Washington Watch: Roles and Missions Ride Again

Feb. 1, 1995

In October, less than two weeks before he retired, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill A. McPeak came out swinging on service roles and missions. In a remarkable speech to the Heritage Foundation October 13, he suggested the cancellation of the Army’s deep-attack missile system, the transfer of Army theater air defenses to the Air Force, and Air Force withdrawal from the close air support function.

General McPeak acknowledged that he had “just violated one of the cardinal rules of civil discourse within the Pentagon by questioning the need for a system being fielded by another service.” His comments were surprising also because they were not directed primarily at the Navy–the Air Force’s traditional rival for power projection and deep-attack roles–but at the Army.

The blunt-spoken McPeak continued to express his views in other statements and in interviews with the trade press. Predictably, the reaction was strong. Among those shooting back was Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner of the US Army Space Command, who decried an “Air Force über alles mentality.” (In August, General Garner made news himself by declaring that “airpower contributes at the margins” in battle and that air forces and navies are merely “add ons” to armies, which are “the foundation of nearly all national military forces.”)

The other services oppose a bid the Air Force has had on the table for some time to formally take charge of military operations in space. The Air Force provides most of the money and manpower for space programs, but for a variety of reasons-including a wary reluctance to depend on the Air Force–the Army and the Navy do not want to disband their own space commands.

Meanwhile, a congressionally mandated Commission on Roles and Missions continued to hear presentations from the services and to study the problem behind closed doors. Congress wants to eliminate functional overlaps in service missions, leading to presumed savings from consolidation. The commission is sifting a long list of issues, ranging from overseas presence to central logistics support. Its report is due in May 1995.

The roles and missions argument is far from settled and almost certainly will broaden before it plays out in Congress later this year. The similarity between Marine units and Army light infantry is a smoldering issue, as is the operation of fighter aircraft within the sea services by both the Navy and the Marine Corps. The classic roles and missions issue, of course, is how to divide the tactical airpower job between aircraft carriers and the landbased fighters and bombers of the US Air Force.

Fogleman Changes the Tempo

Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, who succeeded General McPeak as Chief of Staff on October 26, is spreading the word that he wants to “take the high drama out” of the roles and missions debate. He told the Commission on Roles and Missions on December 14 that the Air Force would prefer to work the air defense integration problem “under existing ownership arrangements.” General Fogleman has not picked up the proposal to abolish the Army’s deep-strike missile program, choosing instead to emphasize the Air Force’s “core competency” in deep attack. Furthermore, he said, the Air Force will continue to perform the close air support mission.

At the request of Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda, Chief of Naval Operations, General Fogleman also withdrew in November a paper the Air Force had submitted to the commission on relative capabilities to project power and maintain “presence” abroad. The Navy claimed that the Air Force had gotten its facts and figures wrong. Particularly galling to Admiral Boorda was the contention that the Navy could provide as much presence with its air-capable amphibious ships as it could with large deck carriers. (By the end of this decade, the Navy will have twelve carriers and eleven air-capable amphibious ships.)

In his letter asking the commission to disregard the paper previously submitted, Maj. Gen. Charles D. Link, Air Force special assistant for Roles and Missions, said that “General Fogleman wishes to afford Admiral Boorda the opportunity to correct the information.”

By late December, the Air Force and the other services had settled down to a truce of sorts on the issue with occasional shots fired back and forth.

The Four Battles

The services have always fought about roles and missions, but the argument was rekindled in 1986 by the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act, which required that every three years, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff submit a full report on roles and missions. In July 1992, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, added pressure to the requirement with his call for a “no-holds-barred, everything-on-the-table” review. Senator Nunn was particularly interested in the savings possible from eliminating some of the overlaps between services in the projection of airpower.

As demonstrated by working documents that leaked to the public, the internal Pentagon debate that winter was fierce. (General McPeak says that he made then the same arguments he is making now but was outvoted by the other service chiefs.) In the end, all of the services were able to preserve their turf. The roles and missions report that Gen. Colin L. Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered in February 1993 did not rock the boat very much.

Congress was not satisfied with that and as part of the next defense bill prescribed a comprehensive review of roles and missions by a commission of private citizens. That commission, chaired by Dr. John P. White of Harvard University, has been at work for almost a year.

In his presentation to the commissioners on December 14, General Fogleman stuck with a concept, introduced by General McPeak, that divides up the “battlespace” on the conventional battlefield into four parts: a rear battle, a close battle, a high battle, and a deep battle. As General McPeak explained it, the rear and close battles “revolve around seizing, holding, and securing ground” and are therefore jobs for a ground forces commander from the Army or the Marine Corps. “On the other hand, the air component commander should fight the high and deep battles,” he said, anticipating that “the air commander will likely be an Air Force or Navy officer, depending on which service brings the most important resources to a particular fight.”

The significance of this, General McPeak said, was that “how you allocate combat roles and support functions among the services should relate to how we fight on the battlefield.” The four “battles” in the concept align roughly with the core competencies of the individual services, which provide forces and capabilities to the joint force commander.

