The U.S. military is one big happy family, and like all families, it has its strange dynamics and dysfunctional members who need a little help. (Or in the case of the Air Force, a lot of help.) So let’s look at the members of the family, and see what their quirks are.
THE OLDEST: THE ARMY AND THE NAVY
The big brother of the family is the Army, by a few months. The Continental Congress authorized its creation on June 14, 1775. The Navy’s birthday is October 13, 1775, or depending on who you ask, October 27, 1775. Like uniforms, the Navy just can’t get enough of them. The reason for the discrepancy—and I cannot overstate how perfectly military this is—was a clerical error on paperwork endorsing the purchase of a fleet of merchant ships by the Continental Congress. It wasn’t until 1970 that someone realized that the Navy got its own birthday wrong. Today, they basically celebrate both days because it’s the Navy, and why not.
The ability to win wars but lose paperwork battles is a family trait. The Army is not immune. For example, Ulysses S. Grant’s real name is Hiram Ulysses Grant, but on his West Point recommendation letter, a congressman put the wrong name. When Grant arrived, he explained the situation to a flummoxed Army bureaucracy, which argued, “No, see, on this form it says your name is Ulysses S. Grant. I don’t know what you expect us to do,” and in the end, the easiest thing for Grant to do was change his name rather than get the Army to correct the error.
THE MIDDLE ONES: THE MARINES AND THE COAST GUARD
It’s not just the Navy with birthday confusion. At least the Marine Corps, which also has two birthdays, has a good excuse. The Corps was technically founded on November 10, 1775. They were also founded on July 11, 1798, because after the American Revolution, the Navy and Marine Corps were disbanded, only to be resurrected by John Adams on that later date.
The Coast Guard came along on August 4, 1790 at the behest of Alexander Hamilton, who as Secretary of the Treasury needed some way to stop smugglers and enforce tariffs. (This fact gets six words in the musical.)
Family order was more or less balanced for the next 150 years. Sure, there were turf wars over who got to do what (there’s a reason the Marine Corps, established entirely for amphibious warfare, missed out on the biggest amphibious action in the history of the world). But then, on September 18, 1947, the Air Force was born, and from the start, the baby of the family would get its way for just about everything. Intercontinental ballistic missiles? Mine! Mine! Toe-curling budgets? Mine! Mine! And that has led to some… well, some issues.
THE GRANDKIDS: SPECIAL FORCES
The Army would eventually have a little family of its own. First came combat arms, but in 1952 came the super adaptable second-borns: Special Forces, who in those early days had no budgets, no equipment, no support, and so were scrappy. They kept their heads down, never made a scene, and just did their jobs. The other branches had (very) “special” kids of their own, including the Navy, whose SEALs are the social media influencers of the family. “Be sure to hit like and subscribe to the channel, ring that bell for updates, and check out my latest videos, How to be a Leader LIKE A NAVY SEAL. How to Make Your Bed LIKE A NAVY SEAL. How to Cook a Romantic Dinner for Two LIKE A NAVY SEAL. How to stay humble LIKE A NAVY SEAL.”
Budgets certainly improved for the special operations world in the 2000s, and then things got… well, they’ve been better. It’s a work in progress, kind of like when someone wins the lottery and their life gets worse.
THE BABY… FOR A TIME: THE AIR FORCE
Air Force brass is delusional, and every Christmas, when it is in the other room, the rest of the family talks constantly about staging an intervention. Specifically, the Air Force behaves as though there will ever be dogfighting again. It hasn’t happened in any meaningful way since Korea. It isn’t going to happen again. Since 9/11, the U.S. Air Force has had one (1) air-to-air kill. In the longest war in American history. One (1).
Despite owning the skies for fictional air wars that will never happen and wouldn’t matter if they did, the Air Force is already working to replace the stunning-though-pointless F-22 Raptor with the Next Generation Air Dominance fighter jet. The NGADs are apparently needed for dogfights that will—I cannot overstate this enough—never happen again. Why? Because all the technological innovation going into fighter jets—particularly the F-35—involves vaporizing enemy jets from miles away, before the bad guys even realize they are being engaged.
Aside from executing precision stadium flights during the pre-football game National Anthems, I’m not sure what Air Force pilots do all day, because they sure aren’t engaged in dogfighting. Their F-22 Raptors, which, they insist, absolutely must be replaced so we can be ready for the next war, have distinguished themselves with a total air-to-air kill number of zero (0), because dogfighting is the exclusive domain of Hollywood, and even then, in the one dogfighting movie worth watching in the last 20 years, Top Gun: Maverick, they used F/A-18E Hornets.
Well, there was the one F-22 that transformed into a giant robot, but unless DARPA has a poster of Starscream on the to-do list, that doesn’t even count.
Even if—and I am being so incredibly generous here that we may as well have the discussion about DARPA’s Transformers initiative, or at least a Battle Mech of some sort because, again, dogfighting is done, forever—there were some need for a next generation fighter jet, the notion that it would need to be piloted by humans in the cockpit is so absurd that, well, only an Air Force officer could say it with a straight face.
As the baby in the family, they should at least push for fighter jets in space—X-wings, basically, and no, there is no reason to do this, but at least it is something different, and I’m sure they could come up with a good reason in PowerPoint (e.g.: “To Counter Hostile Target Future Combat Systems-Fourth Domain (HTFCS-FD)”)—but if we started putting pilots in space, someone might ask why we don’t just assign them to the…
THE Oops BABY: SPACE FORCE
No one saw the Space Force coming. There were rumblings for years, but no one took it too seriously. The parents were getting a little up their in years, the family budget was already stretched thin, and it would be insane to have another one. But I guess mom and dad wanted to save the marriage, and thus was born the Space Force.
First, a lot of us were caught off guard that it was a Space Force and not a Cyber Force, the latter of the two making a lot more sense. After all, cyber warfare has a lineage in espionage—a dominant family trait—and the culture necessary to fight it is wholly removed from the cultures of the rest of the military. The ideal cyber warrior is probably about 20 pounds overweight, has long hair, couldn’t pass a drug test to save his or her life, and would under no circumstances ever need to climb over a wall, leap from an airplane, or fire a gun. If a cyber warrior is reaching for a rifle, start worrying (but don’t worry too much—it’ll all be over soon).
Anyway, Cyber Force didn’t happen. Instead, we got Space Force and… oh boy. After looking at the family budget, mom and dad decided that those Dave Ramsay books were overrated, and you only live once. Already, the Space Force budget is bigger than NASA’s, which seems a bit excessive given that NASA has to actually put humans in space, build a colony on the moon, and find a way to land astronauts on Mars, unlike the Space Force, whose whole job is basically launching satellites into low-Earth orbit on inexpensive SpaceX rockets.
But, hey, at least satellites are real and have a use! They could be warning about fictional dogfights with Russia and the need for new fighter jets. Of course, nobody tell that to Ukraine, with its Soviet Union-era aircraft (the Soviet Union collapsed 31 years ago) that are obliterating the “modern” Russian Air Force. (Never mind that both countries are lying through their teeth about numbers, because again, dogfighting is not a thing that matters.)
But hey—every family has its secrets. And as long as mom and dad keeps writing those checks, we’ll keep building those planes. Goodness knows the Super Bowl needs them.