The United States of America depends on its Air Force to defend the population, deliver global effects and jointly accomplish national objectives to an extent unseen in the history of mankind.
In my 35 years of service, many things have changed. Yet, what has remained constant is the extraordinary dedication, courage, and skill of the men and women we call “Airmen” who deliver for the nation every minute of every day in air, on the surface, in space, and cyberspace.
I am often asked: What does the Air Force contribute? What does our national investment in air, space and cyberspace power bring to America? Let me share with you some observations of our Air Force that have inspired me since I was a new Second Lieutenant – fresh from commissioning at Texas A&M University – and continue to fill me with pride as the Eighteenth Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force.
I see Airmen (Active, Reserve, Air National Guard and civilians), vigilant at their post, who provide first warning of threats world-wide through space, air and cyber systems that never sleep and never blink.
From satellites that provide early warning, to over-tasked unmanned aerial vehicles and surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, Airmen operate the world’s most advanced sensor network. They watch the globe – including North Korean preparations for missile launches, Iranian nuclear programs, and the dangerous borders between warring nations. Airmen are America’s global eyes and ears, likely the first to tip off of an emerging threat to Americans and America’s interests.
I see Airmen who provide the first response worldwide for natural disasters – on scene for rescue and delivering humanitarian supplies (to include complete hospitals) that often mean the difference between life and death.
I see Airmen airborne, in the center of the worst storms and hurricanes in history, to track and provide the warning that is critical to save lives and protect citizens’ property.
I see Airmen airborne, fighting forest and range fires, delivering fire retardant liquid from C-130s – again to save lives and protect citizens’ property. From rescuing individuals in danger, to providing storm warning, to fighting fires, to delivering supplies across a global air bridge, Airmen are the real manifestation of American compassion and strength.
It has been my observation that Airmen do these tasks so well that people at risk expect an American response no matter how far or how adverse the conditions or how tough the task. It has also been my observation that these Airmen make all this look so easy that others believe it is easy – which, of course, it’s not.
I see Airmen who are often first to the fight through the attributes inherent in the exploitation of Air Power, engaging enemies across vast ranges on a truly global scale, striking targets or transporting themselves and their fellow Warriors to hot spots throughout the world. These Airmen then stand alongside them in the fight as a joint team, delivering military options, anywhere on Earth.
These Airmen fly bombers on a truly intercontinental scale, routinely striking targets at ranges unequaled in the history of warfare, with peerless precision, speed, and lethality, while simultaneously holding other targets at risk, thereby deterring and dissuading adverse actions.
Other Airmen fly the giant airlift and refueling aircraft, also on a truly intercontinental scale, daily delivering humanitarian relief supplies, other war fighters, cargo, and the means to conduct theater war fighting on the scale required in this long war on terrorism. In fact, every 90 seconds, somewhere on the surface of the Earth, these Airmen take to the air – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, good weather or foul in defense of this country.
I see Airmen slip into hollow cockpits of fighter aircraft and, to paraphrase James Salter’s “Gods of Tin,” plug themselves into the machine. As these Airmen prepare themselves for combat, the canopy grinds shut and seals them off. Their oxygen, their very breath, is carried with them into the chilled vacuum in a steel bottle. Their only voice is the radio. They’re as isolated as a deep-sea diver.
For these warriors – operating in their unique domain – time and space are compressed. To them, geographical expanses are reduced and geographical barriers are bypassed by the hurtling aircraft – again exploiting the inherent benefits of the ultimate high ground and vantage of operating within this unique domain.
In combat, these Airmen live or die alone. They’re certainly accompanied by others, flying and fighting alongside – but, really, they are alone in these fighter aircraft. They’re fighting the laws of physics, as well as our increasingly lethal enemies. And the connection to technology is real because first they become part of the aircraft and then the aircraft becomes a part of them, all in defense of this Nation.
I see Airmen succeed throughout the world, mirroring America’s diversity and its blend of capabilities, devotion, courage, and valor that unite Warriors across cultures and national boundaries.
I see Airmen who provide measured military effects and save lives. I see Airmen standing shoulder to shoulder with their brothers and sisters on the ground, hunting terrorists as part of our Special Ops teams, driving convoys, guarding bases, conducting truly high risk combat search and rescue missions, and providing medical services in places the devil himself doesn’t dare to tread.
