October 4, 2010:
Responding to complaints from their troops, the U.S. Air Force has established noticeably higher living standards for their airmen in Afghanistan. But this has created problems with the army, and has become a morale issue among soldiers who encounter the more lavish air force compounds, which are off-limits to non-air force personnel. This is just another reminder that the air force and army are quite different. That said, the divergence in living standards evolved in Afghanistan, it didn't happen overnight.
It all began eight years ago, when many of the air force personnel stationed at Bagram air base (north of Kabul) complained about the poor living conditions. To make their case, some of them put together and distributed a collection of photos as evidence. The complaints include too much dust (which Afghanistan has in abundance.) The dust covers everything, and has rendered some of the equipment at the base gym inoperable. Complaints also included laundry that came back still a bit damp and a dreary volleyball court. There were many other complaints, including long lines to get a meal and having to sleep in tents (that were not air conditioned). When all this hit the Pentagon, air force officers cringed. Even before the Army Air Force went off to form the independent Air Force in 1947, the "zoomies" (as air force personnel were eventually nicknamed) were known for their higher standard of living.
No one begrudged the air force the clean sheets and hot food during World War II, for the casualties in the air were horrendous (worse than in the infantry) and the ground crews often manned forward airbases that were within range of enemy fire. The air force enlisted personnel were known as a bright and resourceful bunch, who could improvise better living conditions, and this was no accident. During World War II, the Army Air Force got priority when it came to the best (in terms of book smarts and skills) draftees. After the war, the air force used "better living conditions" as a way to induce bright young lads to volunteer for the air force (rather than be drafted.) So while the draft lasted until 1975, the air force rarely had to take draftees, or recruits who did not meet their high standards.
Of all the services, the air force had the highest proportion of troops involved in highly technical and administrative jobs. But most of these occupations were just that, jobs. The navy went to sea, the army and the marines went out to "the field", but the air force generally stayed at their ever more comfortable bases. Even in the 1960s, navy and army officers joked about what an air force officer considered a "hardship post" (a base with only one golf course.) Air force ground personnel got shot at again in Vietnam, although most air force bases were located in safer places. Moreover, the senior air force NCOs in Vietnam had World War II experience, so the younger airmen had no one to complain to except each other.
After Vietnam, the draft disappeared and the air force had to hustle to keep its ranks full of quality personnel. Excellent living conditions were still seen as a good recruiting tactic, and living quarters for unmarried personnel began to resemble the suburban apartment complexes these young men and women would be living in if they were still civilians. The troops worked hard, lived well and everyone was happy.
Then the Cold War ended in 1991 and the air force, like the other services, had to sort out what kinds of wars they would encounter in the future. By the late 1990s the air force decided that the wars of the future required "Air Expeditionary Wings" (AEW). These units would contain about a hundred combat and support aircraft, and several thousand air force personnel. They would be trained and equipped to fly off, on short notice, to some overseas hot spot. In most cases, the AEW would operate from an existing air base, but, if need be, the AEW could operate in a more primitive environment. Like the bombed out Bagram air base in Afghanistan.
Pilots and air force security personnel are trained to operate under rough conditions. The pilots undergo training on how to evade capture if they must bail out over enemy territory. Security personnel train as light infantry, and air force commandos spend a lot of time in the bush. But most air force personnel expect middle class civilian amenities after they've put in a day's work. And during times of intense operations, the troops will work 12 or 16 hour shifts to keep the aircraft flying. But the fact of the matter is that the air force has long since ceased to be a "field force." The army and marines still practice rough living as part of their training, and sailors expect cramped quarters aboard ship. But for many in the air force, the tents, damp laundry and dust of Bagram were a bit much.
Air force commanders responded, as good commanders do, and now there are far fewer complaints from airmen stationed in Afghanistan. However, this did create problems when the air force restricted non-air force personnel from entering air force bases, or air force compounds on bases shared with the army. That's because the air force could not ship in enough additional goodies to accommodate all who might want to visit the tonier air force facilities. Even many air force personnel are not comfortable with the segregation policy, and they get a lot of ragging from soldiers, sailors and marines about it. Thousands of sailors (and some air force personnel) serve with army units, to help out with support tasks. The airmen among these "Individual Augmentees" can get into the air force compounds, but not the sailors. There is no real solution to this problem, because many of the army troops are out in the countryside much of the time, where there are few amenities of any sort. The troops out in the field are moving and fighting. The army has been improving the accommodations at the larger bases, and permanent bases in general. This causes some friction between combat and support troops, but not as much as you might think. That's because the combat troops have access to all army facilities, and the support troops show respect for the troops who go out and fight. The air force, as usual, is another story.