The war “was a huge detour away from what the Air Force had planned for the first decade of the new century,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Virginia non-profit Lexington Institute and a defense analyst familiar with Wright-Patterson.
“Like the other military services, (the Air Force) was looking to emerging technologies to transform the way that war was fought. Instead, it found itself fighting fleeting, ragtag terrorists who had no air defenses and no air force.”
During the war on terror, the Air Force could fly a then-50-year-old bomber like the B-52 above the enemy and not worry about surface-to-air missiles.
“Obviously that is not getting you ready to compete with countries like Russia and China,” Thompson said.
But retired Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles, who commanded Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base 20 years ago, said the DoD never lost sight of what are sometimes called “near-peer rivals,” nations like Russia and China.
And strategic posture “definitely was not impacted or interrupted” by the war on terror, he said.
But, Lyles added, “There was a realization that this was a different type of warfare. There was a change in terms of focus areas, where you would apply technologies, requirements and needs and capabilities.
“So yes. Things did change.”
The U.S. had been hit by terror attacks before. But 9/11 was a watershed moment.
“What changed on 9/11, apart from our devastating losses, was Americans’ understanding of the scale and importance of this war. Our leaders also gained greater will and ability to commit the resources necessary to fight it most effectively,” Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Susan E. Rice wrote in 2003.
Many of the changes were unmistakable — the military quickly launched two overseas wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in early October 2001, less than a month after the events of 9/11.
And two years after 9/11, some 130,000 American troops found themselves in Iraq.
Mark Cancian, senior advisor with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ International Security Program, said some changes were gradual. Reliance grew on drones. The protection of ground forces was emphasized everywhere, with security growing stronger at military installations.
Other areas of technology — ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and close air support of troops, for example — either took on new guises or were deployed in new ways.
The extended life of the Air Force bomber force might be seen as another outcome of the wars after 9/11, some believe.
“They were able to safeguard their place in a way they may not have,” had 9/11 not happened, Thompson said.
Drones had been used well before 9/11, but their usage grew.
“It was pushed very hard, not only from the top but from the field,” Cancian said of UAVs.
Cancian sees reliance on UAVs as being as close to permanent as anything can be in constantly changing strategies.
“The Air Force built this very large UAV establishment which it did not have before and which it had not been terribly enthusiastic about before, but was really forced into this new technology,” he said.
“That is directly traceable to 9/11 and the wars.”
Lyles, a retired four-star general, said development of drones had been proceeding for some time.
“Their use and application, and how we could quickly buy them and also adapt them for a wartime environment, was immediately stepped up,” he said.
Wright-Patterson grew quickly in the years after 9/11. The National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC), in particular, saw speedy growth.
Jeff Hoagland told the Dayton Daily News in 2019 that NASIC had grown by about 100 jobs per year for 15 straight years.
“We needed more diverse intelligence, and we had to develop all sorts of novel capabilities,” Thompson said.
But the biggest boon to Wright-Patterson was not 9/11, but the 2005 BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) process, said retired Maj. Gen. Todd Stewart, who served as the director of planning and programs at AFMC at Wright-Patterson 20 years ago.
“Certainly, the fallout from 9/11 had implications for what was done, what is done here at Wright-Patt,” Stewart said.
“But the big driver, probably the bigger driver, was the 2005 BRAC decision. It moved a whole bunch of stuff from Texas and elsewhere up here to Wright-Patt.”
As a result of the 2005 BRAC decisions, the School of Aerospace Medicine moved from Brooks City Base in San Antonio to Wright-Patterson in 2011. The school had been in San Antonio for 85 years.
“That was probably the biggest increase,” Stewart said.
Retired Air Force Col. Mike Hazen — the commander of the 88th Air Base Wing at Wright-Patterson 20 years ago — noted that before 9/11, most motorists drove on base with simply a front sticker on the bumper or window of their automobile.
“We gave those stickers to friends and families almost,” he recalled.
The war on terror ended that. At least in the immediate aftermath, base security personnel were searching vehicles. Today, they rigorously check each driver’s license.
The Air Force added millions of dollars in fencing for Wright-Patterson and other bases, Hazen said. Before 9/11, not all areas had been fenced in.
The nation’s citizen-soldiers changed perhaps more dramatically than other segments of what is sometimes called the “total force” — the complete shield of active-duty, Reserve and National Guard personnel, working together across all military branches.
Major Gen. John Harris, Ohio adjutant general, said 9/11 and its resulting wars essentially changed the National Guard irreversibly. Before, the Guard often stayed poised for action in “strategic reserve” while the active component went overseas to fight, he said.
Shortly after 9/11, however, “We started mobilizing people right away,” he said.
The reason was clear. The nation’s military had shrunk after the end of the cold war. In 2017, there were some 1.34 million men and women serving on active duty, according to Pew Research. That number had been down from a high of 1.46 million in 2010 — and was down far more from more than 2 million active duty service members in 1990.
Today, some 41% of the Army’s combat units are in the National Guard, Harris said
“For such a protracted conflict, there was no way the Army could function without its National Guard,” he said.
The Guard is more indispensable than ever, and Harris said he believes his active-duty counterparts understand that. The Guard has units that have deployed three or four times in the past 20 years.
Indeed, 14 soldiers and one Airman from Ohio lost their lives in service in the past 20 years, he said.
Said Harris: “If a person joins the National Guard today, they know they’re not only going to deploy once but probably multiple times.”
“The Guard became a big part of their (the military’s) plan, and they had no choice to switch us from an operational reserve to a big part of their force,” said Col. Jeff Watkins, chief of joint staff for the Ohio National Guard.