In the era of the long “war on terror,” Thursday, June 2, 2016 was a tough day for the US military. Two modern jet fighters, a Navy F-18 Hornet and an Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon, flown by two of America’s most capable pilots, went down, with one pilot killed. In a war that has featured total dominance of the skies by America’s intrepid aviators and robotic drones, the loss of two finely tuned fighter jets was a remarkable occurrence.
As it happened, though, those planes weren’t lost in combat. Enemy ground fire or missiles never touched them nor were they taken out in a dogfight with enemy planes (of which, of course, the Islamic State, the Taliban, and similar US enemies have none). Each was part of an elite aerial demonstration team, the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds, respectively. Both were lost to the cause of morale-boosting air shows.
Each briefly grabbed the headlines, only to be quickly forgotten. Americans moved on, content in the knowledge that accidents happen in risky pursuits.
But here’s a question: What does it say about our overseas air wars when the greatest danger American pilots face involves performing aerial hijinks over the friendly skies of “the homeland”? In fact, it tells us that US pilots currently have not just air superiority or air supremacy but total mastery of the fabled “high ground” of war. And yet in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Greater Middle East, while the United States rules the skies in an uncontested way, America’s conflicts rage on with no endgame in sight.
In other words, for all its promise of devastating power delivered against enemies with remarkable precision and quick victories at low cost (at least to Americans), air power has failed to deliver, not just in the ongoing “war on terror” but for decades before it. If anything, by providing an illusion of results, it has helped keep the United States in unwinnable wars, while inflicting a heavy toll on innocent victims on our distant battlefields. At the same time, the cult-like infatuation of American leaders, from the president on down, with the supposed ability of the US military to deliver such results remains remarkably unchallenged in Washington.