The Twelve Days of Airpower Christmas


On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the Air Force Gave to Me . . . 

. . . Twelve Strafing Passes

Photo: Breaking Defense.
Photo: Breaking Defense.

Despite an Air Force push to send it to the boneyard (hotly contested by many, including the service’s own combat controller community), the A-10 continued to support troops in contact throughout the past year, saving countless coalition lives while sending scores of enemies to their ultimate demise. With the Hawg now having pivoted to supporting a new push to roll back ISIS in Iraq and Syria, it promises to be the gift that keeps on giving.

. . . Eleven Combat Airdrops

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Infrastructure has been scaled back in Afghanistan, but troopers have continued to man posts on the frontier. Keeping them supplied is a core capability for airmen employing C-17s and C-130s. They do it with precision and professionalism, making the sight of bundles descending from the sky under parachutes the ultimate gift of joint operations.

. . . Ten Lifters Inbound

Photo: Nellis AFB.
Photo: Nellis AFB.

Even as it continues through a 14th consecutive year of low-intensity conflict, the Air Force recognizes a need to stay sharp in all of the disciplines of theater warfare, to include air assault and airfield seizure. Recently, scores of aircraft, airmen, and paratroopers came together to hone this skill in a joint exercise at Nellis Air Force Base. This is just the most visible in a continuous stream of practice sessions to make sure the air-land team remains ever capable of kicking down the enemy’s door to fill his stocking with hot lead.

. . .  Nine Towers Controlling

Photo: Barksdale AFB.
Photo: Barksdale AFB.

Where airpower is exercised, controllers are on the watch. They’re always among the first to deploy and the last to come home, and have one of the most challenging and unforgiving jobs in the service. Every time a controller keys the mic, lives and the mission are in the balance. That’s a weight responsibility for these little helpers.

. . . Eight Tankers Tanking

Photo: Andersen AFB.
Photo: Andersen AFB.

Air Force KC-135s and KC-10s are a critical asymmetric advantage for American combat power, extending the range, loiter, and impact of the fleet. Tanker crews and maintainers work tirelessly and thanklessly to make this capability real, giving combatant commanders the economy of force they need to keep pace with adaptive adversaries.

. . . Seven Defenders Patrolling

Photo: Air Force.
Photo: Air Force.

Aircraft parked on a ramp at an expeditionary base represent a high-value target for adversaries. All that stands between their designs and destruction of the assets critical to the airpower mission is the eternal vigilance and unflinching killing power of airbase defenders. With one of the most punishing deployment tempos in the entire defense department and freshly gutted by the drawdown, defenders have had an excruciating year. Then again, they probably wouldn’t know how to react to anything less.

. . . Six Reapers Reaping

Photo: Firm Guide.
Photo: Firm Guide.

Remotely piloted aircraft have revolutionized modern warfare and substantially changed the role of the Air Force in combat operations. It hasn’t come easy. Behind this massive adaptation stands a legion of operators, maintainers, and intelligence professionals tirelessly providing a constant, ruthless, and unblinking eye of surveillance. This is a mission with deep roots in the origins of airpower, and one many airmen have given their all to revive over the last decade, sometimes against the resistance of their own service leaders. Drones are the reason the Air Force seems to be everywhere, all the time, figuring out who has been naughty and who has been nice.

. . . Five Flawless Alerts 

Photo: John Turner.
Photo: John Turner.

Against the forces of institutional neglect and cultural rot, missile airmen have persevered, quietly pulling alert after alert without missing a beat. Their work takes grit and determined concentration. They must be ever-ready to execute flawlessly, and up until recently this translated into a de facto requirement to train and basically live life without error. In 2014, the community seemed to turn a corner, leaving open the hope that the rewards of missile life will better match up with its sacrifices in the years ahead. Much will depend on the quality of leadership these airmen are given, but one thing is certain: they’re owed a tremendous debt of gratitude for maintaining a safe and reliable nuclear deterrent for so long that it was taken for granted. They continue to stand ready to deliver a special brand of Christmas cheer should the nation ever call upon them.

