The Air Power Imperative and the Value of the Air National Guard

  • Published
  • By Philip Handleman
  • Selfridge Air National Guard Base Community Council
Transcript of Oral Testimony to the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force, September 14, 2013

My first memory of historic Selfridge Field is of my father, a proud Air Corps veteran, taking me, his teenage son, to the base's air show at which the Thunderbirds performed in the most alluring 1950's-vintage silvery fighter jets. Little did I know then that later in life I would have the privilege of flying my own antique military aircraft in Selfridge air shows or that I would be a longtime volunteer with the Selfridge Base Community Council, one of the oldest, largest, and most active civilian support organizations with a membership of more than 250 local business and civic leaders who strongly back the base and its uniformed personnel.

In this era when less than one percent of the population dons the uniform, the vast majority of our fellow citizens do not even know a currently-serving member of the armed forces. And even at domestic bases as large in scope as Selfridge, it is not uncommon for service members to sense an eerie disconnect outside the wire where civilians generally are oblivious to war-related stresses.

What sets Selfridge and Michigan's other military aviation facilities apart is their status as Air National Guard bases. In practical terms this means the airmen aren't constantly rotating through, coming from one base and being assigned to another in a few years. Instead, at Selfridge, to cite the example I know best, almost all the airmen are rooted in the community, living and working here without the looming prospect of a permanent transfer to another base. Accordingly, they are our longtime neighbors such that we get to know them, their spouses, their children, their moms and dads, siblings, and sometimes grandparents and grandchildren.

Life-long relationships develop between us and our base's airmen. We see them not as the monolithic caricatures portrayed in movies, but as regular people with the same emotions and impulses as everyone else. Yet, we see in them something more, an unwavering commitment to a higher calling. We love and respect them for who they are and for what they do.

When they deploy, we are on the ramp to bid them a fond farewell. With candles burning, we wait up with spouses and children. That warm light is a beacon symbolizing our inseparable bond, which never dims or flickers out. And when our heroes return with their job done, we are back again on the ramp to greet them with a hearty embrace and a resounding "Thank you!" Like a great captain of an earlier time who sailed after battle to the safer shores of home, we say: ". . . . for you the flag is flung - for you the bugle trills . . . ."

The contributions and sacrifices of Selfridge airmen who go to distant lands to fight for the preservation of our cherished freedoms aren't abstractions, but a part of our daily awareness. Whenever and wherever our airmen go, they are really never far away. They are the embodiment of the American ethos; a part of them stays with us, always. As a favorite poet said:

"Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
Our faith triumphant o'er our fears,
Are all with thee . . . ."

This concern for the Air Guardsmen of Selfridge and Michigan's other military flying installations at Battle Creek, Alpena, and Grayling represents an intangible, call it a vitalizing spark, that isn't reducible to a spreadsheet. Civilian support for the troops is not only a desirable ingredient, but a decisive factor in the formula for mission success. For this reason alone, if one were forced to choose among organizational alternatives, the Air National Guard construct makes sense as the preferred template.

The conventional wisdom suggests that a persistently-stagnant economy, budgetary pressures, and a war-weary public will almost surely prompt a cruel triage of the three components that comprise the greatest air power organization in the world. To do so would betray the heritage of Air Guardsmen and their brothers and sisters in the Active-Duty and Air Reserve.

When called upon in a pinch, American airmen forge ahead for their squadron mates and the nation, ever faithful to the Airman's Creed. Those of us who are believers in air power and who care about the future of the Air Force are counting on you to remember what our airmen are owed - the most potent of frameworks to enable them to win the wars they are asked to fight.

Consider that since World War II, America has had a succession of major conflicts end in stalemate, defeat, and ambiguity, wearing down the collective will. The sole superpower has been drawn repeatedly into combat where lesser foes have been allowed to dictate the terms on which our military fights. The regression of the Air Force from rainmaker to a kind of auxiliary, despite the undiminished valor and unconquerable spirit of its airmen, has added to a perception of America as a flummoxed Goliath in the face of cleverly-wielded slingshots.

Let me suggest that the answer may lie in rekindling the promise of air power as articulated by visionaries like Billy Mitchell and his disciples - Eddie Rickenbacker, Hap Arnold, Ira Eaker, Carl Spaatz, Hoyt Vandenberg, Charles Lindbergh, Claire Chennault, Jimmy Doolittle, Benjamin Davis, Jr., Curtis LeMay - victorious airmen who served at Selfridge Field. In their names, resist the temptation to downsize with its inane clichés like "smaller but smarter," and instead call for a boost in both structure and mindset to rejuvenate this service to its past glories. If you recommend it, then I will thank you, my Team Selfridge/Michigan Air Guard colleagues throughout the state will thank you, and the country will thank you.