Most of us have probably traveled by plane before, or at least seen one flying high in our lifetimes. Typically thought of as large flying vessels used to transport you from one place to another, aircrafts also have other practical uses — military defense being one of them. The United States Air Force has made its way from just militarily controlling the airspace to managing a host of other defense tactics, since its more recent establishment.

A New Branch

The Air Force is the youngest of all the military branches. During World War II, Germany mobilized and conquered multiple countries utilizing air powered tactics. At the time, the then titled Air Corps found themselves in a position where they were able to increase their troops and number of aircrafts to keep up with the rivaling country competition. After internal power shifts, the Air Corps moved under the jurisdiction of Army Field Forces and became its own separate command on June 20, 1941.

Despite the quick demilitarization of troops post World War II, the success and future need for a separate branch specifically dedicated to air power didn’t go unnoticed.

When asked about the establishment of the Air Force, Captain Zachariah Gonyea, recruiting flight commander of Air Force ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) Detachment 538 and assistant professor of aerospace studies, didn’t hesitate for a second before answering.

“September 18, 1947... We got through World War II and then they decided at that point that airpower, in general, needed its own service,” he said. “They needed people who were thinking about ... combat in the air, not just Army people or Navy people who are so focused on ground warfare and maritime warfare [that] the airplanes were an extra weapon for them.”

Since its establishment, the Air Force has expanded to include many different responsibilities outside of flying and utilizing planes for war purposes.

Beyond Just Planes

The Air Force has been tasked with a few major roles besides managing the air space.

“We obviously have the proponents of air assets, so whether that’s providing air support to Army troops or as you see now with the drone usage," Gonyea said. "[With] the way our enemy is fighting, it’s hard to meet them on a battlefield, so [the Air Force] has turned into one of the primary methods of attacking our enemy. We also control two-thirds of our nuclear enterprise.”

Back in 2006, the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center (AFNWC) was established and headquartered at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. The AFNWC focuses its efforts on keeping track of and controlling nuclear material management.

A Societal Microcosm

“[The military] is really a microcosm of the rest of society. The rest of the world is trying to figure out how to deal with cyberspace and … computer technology. The Air Force is doing the same thing.”

In addition to airspace and nuclear control, the Air Force is tasked with the monitoring the cyberspace realm. Cyberspace refers to the “electronic medium used to form a global computer network to facilitate online communication,” or in layman's terms, communication between humans through computers. The Air Force has taken this to new levels.

“As technology developed, the Air Force recognized that a lot of that technology is useful when it comes to fighting wars and maintaining national security. That’s one of the reasons why we see a faster rate of innovation within the Air Force is that we try and keep up with the field itself,” said Chris Tran, a fourth year Computer Security major and cadet vice wing commander for RIT’s Air Force ROTC. “The cyberspace domain is already vast and we see it coming into various aspects of our lives very quickly.”

One new job to emerge in this era is cyber surety specialist, or an individual specifically tasked with “preventing, detecting and repelling cyber attacks.” Another job is cyber systems operations specialists, who ensure that computer systems are installed, designed properly and impenetrable by the enemy. These are just two of the many positions dedicated to ensuring the online security of the nation.

Due to the flourishing cyber world, people with such skill sets are in high demand. In ROTC, there is the possibility for college scholarships with a commitment to service post-graduation. Those in search of both Air Force ROTC and computer-related majors are in luck.

“I can tell you right now we got a kid who’s coming in looking to do cyber security and their odds of getting a scholarship are increased just based on their major,” Captain Gonyea said.

For Tran, the technological aspect of the Air Force is one of the things  that drew him to the branch. 

“Being a Computer Security major, I spend like my entire life with computers, on computers and fiddling with things, so I really wanted to use my skills to help the nation secure their infrastructure and do my part,” he said.

The Air Force isn’t mindlessly prioritizing cyberspace, as some might assume. The rise of this kind of technology amongst the general population plays a major role.

“How we operate in our life is being changed rapidly by how the civilian side — how you guys — operate,” said Captain Gonyea. “[The military] is really a microcosm of the rest of society. The rest of the world is trying to figure out how to deal with cyberspace and ... computer technology. The Air Force is doing the same thing.”

As cyber technology expands and becomes more necessary by the day, it’s possible that this new kind of technological warfare might need to split off into its own division.

“There’s even talk now and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it in the next 20 years ... a cyber kind of service in itself,” Captain Gonyea said. “You can take what I say with a grain of salt, but the talk, the ideas we’ve been hearing around, is that that might be the eventual push.”

That being said, all of the newer technology certainly does have its downfalls.

Drone Dilemmas

With the rise of drone technology and warfare, many questions regarding their ethical applications have arisen. Drones, also called RPAs (Remotely Piloted Aircrafts), have many technological capabilities that extend farther than previously imagined. Whether these machines should be used to their full extent is where the ethical dilemmas come into play. 

"Military and aviation authorities call unmanned aerial vehicles 'Remotely Piloted Aircraft' (RPAs) to stress that they fly under the direct control of human operators," reads an article published on the NATO review, a site dedicated to analysis of a range of security issues. 

RPAs have been and are being utilized to carry out attacks on the enemy in recent years. Due to the remote piloting, they reduce the risk of harm and potentially death befalling a pilot during a strike, as should there be a malfunction, the pilot isn't in danger of being hurt. They also allow for striking precision and easier target identification. While thought to eliminate casualties, in many instances, the civilian death count ends up being higher than intended. Whether drones are morally acceptable when they often cause the death of innocent bystanders is a point of contention. 

In addition, there are challenges posed when developing these aircrafts, as creating technological systems to act and "think" like humans would is rather complex. If there is an accident, disaster or unplanned death, where the blame and responsibility falls poses rather tricky moral questions to be addressed. The innovations are impressive from a technology standpoint, but how to handle them on a humane level is bringing up more issues by the day. 

Human Technology Advances

"If it doesn’t have tangible training value, we’re not doing it."

One of the most remarkable shifts in recent years has been changes in training programs.

“That’s been the biggest advancement really for the Air Force mindset ... ‘how do we maximize time for our people? How do we get rid of small tasks that seem menial and kinda useless?’ If you can’t find a good reason for why we’re doing it ... why are we doing it then?” Captain Gonyea asked.

As with all aspects of life, spending too much time on meaningless tasks does not bode well for the future. Refocusing efforts to training of more substantial value has been at the forefront of the Air Force's priorities.

“We are no longer forcing you to go run in the cold just for running or doing stuff like that. [If] you watch ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and the basic training scenes, that’s not how we operate anymore,” Captain Gonyea laughed. "If it doesn’t have tangible training value, we’re not doing it.”

Captain Gonyea believes that the training is paying off.

“You know, everybody talks about the new generation of people and you know ‘they’re not fit out for service’ and I can tell you I’ve got [cadets] in that room next door who are from this millennial generation who are more fit for service than some people who I have served with in the past,” Captain Gonyea said, pointing to the classroom where Air Force courses take place.

RIT’s Air Force ROTC program preps their cadets with the leadership skills necessary to graduate and commission as second lieutenants. They are entering the service with a skill set in their back pocket like no other, all with their own reasons for joining in the first place.

"We always tell our cadets, ‘Go tell your story, go tell people what you’re doing,'" Captain Gonyea said.

From flying planes for combat purposes to nuclear technology to the rise of cyber warfare, the Air Force has its hands full.