I see the daily mission reports from US Central Command, documenting multiple examples of Airmen on the scene when surface troops are in contact, who attack with both the aircraft-mounted gatling guns and with the precision-guided munitions, and whose actions set the conditions for victory. This is the essence of the combatant spirit and the joint team.
I see Airmen who quietly support national objectives over the long term. When American ground troops returned home after liberating Kuwait in 1991, Airmen stayed in theater as the preponderance of the force deployed to not only enforce the United Nations’ Resolutions but to defend the local populations from tyranny. In fact, since that time, Airmen have been fighting in Iraq for 16 straight years, including the 12 years of sacrifice and deployed operations in support of Operation Northern Watch and Operation Southern Watch – standing guard in the desert as the major American military force engaged.
I see Airmen demonstrating the inherent flexibility of American Air Power in responding to combat tasking during this same period with two additional deployments into the Arabian Gulf, as well as combat operations over Bosnia and Kosovo and an unwavering air bridge for resupply and medical evacuation – without skipping a beat.
I see Airmen on duty at this moment flying America’s constellation of military spacecraft. This solely Air Force mission involves hundreds of military satellites and thousands of Airmen, serving as the Nation’s eyes and ears. These Airmen operate the key spacecraft that provide early warning, communications, precise navigation and weather information for America’s combat forces. They are “on watch” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – and again, they have never skipped a beat.
I see Airmen airborne at this moment in support of Operation Noble Eagle – overhead the cities and citizens of the United States. This solely Air Force mission involves hundreds of aircraft and thousands of Airmen, operating from dozens of locations – scattered from Alaska, to Hawaii, to the East Coast, serving as the airborne shield for America. These Airmen, in flight aboard AWACS early warning aircraft, aerial refueling tankers and jet fighters are on “on watch” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – and again, they have never skipped a beat.
I see Airmen on duty at this moment across the Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) fields and deep within the missile silos located across the heartland of America – “North of Interstate 80.” This solely Air Force mission involves hundreds of missiles and thousands of Airmen, serving as the most responsive element of America’s “Triad,” our nuclear deterrent backstop. These Airmen are also “on watch” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – and again, they have never skipped a beat.
I see Battlefield Airmen engaged in surface combat alongside this country’s finest Soldiers, Sailors and Marines. These special operators, combat controllers, PJs (combat search and rescue to bring back all downed Airmen, no matter their nationality or service), terminal attack controllers, combat communicators, and combat weathermen serve as the immediate connection from the surface joint team to the airborne Airmen – delivering the desired kinetic and non-kinetic effects 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – and, they too, have never skipped a beat.
I see Airmen who represent America at its best: its honor, valor, courage, and devotion; its mastery of science and technology; its awesome military might; its commitment to freedom; its flexibility and adaptability. It has always been this way: from our humble beginnings since before World War I, to a decisive military force which ended World War II, to a truly global force that manned the intercontinental missiles, jet tankers and bombers of the Cold War, and today contribute to a long list of successes in the global war on terror.
As a reminder of the successes, the last time American Soldiers have been attacked by enemy aircraft was April, 1953 – over 53 years ago. The ability for our surface combatants to look up into the sky, knowing that there’s nothing to fear is priceless.
Yet, air, space and cyberspace dominance is not an entitlement – it’s a direct fight that must be won as a predicate to any other activity. The battle for air, space, and, now, cyberspace superiority has been – and will always be – the first battle of any war.
These Airmen of today’s United States Air Force have a glorious heritage: from the days of the first combat pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille of WWI, to the groundbreaking Tuskegee Airmen of WWII, to the early jet pilots flying “Sabres” over the distant Yalu River during the Korean War, to the early space and missile pioneers that put America on the ultimate high ground of space, to the heroic Jolly Green Giants and POWs of Vietnam, to the Airmen presently engaged in combat across Iraq and Afghanistan.
They all live on the threshold of a vast horizon – across the air, space and cyberspace domains. Airmen must be able to continue to mold America’s incredible technological might into the air, space and cyber systems which guarantee our freedoms and our future.
The United States of America and the joint team that defends it depend on their Air Force to deliver national objectives on a global scale to an extent unseen in the history of mankind. Yes, America truly soars on Air Force wings.