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In the waning days of the Bush administration, American and allied aircraft were once again sent into action against the forces of Saddam Hussein. And once again, the air strikes achieved tactical success. But despite the fact that a major portion of the American strike involved Air Force aircraft, the impression given to the American viewing audiences was that it was an all-Navy operation: Tomahawk cruise missiles devastating an Iraqi "laboratory," F-14s thundering off the USS Kitty Hawk in spectacular night launches, and formations of F/A-18s over the Persian Gulf.
There are certainly geopolitical reasons for this apparent bias. Arab nations generally--and the Saudis particularly--are uncomfortable with merely letting their bases be used by the US and its allies. Clearly, the prospect of live Cable News Network (CNN) coverage showing F-16s and F-117s streaking from Saudi bases to blast a brother Arab nation is unlikely to be an image that the Saudi monarchy would relish.1
But regardless of the reason, this most recent military excursion--in which the Air Force would appear to have done much of the work while getting very little of the credit--highlights a trend that has been developing for at least the past decade: When it comes to getting its story across to the public, the Air Force just isn't doing a very effective job.
Why does that matter? Why is it really important which service gets the credit as long as the mission is accomplished? The answer is simple: The coming post-cold-war years will certainly see the same kind of defense cuts that have followed every conflict in our nation's history. And just as when the Navy fought against the B-36 and the Strategic Air Command in the 1948 "Revolt of the Admirals," one can reasonably expect to see all the services fight--and fight hard--for the resources needed to carry out their mission, now and in the future.
Whether or not a service actually receives those resources will depend in large measure on the extent to which it earns public support. And rightly or wrongly, that public support hinges on the degree to which a service captures the public's imagination, and that happens through two primary avenues: popular culture and media exposure.
Over the past decade, the Navy has virtually cornered the popular culture market. Tom Cruise turned on a whole young generation with Top Gun and repeated his success with the Oscar-nominated film A Few Good Men. Martial arts star Steven Seagal costars with the USS Missouri in Under Siege, while Danny Glover and Willem Dafoe took Stephen Coonts's Flight of the Intruder to the big screen. No less a cultural icon than Cher bared both her bottom and her butterfly tattoos for Music Television (MTV) video featuring, once again, that photogenic battleship Missouri and her crew.
It doesn't matter that these might not all be film classics or even--in the case of the MTV video--that they might even be in poor taste. What matters is that in today's fast-food, fast-service, fast-news world, image is everything. And in the battle for the public imagination, today's Air Force is losing--badly.
But it wasn't always that way. There was a time not so long ago when the Air Force actually dominated public attention. And the man who led the Air Force through this period of image building was not a Hollywood writer or a public affairs chief. Instead, his area of expertise was combat effectiveness, and his name was Curtis Emerson LeMay.
In October 1948, General LeMay took over the postwar Strategic Air Command (SAC), an organization then in tremendous disarray.2 His first priority was to improve SAC's performance, reasoning that performance was a necessary condition of both mission effectiveness and public support. But as soon as he had elevated SAC's operational capability, he then turned to the next phase: showcasing that ability through a series of highly visible exhibitions. He had two audiences in mind. The first was a potential aggressor who could more readily be deterred once he saw SAC's enormous strength. And the second was the American public, which LeMay knew needed to see the strength that their tax dollars were buying.3
The demonstrations began in late 1948 with nonstop B-36 and B-50 flights from Texas to Hawaii and return. The next year, Lucky Lady II, a B-50 based at Carswell Air Force Base (AFB), Texas, became the first aircraft to fly around the world nonstop. The flight of the Lucky Lady II won great recognition for SAC, including its first Mackay Trophy.4
More missions followed, demonstrating SAC's ability to the world. When the Soviets detonated a hydrogen bomb in 1953, LeMay sent B-36s on a trans-Pacific flight of 10,000 miles, more than 28 hours nonstop. If friends here and enemies abroad weren't impressed by range, LeMay had speed to offer as well, including trans-Atlantic B-47 flights in under five hours.5
But all these missions paled in comparison to LeMay's most important exhibition in 1957. And the stakes were never higher. The survival of the B-52, and perhaps of SAC itself, was riding on the success of one mission. It was called "Power Flite."
Like Boeing bombers before it--most notably the B-17 and the B-29--the B-52 suffered from more than its share of growing pains. A number of crashes in 1956, including some spectacular midair explosions over California, had begun to erode public confidence in the B-52, threatening the program's very survival.
