I’m just barely old enough to have grown up hearing the name of Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s greatest air ace of World War I. Three decades before the birth of our independent U.S. Air Force, Rickenbacker put the Army Air Service on the map, by shooting down 26 German fighters. Ninety-four years ago today, on October 30, 1918, Rickenbacker claimed his last confirmed kill. Yet it was an action on September 25, 1918, that earned him the Medal of Honor (awarded in 1930), when he single-handedly attacked seven enemy aircraft, shooting down two. Rickenbacker’s derring-do was in no small part responsible for enshrining the image of the cool and cocky American fighter ace.
In the last weeks of this election, the size of the U.S. Navy has become a hot topic, thanks to President Obama’s belittling of Mitt Romney’s comments on the shrinking size of our military. While the Navy is indeed a powerful tool of American forward presence around the world, the Air Force has become in many ways the indispensable military arm of the United States. A piece I published a month ago explains how the Air Force not only is our first responder around much of the world, but it provides the essential “public goods” without which its sister services, and the U.S. government, could not operate. These include things like global communications and GPS satellites; worldwide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; and global airlift (including the president on Air Force One).
Yet under Barack Obama’s plans, the Air Force will shrink to the smallest size in its history, even while being asked to do more in light of a smaller Army and Navy. Back in Eddie Rickenbacker’s day, the Air Service had to prove itself, and men like Rickenbacker joyfully accepted the challenge of climbing into plywood and cloth airplanes (most of which were made by the French) to duel the far more experienced Germans. Our airmen today, whether flying bombers, tankers, fighters, or drones, equally joyfully accept the challenges of operating 24/7 globally, as they have since setting off in 1991 for the Gulf War in Iraq. The best way to honor their service, and Eddie Rickenbacker’s memory, is not to ask them to do more with less, but to give them the tools to maintain America’s dominance of the air. That is the most important ingredient to ensure that future Eddie Rickenbacker’s don’t have to prove their mettle in deadly aerial combat.