time ago, the host of this blog deemed it appropriate to categorize the Air Force as different from the other military service-“Another of the great things about CNAS is our military fellows program, which brings in smart officers from the military services, as well as the Air Force.”  As the Air Force Fellow here at CNAS, I found this curious.  Upon further conversation with Mr. Ricks, it was clear that he did in fact view the Air Force as not being equal to the other services because of its lack of “military ethos,” an assertion based primarily on the fact that Airmen don’t face the same risk as soldiers of being injured or killed and, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate, it’s really the Army that are the winners of America’s conflict and defender of its national security.

My first reaction was that the families of the 81 Airmen who have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan — not to mention those Airmen lost in the wars of the 20th century — would take great exception to the assertion that their loved one didn’t have a “military ethos” because of the type of uniform he or she was wearing.  But it’s the underlying value projection that only by shedding blood makes one truly a ‘brother in arms’ that I find troubling.

There’s no disagreement that the current fight in Iraq and Afghanistan is ground-centric and that airpower plays a supporting role. But as retired Army Lieutenant General Barno said in 2004, “While it takes boots on the ground to win a counter-insurgency fight, it takes airpower to move, supply, and protect those boots on the ground.” In this capacity, airpower’s combat effectiveness is best measured in the lives saved.

The Air Force Predator and other ISR assets habitually provide commanders and decision-makers with real time information of enemy movements and high value targets’ (HVT) locations. Air Force flown satellites provide critical communication, weather and the vital GPS capabilities to the CENTCOM theater of operation and beyond. All of which enables increased situational awareness and more effective maneuverability, foundational to operations on the ground and significantly reducing risk.

Direct support of ground fire teams has come through precision airdrops which provide critical resupply in remote spaces of Afghanistan as well as precision air strikes that eliminate enemy HVTs and provide close air support (CAS).  Members of the 101st Airborne Division confirmed CAS’s risk-reducing capacity when performing maneuvers through hostile areas stating “When CAS is on station, it greatly reduces the threat. If we do get hit, only a handful of enemy troops will be brave enough to fire knowing aircraft are overhead.”

When IEDs began to kill coalition forces in mass, the CENTCOM commander turned to the Air Force with its intratheater airlift to ensure continuous logistic lines and mitigate a significant loss of life. Last year alone, the aircrews of our Air Force C-130s and C-17s kept over 3,500 convoys off the road and 8,500 people out reach of an IED. Additionally, it was the Air Force that transported over 2,700 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles and 8,300 vehicle armor kits to the AOR in minimal time — vehicles that are saving lives and limbs every day.

The Air Force’s participation isn’t limited to the space and air commons. Over 6,000 Airmen are serving on the ground in provincial reconstruction teams, as convoy security details or on explosive ordnance disposal teams. A role Airmen term Agile Combat Support which is expected to continue to grow as our military participates in greater Cooperative Security Agreements around the world.

The most significant advancement of the joint fight is in the care of our and our coalition’s wounded. If someone receives an injury anywhere in the AOR, getting that person to the right care becomes the number one priority. Once at the combat hospital, Air Force mobility assets stand ready to move the individual anywhere in the world, resulting in an unprecedented 99% survival rate. One example is a Marine who suffered burns and a severe eye injury from an IED explosion. Thanks to a C-17 and multiple air refuelings, 30 hours after the time of the explosion, the Marine landed at Brooks Army Medical Center, the only hospital with the necessary combined resources for his injuries, saving his eyesight.

Simply put, without the Air Force, the numbers of lives, both civilian and military, that would have been sacrificed in the past 8 years would be exponentially higher. As Secretary Gates recently said, “Without [the Air Forces’] contribution in the skies, and in many cases on the ground, America’s war effort would simple grind to a halt.”

and this doesn’t even take into account the 35 fighter aircraft and 8 tanker aircraft on 24/7 alert here in the United States, ready to respond to another 9/11 scenario; or the hundreds of Airmen sitting 24-hour shifts in our nuclear missile silos enabling the US’s strategic nuclear deterrence — all ready to pull the trigger if directed but thankfully, have never had to. Not to mention the thousands of hours flown to bring much needed humanitarian supplies to the victims of the 2004 tsunami or the Pakistani earthquake or Hurricane Katrina.

It’s easy to understand how the contributions of the Air Force to our national security efforts could be overshadowed. After all, how do you capture a non-event? Pictures of empty C-17s without flag-draped coffins or convoys that don’t get hit by an IED don’t make the front page of newspapers. I’m proud of the unique contributions of today’s Airmen and I’m proud of the capabilities that we bring to the counter-insurgency fight that keep our ground forces from being killed. And if saving lives means taking the criticism that the Air Force lacks a “military ethos,” well I can live with that.  The question is, can the Army?

What say you, mateys? I was joking in the reference she cites at the beginning, but I do think that the Air Force is the most corporate of our armed forces and the least military in its feel. I think this is because it doesn’t fight on the ground, and also because its enlisted don’t control firepower. (But both those are true of the Navy, the most traditional of the services.) I also think that the Air Force may be, in cultural terms, the most “American” of the services, reflecting our culture more than do the Army, Navy and Marines.    

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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