WASHINGTON As journalists, we often hear chatter in the Pentagon about how much better things would be for the Army, Navy or Air Force if they just had a better story, or told their story better.
The Marines don’t need to worry about this, of course, because they tell their own stories better than the other services put together. But in this era of declining military budgets every surface wants a leg up on those who are competing for the same pool of shrinking cash.
So the Air Force Quadrennial Defense Review office asked the RAND Corp. to look at whether a better story would help the service. The short answer is, probably not. Not that public interest and positive views about a service don’t hurt, but the study found that the public has persistently and over time lost its positive views of any one service compared to the other.
The report says the “most striking and important trend in American public opinion toward the military services is the convergence in views between 1949 and 2014.” After World War II the public thought the Air Force and air power had played a huge role in forcing Japan to surrender through the fire bombing of Tokyo and the delivery of the two atomic bombs.
“In a July 1949 Gallup poll, there was an 80 percentage point difference between those selecting the Air Force as the ‘most important service’ and those selecting the Army,” the study notes. But by 1960, the Air Force lead had slipped below 60 percent and it ah, rocketed downwards.
“By 2014, the gap—now between the Army at top and Navy at bottom—was 9 percentage points, a remarkable change from 1949,” the study says.
The study says that the problem isn’t with the Air Force but that American culture — the Air Force’s “social currency” — has shifted and the popular fascination with air power has waned as it has become routine. Think of movies. Back in the day, pilots were brave, sometimes foolish folks trying to do things that were really risky and exciting. People who flew in airplanes were rich and exciting. Remember “jet setters?” No more.
“As a consequence, airpower has become routinized; the USAF is highly respected along with the other services but is no longer viewed as revolutionary or particularly newsworthy,” the study author says.
One way to reinvigorate that “social currency” might be to tout the Air Force’s advanced technology work, especially those that are similar to civilian tech, the study suggests. As someone who reads a ridiculous amount of Air Force releases and tries to keep up with what they’re doing, I can think of a couple: hypersonic weapons; SADAR used to secure Forward Operating Bases and other installations; a look inside the JSPOC to show how the merger of data from telescopes, radar and other sources give us space situational awareness; or pick a few of the unclassified technologies aboard the new Air Force One.