The Strength of the Force

April 1, 2002

Flexibility. Adaptability. Transformation. The power to continually change and improve has become a core strength of the US Air Force, senior service officials told a recent Air Force Association national symposium.

It is a virtue that was much in evidence during operations over Afghanistan, they noted.

From the technicians who fitted Hellfire missiles onto Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to the forward air controllers who learned how to operate laptop computers on horseback, Air Force troops excelled at taking the tools at hand and combining them in new ways to complete unanticipated missions.

“What we are [now] able to do is to leverage the technology of this nation to create asymmetrical advantage for our military forces and to overcome what [Defense] Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld has called our asymmetrical vulnerabilities,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper told attendees.

In years to come, the Air Force speakers agreed, service transformation will accelerate, as a blend of stealth, precision guidance, space systems, and information technology enables the Air Force to actually do certain things warfighters have only talked about for years.

The AFA Air Warfare Symposium was held Feb. 14-15 in Orlando, Fla.

Secretary James Roche

The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu predicted that “whoever adapts shall be preserved to the end,” said Secretary of the Air Force James G. Roche. A few hundred years later, a Greek, Heraclitus, said that nothing endures but change.

“About 1970, a similar figure in history, Yogi Berra, noted, ‘When you come to a fork in the road, take it,’ ” said Roche. The Air Force was born of a technology that is still less than 100 years old, noted the service’s civilian leader. In fact, he said, the technology–airpower–is newer than vacuum cleaners, newer than radios. “Yet, we seem to have come such a long way … to the present era,” Roche said.

Major systems are headed down somewhat different paths, though most are proceeding well. “In our long-range strike aircraft area, we have done particularly well,” said Roche.

Ten B-52s and eight B-1Bs accounted for most of the 850 sorties by such warplanes in the Afghanistan area of operations, as of mid-February. The B-1s typically flew to Afghan airspace and stayed on station for some 2.5 hours. To get to the target area, the B-52s flew 2,500 miles–about the distance from Tampa, Fla., to Seattle–with 20 Joint Direct Attack Munitions on board.

Bombers will be modernized where it makes sense to do so. The Air Force will make sure the B-2 can continue to penetrate air defenses into the future and that the B-1 has the standoff weapons it needs.

“We will be able to attack any fixed-point target anywhere in the world very, very quickly with great precision,” said Roche.

For the first time, the F-22 is fully funded in the budget, and after a development program of some 20 years, “the time is right” for the new air superiority fighter to enter production, Roche said, quoting Rumsfeld.

Noting the service’s need for the air superiority fighter, Roche said, “Those of you who are subcontractors, please know how critically important you are to the future of our fighter-bomber force. You must deliver … on schedule and on cost … for the sake of your country.”

The Joint Strike Fighter is getting off the ground, said Roche, and that is welcome. However, he added, older USAF systems performed beautifully in the Afghan war. Air National Guard F-16s with Litening pods were “demi-heroes,” in Roche’s phrase. The Link 16 system was quickly added to some F-15s to help them become part of the fused mosaic of target information and command and control.

“I feel good about the systems … in our fighter-bomber-attack [forces] if we can only have steady budgets,” said Roche. The outlook for mobility aircraft is similarly good. The C-17 has performed superbly. In fact, it is being worked to death because of its capabilities.

“We will probably want more than the number we have talked about because we are seeing how useful this aircraft can be,” said Roche.

The Air Force will probably look for a multiyear buy of the C-130J and upgrade the other C-130s. The best of the C-5s will be kept. “On mobility, I see a good path forward,” said Roche.

In the area of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, the Air Force has developed wonderful systems, the Secretary said, but it is too dependent on the old Boeing 707 airframe. It’s not that the airplanes themselves are coming apart–it is that limits in electrical power and cooling have been reached, among other problems.

Fixing this problem may well require a mix of “unattended vehicles,” new aircraft, and space. “We are going to move to a portfolio of systems,” said Roche.

Command and control will see new systems coming on line, including advanced EHF and laser communications. The idea of the Combined Air Operations Center as a weapon system has proved itself, the Air Force civilian chief added.

Building on that, the service is looking at the notion of a new multimission airplane. “We will have multimission aircraft as part of our concept of operations–kicking down the door and controlling the battle afterwards,” said Roche.

Tankers, on the other hand, are something of a problem area. The Air Force has only 60-odd KC-10s but more than 550 ancient KC-135s.

Yet the Afghan conflict has pointed out how dependent the whole US military is on its tankers. With a landlocked area of operations, everything had to move by air. This ranged from the food and water US troops consumed to the equipment they used.

It is time for the Air Force to move forward in this area, warned the Secretary. “My fear is that our tanker fleet could be the [lost] horseshoe nail that could cause the horse to tumble, the king to fall, and the kingdom to come apart,” said Roche.

A big doctrinal change is the expansion of the close air support role, noted Roche. He contended that the new F-22 will, in effect, work for soldiers on the ground, in something of a return to the days when Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold’s Ninth Air Force supported Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army in its race toward Nazi Germany.

Modern close air support capability will complement the Army’s development of new, lighter forces. It will fit hand in glove with another Air Force goal–the ability to watch an area of interest 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, in all weather, and to identify anything that moves.