The trouble began on 16 February 1956, when a B-52 exploded in midair near Tracy, California, while on a flight from nearby Castle AFB. The crash made national headlines, in part because of the B-52's then unprecedented cost of $8 million.6 More negative headlines followed when General LeMay testified before Congress that a "serious component failure" had caused the Air Force to reject 31 of the first 78 B-52s produced. The component in question--an alternator flywheel--had been implicated in the February crash.7
Several months later, however, an in-flight explosion claimed a second Castle B-52 and the lives of five crew members.8 Once again, the electrical system of the Stratofortress was implicated.9 This time, however, the controversy about the B-52 had built to the point where the entire fleet was grounded, with an Air Force spokesman admitting that he had "no idea" as to how long the grounding would remain in effect.10
About this time, a free-lance reporter named P. D. Eldred began to interview air crews, maintenance people, and families at Castle, gathering enough information for an article highly critical of the B-52. General LeMay learned of Eldred's upcoming article and began planning a counteroffensive--a demonstration that would show the American people that SAC's newest bomber was a safe and effective weapon system.11
The result of this was called "Operation Quick Kick," an endurance flight involving eight B-52s that--supported by a fleet of tankers--flew nonstop around the perimeter of North America. The demonstration received wide publicity, and for a very short time neutralized the efforts of Mr Eldred.12
But just five days after the completion of Quick Kick, yet another B-52 crashed, again in spectacular fashion, killing all 10 crew members. Located with photoflash bombs to enable nighttime photography, the bomber burned and exploded for hours, generating still more negative press and breathing new life into P. D. Eldred's article. This time, the Associated Press bought his B-52 expos_, intending to run it worldwide. Further, Congressman B. F. Sisk, (D.-Calif.) called for a congressional investigation to determine whether the B-52 was a "safe aircraft for our airmen to fly." Clearly, LeMay saw that another demonstration was in order, and Operation Power Flite was born.13
On 16 January 1957, five B-52s thundered down Castle's runway. Their mission was simple: show the world that the B-52 had the capability of becoming the first jet aircraft to circle the world nonstop. Always attuned to the need for a margin of safety, plans called for only three to make the entire trip, with the remaining two to be backups in case trouble developed.
And of course it did. One of the three primary aircraft--La Vittoria (named after Ferdinand Magellan's ship, the first to circumnavigate the globe)--found itself in trouble over Newfoundland, its refueling receptacle jammed with ice. It had to return to Goose Bay, Labrador, and the second spare was diverted to England shortly thereafter. But even the diversion proved to be a public relations coup, when the Stratofortress--the first ever to visit Britain--was mobbed by both press and public.
Supported by nearly 100 KC-97 tankers flying from Canada, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and Guam, the three B-52s--led by Lucky Lady III--finished their mission at March AFB, California, on the morning of 18 January. Their flight time--45 hours, 19 minutes--was less than half that required by the B-50 Lucky Lady II just eight years before.
So, did it work? Did this bold and aggressive effort to shape public perception pay off? Of course it did, and to a degree that's hard to even believe 36 years later. The crew of the Lucky Lady III was rushed to Washington, where they rode a float in President Dwight D. Eisenhower's inaugural parade just two days after the mission. They then went on several national TV shows, explaining the significance of their flight and publicizing the B-52's capability. Another of the crews--whose aircraft had been christened Lonesome George by comedian George Gobel--appeared on his prime-time television show to again tell the story that LeMay wanted told. And P. D. Eldred's article went unnoticed in all the excitement.14
The press and the public mood are different now, and sometimes it seems that only bad-news stories or "man bites dog" stories ever capture the national interest. In a world filled with "60 Minutes," "Hard Copy," and "Inside Edition," it is inarguably true that success stories are increasingly difficult to get across.
We have to acknowledge our own responsibility here. The Air Force as an institution is losing its imagination, and as a result is losing the public's imagination as well. Two recent examples illustrate the point.
While the new C-17 airlifter and its acquisition managers are publicly flogged by congressmen and the media, the Air Force meekly uses it to set cargo-hauling records "in the category of aircraft with gross weight between 250,000 and 300,000 kilograms."15 If that doesn't exactly grab your attention, you're not alone; in a land where the metric system is still a mystery to most, the impact of such a feat is likely to be lost. Such weight-lifting ability is no doubt a significant measure of merit for an airlifter, but it's hardly destined to make the front page of the Washington Post.
This of course is not the only example, or even an unusual one. If you missed the recent around-the-world flight of a pair of B-1Bs,16 again don't feel alone. The feat--however significant--was an unlikely prospect for a public relations success. The trip involved a layover at Diego Garcia, crew changes, and an elapsed time of more than two days. Despite the fact that no B-1 had completed this kind of flight before, the fact remains that it was a less dramatic achievement--and therefore less newsworthy--than Power Flite some 36 years before.
One final illustration will show how far we've regressed since the days of General LeMay.
In the summer of 1990, an Air Force program--a "low observable," or stealth platform--was in trouble, buffeted by media charges that the basic concept wasn't working and that the air vehicle would be readily identifiable to radar. At stake was nothing less than the survival of the program.
A number of alternatives were raised, including one that, in keeping with the ideas of General LeMay, was especially bold: take the platform out over the ocean and then--with selected press witnessing the event--"target" an American city, penetrate air defense identification zones, evade the dozens of radars involved, and "attack" a vital target. The plan was risky--detection would mean the end of the program--and fraught with logistics difficulties. But it might also be sufficiently dramatic to arouse public interest.
