Aging planes, budget shortages, and ground casualties are a sharp reversal from the success of air power in Kosovo.
Fresh from its successes in Kosovo in 1999 and its initial Afghanistan campaign in 2002, the US Air Force was riding high on the notion that air power could transform warfare. But the war in Iraq has changed that.
Now the service's planes are wearing out. It is so short of cash that it plans hefty cuts in personnel. And its combat mission has changed so that, for perhaps the first time in Air Force history, hostile fire has killed more of its ground personnel than its pilots and airmen.
This reversal of fortune has been sharp, defense analysts say.
"At the beginning of the Bush administration, not only did it look like air power could win wars, but there was a new crop of policymakers ready to embrace that message," says Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., think tank with close ties to top military officers. Now, "I'm hard-pressed to think of a time when the Air Force has faced more problems."
Air Force officials acknowledge the difficulties but point to the experience that they've gained.
"The Air Force is better because of these wars," says Gen. T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley, the service's chief of staff, in an interview. "The Air Force is a war-fighting institution. What we do for this country is fly and fight. You have the most combat-experienced Air Force you've had since World War II."
By his reckoning, the Air Force has been in combat since 1990, when its surveillance planes and fighter-bombers first started patrolling over Iraq in the wake of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. After the 1991 Gulf War, Air Force pilots policed "no-fly" zones over Iraq for 12 years, along with Navy and British fliers.