Pain and Regeneration

April 1, 1992

These are painful times for many men and women of the US Air Force. They are absorbing change on a scale without precedent since the Air Force became a separate service in 1947.

Radical manpower reductions are a part of it. By 1993, the Air Force will have 26 percent fewer people than it did 10 years ago. For some who served well during the Gulf War of 1991, the thanks of a grateful nation will include the premature termination of their military careers.

Concurrently, the force is being reshaped by organizational changes at all levels. Five of the largest major commands in the Air Force lower their flags for the last time this summer, giving way to new commands with unfamiliar names and revised missions.

The bedrock unit of the force–the wing–will be rebuilt along composite lines. Bases are closing at home and abroad. As force structure shrinks, some wings and squadrons will disappear. Some, with famous names and lineage, transfer their designations to units that remain. The 23d Wing, now forming at Pope AFB, N. C., for example, will carry on the heritage of the Flying Tigers.

“We are not paring down the Air Force,” Secretary Donald B. Rice told Congress in February. “We are building a new, smaller Air Force from the ground up.”

Some aspects of the restructuring, such as getting generals out of the headquarters paper mills and into the field with the troops, will be applauded by all.

It is difficult, especially for those affected directly, to take a long view of other changes now occurring. It is a hard thing to see the force cut by nearly a third–which it will be when the reductions have run their course–and the deactivation of units that inspired strong loyalties and emotions.

Reduction of the armed forces was inevitable. Even before the fall of the Soviet Union, the politicians were determined to cut defense. They were unwilling to fund it at the level of the 1980s, when around six percent of GNP was allocated.

The Soviet collapse gave the reduction a belated rationale. It also shifted the emphasis in US defense planning from global conflict to regional conflict. The impending change in force structure was so sweeping that, as one Pentagon officer said, “you can’t salami-slice it.”

The restructuring of the Air Force, however, is not simply an adjustment to diminished budgets. Service leaders declare that changes were overdue in any case. The structure adopted 45 years ago no longer represented the most logical and efficient organization of either forces or missions.

The distinction between “strategic” and “tactical” airpower, always artificial, had become increasingly untenable. The old organizational arrangement still got the job done, but when the action heated up (the Gulf War of 1991 being the most recent example), it often took improvisation and workarounds to arrive at the right battle force configuration.

All of us will miss Strategic Air Command, Tactical Air Command, Military Airlift Command, Air Force Logistics Command, and Air Force Systems Command after they stand down in June and July.

One of the better perspectives on their passing, however, was offered by Gen. Russell E. Dougherty, former commander in chief of Strategic Air Command. His deep feeling for that organization will be doubted by none who know him.

“I do not think internal Air Force organizations are institutions in their own right,” General Dougherty said. “Organizations must be designed to serve a purpose or address a need. l think the Air Force is the overarching institution, and how we organize ourselves internally depends on the circumstances and objectives of our nation.”

The new combinations of Air Combat Command, Air Mobility Command, and Air Force Materiel Command reflect the evolution in circumstances and objectives. Furthermore, the new configuration of operational commands and wings is better attuned to the concept of “indivisible airpower,” one of the main principles upon which the US Air Force was founded. World War II and every conflict since have demonstrated that airpower is most effective when employed as a unified instrument. The restructured force will be a closer match with that principle.

The changes need time to jell, and it will be surprising if at least a few adjustments to the plan do not develop, but the basic initiative and the spirit behind it look sound. It deserves a chance to work.

We endorse General Dougherty’s admonition that Air Force people concentrate on the heritage and mission they all share and that they avoid, as he puts it, “playing Auburn and Alabama” with each other.

The Air Force has earned considerable credit for adapting to new realities and national security requirements. In doing so, it may have chosen regeneration over atrophy. The force goes on from here.