Caution won out. The bold plan never got very far. It was replaced by one in which the vehicle was moved to Washington for an "open house." But even that turned out to be watered down. For reasons of security, the "open house" was held on an Air Force base. Only selected VIPs got very close at all, with base residents being permitted to look from a distance. And the public--the people who pay the bills and whose support is so crucial--was excluded altogether.
We've come a long way since the days of Curtis LeMay in terms of both people and technology. Our Air Force people and the systems they operate have never been more capable. But our ability to get that message across to the public appears to be declining at the worst possible time. With defense budgets approaching free-fall in the coming years, boldness and imagination will be key to preserving some part of our Air Force's public and congressional support. The task is crucial. To steal a line from the sound track of the Navy recruiting film Top Gun--bad grammar and all--"There's no points for second best."
1. For a discussion of the Saudis' ambivalent attitude in this area, see Gen H. Norman Schwarzkopf with Peter Petre, General H. Norman Schwartzkopf, The Autobiography: It Doesn't Take a Hero (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), especially 351-52.
2. Thomas M. Coffey, Iron Eagle: The Turbulent Life of General Curtis LeMay (New York: Crown Publishers, 1986), 270-79.
3. Ibid., 325-32, 334.
4. James N. Eastman, Jr., "Flight of the Lucky Lady II," Aerospace Historian 16 (Winter 1969): 9-35. See also Air-to-Air Refueling, Headquarters SAC/HO Study 6 (Offutt AFB, Nebr.: Strategic Air Command Office of History, 14 July 1950). LeMay saw to it that only the successful parts of the mission found their way into the public eye. For example, Lucky Lady II was not the primary aircraft for the round-the-world mission. That honor belonged to another B-50, Global Queen, which had to divert into the Azores due to mechanical failure. And one of the mission's KB-29 tankers was lost when it crashed into a Philippine mountain top, killing all aboard. But neither of these mishaps was ever publicly announced, and the flight of Lucky Lady II was heralded as an unqualified success.
5. Coffey, 325.
6. "B-52 Crashes on Coast," New York Times, 17 February 1956, 5.
7. "LeMay Says Flaw Has Delayed B-52; 31 of 78 Rejected," New York Times, 3 May 1956, 1.
8. "Flaming B-52 Crashes on Coast, Navy Plane is Ditched in the Pacific," New York Times, 18 September 1956, 26.
9. "B-52 Crash Studied," New York Times, 19 September 1956, 74.
10. "B-52s Grounded Again for Study," New York Times, 20 September 1956, 13.
11. History, 93d Bomb Wing, January 1957, chapter 1. See also History, Fifteenth Air Force, January-June 1957, 199-200.
12. Development of Strategic Air Command, 1946 - 1976 (Offutt AFB, Nebr.: Office of the Historian, Headquarters Strategic Air Command), 53. Also History, Fifteenth Air Force, January-June 1957, 200.
13. The 30 November 1956 crash involved Castle's only RB-52B, a reconnaissance-capable version of the Stratofortress. History, 93d Bomb Wing, December 1956, 8. Also "Ten Die in B-52 Crash," New York Times, 1 December 1956, 42.
14. Originally, the flight was to be called "Quick Kick Alfa," and it did not involve a round-the-world attempt. The Quick Kick Alfa B-52s were to fly from Castle to England, Portugal, the Azores, Florida, and back to California. Quick Kick Alfa was canceled, though, and replaced with "Power Flight," a more ambitious--and therefore more newsworthy--effort. This entire account of Power Flite is based on several sources, including a 23-page pamphlet called "Operation Power Flite: Around the World in 45 hours, 19 minutes," published by Fifteenth Air Force shortly after the mission. See also History, 93d Bomb Wing January 1957, 4; Development of the Strategic Air Command, 1946-1976, 62; History, Fifteenth Air Force, January-June 1957, 203-10. See also "B-52s Circle Globe Non-Stop in 45 Hours," New York Times, 19 January 1957, 1.
15. "C-17 Sets Seven Records," Air Force Magazine 16, no. 3 (March 1993):16.
16. "B-1Bs Circle the Globe," Air Force Times, 30 August 1993, 2.
Dr Bud Baker (BBA, St. John Fisher College; MBA, University of North Dakota; MA, PhD, Claremont Graduate School) is assistant professor of management at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio. He served more than two decades as a US Air Force officer in assignments that included transport navigator, Minuteman missiles launch crew commander, Strategic Air Command staff officer, and US Air Force Academy professor. Between 1986 and 1991, he worked in the B-2 stealth bomber program as B-2 production program manager, chief of program integration, and executive officer to the program director. Dr Baker currently directs Wright State's popular project management MBA program, and his writings on project management have frequently appeared in Air Force and various other publications.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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