Editorial: The Air Force Association is No More, but AFA Lives On

April 29, 2022

AFA became the Air & Space Forces Association April 7, a historic shift more than two years in the making. The change was authorized last September by delegates to AFA’s National Convention, approved March 5 by the Board of Directors, and finalized late that month by its Executive Committee. 

Our new formal name will not obliterate our three familiar initials, however. We are still AFA, known by our familiar initials—the same ones used to describe both the Association and its activities, in particular, the annual Air, Space & Cyber Conference held each September and the winter/spring Warfare Symposium. Despite their formal names, those events are “AFA” to the Airmen, Guardians, and civilians who attend them. You can’t buy that kind of brand recognition. If you have it, you don’t toss it away. 

Yet we are not the same AFA. We are something new, bigger, more ambitious. Membership is on the rise, attendance at events is booming, traffic to our websites is growing. Our message resonates: Of all the military forces available, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, and Marine Corps, only two are indispensable in every domain and any campaign: air and space. 

The forces have been neglected for much of the past three decades. Dominant and victorious in the first Gulf War and tide-turning in stopping Serbian aggression against Kosovo, air and space power somehow fell out of favor after 9/11, as counterinsurgency became, if you will pardon the pun, the COIN of the realm in the Pentagon. Over the past three decades, the Air Force became the billpayer for one after another critical need. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates cut short production of the F-22 fighter, ruling it too “exquisite” for a world of counterinsurgency operations. A new bomber was canceled. Nuclear modernization was delayed. And all the while, the Air Force wore down its combat air power flying close air support missions in support of the Army in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, the tide has turned. 

The birth of a new Space Force in 2019 spurred a reconsideration of what we as an Association stand for. 

As in the case of the Air Force, which was born out of the Army in 1947, 44 years after the first flight of the Wright Flyer in 1903, the Space Force trailed the developments and travails of American space exploration. In both cases, decades of technological, tactical, and strategic innovation built on those first improbable inventions. 

America’s first satellite, like the Wright Flyer, ignited a new era. Explorer 1, launched not long after Soviet Union’s Sputnik, awoke Americans to the threats and risks posed by a competitive rival power. It was the beginning of America’s drive to re-imagine communications, intelligence, and navigation by mastering the untapped potential of the void beyond our atmosphere. For seven decades space alternately fascinated and frustrated Americans; Apollo won the space race, but at the cost of lives and national treasure. Americans walked on the moon and brought back moon rocks, but no sooner had we reached the moon than America cast its eyes elsewhere. Skylab, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station each captured imaginations, but never so much as Apollo. 

Indeed, most Americans barely noticed when the Space Shuttle was shut down and abandoned. America outsourced launch services to industry, yes, but also to Russia. Observers, especially China, saw the United States in retreat, and hurried to catch up. 

The Air Force and America quietly went about their business. The Air Force gave us GPS and the magic of global navigation and precision timing. Private industry pioneered new launch methods, creating alternative launch partners. New satellite firms designed alternative satellite architectures, and commercial space-based sensing, communications, and more. 

Space was a peaceful place and America’s offerings were peaceful as well, useful in war, but not weaponized. China and Russia had other ideas. Recognizing America’s advantages in space, they saw both something to emulate and targets they might need to destroy. Anti-satellite weapons, both in space and on the ground, followed, as did signal jamming and cyber cracking attacks intended to mitigate against our space advantages. 

This is why we now have a Space Force. And why AFA is now the Air & Space Forces Association. AFA, of course, has always advocated for both air and space power. For many years this magazine was called Air Force Magazine and Space Digest; for a number of years, it published a separate Space Almanac. But today, with two distinct military forces in one Department of the Air Force, it is right and proper to acknowledge both entities in one name. We will do the same with this magazine very soon. In the words of Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, these two forces are one team, engaged in one fight. AFA is fully committed to both. 

The new logo that grace’s this month’s cover combines distinct and important elements of both. The star draws its inspiration from the Hap Arnold star of the old Army Air Forces; the Delta comes from the Space Force; the Polaris a reference to the guiding star and the guiding nature of Space Force’s most famous asset, GPS. These are joined together, intertwined as are air and space in any modern operation. 

When the Pentagon presented its budget to Congress last month, the numbers seemed staggering to many. The biggest defense budget ever. More money for research and development than ever before. A whopping 4 percent increase in the top line. Yet this budget comes at a time when inflation is running more than 8 percent, when Vladimir Putin’s Russia is demonstrating a level of brutality and cruelty that is out of place in the 21st century. This is what happens when deterrence fails—when capability is not matched with will. 

The Air Force and Space Force are putting their money where they must. Revamping our nuclear forces, building the future space architecture, and developing the next generation of combat aircraft are the right priorities. But the Air Force and the United States are also suffering from 28 years of being in last place when it comes to funding—relative to the Army and the Navy. As a result, they were forced to defer modernization. Aging aircraft are being retired today because they no longer contribute effectively to the mission; new aircraft are being added at a fraction of the rate necessary to sustain the current force, let alone to bring down the average age of the aircraft needed to meet the nation’s security needs. 

This is not sustainable. We cannot perpetually postpone the modernization of the force with new aircraft and the systems needed to fight effectively and deter rivals from putting Americans or our allies at risk. The Air Force and Space Force have each presented unfunded priority lists. While even these fall short of the real requirements, both should be funded in full. For too long the Department of the Air Force has been tasked with far more mission than it has been allocated resources to perform.

America’s defenses are built on air and space power. Failure to invest sufficiently in real combat power in air and space puts our entire nation at risk.