SecDef Gates fired both the military and civilian head of the Air Force yesterday. The official reason was the release of a report on the mis-handling of nuclear weapons, though Danger Room suggests that this was merely the culmination of a number of issues that left Gates rather upset with the Air Force. (blog link round up of additional good coverage: here, here, and here).

This is a rather big deal. As a number of observers have pointed out, this is the first time that both the military and civilian head of an armed service have been sacked at the same time. It sends a very strong signal to not just the USAF, but to the entire military–get with the program or get out. There are two ways to get people’s attention in the Pentagon: threaten their budget or threaten their careers. Military and civilian leaders are very protective of budgets, weapons systems, and programs. Military leaders are also very protective of their careers, paying careful attention to who gets promoted and what it takes to get promoted. The Bush Administration might have formally entered Lame Duck status once Barak Obama won the nomination and the General Election started in earnest, but Gates isn’t backing down one iota from his plan to bring the Pentagon in line (his line).

The Air Force has had a rough go of late. LGM’s Rob Farley has written extensively on the problem that is today’s USAF. Even Gates has been critical, telling the service’s top leaders to get more involved in fighting the wars of today and to stop pining for fancy planes to fight the wannabe-wars of tomorrow. The nation is at war, military budgets are at record highs, and they are often left standing on the side-lines. The F-22, their centerpiece system, has, to paraphrase the SecDef, next to no role in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. The things that have the most value–planes like the A-10, missions like close air support, and innovations like UAV’s–are just the things that the Air Force, as an institution, likes least. Not to mention all the other recent scandals that have brought the service unwanted attention (and are amply mentioned in the coverage of the firings).

None of this is to say that the AF is irrelevant. Indeed, its a central factor in American global military hegemony, though the most important parts are perhaps the least sexy. Lots of countries have half-way decent fighter planes, but none have the global logistical lift, mid-air refueling, surveillance, and electronic communication capability that the USAF provides the US armed forces. Its an incredible thing, and yet, its not something that the Air Force itself celebrates. Strategic nuclear forces and fighter planes produce Air Force leaders and doctrines. Or at least they did–the head of TRANSCOM is rumored to be in the running to succeed the now former chief of staff. That would be a very powerful signal indeed.