A few people have forwarded me this WaPo article about how the USAF is dealing with the increasing importance of drones. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t really live up to its opening quote; it deals at length with dynamics internal to the Air Force, but doesn’t really give a sense of why Schwartz thinks he has to worry about the future of the institution. The issue of the impact of drones upon USAF culture is different than the issue of the independence of the organization, and I think that the Air Force understands that it is facing troubling questions on both fronts. The two issues are related to one another, but Jaffe doesn’t give a very good account of why; I think that he found a fantastic opening quote, but didn’t realize that he was dealing with two distinct debates.
It’s true enough that a major component of the Air Force’s identity is wrapped around a WWI-era vision of knightly fighter pilots and a WWII vision of hardy bomber pilots. However, I think that the importance of these to the survival of the USAF can be overstated. The USAF was reasonably quick to embrace control of the missile forces of the United States, and indeed to make them a key part of the institution. Similarly, many defenders of the USAF point to its role in managing warfare in space, which again represents a departure from the classic fighter and bomber cultures. Drones are probably less of a challenge to the medium or mission oriented conceptions of the Air Force than either space or ballistic missiles; this is to say that if you believe you need an independent service for fighters and bombers, you might as well have an independent service for drones.
Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that drones represent a departure from some of the most important elements of the Air Force’s identity. I suspect that the problem will become more difficult as we begin to get real air superiority drones, and the manned fighter becomes a thing of the past. The question that the Jaffe article hints at but doesn’t really come out and ask is this: Is the operation of a Predator really “military” in the same sense as the operation of an F-16? My qualified answer is yes; if we take Huntington definition of military officer as a professional manager of violence, then killing someone with a drone is not particularly different than killing them with an air-to-air missile or a laser-guided bomb. The drone operator is safer than the fighter pilot, but safety has rarely been the key variable in determining whether a particular task is “military” or not. Even during war, many tasks are undertaken by military personnel that pose no particular danger to their persons. Moreover, there’s a fair amount of evidence to suggest that the key element to military training is creating a willingness and capacity to kill, rather than a willingness to die. Drone operators kill; if we assume the need for standing military forces with men and women trained to kill, then drone operations are a part of this project.
And yet, we underestimate identity questions at our peril. Jason approaches the question in a slightly different way, focusing on how drone operations meet certain established and informal criteria for “valor.” He suggests that, the shared profession of violence management aside, there are some difficulties in comparing the activities of a Marine captain defending a base in Afghanistan and an Air Force captain defending the same base from Nevada. I suspect that part of the answer may be to come up with an alternative way of thinking about military merit, one that focuses on capability and contribution alongside the traditional ways we have to think about bravery and valor.
Interestingly enough, the drone question didn’t really come up during my talk at the Air Command and Staff College. See also Attackerman.