Today, the U.S. Air Force is the world’s unquestioned air power leader with unrivaled ability to reach out and touch an enemy any place in the world in minimum time. That’s possible through the brute force of strategic bombers, intercontinental missiles, sophisticated fighter aircraft, unrivaled reconnaissance and intelligence, and a fleet of force-extending in-flight refuelers and cargo aircraft.
Hopefully, our Air Force will remain the world’s premier air power. But, clearly, its size, makeup and function are changing.
A major and immediate factor is funding. As the relentless war on terror continues to strain the nation’s defense budget, officials are giving priority to ground forces directly under fire in Iraq and Afghanistan. That already has restricted, curtailed and changed some Air Force programs.
There is a groundswell of support for unmanned aerial vehicles. To this point, the roles have largely been surveillance and reconnaissance. But attack missions are growing and a push is mounting to use UAVs in many other ways, including strategic bombing and air cargo.
At the same time, there is a surge in mission sharing and collaboration with other service branches. Not a bad thing, but a relationship that can make the Air Force a dependent variable.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz gave a revealing and unusually candid interview to Military Times a few days ago.
Schwartz was upfront about changes affecting Air Force hardware and people.
“The service is growing in some areas such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance but shrinking in others – notably fighter and lift – because of the starkly different way that wars are fought today,” the top airmen said.
He added that the Air Force “will shrink because of (increased) collaboration” with other service branches. “We probably will be a smaller Air Force when all is said and done,” he added.
That trend likely won’t change. Schwartz said the Air Force has few vocal supporters in Washington, either in the White House or Congress. He blamed the Air Force’s age – only 63 years old – and its West Coast and Midwest roots.
“The tradition of having wise, articulate retired folks in positions of responsibility in this town is something that the young Air Force has not achieved in equal measure,” he said. “We have too few of these sort of well-respected voices.”
The message for Robins supporters is simple. At some point – if drawdowns and cutbacks continue – the Air Force may no longer require three aircraft repair depots. If one is closed, the military value of the base and surrounding communities will be the deciding factor. And, frankly, Robins comes in a distant third when compared to the other logistics centers.
Oklahoma City has purchased a vacated General Motors plant adjacent to Tinker Air Force Base and leased it to the logistics center there, opening up four million square feet of engine overhaul space at little cost to the Air Force. It took Oklahoma officials only 30 months to complete the project after an initial brainstorming session in February of 2006.
At Hill Air Force Base, Utah, a unique collaboration of state and local authorities is under way to create a $1.5 billion development on 550 acres leased from the base. The project – known as Falcon Hill National Aerospace Research Park – will reportedly bring more than eight million square feet of commercial space, office parks, hotels, restaurants and stores. The base will receive “payment in kind” in the form of new office space for its workers. Officials expect the project to create more than 15,000 jobs over the next several years.
Then, of course, there is Robins. We have heartfelt thoughts and slogans, but little else to show for our enthusiasm. G-RAMP – years in the making – is a long, long way from reality.
When the issue of closure comes up, we have a “can’t happen” mentality and go on our merry way.
But the times are changing, as Bob Dylan reminded us years ago. And the current Air Force transition could result in a rendezvous with the future that will be decidedly unfavorable.
We need to receive that embedded message and get to work -- and do it quickly if Robins is to be competitive.