The appointment of Gen. Norton A. Schwartz as the chief of staff of the Air Force last week is a historic first, one that could serve as inspiration for people who share his underprivileged background. General Schwartz is, you see, a cargo pilot.
He started his career flying a C-130, the main transport aircraft of the Air Force, and he took part in the airlift of American personnel out of Saigon in 1975. He comes to his new job from a stint as the commander of the Pentagon’s Transportation Command, and he has also been the deputy commander of the Special Operations Command. His résumé may not raise eyebrows outside the Air Force, but among blue suits it is unique for a chief of staff. Flying fighter jets has been the formative experience of every chief of staff for the past quarter-century.
When the Air Force was created as a separate service in 1947, it was dominated by bomber pilots in the mold of the legendary Curtis LeMay. The bomber barons ruled until Gen. Charles Gabriel, a fighter pilot who had shot down two MiG-15s in the Korean War, became chief of staff in 1982. Since then, the fighter mafia has been in control.
Senior officers tend to favor the platforms they operated as junior officers. Bomber pilots like building more bombers, and fighter pilots like building more fighter aircraft. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but a good case can be made that the reign of the fighter jocks has led the Air Force to spend too much money on fighters at a time when they are growing less important. The Department of Defense is buying two expensive fighters—the F-22 and the F-35—that were originally conceived for air-to-air combat even though the United States has not lost a single plane in traditional dogfighting since the Vietnam War.
Moreover, one of the key advantages that small fighters used to enjoy—their ability to swoop low for greater accuracy while dodging enemy fire—has been rendered much less important by the development of “smart” bombs that can be dropped with pinpoint accuracy from great heights. This means that we need fewer fighters and more lumbering “bomb trucks” that can circulate 20,000 feet above the battlefield, safely out of the range of all but the most sophisticated surface-to-air batteries.
Bombers aren’t the only aircraft that have sometimes seemed like the Air Force’s unwelcome stepchildren. Just as unloved has been the A-10 Warthog. This heavily armored plane is designed to fly slow and low, absorbing ground fire while shooting the enemy with its Gatling gun and other armaments. It has proven its worth in countless battles since 1991, yet the Air Force once tried to eliminate it and has no plans to create a successor.
The Air Force has also struggled to adapt to the growing importance of unmanned aerial vehicles. Part of the problem has been the reluctance of a service dominated by pilots to embrace a plane without a cockpit. The failure to move faster to deploy drones hastened the departure of General Schwartz’s predecessor, Gen. T. Michael Moseley—a fighter pilot, naturally.
The new chief comes from an occupation—transportation—that is as unglamorous as military jobs get. But its importance cannot be overstated. Some of the most valuable assets in the armed forces are cargo planes and aerial refueling aircraft. We have about 2,000 of them, far more than any other country, but most are getting old (the original model of the C-130 was introduced in 1956), and the Air Force has struggled to replace them.
Special Operations aviation is more glamorous, yet it has also not been one of the most esteemed specialties within the Air Force. Aside from the AC-130 gunship (a transport plane with cannons), most of the other Special Operations aircraft don’t blow up targets but spy on them and transport commandos to them. Most Special Operations flyers do not get the prestige of being “trigger pullers.”
With an officer whose background is in transportation and special operations chosen to head the entire Air Force, a cultural revolution is well under way. Fighter planes and their pilots will not loom as large in the future as they have in the recent past.
Some years down the road lies an even more radical transition. The day will surely come when the Air Force chief of staff won’t be a pilot at all. The service now operates in outer space and in cyberspace. Experts in those areas are rising through the ranks. But it will probably take many years, and another wrenching transition, before a non-pilot rises to the top.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.