Differences With the Army

Some of the most controversial McPeak proposals flowed from the “four battle” concept. He homed in on the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), a $6 billion program to attack fixed and moving targets deep in the enemy’s rear. That, he said, is “a capability that airpower has provided for at least fifty years” and in any case is part of the deep battle to be fought by the air component commander. That is anathema to such officers as General Garner, who believes that Army shooters should handle much of the deep attack, including the primary firepower directed at Scud missile sites. The present ATACMS has a 100-kilometer range; an extended system, now in development, would reach 400 kilometers.

The Air Force still believes that General McPeak had a point when he said that “each service has an inherent right to self-defense, but over time, the exercise of this right has led to significant overlap in capabilities and to the world’s most disintegrated air defense system. As a result, we are spending a lot more for theater air defense than we need to and, even so, cannot be confident that our air defenses will be effective.” Nevertheless, the Air Force will now work toward a solution that leaves ground defense batteries in Army hands.

The proposal to give up the close air support mission-and the force structure to go with it-did not sit well with the Army. The use of fixed-wing aircraft for close air support has been diminishing for some time. “In Desert Storm, ground commanders preferred to use their own artillery and attack helicopters while pushing fixed-wing aircraft far in advance of friendly lines,” General McPeak said.

General Fogleman told the commission that the revised Air Force position regards fixed-wing close air support as “declining but still necessary” and that the Air Force will continue to provide it. That decision took on an extra dimension December 9 when the Pentagon announced that the Army’s RAH-66 Comanche attack helicopter program had been “restructured” as a technology effort, leading to two flying prototypes but no production aircraft.

Ironically, General McPeak had been a vocal supporter of the Comanche. It was also McPeak who stopped an Air Force plan four years ago that would have retired the slow, low-flying A-10 close air support aircraft and concentrated the tactical air attack on the enemy’s flanks and rear echelons with F-16s instead.

The Airpower Combination

In his briefing to the Roles and Missions Commission December 14, General Fogleman-figuring, perhaps, that the last thing he needed just then was another confrontation-touched lightly on a list of “other issues” that included overseas presence, the tactical air force mix, and force structure and munitions required for the deep battle.

Before the deed is done, however, much more will be heard of those “other issues” because the central questions in the roles and missions debate are about airpower, and especially about the relationship of carrier-based naval aviation and landbased Air Force fighters and bombers.

“All services recognize the pivotal role air and space capabilities play on the battlefield,” General McPeak said at the Heritage Foundation. “So each service naturally wants its own capability to strike deep at the enemy, its own ability to defend against aerial attack, and so on. All this is natural and exactly what we would expect, but as the defense budget drawdown begins to really hurt, the question for US armed forces becomes how much airpower independence the nation can afford for each of our services.”

In fact, General McPeak says, “our nation has too much tacair,” pointing out that “the United States has nearly twice as many fighter aircraft as any other nation.” The combined programs of the services represent more tactical airpower than the nation needs or can afford, he says. What hit the headlines, though, was General McPeak’s proposal “to transfer enough Marine Corps F/A-18 squadrons to the Navy to fill out their carrier air wings and retire the remaining Marine F/A-18s.” Retiring six of these squadrons would save up to $230 million a year.

(Although it has not yet become a burning public issue, the airpower partnership of the Navy and the Marine Corps is a testy one. “The Marines are averse to relying solely on carrier-based airpower,” a Congressional Research Service report said in 1993. “Their major concern is the carrier’s style of launching, recovering, and rearming aircraft on deck. To highlight this concern, the Marines cite a Navy study showing it would require 366 carrier-based F/A-18s” to “generate the same number of sorties as seventy-five shore-based aircraft in a high-threat environment.”)

Brig. Gen. John Costello, head of the Army’s roles and missions team, told the Washington Post that “the Air Force has made some attractive cost-saving recommendations–at the expense of the other services.”

Contrary to the image of him painted by his critics, General McPeak readily accepted force and program cuts for his own service. He has said consistently that twenty fighter wing equivalents, down from thirty-six wings in 1990, are enough. He was willing to give up another two wings of fighter force structure if the Air Force shed the close air support role.

What General McPeak (and the Air Force) do push is the value of stealthy aircraft and precision guided munitions in modern warfare. In the Persian Gulf War, the Air Force’s F-117 Stealth fighters flew only two percent of the combat sorties yet struck more than forty percent of the strategic targets. The Navy has no stealthy aircraft and has no programs in progress to acquire any. The top aircraft operating from its carrier decks for some time to come will be an upgraded model of the F/A-18.

“Forward . . . From the Sea”

The Navy is acutely aware that landbased aircraft from the US Air Force delivered ninety percent of the US precision guided munitions and seventy-two percent of the US gravity bombs in the Gulf War.

A year after that, the Navy announced that it was shelving its ambitious “Maritime Strategy” in favor of a concept called “From the Sea,” which concentrated on operations along the littorals and coastlines of continents. In September 1994, the Navy replaced that concept with an “updated, expanded, and amplified” strategy called “Forward . . . From the Sea.” The main difference is the emphasis on forward presence.

