As it follows the elevation from Western Front trenches to air corps fame – or infamy – of German corporal Bruno Stachel, the 1966 film The Blue Max debunks many myths of chivalry and aerial combat. By means fair and foul, Stachel (George Peppard) tramples friend and foe alike in relentless pursuit of the 20 “kills” that would secure him the medal of the film’s title.
Whether modern air warriors resemble the brutally selfish Stachel or the knights-in-armour with which our imagination populates that age of goggles, white scarves and canvas is a point to debate. But The Blue Max still resonates.
In one scene, Stachel shoots down, figuratively, one of his aristocratic colleagues during pre-dinner drinks at headquarters after a day in action. Back in the trenches, he says, “I don’t recall being able to discuss the loss of a comrade over champagne”.
The question today is, just what sort of warriors are we prepared to be? As Flight International details this week, the US Air Force is now evaluating several aircraft for a light reconnaissance and attack role. Such missions are better, and more cheaply, realised by small, slow, low-flying aircraft than by fast jets. An F-22 sent to seek and destroy a pick-up truck in the desert is asymmetric warfare ad absurdia.
The trade-off, however, is survivability. Slow and low-flying means highly vulnerable to ground fire.
Any US Army helicopter pilot might retort that, well, that’s how it goes. The air force, which has known nothing but outright air supremacy since Vietnam, shows little inclination to subject any of its pilots to that sort of danger.
But whatever their outcome, the trials underscore the overdue need for a much deeper evaluation than of the capability of light aircraft. That evaluation involves budgets and aircraft effectiveness, for sure, but it also involves some soul searching – by the USAF, Congress, the American people and, indeed, Washington’s allies. Nearly two decades after the 9/11 attacks kicked off an era of constant war, of war that has been brought home – to Europe, anyway – by a string of terrorist attacks, it is long since time to ask: what sort of warriors are we prepared to be?
If the answer is, the type of warriors who discuss the day’s events over champagne, then we had best stump up the cash for lots of F-35s and keep quiet. But if we believe it is necessary to put our sons and daughters squarely in harm’s way, then we had best be ready for the consequences.