The Air Force’s Future May Be in Drones, But Its Generals Won’t Be

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Air Force photo / TSgt Chad Chisholm

A staff sergeant guides an MQ-9 Reaper after it returns from a mission at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.

Ever since Predator drones appeared on the horizon in a big way shortly after 9/11, the Air Force has dismissed any suggestion that its core constituency of fighter pilots feels threatened by the unmanned aircraft.

That may, in fact, be true. But it’s hard to believe after reading this article in the latest Air & Space Power Journal, an official Air Force publication. The service’s focus on manned aircraft – and the way it has set up the rules for promoting drone operators – suggest that the Air Force actually has a shrinking interest in unmanned aircraft, according to author Lawrence Spinetta.

Lest you think Spinetta is some kind of aerial infidel, it’s worth noting that he

— is a graduate of the Air Force Academy.

— is now a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force.

— has a master’s in public policy from Harvard University.

— is an F-15 pilot, with 65 combat missions over Iraq and the Balkans.

— has a doctorate from the Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.

— has commanded remotely-piloted vehicles (aka drones).

— is now working on the Joint Staff at the Pentagon.

— is a certified public accountant.

Spinetta reviews a recent Air Force planning document and finds it wanting because its emphasis on buying the F-35 manned aircraft at high rates and for declaring the need for a so-called “sixth-generation” fighter a “must” following the planned buy of nearly 2,500 F-35s for $400 billion for the Air Force, Navy and Marines. “Tellingly,” he adds, “the plan makes no mention of RPAs [remotely-piloted aircraft] despite the promising record they have amassed over the last decade.”

He offers insight into the Air Force’s current thinking:

A study conducted in 2001 noted that fighter pilots held 67 percent of the four-star general officer positions and commanded 63 percent of all major commands, yet they comprise only 5.3 percent of the force…Since 2001 fighter pilots have largely consolidated their institutional hold on power…Fighter pilots disproportionately influence the vision, doctrine, budgeting, program priorities, and direction of the Air Force.

The Air Force, he is basically saying, is in danger of ignoring history by turning a blind eye toward the promise of unmanned aircraft by blocking the promotion of drone operators to senior command positions:

The establishment of new promotion paths to senior ranks constitutes an important, if not indispensable, prerequisite for shepherding innovative technology and new ways of fighting. Accordingly, the Air Force should break the RPA glass ceiling by (1) creating an RPA category for Command Screening Boards, (2) eliminating the recent manned-flight requirement for command selection, and (3) rebalancing the distribution of wing-command opportunities to break the power of vested interests.

National security demands that we break this glass ceiling…If the Air Force fails to lead the future of remotely piloted airpower, then the other services and/or our adversaries will assume that responsibility.

Nice touch, suggesting that “our adversaries” and “the other services” don’t overlap. That’s what a joint assignment will do to you.


The "only 5.3 percent of the Air Force" statistic is somewhat misleading. Outside of certain specialized positions, to be a 2 star general (opening up the door to higher rank) you have to be eligible to command a numbered Air Force (NAF) or hold an equivalent position of responsibility, which means you generally have to have commanded a flying Wing as a Colonel or 1 star general... Which in turn means you have to have been a rated officer (Pilot, CSO, ABM or RPA operator). The only exception to this rule was an Intelligence officer who had been an RC-135 crewmember that commanded the 55th Wing at Offutt AFB, NE. There are other paths to multiple stars in the Air Force (e.g. logistics/acquisitions/etc.) but they are less numerous... So 1/20th of the Air Force having 2/3rds of the commands is far less skewed than it looks at first glance. Further, fighter dudes have to fill a disproportionate number of staff jobs, which allows a disproportionate number of those guys to get their "Joint" ticket punched--another prereq to higher rank.

I don't want to risk overgeneralizing, but fighter guys get a disproportionate number of those Staff taskings because they get more experience earlier on (or at least did, prior to sequestration) with integrating with other Air Force assets as part of strike and counterair packages within larger operations (and exposure to the planning for that kind of stuff at Red Flag or the Weapons School) than do, say, C-130 crews. I'm a bomber guy who used to be an AWACS guy... I rib fighter dudes about only being there to support the bombers... But the reality is, things are the way they are in terms of these numbers for a reason. Right now the USAF RPAs that are employing kinetically are largely supporting Army dudes at the tactical level of war. I haven't yet seen a major exercise where they've employed at the operational level as a key element of a large force engagement... Until that happens more, you aren't going to see a lot of RPA generals.


The USAF really needs the LRS-B weapons system.  Short-ranged / smallish payload tactical fighters (like F-35 et al,) will be inefficient in the Pacific pivot - not to mention their vulnerable fixed bases in the region.  The air force can afford them if they procure fewer F-35s, and refrain from tarting up the LSR-B with Cadillac systems when a Ford could provide the basic transportation.


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