. . . Four Calling Birds

Photo: Eighth Fighter Wing.
Photo: Eighth Fighter Wing.

If you’re an adversary of the United States, these birds are the last thing you want to see. That’s as true today as it’s ever been, but it’s also taken more for granted than ever before by senior leaders, legislators, and civilian decision makers. Doing this as well as the Air Force does it takes a huge investment in training, exercising, and developing the people and weapons who make air superiority, surface attack, and the dismantling of enemy air defenses assumptions rather than plans in combat scenarios. Without the right level of investment in tactical airpower, everything about how the nation goes to war has to change. Fighter crews and their support systems have done a superior job of masking the declining investment in what they do up to this point, but to ask them to continue doing this in 2015 would approximate strategic malpractice. Let’s hope Santa gives Congress the gift of strategic sobriety rather than another pitcher of money-spiked egg nog.

. . . Three Wrench Men

Photo: Air Force Public Affairs.
Photo: Air Force Public Affairs.

The Air Force is in the fight because maintainers keep it there. They are the reason aircraft get airborne with the right weapons loaded and the reason they come back safely with those weapons having been effectively employed. They are the spine of the Air Force, and an unsung community that receives little attention and even less credit for the backbreaking work it does to make airpower happen. If you’re looking for the soul of the Air Force, it’s right here.

. . . Two Silver Stars

Photo: Air Force Public Affairs.
Photo: Air Force Public Affairs.

On November 14th, 2014, Master Sergeant Tom Case received his second Silver Star. A joint terminal attack controller, Case demonstrated gallantry under fire during a deployment to Afghanistan in 2009 while embedded with an Army Ranger unit. His decoration and his deeds are symbolic of the critical role of battlefield airmen in the counterinsurgency wars of the 21st century, and the event cast a worthy spotlight on a small but incredibly important community of airmen. Case and his brethren are the personification of the role of airpower in counterinsurgency. They make jointness more than a buzzword, translating wings and turbines into warheads on foreheads while making sure our bombs and bullets exterminate only the intended targets.

. . . And a Deployment to a Place with No Trees.

1 Deployment

For thousands of airmen, the holidays won’t be spent in the embrace of family or engaging in time-honored traditions. They’ll spend it in the desert, supporting wars largely forgotten by the nation and viewed by their own service leaders as budgetary nuisances. This idea lacks the “feel good” sensibility of the normal holiday propaganda cycle, but it’s a cold, hard truth that must not be avoided or suppressed. In a sense, this is what being an airman in 2015 is all about, and it deserves to be front-and-center in our end-of-year reflections.

The Air Force recently published its own version of the “12 Days.” It was shared on the service’s official facebook page, which has nearly 2 million followers, and was shared more than 1,600 times, reaching the hearts and minds of several hundred thousand. Unfortunately, it planted a false image in those minds and engendered false inspiration in those hearts by featuring not a single airplane, spacecraft, or weapon. It showcased airmen not doing their jobs, but engaging in peripheral and lesser things. It wasn’t a reflection of volunteer military service so much as a bubble gum commercial. Our airmen deserve better. The audience deserves an accurate representation of what service means.

Senior leaders have expressed well-founded concern in recent times that our volunteer military services might be growing too distant from society. Reversing that trend means working to build a genuine understanding of what these volunteers do, and what their service entails. It means telling the story of the mission and the people who conduct it, not portraying a weirdly inaccurate notion of airmen making the festivity circuit between musical performances. The Air Force has a legion of publicists charged to tell its story, and they are a taxpayer-funded enterprise with public responsibilities. They’ve got to do better. It’s fair to believe public affairs airmen would do a much better job of communicating the meaning of service if led more effectively at all levels, but especially at the very top where the agenda is set. Here’s an example from the United States Marine Corps demonstrating that this sort of communication is worth doing when done right.

As we fortunate ones enjoy the holidays from the warmth and safety of our homes, surrounded by loved ones, let’s save a thought for those unable to join us . . . because they’re busy safeguarding our freedom to live out these holidays without fear and in relative tranquility.

They do it by flying, fighting, and winning. And they deserve our sharpest Christmas salute.


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