Fresh from its successes in Kosovo in 1999 and its initial Afghanistan campaign in 2002, the US Air Force was riding high on the notion that air power could transform warfare. But the war in Iraq has changed that.
Now the service's planes are wearing out. It is so short of cash that it plans hefty cuts in personnel. And its combat mission has changed so that, for perhaps the first time in Air Force history, hostile fire has killed more of its ground personnel than its pilots and airmen.
This reversal of fortune has been sharp, defense analysts say.
"At the beginning of the Bush administration, not only did it look like air power could win wars, but there was a new crop of policymakers ready to embrace that message," says Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., think tank with close ties to top military officers. Now, "I'm hard-pressed to think of a time when the Air Force has faced more problems."
Air Force officials acknowledge the difficulties but point to the experience that they've gained.
"The Air Force is better because of these wars," says Gen. T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley, the service's chief of staff, in an interview. "The Air Force is a war-fighting institution. What we do for this country is fly and fight. You have the most combat-experienced Air Force you've had since World War II."
By his reckoning, the Air Force has been in combat since 1990, when its surveillance planes and fighter-bombers first started patrolling over Iraq in the wake of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. After the 1991 Gulf War, Air Force pilots policed "no-fly" zones over Iraq for 12 years, along with Navy and British fliers.
Air Force fighter jets, bombers, and aerial refueling tankers played key roles in both the 1999 NATO air war to force Serbian troops out of Kosovo and in the 2002 campaign to oust the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. And the service's planes have seen action every day in Iraq and Afghanistan since the wars there began.
But if the past three years have made the Air Force stronger, it's in "much the same way that a death by cuts makes you stronger," says Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace industry analyst with the Teal Group, a Fairfax, Va., consulting firm.
For example: The average age of Air Force planes is now a quarter-century, and wear and tear from the wars are forcing the service to place limits on how some are flown.
General Moseley and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne announced earlier this year that the service's new top priority is buying aerial refueling tankers to replace a fleet that includes aircraft nearly half a century old.
To free up more money for aircraft, the Air Force plans to cut roughly 40,000 people, reducing its force to 315,000 by fiscal year 2009. "The Air Force is sitting on the oldest aircraft we've ever had," Moseley says. "There's no way out of that but to seek efficiencies in the personnel account."
Congress approved $104.2 billion for the Air Force in fiscal year 2007, which began Oct. 1, and another $5.5 billion in a supplemental appropriations bill. Yet Moseley confirms that the Air Force will ask for $33 billion more to cover fiscal year 2007 costs. Even if Congress goes along, he says, current budget plans will keep his service $20 billion short each year for the foreseeable future.
Because the Army and Marines have been stretched so thin in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force, like the Navy, has been providing ground personnel.
About 5,000 Air Force personnel are doing traditional Army and Marine Corps jobs, such as driving or protecting supply convoys and disarming improvised explosive devices (IEDs) when they are detected. For that reason, the Air Force has added a couple of weeks to basic training to give recruits added lessons in ground combat skills and the use of personal weapons. That's a major change in the service's culture – and in the dangers that its ground personnel face.
Of 51 uniformed Air Force personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, 25 died in aircraft that crashed or were shot down. The rest have fallen to IEDs or other causes on the ground.
"For years, the Air Force's tip of the spear has been the pilot in the cockpit," says one officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan but wished to remain unidentified because he is not authorized to speak for the service. "A lot more airmen are being placed outside the wire in harm's way. That's a sea change for the Air Force – how we train, how we think."
The Navy faces similar pressures. Its shipbuilding budget has shrunk, and it has been contributing troops to ground missions, too. But the effect on its primary forces – "blue water" ships and their crews – hasn't been as severe.
So while the Air Force has been willing to provide ground personnel, "the real question is: How long do you do this?" Moseley says. "When do we reach a point that we say we don't have excess people to do this? And we're getting close."