For a century now the U.S. Air Force has advocated military victory achieved mainly with air power. This attitude took root after World War I (1914-19) when the army air corps (the predecessor of the independent air force) got rid of most of its numerous reconnaissance aircraft and concentrated on bombers and fighters. Then came the popular belief that larger bomber aircraft would dominate future wars. This never came to pass and every time there was a war the air force had to scramble to expand its meager peacetime reconnaissance force to meet the realities of war. This was not so bad during World War II because the air force was still part of the army. But after World War II the Army Air Force became the independent Air Force and sought to control everything that flew over land. That meant army attempts to retain small reconnaissance aircraft and cargo aircraft were constantly opposed by the air force. The army valued prolific and prompt aerial reconnaissance more than the air force and this led to a dispute that was not settled until quite recently.
Back in the 1950s, after a decade of bickering, the Department of Defense ordered the army to stick with helicopters while the air force got nearly all the fixed-wing aircraft. The army was allowed to keep some single-engine artillery spotter aircraft and some twin-engine transports and intelligence collecting aircraft. That was it. But four decades later, in the 1990s, UAVs became a practical and reliable aircraft for military use and the army, and the CIA, quickly got a lot of them. UAVs have no aircrew in them and the army does not consider them part of the half-century old compromise with the air force. At first, the air force paid little attention to the growing capabilities of UAVs. That was because the air force was run by pilots who took itn for granted that nothing in the air was really useful unless it had a pilot flying it. The army and the CIA soon delivered an unexpected reality check to the air force. At that point, the CIA was already arming their large Predator UAVs with Hellfire missiles and the army eventually did the same.
So the army is again flying armed aircraft in the form of armed UAVs, in addition to the armed helicopters it has always had. The army argument is that these larger UAVs work better for them if they are under the direct control of army combat brigades. The air force sees that as inefficient, and prefers to have one large pool of larger UAVs which are deployed as needed. This difference of opinion reflects basic differences in how the army and air force deploy and use their combat forces. The army has found that a critical factor in battlefield success is teamwork among members of a unit, and subordinate units in a brigade. While the air force accepts this as a critical performance issue for their aircraft squadrons, they deem it irrelevant for army use of UAVs. Seeing army MQ-1C Grey Eagle UAVs doing visual and electronic reconnaissance and firing missiles at ground targets, the air force sees itself losing control of missions it has dominated since its founding in 1948.
One thing the army acquisition of thousands of reconnaissance UAVs does not change is the air force loss of interest in aerial reconnaissance and surveillance after each war. Air force reluctance to develop, build and maintain a large strategic reconnaissance force led the CIA to using its considerable clout and budget developing strategic reconnaissance aircraft like the U-2 and SR-71 manned aircraft and surveillance satellites. The CIA also pioneered the use of larger UAVs (Predator) and armed them. This helped the army win permission from the Department of Defense to expand its force of armed aircraft beyond helicopter gunships.
The army managed to keep its UAVs and that proved extremely important because, with the war on terror winding down, the air force is spending a lot less on aerial reconnaissance. The air force is buying fewer RQ-4 Global Hawk, and RQ-170 Sentinel strategic recon UAVs. It is not (so far) replacing its 17 elderly E-8 JSTARS battlefield surveillance aircraft, which proved so valuable after their first combat use in 1991. JSTARS used an AESA ground radar that could track friendly and enemy forces from the air. While this is great for the army, it is not seen as a high priority item for the air force. These aircraft are now so old that they have to be retired beginning in 2019 because the air force won’t pay for a major refurbishment or a replacement. The army is trying to replace the JSTARS capability but cannot, because of the 1950s agreement, operate large aircraft like the four-engine JSTARS. But during major conflicts the air force allows the army to operate a lot of smaller, two-engine versions of these specialized electronic warfare or surveillance aircraft. The army has learned that lesson and is now retaining more of those two-engine aircraft and equipping some of their larger UAVs to do this work.
In spite of these air force attitudes, the air force does have some solid accomplishments to its credit. In some areas, it has been extremely successful. This includes gaining (since 1945) and maintaining (ever since) air supremacy wherever it operates. Maintaining that capability is not easily accomplished or cheap and the air force gives air supremacy its highest priority, except in wartime when it has a lot more money and is redirected to accommodate army needs.
These air force attitudes have hurt the army in other ways. When it comes to influencing the war on the ground the air force is much less dominant. This is despite air force efforts to maintain its ability to bomb targets in direct support of ground operations. The air force blind spot when it comes to air reconnaissance has hurt its overall effectiveness. Blame this on a bad attitude towards BDA (Bomb Damage Assessment). This is the business of figuring out what to bomb, and what the impact on the enemy is after you bomb. The problem, of the air force leaders being deceived (by the people on the ground being bombed) began during World War II. This was when air forces used large scale aerial bombing for the first time. Right after that conflict, the U.S. did a thorough survey of the impact of strategic bombing on Germany and Japan. It was discovered that the impact was far different from what air force BDA during the war had indicated. The air force vowed to do better next time. But as experience in Korea (1950-3), Vietnam (1965-72), Kuwait (1991) and Kosovo (1999), Iraq (2003) and throughout the war on terror demonstrated, the enemy on the ground continued to have an edge when it came to deceiving the most energetic BDA efforts. The only proven technique for beating the BDA problem was to have people on the ground, up close, checking up on targets, while the fighting was going on. Those with powerful air forces do not want to do this because of the risk of some of their commandos getting killed or captured, and because the intel and air force people were sure that they knew what enemy as up to down there.
