In its recently-released thirty-year strategy document, the Air Force lays out a clear vision for its future. Unlike many government strategy documents, America’s Air Force: A Call to the Future actually outlines priorities and choices and is aligned with the Air Force’s budget.
The problem is that the Air Force seems to be going in the opposite direction of its Commander-in-Chief.
President Obama has signaled a muscular response to the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), vowing to “destroy” ISIS and undertaking steps to build a coalition to do so. Airpower has already proven vital in halting ISIS’s advance in northern Iraq and assisting Iraqi forces in retaking key areas. A model of local forces on the ground buttressed by American airpower seems to be emerging, and if done correctly, can prove decisive in defeating ISIS. But the airpower needed is not the kind the Air Force is envisioning for its future.
Countering terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS requires more than simply dropping bombs. The key enabler is intelligence, much of which comes from unmanned aircraft, or “drones.” Contrary to the popular attention paid to “drone strikes,” the most valuable service that drones provide isn’t the ability to drop bombs—many manned aircraft can do that—but rather the ability to loiter overhead for 16-20 hours at a time, watching terrorists and gathering information. Several drones working together can provide 24/7 coverage, an unblinking eye watching a terrorist’s every move, and most importantly, every person he meets with, allowing intelligence analysts to unravel a network and find key leaders.