During the tenure of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the Army was the military service in the doghouse. Under his successor, Robert Gates, it appears to be the Air Force. Recently, Secretary Gates took the unprecedented step of firing the top civilian and military leaders of the service for its snafus with nuclear weapons and components. And then there was also the Air Force’s favoritism in contracting and its failure to be a team player in the counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the Secretary’s dramatic actions, vested interests will probably thwart his desire to reform the service.

Since the Vietnam War, the “essence” of the Air Force has been promoting and flying high performance tactical fighter aircraft. The service’s concentration on heavy bombers that could deliver nuclear weapons waned as the Cold War dragged on, and its attention to nuclear delivery systems fell into oblivion after the Berlin Wall fell. The Air Force’s de-emphasis of its nuclear mission is in part responsible for bomber crews carrying nuclear weapons across the country without knowing it and mistakenly sending fuses for nuclear weapons to Taiwan. Yet despite the firings, and most likely to compensate the Air Force for them, Secretary Gates promised to reward failure by increasing the service’s budget for nuclear activities.

Also much to Secretary Gates’s stated annoyance, the service has been neglecting remotely piloted surveillance drones, which have proven invaluable in the counterinsurgency wars being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has also shortchanged the mission of transporting troops, equipment, fuel, and food for ground troops in such theaters, while lobbying to buy more F-22 stealth fighters to counter future possible adversaries. The drones are neglected because they don’t require pilots—the people who run the Air Force. Resembling giant toy airplanes, they are piloted remotely using a joystick.

The transport mission is shortchanged because cargo planes are much less sexy to fly than new high tech fighter jets. The problem is that the Air Force, even without having bought any F-22s, has existing aircraft, pilots, and weapons that, when used together, would vastly dominate any future conventional opponent, including China, India, or Russia. The F-22 was originally designed during the Cold War to counter Soviet fighters that were never fielded.

Another problem is that unmanned surveillance drones don’t cost as much as high tech fighters. In addition to pilots being a powerful interest group within the service, the military-industrial-congressional complex would probably thwart an increased emphasis on drones even if the pilots didn’t. Lucrative contracts on the F-22, which usually go to industrial concerns heavily dependent on defense business, have kept the unneeded fighter alive, at the expense of increased funding for badly needed drones. Members of Congress who have such defense industries in their districts and states usually become powerful members of congressional committees that authorize and appropriate funds for such projects.

Firing the civilian and military leaders of the service with only 7 months to go in the Bush administration will do virtually nothing to bust the vested interests that have led to the present state of affairs. Although the new military chief will stay on into the next administration and is, for once, a military transport person, the fighter mafia, because of its glamour, is still likely to remain in control of the service. Supporting losing counterinsurgencies on the ground will never be as alluring as dreams of dogfights with non-existent enemy superfighters.

The one thing that could be done to at least loosen the grip of the military-industrial-congressional complex is to require the Air Force to drop excessively unique military specifications for components of weapon systems and instead use commercial components or slight variations thereof. Letting commercial non-defense companies—which are not part of the dedicated defense industry dependent on government largesse—compete for defense subcontracts would lessen the pressure to buy unneeded weapon systems. If subcontractors had commercial business to fall back on when defense procurement was slow, there would be less pressure for the Air Force and Congress to buy unneeded systems to keep the welfare queens of the dedicated defense subcontracting industry aloft.

However, this reform, even if adopted, would have effect only in the long-term. Thus, despite the secretary’s dramatic personnel changes, don’t expect to see a different Air Force soon.