The people on the ground have consistently demonstrated an ability to deceive aerial surveillance. Even during the early 21st century, when the U.S. developed persistent UAV surveillance the irregular forces they were facing proved capable of reducing the effectiveness of the UAV effort. This spotlights another useful fact; airpower can be useful on the ground but that happens over time and not quickly. The problem here is with voters and the media. Both demand quick victory and in the U.S. that has developed into the “three year rule” in that public support for a way no matter how enthusiastic it was at first, is largely gone after three years. If an air campaign can’t get it done in three years that effort comes under media and political attack no matter how effective it has been.
But there's another problem. The army and air force have a different outlook on planning and risk. The air force sees warfare as a much tidier, and predictable, affair than the army experiences regularly. In this respect, the air force and navy are closely aligned. Both are technical services, who are used to exercising more control over their forces than do army generals. The army sees warfare as more unpredictable and has adapted to that unpredictability. The army generals are usually skeptical of air force ability to take down foes from the air and the army guys are usually right.
Despite being a successful high-tech outfits, American air forces (especially the Navy and USAF) frequently have trouble adjusting to changes they do not agree with. Thus when the Cold War ended in 1991 the air force was still largely thinking about continuing to operate as they had done in the Cold War. But the technology and tactics of warfare were changing. The post-Cold War enemy was no longer large organized forces spread over huge areas. The foe was increasingly irregulars who were harder to spot from the air. The air force reluctantly adapted, in part because the army and CIA adopted new reconnaissance and surveillance techniques like UAVs and constant surveillance. This pattern is returning as the air force reorganizes after the decade of heavy combat and big budgets the war on terror produced. Now the air force is turning its attention to a “near-peer” opponent in the form of a rapidly expanding and modernizing Chinese military.
As successful as these new air reconnaissance tools were they did not seem like a suitable long-term job for the air force. The other services disagreed and it took the better part of a decade after 2001 to get the air force to come around. In 2005 the air force deployed its first Predator UAV unit and in 2009 it put its first Reapers to work. They were following the CIA in this area, which caused some misgivings among senior air force leadership. But the army and Congress were calling for more of what the CIA was doing (armed UAVs for surveillance and attack) and the air force joined in.
What the CIA has pioneered was “persistent surveillance” with armed UAVs. The 24/7 observation by the UAVs enabled CIA or air force intel analysts to compile information about the target and order one or more missiles fired as soon as the key target was identified and located. This led to an ever-growing list of terrorist leaders and their key subordinates killed in this way. At the same time, this use of surveillance and precision weapons led to lower collateral (nearby civilian) casualties, which plummeted to historical, and remarkable, lows.
Air force traditionalists warned that in a conventional war this sort of thing would not work. Where the enemy had modern air defense systems and jet fighters the Predator and Reaper UAVs would be impractical because they would be quickly shot down. But that is not the type of war being waged now and it is pointed out to the air force that the military has to deal with what they are faced with, not just with what they prefer. Moreover, even in a “conventional” war there is still work for these new tactics and the tech that makes it possible. The air force still disagreed but did not have a persuasive alternative. The air force still wanted more money for the stealthy F-35 and a new stealth bomber. This despite the fact that other nations were developing more and more sensors that could nullify stealth.
The air force has been in this position before. This was seen during the 1960s when the air force and navy aviation suffered unexpectedly high aircraft losses over Vietnam because their aircraft and pilots were not prepared for the lower-tech Russian aircraft used against them by the Vietnamese. This led aircraft to be again equipped with cannon because the new air-to-air missiles were not yet reliable enough to replace the “old fashioned” cannon.
Then came the concept of using your own aircraft for "aggressor (or dissimilar) training." This began in 1969 when the U.S. Navy established the original "Top Gun" fighter pilot school. This was done in response to the poor performance of its pilots against North Vietnamese pilots flying Russian fighters. What made the Top Gun operation different was that the training emphasized how the enemy aircraft and pilots operated. This was called "dissimilar training". In the past, American pilots practiced against American pilots, with everyone flying American aircraft and using American tactics. It worked in World War II because the enemy pilots were not getting a lot of practice and were using similar aircraft and tactics anyway. Most importantly, there was a lot of aerial combat going on, providing ample opportunity for on-the-job training. Not so in Vietnam, where the quite different Russian trained North Vietnamese were giving U.S. aviators an awful time. The four week Top Gun program solved the problem. The air force followed shortly with its Red Flag school. In the early 1980s, the Russians established a dissimilar air combat school, and the Chinese followed in 1987.
So after a century of trying, the ground forces (and non-aviation naval forces) still cannot get the people up there to come down and get a much needed reality check on what is happening down below where battles and wars are still decided.