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General Norton Schwartz, the top officer in the U.S. Air Force, is stepping down today. General Schwartz got the job four years ago after his predecessor was fired for - among other things - clashing with his Pentagon bosses over how many fighter jets the military needs. General Schwartz will likely be most remembered for pushing another kind of aircraft, as NPR's Tom Bowman reports.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Drones: that will be the legacy of General Schwartz. At this moment, dozens of these unmanned aircraft are flying high above Afghanistan. Just don't call them drones when you sit down with General Schwartz.

GENERAL NORTON SCHWARTZ: Drones mischaracterize what these things are. They're not dumb, nor are they unmanned, actually. They're remotely piloted aircraft.

BOWMAN: Remotely piloted from places like Creech Air Force Base, not far from the glittering hotels of Las Vegas. The pilots there work a joystick on an aircraft flying half a world away. And General Schwartz says this will be the future of the Air Force.

SCHWARTZ: We're producing more remotely piloted aircraft aviators than we are bomber and fighter pilots right now.

BOWMAN: Last year, the Air Force trained 350 drone pilots, compared with 250 fighter and bomber pilots. Manned aircraft still outnumber drones, but not for long. Schwartz estimates that in 10 years, about 85 percent of all Air Force pilots will be flying aircraft they're not sitting in. But he says there's just one problem now with drones.

SCHWARTZ: They are not survivable in a threat environment.

BOWMAN: Meaning the slow-moving drones can be shot down by an enemy with a good radar and missile system. So he says there will continue to be a need for a pilot in a cockpit, flying a high-speed, stealthy aircraft into harm's way to establish what is called air dominance.

SCHWARTZ: For the next, maybe, 30 years, in my view, there will continue to be a mix between manned tactical aviation and remotely piloted aircraft.

BOWMAN: Schwartz has been a pilot himself for nearly 40 years. He flew the C-130, the massive cargo and transport aircraft. With his angular features and graying bangs, he resembles "Star Trek's" Mr. Spock.

And like Spock, Schwartz is a stoic who chooses his words carefully, especially when he's asked about the need to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on new fighters and bombers at a time when the U.S. Air Force already rules the skies.

SCHWARTZ: Because we want to ensure that we prevail with the minimum level of force required. You know, if you look at Libya, for example, I mean, Libya was a major undertaking, a major effort for partners, as well as the United States. But Libya was not that sophisticated an adversary.

BOWMAN: And it still took U.S. and NATO air forces nearly seven months to dismantle the air defenses and armored forces that led to the fall of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Now, there are some calling for the U.S. to intervene in Syria. And Schwartz says that country's air defenses are some of the best in the world.

SCHWARTZ: Missiles, radars, command and control. If we had the mission to insert ourselves into Syrian airspace and to operate, we could do that. It would not be nearly as easy a task, or as - one that would be completed as quickly, in all likelihood, as that which we experienced in Libya.

BOWMAN: So Syria's one challenge. China is another, as the U.S. shifts focus toward Asia. And then there's the fight inside the Pentagon and in Congress over defense spending, all jobs for the next Air Force chief. General Schwartz is flying off to Hawaii for vacation.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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