Airpower’s Dirty Words

AFSOC Combat Controllers Clear a C-130 for Takeoff(USAF Photo, SSgt Jeremy Lock)

AFSOC Combat Controllers Clear a C-130 for Takeoff During Operation ENDURING FREEDOM
(USAF Photo, SSgt Jeremy Lock)

No, this isn’t a call for the resurrection of “cranium” and “container” (if they ever really went away). Nor is it a discourse of the pregame compliments shouted at opposing teams by fans of the Eagles or Raiders.  This is a Leading Edge series where we collectively examine those words we airpower advocates employ that may not mean what we intend.  The idea sprang from the recent Trilateral Strategic Steering Group Workshop where airpower advocates from France, the United Kingdom, and the United States all met to discuss common themes of airpower advocacy.  As the weeklong workshop progressed, a list emerged on one of the marker boards in the back of the room.  Words like “kinetic,” “full-spectrum,” and “Combat Air Forces” made their way on the list as their meanings to different audiences within and outside the room appeared incongruent.  By the end of the week, the list was – ahem – long and distinguished.  So, Leading Edge thought it appropriate to bring these words to this forum, where – we hope – better definitions may emerge from our collective effort.

It seems fitting to begin the series with the word “airpower.”  Ask yourself, what comes to mind when you think of the word airpower?  Do you see a fighter, perhaps an F-22, JSF, or – heaven forbid – an A-10?  Do you think of nuclear weapons, the B-52, or a Minuteman missile?   My guess is that you did – emphatically at the first question and perhaps with less enthusiasm at the second.

Let me ask again, what do you “see” when you think of the word airpower?  Do you see a Predator drone providing full-motion video?  A C-17 slowing to drop humanitarian aid in northern Iraq?  Do you see a GPS satellite?  Hmmm.  Maybe the definition of airpower is getting fuzzier?

For a third time, what do you “see” when you think of the word airpower?  Do you see the Air Tasking Order cycle at the Combined Air Operations Center?  An Airman disarming an improvised explosive device?  A cyber troop defending a network while seated in a cubicle?  My guess is you didn’t.  But, when asked to reflect on the images above, I imagine that those who have made the Air Force a career easily drew the parallels between them and the word “airpower.”

Now, one final time, what do you “see” when you think of the word airpower?  But – and here’s the kicker — this time imagine you’re an 18 year-old Private in the Army.  Imagine you work on Wall Street.  Imagine you were recently elected to the House of Representatives in a district with zero military presence.  Yeah…exactly.

I contend that lumping air, space, and cyber into the all-encompassing “airpower” is only effective when preaching to the converted.  We must be more explicit with our language if we ever hope to have a public, a government, and a joint force that truly understand what we bring to the fight.  We cannot afford to let the image of airpower stop at a fast jet or a Predator.  Until the word airpower brings to mind the full capabilities we exercise in the domains of air, space and cyber, it is insufficient as a descriptor.

We use “airpower” to mean air, space, and cyber as a way of being inclusive.  We intend this single word to be a battle cry that all men and women of the United States Air Force can rally around.  But is it?

On the other hand, if we mention each domain separately, are we making the case for separate forces?  Or, are we creating separate castes within our service?

I have offered far more questions than I have answers, and for that I plead forgiveness.  But, before you move on to the next article, I ask you to think just one more time.  What words would make clear the power our service brings to our nation’s defense – not just to you, but to the banker, the legislator, and the Army Private?   Post your thoughts in the comments below.  Only through rigorous and informed debate can we hope to truly articulate what we all know Air Forces bring to the fight.

Major Scott Byrum is currently en route to the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Maxwell AFB, AL.  He just completed a year as a Strategic Policy Fellow at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the CSAF’s Strategic Studies Group.  He is a C-17 pilot with more than 2000 hours, with over 600 hours in combat. 

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3 thoughts on “Airpower’s Dirty Words

  1. Interesting article, Scotty. An airpower babel-fish… sounds useful. Paradoxically, in an attempt to counter the assertion that Air Forces are anti-intellectual, most military institutions have developed complex, management-speak, and in doing so confuse audiences and bore their listeners. So I would advocate that we need to take a long hard look at ourselves first – before we even consider others… it starts with clear, concise language that is universally understandable. You have lived this complex challenge longer than others – how to effectively advocate for ‘airpower’ (whatever that is to each person) relies mainly on professional knowledge, passion, enthusiasm, patience and education. Every airman is capable of this – we just need to capture their enviable power. And therein lies the clue – a professional, capable, agile air force will by setting the example, advocate for itself. Do that at SAASS – and speak in succinct sentences.. good luck, friend.

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  2. Bravo Scotty B. Did you consider throwing in an honorable mention of the “strategic deterrence” piece that airpower provides along with the operational and tactical flexibility it provides to joint operations?

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  3. H/T Constant strategist for the bump. If airpower is going to be turned into a marketing catch-phrase that can be equally useful for any purpose (a tall order) it needs to present itself as *much* more non-specific than the platforms that Scott points out. Airpower is the Nation’s ability to act, on the basis of the latest intelligence, anywhere, anytime with precision. That is the compelling story. C-17s, ATOs, CAOCs (or MDOCs), Fighters – is all simply how it happens. The product is a sense of protection from harm, and empowerment to act to protect citizens, interests, and business abroad. BMW doesn’t sell you a car by showing you all their various divisions that contribute to the assembly line – they show you the road and offer to give you the ultimate driving experience. BMW tells you “why.” The Air Force needs to get past glorifying “how” and talk “why.”

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