Evolution of the Aerospace Force

June 1, 2001

The US Air Force today has 92percent fewer airplanes and 91 percent fewer pilots than it did in World War II. Yet which air force would you rather have? The obvious answer speaks volumes about what has happened to airpower in the last 50 years.

By any measure you can imagine-speed, range, striking power, or the effects it can produce-the present Air Force would be the choice by far.

The difference is not courage or airmanship. It’s technology.

In times past, it was necessary to send dozens, sometimes hundreds, of airplanes to ensure that a critical target was struck.

By contrast, in the air campaign in the Balkans in 1999, the B-2, carrying the latest “smart” bombs, hit an average of 15 separate aim points per sortie. A few years from now, a single bomber will take on 80 different targets per sortie. Aircraft of the future will be able to do even better.

This is only one example of the changes now sweeping the Air Force. Over the next 20 years, they will make it a much different force than the one we have known in the past.

Air Force planners in the Pentagon see three major dimensions of change:

  • Unmanned aircraft will increase.
  • Manned aircraft will decrease.
  • Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance will move to space.

In many respects, these projections are the extension of the existing trend. In the 1950s, more than 40 percent of all Air Force officers were pilots. Today, pilots account for only 17 percent of the officer force. Pilot and aircraft totals have diminished.

One reason is that airpower keeps getting better. As recently as the Vietnam War, the F-4D Phantom had to expend, on average, 200 tons of gravity bombs to drop a bridge span. Current aircraft can do it with four tons of ordnance, and they can do it in all kinds of weather. As aircraft become more capable, they grow fewer in number.

“Some may see this as an adverse ‘tooth-to-tail’ ratio,” says Maj. Gen. Charles D. Link, USAF (Ret)., who has been studying Air Force leadership development patterns for the past year. “It is important to point out that the Air Force’s large ‘tail’ produces a numerically small but militarily large ‘tooth.’ This is good. Fewer young Americans are at risk, while we leverage aerospace superiority to achieve policy goals.”

Technology is opening new vistas for unmanned aircraft and spacecraft. In April, the Air Force’s Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle flew nonstop from California to a precision landing in Adelaide, Australia. The 8,600-mile trip was about two-thirds of Global Hawk’s range.

Unmanned aircraft will inherit such missions as flying into the teeth of advanced enemy defenses to take out surface-to-air missile sites. Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, believes that within 10 years, a third of all deep strike aircraft could be unmanned, reducing the number of airmen who must fly into high risk areas.

Other missions will follow Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance into space. Space is taking on unprecedented importance in the national security strategy, and the Air Force has been designated to lead the way.

There will be plenty of traditional airpower in aerospace operations of the foreseeable future. In theater conflict, the first substantial force to engage the enemy will be advanced stealthy aircraft that open the door for other land, sea, and air forces to follow. It will be of continuing advantage to the nation that we can put a military airplane above any point on Earth in a matter of hours.

However, cultural change is coming for the Air Force, perhaps at a rate that will cause discomfort. But as Carl Builder, author of The Icarus Syndrome, and others have reminded us, the Air Force is not just about aviation; it’s about airpower, evolving to aerospace power.

The Air Force mission is not only (to recall the fighter pilot’s ringing credo from the 1960s) “to fly and fight.” It is to support and defend the United States through the control and exploitation of air and space.

The Air Force was born of technology, specifically the technology of powered flight. Aerospace technology now points to greater range, accuracy, perspective, knowledge, and accuracy. Evolving aerospace power fits the evolving needs of the nation.

Air Staff planners believe the event that will usher in the greatest change over the next 20 years will not be the fielding of new bombers or fighters, but rather deployment of the space based radar, which will allow us to scan entire continents and to home in instantly on any point of interest or concern. Our perspective, now regional, will become global.

Historical note: In 1941, the Army Air Forces flight-tested an unmanned aircraft called the “Bug.” Its sponsor was none other than Gen. H. H. “Hap” Arnold, the founding father of the Air Force, who deliberated on whether it might be as useful in bombardment as the B-17 while endangering fewer lives in combat.

It was eventually canceled, not for doctrinal reasons, but because it lacked the range from England to strike targets in Germany.

Arnold’s enthusiasm for the Bug was based on his remembrance of two pilotless aircraft, built for the fledgling Army Air Service and successfully tested in 1918.