Intelligence: USAF Changes Direction

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January26, 2007: The U.S. Air Force is trying to change a culture that, currently, gives pride of place to intrepid fighter pilots. But over the last three decades, better electronics have changed everything, and the air force wants to change to keep up. To that end, the air force is going to emphasize intelligence more, to the extent that hotshot intel officers will be groomed for the highest jobs.

That's the second major shift in leadership direction since World War II. After 1945, the bomber pilots took over the air force. This was because the "bomber union" performed spectacularly (if not particularly effectively) during World War II. At the end of World War II, if was air force bomber pilots that commanded aircraft carrying nuclear weapons. Then came Vietnam, when it was fighter-bomber pilots who got most of the combat time, and recognition. Shortly thereafter, the air force found itself dominated by two generations of fighter pilots. But now the smart bomb has changed the landscape once more. This began during the 1991 Gulf War, when a small percentage of smart bombs inflicted a majority of the actual damage on the enemy. By 2001, the much more effective GPS smart bomb was available, and it was obvious that American jet fighters were so lethal that most potential opponents feared even coming up to face them. Electronics have made U.S. fighter aircraft even more lethal than before. American pilot training is still way ahead of everyone else. Thus the combination of superior missiles, AWACS, pilot training, and a lot of other new technologies you rarely hear about (mission planners, improved maintenance systems, and so on) makes U.S. fighters the most deadly on the planet. Not unbeatable, but not the kind of people you'd really want to have hostile encounters with.

To be blunt, the air force is not as sexy as it used to be. While the smart bombs are exceptionally effective, all the air force is required to do is circle the battlefield, until the ground troops send them the GPS coordinates. The bomber crew programs the bomb with the coordinates, drops the bomb, and awaits the next request. But the air force also noted than another of its innovations, the targeting pod, was providing fighter pilots with new, and rather exciting work. The latest pods enabled a fighter pilot, 20,000 feet up, and fifty kilometers away, to make out enemy troops on the ground, and what kind of weapons they were carrying. Pilots could now find their own targets, without flying on the deck (and scaring the targets away, plus exposing the aircraft to all manner of hostile fire). The ground troops appreciate what the pod-assisted pilots can do, and the pilots look forward to their new role as well.

Then there are the UAVs. The Predator and Global Hawk are very successful, and the air force can't build them fast enough (even if the new F-22 and F-35 are getting most of the procurement money). The UAVs are mostly about reconnaissance. However, everyone has them. The army has thousands of tiny (under ten pound) ones that give company and platoon commanders their own private air force. This changes the army's long-standing reliance on the air force for air reconnaissance. Although army helicopters have poached some of this work from the air force over the last four decades, the UAVs are shutting the air force out. The air force wants back in.

So the air force wants to go with an area where they believe they can excel, and one in which they have not been exceptionally good at in the past. Their intelligence work will not just be lots more snooping around by air force UAVs and warplanes, but more work by air force analysts to be the first to sort it all out. In this area, the air force has to climb out of a hole. For the last sixty years, the air force has screwed it up in the BDA (Bomb Damage Assessment) department constantly. There have been some embarrassing flubs in the "targeting" (finding things to bomb) department. But any air force improvements in this area would be appreciated by the ground troops.

To demonstrate how serious they are, the air force is renaming one of their largest bureaucracies. The AIA (Air Intelligence Agency) will become the AFISR (Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) Command. Now sit back and hope for the best.

 


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