Various complaints can be raised against the extent to which various security organs of the United States remain somewhat fixated on a Cold War mentality. But all the relevant institutions have to some extent adapted — and certainly the Army and Navy busy themselves with plenty of other things besides prepping for war with China. But the Air Force seems different, stuck in the past (USSR) or hypotheticals (China) rather than dealing with the world as it is. Robert Farley has an interesting hypothesis as to why:
The larger problem for the Air Force is that both the Army and Navy have long traditions to borrow from, such that they are capable of “re-inventing” themselves while retaining a sense of identity. Both the Army and the Navy can also borrow from the histories of foreign military organizations; the Navy rather self-consciously styles itself as the modern equivalent of the nineteenth century Royal Navy. The Air Force lacks historical traditions to borrow from, both because it is such a new service, and because it has been a worldwide leader since its inception. Put briefly, the Air Force only knows the Cold War; it only understands conflict in terms of great power struggle, and as such all future planning (in contrast to short term compromises) will be oriented around that organizational purpose. To ask the Air Force not to think in terms of great power war is to ask it not to be the Air Force, but rather some other organization born at some other time for some other purpose. As such, Gates cleaning out of the brass isn’t really going to amount to much; it is literally in the DNA of the Air Force to act in this way.
On another level, though, I think it reflects the fact that our current national security issues, while troubling, really don’t rise to the level of enormous national emergency the way the Civil War or World War II or in a different way the outbreak of the Cold War did. Iraq or even Afghanistan just isn’t a “do or die” situation that’s going to create unstoppable political pressure on institutions to adapt. The fact that our country is objectively less threatened than it has been at various times in the past is, naturally, a good thing. But it also means that adaptation to the contemporary environment isn’t as snappy as one might like.