The "wild blue yonder" is taking on a different hue as the 21st century nears, and the US Air Force wants to be ready. Hence its plan to reshape itself into 10 expeditionary teams, which will rotate alert duty, poised for deployment.
The Air Force correctly perceives a world in which military force, to be effective, has to be agile - no more decades-long standoffs between superpower strategic bomber wings. No more, either, are there guarantees of forward bases abroad. The recent reluctance of Turkey and Saudi Arabia to host US planes for possible further strikes against Iraq was grimly noted by US planners. US-based planes have to be ready to muster, as needed, from their own home territory.
But the Air Force's new structure has motivations other than strategic necessity. The service has a serious problem retaining key personnel, especially pilots. One reason they leave is the length and unpredictability of deployments - such as the monotonous duty of patrolling no-fly zones. The rotating-teams concept will add predictability and reduce, the Air Force hopes, the budgetary drain of losing highly trained people.
This step by the Air Force is one small facet of a transformation facing every service. All the contexts for military planning are changing - whether geopolitical, budgetary, or technological. The Air Force, for instance, sees itself evolving into an air and space force, with units devoted to satellite reconnaissance and communications, as well as the remote guidance of unmanned craft. The Army has its own plans for reorganization along expeditionary-force lines.
The advance of diplomacy and international cooperation is slowly building a world where massive armed forces should become less needed. But the persistence of dictatorship and fanatic nationalism continue to make conflict a still-too-common occurrence. The forces democracies retain to deal with conflict should be as efficient, and as tailored to the need, as possible.