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.