The change was stimulated, apparently, by the Bottom-Up Review conclusion that ten carriers would be enough for the Navy’s part of fighting two major regional conflicts simultaneously but that additional carriers would be needed if that strategy were overlaid by a naval-oriented presence mission.

“Littoral” was not defined precisely in the previous concept but was assumed to mean land in the general vicinity of the shoreline. According to an article in Naval Institute Proceedings in October, however, the new Navy Doctrine Command has now redefined “littoral” to include “the portion of the world’s land masses adjacent to the oceans within direct control of and vulnerable to the striking power of seabased forces.” As the author notes, the submarine-launched D5 missile would make the entire world a littoral by that definition.

It is “presence,” therefore, that justifies two of the twelve carriers in the Navy’s long-range plan. It is a deep definition of “littoral” that supports the requirement for long-range strike aircraft to operate from those carriers. Using amphibious ships instead for naval presence undercuts the requirement for additional carriers. Furthermore, since amphibious ships cannot accommodate larger aircraft, the most likely fighters to be thus deployed would be Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers, which lack the range to cover extremely deep littorals.

In a letter to General Fogleman December 12, Admiral Boorda said that carriers and air-capable amphibious ships “have fundamentally different missions and are not interchangeable except in operations at the lowest level of the spectrum.”

A curiosity in this argument is that Adm. William A. Owens, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has installed outside his Pentagon office a large model of a “mobile offshore base.” It consists of oil rig platforms–modules that are 500 feet long and 300 feet wide–bolted together to form a landing strip on top with port, warehouse, and living facilities below. The model in the Pentagon hallway has more than thirty aircraft, mostly helicopters and fighters, parked along the runway. Literature available nearby lists a number of primary missions, beginning with “forward projection of US deterrent capability.”

Allegations of Humility

The standard accusation is that General McPeak-unlike those from humbler services–sought to put the Air Force first. As a matter of fact, none of the services has a monopoly on parochialism.

“The crux of the matter is that Gen. Merrill McPeak and many of his mentors, followers, and supporters believe that the Air Force can win wars, that firepower from the air will drive an enemy into submission,” Gen. Frederick J. Kroesen, USA (Ret.), senior fellow, Institute of Land Warfare, Association of the US Army, wrote to the Washington Post in November 1994.

No sooner had General Kroesen thus flayed General McPeak for parochialism than he declared, “The recent air campaign against Iraqi forces gained not a single one of the US or UN objectives in the Persian Gulf War. Four days of land combat-aided immeasurably by the air campaign-achieved every goal and victory.”

This same view of the Gulf War is found in Certain Victory, a report published by the Army in 1993. “Desert Storm confirmed that the nature of war has not changed,” it said. “The strategic core of joint warfare is ultimately decisive land combat.”

(As indicated by General Kroesen, the Gulf War experience hangs over the roles and missions debate, but most people will not remember the facts of it the way he does. This was the conflict, for example, in which airpower destroyed Iraq’s command-and-control system the first day, closed down the supply routes, kept the world’s sixth largest air force from flying, destroyed sixty percent of the enemy’s tanks and artillery before the ground war started, and induced large numbers of Iraqis to surrender rather than endure more bombing.)

The Air Force has made the case that overseas presence is a shared mission and that its bombers and fighters, stationed within the theater or deploying from the US, are another means by which presence can be achieved. In some instances, long-range aircraft from the United States will be the first US forces to reach a crisis area.

Adm. Leighton W. Smith, Jr., prime architect of the “From the Sea” strategy, told the Newport News Daily Press that landbased airpower from the United States “in any way, shape, or form, is not forward presence. I don’t care what you do, how you color that son of a bitch, it is not forward presence.”

The full pride of the Navy was expressed in a staff commentary attached to Admiral Boorda’s letter to General Fogleman. “Naval forces, and carriers in particular, are most frequently the force of choice to respond to emerging crises,” it said. “They are flexible, sovereign, sustainable, and arrive ready for combat.”

Generally overlooked in all the hue and cry is that the basic Air Force pitch is to put joint considerations first and focus on the core competencies that the air, land, and sea components can provide. That is the idea behind the functional division of battle space in the four-battle concept.

“Most of the contentious issues between the services revolve around different notions of joint warfighting,” General Fogleman said in his briefing to the Roles and Missions Commission. For example, he said, “the Army is devoted to the land battle [and] proceeds from the assumption that joint warfighting is about how components bring expertise and capabilities to bear in support of the land battle.”

“The Air Force understands that it can’t do everything” and “does not wish to be placed in the position of defending its abilities to win wars unilaterally,” said General Link, the Air Force’s point man on roles and missions for both McPeak and Fogleman.

McPeak at his McPeakiest said the same thing. “We simply cannot afford to configure each service’s combat forces for sustained, independent operations,” he said in the Heritage Foundation speech. “In the final analysis, jointness means depending on one another.”

“The Air Force can perform key roles independent of other forces, but it is generally employed jointly with the other services,” General Fogleman said in his briefing to the commission. Among the leading imperatives, he said, is the need to “focus on core competencies for best investment leverage” and to “build mutual trust.”