Ben Lambeth, a senior staff member at the RAND Corporation and a prolific author, offered observations at Club Bella Vista in Aviano, Italy.

Ben Lambeth, a senior staff member at the RAND Corporation and a prolific author, offered observations at Club Bella Vista in Aviano, Italy. (Kent Harris / S&S)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — It isn’t often that a large group of Air Force officers gathers to listen to a civilian talk about air power.

Thursday was an exception. Ben Lambeth, a senior staff member at the RAND Corporation and a prolific author on the subject, offered observations at Club Bella Vista.

Brig. Gen. Mike Worden, the commander of the 31st Fighter Wing, called Lambeth “probably the leading analyzer of air power.”

But Lambeth, a private pilot with more than 40 parachute jumps to his credit, described himself differently.

“I’ve been a frustrated fighter pilot all my life,” he said.

Less-than-perfect eyesight meant he couldn’t follow his chosen career path.

“So I went the academic route.”

That meant academic degrees from the University of North Carolina, Georgetown University and Harvard University. But thanks to decades of flying in just about every type of aircraft the American military has — and those of a handful of other countries as well — he has practical experience as well.

He said he’s continually impressed with the “talent” he sees at Air Force bases, calling it “a greater value to the nation than all the technology out there on the ramp.”

But technology was one of the main topics of his talk. He said the Air Force is more powerful today than ever, partly due to the planes it flies.

“One F-16 today … can do what a wave of B-17s could do, and do it more effectively,” he said.

But he sees potential problems on the technology front as well.

One is that communications systems are becoming so sophisticated that senior military and civilian leaders can essentially watch over a pilot’s actions almost as quickly as events occur. More improvements might tempt those higher up to take control of missions even though they’re thousands of miles away. In addition to making pilots mere button pushers, that could cause other problems. Lambeth, one of the first Westerners to fly a MiG-29 fighter in Russian airspace after the fall of the Soviet Union, said such a top-down command structure would be similar to Russia’s. And that wasn’t as effective as the American model.

He also said a lack of new technology might cause trouble. The F-16 is now more than three decades old. Efforts to replace the fleet with newer aircraft are moving slowly and are always in danger of getting axed by funding.

He pointed to the B-2 bomber, which was originally scheduled to be mass-produced. Billions of dollars went into research and development before changing world conditions prompted a large scale back. As a result, each plane produced effectively cost $2 billion.

“There’s nothing in that jet that’s worth $2 billion,” he said. “You think if there was any opportunity to learn lessons, that would be one of them.”

But pushes to reduce the number of next-generation fighters produced will have the same result.

“I don’t think that any country, including the United States, can afford a fighter aircraft that costs $200 million.”

Lambeth also spoke on collateral damage. He said killing civilians and destroying property generally doesn’t achieve militarily objectives. That lesson was learned in World War II. So the military strives to keep such damage to a minimum.

But he said the public — both in the U.S. and abroad — has come to expect little or no collateral damage. And that’s a problem.

“War’s not perfect,” he said. And when mistakes happen, today’s opponents will take advantage, as evidenced in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

“They can’t win the military war,” he said. “They’ll try to win the propaganda war.”

author picture
Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for 40 years.

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