David Petraeus makes a joke:
Come to think of it, in fact another bedrock element of the Marine Corps is unquestionably having the best recruiting ads on television. But this concept is not just an advertisement. The marines’ sense of toughness permeates the Corps’ lore as well as its reality. To recall an illustrative story, a soldier is trudging through the muck in the midst of a downpour with a 60-pound rucksack on his back. This is tough, he thinks to himself. Just ahead of him trudges an Army ranger with an 80-pound pack on his back. This is really tough, he thinks. And ahead of him is a Marine with a 90-pound pack on, and he thinks to himself, I love how tough this is. Then, of course, 30,000 feet above them an Air Force pilot flips aside his ponytail. Now — I’m sorry. I don’t know how that got in there — I know they haven’t had ponytails in a year or two — and looks down at them through his cockpit as he flies over. Boy, he radios his wingman, it must be tough down there.
It’s worth observing that this issue is going to become much more severe in the years to come. Air Force officers are already sensitive to the accusation that their service is less physically rigorous or risky than other forms of combat. And of course there’s some real truth to the accusation. Looked at rationally, this is the appeal of air power and always has been. Why try to blow something up at relatively close range on the ground from a base that’s located inside the war zone when you can blow it up from the relative safety of the sky, and then have the vehicle retreat to a far-off base where it can be serviced by people who are at relatively little risk of being killed?
The trouble is that advanced technological developments are driving this logic even further forward through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. From a rational point of view, UAVs piloted from afar from operators far from the field of battle are a huge win. Since there’s no pilot in the UAV, the cost of having one shot down is relatively low, so it’s viable to use cheaper planes and just resolve to build more if you need them. And since the pilots are safe, you never have to worry about losing your best-trained veterans in combat. Pilotless planes can also do aerial moves that might kill a human being.
At the same time, as you see in Petraeus’ joke and the reaction to it, the military—like all effective military organizations I’m familiar with—is an institutional culture that puts a great deal of stock on honor, courage, and difficult physical work. A service that consists of guys sitting in cubicles playing video games is going to have trouble holding its head high amidst a warrior ethos. And consequently, the Air Force is tending to resist the technological imperative to go more remote. Ultimately, however, that resistance is doomed and it’s not really clear what will come of it.