THE AIR FORCE TAKES CENTER STAGE….Publicly, Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that his recent firings of the Air Force’s top civilian and military leaders was due to a couple of incidents of mishandling of nuclear components. But Noah Shachtman says Gates’s feud with the Air Force has roots that go back to his decision to prevent them from taking over almost all of the military’s big unmanned aircraft:

Things only got more tense when Gates said that the future of conflict is in small, “asymmetric” wars — wars in which the Air Force takes a back seat to ground forces. Then Gates noted that the Air Force’s most treasured piece of gear, the F-22 stealth fighter, basically has no role in the war on terror. And when a top Air Force general said the service was planning on buying twice as many of the jets — despite orders from Gates and the rest of the civilian leadership — he was rebuked for “borderline insubordination.”

Relations between Gates and the Air Force chiefs soured further when the Defense Secretary called for more spy drones to be put into the skies above Iraq and Afghanistan. The Air Force complained that all those extra flight hours were turning the roboplane’s remote pilots into virtual “prisoners.” Gates then publicly chastised the service during the drone buildup, comparing it to “pulling teeth.”

….Despite reports you may be reading elsewhere, this firing was not about nukes or missiles, well-placed sources say. “Far and away the biggest issue was the budget stuff, not the nuclear stuff. The UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] fight, the F-22 deal… Gates really didn’t appreciate it,” one of those sources tells Danger Room. Now, with the botched missile and nuke shipments, “the SecDef [Secretary of Defense] has good cover to do something that suits him bureaucratically.”

This strikes me as an area that has the potential to put some distance between Barack Obama and John McCain on an important national security issue. What should be the role of the Air Force going forward? Do Obama and McCain buy in to the notion that air superiority over China and Russia should be a prime goal? Or do they agree with Gates that we’d do better to focus on other kinds of fights? This is one of those occasional issues that’s fairly modest on its own merits, but that forces candidates to address big issues in order to get to an answer. And since the answer has to be fairly concrete, it limits the amount of tap dancing they can do on the bigger stuff too.

Politically, I don’t know if either candidate stands to benefit from taking sides in this dispute. And who knows? Maybe it would turn out they agreed with each other. But it would be illuminating to find out.