Matt Yglesias is taking some flak for a very insightful blog post about the UAV revolution reshaping the Air Force, inspired by a joke General David Petraeus made recently that is taking some flak as well. It seems many comments on Matt's post are disparaging his lack of familiarity with the military, so I thought I might fly to his defense given I have some cred here (USAFA degree, 2 tours of duty in Asia, combat interrogator, and a huge SF collection).
Here's the joke from Gen. Petraeus:
To recall an illustrative story, a soldier is trudging through the muck in the midst of a downpour with a 60-pound rucksack on his back. This is tough, he thinks to himself. Just ahead of him trudges an Army ranger with an 80-pound pack on his back. This is really tough, he thinks. And ahead of him is a Marine with a 90-pound pack on, and he thinks to himself, I love how tough this is. Then, of course, 30,000 feet above them an Air Force pilot flips aside his ponytail. Now — I’m sorry. I don’t know how that got in there — I know they haven’t had ponytails in a year or two — and looks down at them through his cockpit as he flies over. Boy, he radios his wingman, it must be tough down there.
Here's the commentary from Matt Yglesias:
The trouble is that advanced technological developments are driving this logic even further forward through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. From a rational point of view, UAVs piloted from afar from operators far from the field of battle are a huge win. ...
A service that consists of guys sitting in cubicles playing video games is going to have trouble holding its head high amidst a warrior ethos. And consequently, the Air Force is tending to resist the technological imperative to go more remote.
First off, anyone who thinks the joke told by Petraeus is unprofessional should, in the words of John McCain, "get a life." This is how military folks jab one another. Marines are dumb, airmen are smart. Marines are brave, airmen are smart. That's how the joke goes, people.
Matt's analysis focuses too much on the psychological sensitivity of Air Force officers, but his assessment is fundamentally correct. The Air Force has painted itself into a corner in the sense that the new wave of technology is challenging what has been considered its central mission and identity. While a few may feel as Matt describes, it is incorrect to assume that all Air Force officers are "tending to resist the technological imperative to go more remote." Sure, the institutionalized "fighter pilot-bomber pilot-heavy pilot-other officer" pecking order of the branch is resistant to threats to its structure, and yes, there is a quiet identity crisis / search for mission. But it is pretty clear where that search will end up.
The misfortune of the Air Force is its name. When the Army Air Corps was established as its own branch of service, the rationale was driven more by the rise of nuclear weaponry than airborne weaponry (Think of it this way: America fought and won its only two world wars without needing a separate air arm). Would there be identity confusion if it were named the Nuclear Force?
In fact, the distinction of the Air Force is rooted not in the sky or in the atom but in a rebellious attitude against the status quo of the existing military way of war. The lesson is drummed in every day at the Academy, where cadets eat three meals in Mitchell Hall, named after the controversial General Billy Mitchell (1879-1936):
He antagonized many people in the Army with his arguments and criticism and, in 1925, was demoted to Colonel. Later that year, he was court-martialed for insubordination after accusing Army and Navy leaders of an "almost treasonable administration of the national defense." He resigned from the service shortly afterward.
The heart and soul of the Air Force is innovation, and I would say it goes so far as "creative destruction" in the Schumpeterian sense. This is not an insight, and many blue-suiters have been making the case for years. The evidence, you might say, is the thousand UAVs flying around the skies of Iraq right now.
What's more important is that military strategy overall needs innovation now more than ever. Asymmetrical warfare can be an advantage to the U.S. if we push the automation of warfare downstream -- ground drones, insect drones. Think of it: a well placed robotic poison bee sting could have saved the world from a lot of war or two. Rather than worry about its warrior role, the Air Force should recognize that by seizing the leadership role in robotic and remote technologies, it will become the predominant branch for conventional, or killing, wars. In 20 years, we can imagine an Air Force that has subsumed all the others in the arena of combat, making the traditional warrior role of the Marines and Army next to irrelevant.
The big innovation that the Army and Marines are hungry for is more effective counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy, particularly in the area economic development. Face it, the Air Force has the firepower side of the equation pretty well covered. It's the soft side of power where American strategy is weak.
Let me explain using another military joke, one that I used to tell to my roommates and Army buddies when I was stationed at Yongsan in Seoul. First, with a straight face, I asked if they had heard the news about the new rifle the Army had selected to the replace the standard issue M-16, introduced 40 years ago. No, no, they said, haven't heard. Yeah, I told them, after entering all the data from recent military situations - the Cold War, the Balkans, the Gulf War - it was pretty clear what the basic roles were for the Air Force and the Army. So the new weapon system the Brass had selected after careful deliberation by Pentagon experts was the M-21 nylon fiber broom, to help grunts clean up after the zoomies have won the combat phase. To be issued by Christmas. And my buddies, suckered, just groaned and told some story about ponytails and cockpits.
In fact, the resistance to COIN in the Army has been equal if not greater than the resistance to UAVs in the Air Force. Forutnately, the right side is winning, albeit slowly. Just maybe the military will learn that winning the peace is a hundred times more important, if ten times harder, than winning the war. If we need a rebellious Air Force attitude to shake things up and overcome the firepower mentality, all the better.