by Lt. Col. Joshua Olson
37th Airlift Squadron commander

Every military service is confusing to outsiders, but none as much as the Air Force. To outsiders, the Air Force appears entrenched in a self-centered view of war, envisioning airpower as king with a never ending lust for high-end aircraft and technological systems. But within the service there is an identity crisis as Airmen struggle to reconcile their role in current and future contingencies with long-standing traditional views of airpower.

Who are we.
The Air Force was made as an independent service to focus on dominating the third dimension of war — air. For the past 65 years, the Air Force has achieved this goal; in fact, it has controlled the skies for so long that we as a country have trouble believing our air supremacy could ever be challenged.

Even so, the use of airpower in today’s irregular wars and conflicts is still very misunderstood across the services. Historically, war theorists believed that airpower supplied direct combat effects to the battleground. Today, irregular war theorists maintain that airpower merely supplies combat support. Never before has the Air Force’s greatest contribution of air supremacy been written off as merely support. Consider this: The Army’s counter insurgency field manual (FM3-24) relegates airpower’s contribution to simply an annex. Surely the vital contributions of the third dimension via airborne intelligence, worldwide communications and control, intra-theater airlift, and remotely piloted aircraft deserve to be recognized as more than an annex — possibly even an integral component of contingency operations?

Fly, fight, win.
As the implementation of airpower continues to shift to meet the needs of the country, Airmen continue to question their identity and the culture of what made us an independent service in the first place. The fact is the military needs an independent air service that is dedicated to organizing, training and equipping leaders who can bring airpower’s unique combat power to any conflict. The bottom line is that airpower brings combat effects to the fight. From bombers and fighters in World War II and Korea to airlift and remotely piloted aircraft in operations Enduring Freedom and Odyssey Dawn, the common thread throughout the history of combat airpower is that it is not solely found in a single flying weapon system. Combat airpower is found in the Airmen who employ it.

Airpower is Airmen.
Despite much of the Department of Defense’s focus being placed in the CENTCOM area of responsibility for more than 10 years, combat airpower continues to be employed in contingencies around the globe. Global combat airpower is not just the snake eaters of the 435th Air Ground Operations Wing calling in strikes and opening contested airfields, nor is it the zipper suited sun gods (pointy nosed or knuckle draggers) flying their high-powered machines.

Combat airpower is Senior Airman Kaylen Horace, 86th Logistics Readiness Squadron. Imagine showing up at Ramstein as a wife 35 weeks pregnant. During your base in-processing battle, you find out that your household goods are categorized as lost in the TMO system. On top of that, your husband’s unit is minimally manned and must send him in harm’s way within days of arriving.

Luckily, after days of battling the system, Horace stepped up on her own time and stayed late hours to take care of this family she didn’t even know. With Horace attacking the mission at Ramstein, another Airman could stay focused on his mission air-dropping lifesaving supplies. That is combat airpower.

Combat airpower is Staff Sgt. April Song, 86th Comptroller Squadron. Many people do not realize the amount of operations currently happening throughout Africa and Europe. As many U.S. Air Forces in Europe Airmen continue to transit Africa, these operations could never be done without the quiet, selfless dedication of Airmen like Song. It is Song whose late hours and countless weekends navigating the many financial pitfalls and funding problems that helped enable critical lifesaving missions get to tiny austere airfields in Africa. Song is combat airpower.

Combat airpower is Staff Sgts. Brandon Clark and Johnnie White, 86th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. There is no less glamorous job than the blood, sweat and grease of the mighty C-130J maintainers. These Airmen epitomize getting the mission done, whether it’s changing a prop in the bone-chilling cold outside Sarajevo so the crew and aircraft can deliver blankets and heating oil to people cut-off by an avalanche, or another 24-hour day in the blistering heat of the African desert without drinkable water or a shower, or changing a tire so you can airdrop food and medicine to dying folks in the Western Sahara. Time and time again, Clark and White continually exceed their call to service as they meet the most demanding of missions. It is this service and excellence as professional Airmen that allow us to employ combat airpower. Clark and White are combat airpower.

Our Air Force is stronger than ever because we can flex to meet any fight at any time our country needs. We continue to provide a culture of professional leaders who bring the effects of combat airpower to any fight.

Combat airpower is not one particular weapon system. Combat airpower is Airmen who are so disciplined, so focused and so intelligent that they can operate in any and all of the three dimensions.

Stand tall, Airmen. You’re in the world’s greatest Air Force!