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CSAF: Warriors of the sky

WASHINGTON D.C. -- The January 2007 Chinese test of an Anti-Satellite weapon and the doubling of Russia's defense outlays should remind the American people that the world remains a dangerous place--quite outside the ongoing Global War on Terror and the battlegrounds of Iraq and Afghanistan. An arch of instability literally spans the globe from Latin America, through East Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Russia, China, Africa, and the rest of the greater Middle East. Simply put, the world has not taken a time out to accommodate our fixation on the fight in Baghdad and al-Anbar province.

Like most Americans, I look at the world through the eyes of a concerned citizen. But, my perspectives are also refracted through other prisms: As the father of an Air Force fighter pilot--whom I've already sent into combat--I'm concerned that we make wise decisions and invest in modernizing and recapitalizing our aging fleet--much of it older than my own son. I also have the unique outlook that stems from 35 years of service -- to include wartime command -- as well as from my present position as the Eighteenth Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force. All these perspectives--and the awesome responsibility of leading our Air Force at this time of peril--merged in my mind on 14 October, 2006, when I dedicated a Memorial to commemorate the sacrifice of the 54,000 Airmen who gave their lives to safeguard America's freedom. All these perspectives compel me to take a hard look at the Air Force, to ensure our Airmen are organized, trained and equipped to meet new challenges when called upon. Here is what I see:

I see an America that depends on its Air Force to an extent unprecedented in history. In my 35 years of service, many things have changed, but the extraordinary dedication, courage, and skill of the men and women we call "Airmen" have remained constant. They deliver for the nation every minute of every day in the air, on the surface, in space, and in cyberspace.

I see Airmen supporting national objectives over the long term. Airmen have patrolled the skies over Korea since 1950, and have been fighting in Iraq for 16 straight years, including 12 years in support of Operations Northern and Southern Watch.

They demonstrated the flexibility of American Air Power by responding to additional combat taskings in the Arabian Gulf, Bosnia, Somalia, and Kosovo during that same period, while providing an unwavering air bridge for re-supply and medical evacuation--and they do it all without skipping a beat, with equipment battered by years of continued combat.

I see Airmen -- Active, Reserve, Air National Guard and Civilians--vigilant at their post, providing first warning of threats worldwide through air, space and cyber systems that never sleep nor blink. They scan the globe with the world's most advanced sensor network and operate a constellation of spacecraft, providing early warning, communications, precise navigation and weather information for America's combat forces. They are on watch 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They are America's eyes and ears, the first tip-off of an emerging threat to our interests--and again, they have never skipped a beat, though their equipment is in dire need of modernization and recapitalization.

I see Airmen airborne in support of Operation Noble Eagle -- flying top cover for our cities and citizens. This solely Air Force mission, ongoing since Sept. 11, 2001, involves hundreds of aircraft and thousands of Airmen serving as America's airborne shield. They are on watch 24 hours a day, 7 days a week -- and again, they have never skipped a beat.

I see Airmen on duty across the Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile fields and deep within the missile silos across the heartland of America. This solely Air Force mission involves hundreds of missiles and thousands of Airmen, serving as the most responsive element of America's nuclear backstop. They too are on watch 24 hours a day, 7 days a week--and again, they have never skipped a beat.

I see Airmen arriving first to the fight, engaging enemies across vast ranges, striking targets or transporting their fellow Warriors to hot spots throughout the world. These Airmen stand alongside the joint team, delivering military options, anywhere on the planet. They fly bombers -- many of them over 60 years old -- to strike targets at ranges unequaled in the history of warfare, with peerless precision, speed, and lethality. They fly airlift and refueling aircraft -- many of 1950-60 vintage -- to deliver humanitarian relief supplies, war fighters, cargo, and equipment. Yet, because of the peerless dedication and skill of these Airmen, every 90 seconds, somewhere on the globe, a USAF mobility aircraft takes to the sky -- 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, delivering help, hope and combat capability.

I see Airmen providing Air Dominance for our joint team. The stellar testimony to their valor and sacrifice is the simple fact that enemy aircraft have not been allowed to attack American Soldiers since April 1953 in Korea - more than 53 years ago!

The ability for our surface combatants to look up into the sky and know there's nothing to fear is priceless. Yet, this dominance is not an entitlement; it is a fight that must be won--often at a high price. The battle for air superiority has been -- and will always be -- the first battle of any war: the predicate to any ensuing combat activity. To survive in and win this fight against increasingly lethal enemies, fielding ever-more sophisticated Integrated Air Defense Systems, the USAF desperately needs true 5th generation aircraft like the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II -- and other combat systems that will guarantee our freedom to attack and freedom from attack well into the future.

I see Airmen slip into cockpits of 25 year old fighter aircraft and, to paraphrase James Salter's "Gods of Tin," plug themselves into the machine. As they prepare for combat, the canopy grinds shut and seals them off. They're as isolated as a deep-sea diver: their oxygen--their very breath -- in a steel bottle and their only voice a radio. For these warriors, time and space are compressed, geographic expanses reduced, and barriers bypassed by the hurtling aircraft. In combat, they fly and fight alongside others, but they live or die alone. They fight the laws of physics, as well as increasingly lethal enemies.

Their connection to technology is both real and vital: they are a part of the aircraft and the aircraft is a part of them.

I see Airmen standing shoulder to shoulder with their brothers and sisters on the ground, hunting terrorists as part of our Special Ops teams, driving convoys, guarding bases, conducting high risk combat search and rescue missions, and providing medical services in places the devil himself doesn't dare to tread. I see daily mission reports from US Central Command, documenting multiple examples of Airmen on the scene when surface troops are in contact, Airmen who attack with aircraft-mounted guns and precision guided munitions -- often risking their lives so others might live.

I see Airmen providing the first response worldwide for natural disasters--on scene for rescue and delivering humanitarian supplies that often spell the difference between life and death. They are the real manifestation of America's compassion and generosity. They perform these difficult tasks so well that people at risk expect an American response no matter the distance, the conditions, or the complexity of the circumstances.

The United States of America depends on its Air Force to deliver effects on a scale unseen in the history of mankind. Our warriors are answering the call. They represent America at its best: its honor, valor, courage, and devotion, mastery of science and technology, unrivalled military might, and commitment to freedom. We deliver global reach, global power and global vigilance -- across time and distance -- in peace, crisis and war.

All our warriors trust each other with their lives. They count on each member of the Joint Team to deliver the full range of Service-unique effects. Only one of our Armed Services can provide global surveillance, global command and control, and the requisite range, precision and payload to strike any target, anywhere, anytime, at the speed of sound or the speed of light. With the Nation at war, the Air Force is the Nation's premier maneuver force -- its sword and shield, guardian and avenger.