“Then we intend to have the capability to have almost instantaneous attack,” said Roche. “That is part of our future.”

Developing such capabilities will require transformation. That is a subject Roche knows something about, as in the 1970s, as a Navy commander, he worked in a then little-known Pentagon organization called the Office of Net Assessment.

Under the leadership of the strategist Andrew W. Marshall, the group came up with three criteria necessary for successful transformation, or as they called it then, adaptation. They were: a well-defined mission; technology to enable integration across stovepipes; and leaders and people willing to embrace change.

All are present in the Air Force today.

“The United States Air Force is led by, supported by, and filled with innovators who embrace change and aggressively pursue transformation and continuous process improvement,” said Roche.

Gen. John Jumper

Transformation has been a theme of the Air Force since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Gen. John P. Jumper, the Air Force Chief of Staff, said in his remarks to AFA.

Among the highlights of change was the transition to an expeditionary air force, which began in 1994. The Expeditionary Aerospace Force concept matured and was institutionalized by then-Chief Gen. Michael E. Ryan in 1997.

“It continues to mature today as we study the dynamics of maintaining a predictable rotation in an unpredictable world,” said Jumper.

A second major aspect of transformation is the increasing ability of the Air Force to do many of the things officials have only talked about for years. As the war in Afghanistan showed, the service is now able to leverage technology to create an asymmetrical military advantage for the nation.

“A combination of stealth, standoff precision, space, and information technology [has] blended together in ways that offer us unimaginable change,” said Jumper.

Key to this continued adaptation is the horizontal integration of manned and unmanned and space platforms.

Consider the notion of smart tankers. Tankers are already up on the edge of the battle zone, at high altitude and on station. They are in a perfect position to create a sort of Internet in the sky. Why not load them with a pallet of equipment that translates one data link message to another in a seamless way

Why not take a tanker cargo door and outfit it with electronic scanning arrays and use it as a remote antenna for Rivet Joint aircraft? The tanker remains passive while the Rivet Joint benefits from signals sent from many locations.

Such multisensor constellations could be constructed in many different ways.

“You integrate the Joint STARS, the Rivet Joint, the AWACS, the ABCCC in a seamless way so that the airplanes talk to each other at the digital level without going through tribal representatives to interpret tribal hieroglyphics to the rest of us poor unwashed, the way we do it today,” said Jumper.

Another transformation might involve predictive battlespace awareness. Intelligence units might take their work to the next level, by exploiting predictive analysis and the mass of information available from multisensor constellations to in essence pinpoint where targets will be, before they are there.

Something of this sort occurred in Kosovo, where intelligence officers studied SA-6 anti-aircraft batteries so intently that they could guess what commanders would do, based on regular patterns.

The Air Force took some heat in Kosovo for not destroying more of Slobodan Milosevic’s armored vehicles. But US targeteers had a pretty good idea where the tanks were hiding. “We couldn’t hit them because [command authorities] said you had to see them first, and we didn’t have that total analysis where we could be convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were really in those trees,” said Jumper. “We’ve got to take away the doubt.”

The armed UAV is another transformation of technology. The success of the marriage of Hellfire and Predator has been such that Predator B will be dedicated to the hunter-killer role, with four or six weapon stations.

This doesn’t mean Predator’s basic mission will fall by the wayside–another experiment of the Afghan war placed streaming video in the back of AC-130s, allowing the gunships to pick up targeting information from on-station UAVs.

“When the AC-130 arrived on station, it was able to go right to work,” said Jumper.

On a larger scale, such integration will result in the Global Strike Task Force, in which horizontally linked ISR will be combined with the ground attack capabilities of the F-22 and the B-2 to provide kick-in-the-door capability.

“As I talk about these capabilities, what enables it all? It is the environment of space,” said Jumper.

Readiness was another of the Chief’s themes at the AFA symposium.

In February 2001, readiness bottomed out, with 65 percent of forces at C-1 or C-2. Today, 71 percent of forces are at that level, and the number continues to rise.

But there is a psychological aspect to readiness that can be as important as the numbers, said Jumper. If maintainers think higher command is taking them for granted, and counting on their extra effort to keep airplanes flying while budgets are squeezed, retention will suffer.

“Let’s not do that again and betray our people,” said Jumper.

Recruiting is only part of the answer to the personnel problem, after all. If the service does not retain the people it recruits, the system is only cycling in place.

The service needs to reiterate that there has seldom been a better time to wear the nation’s uniform than today. As the war on terrorism goes forward, the citizens of the nation are looking to their military people as symbols of pride and strength.

“Whatever you think you’d like to be doing in your life or with your life, you ought to look in the mirror and be proud of what you are doing with it today if you are wearing the uniform, because there is no more noble cause or calling,” concluded the Chief.

Gen. Hal Hornburg

The Chief’s emphasis on retention was seconded by Gen. Hal M. Hornburg, commander of Air Combat Command. Freshly minted airmen are simply not adequate replacements for eight- or 15-year people who walk out the door, he said.

“We have to scrape, fight, and make it very hard for those folks to leave us,” said Hornburg.

Over the last 10 years or so, the Air Force has closed 93 major military installations and shrunk structure by 40 percent. Yet optempo and perstempo are up 300 to 400 percent.

Furthermore, the Air Force personnel network may no longer be operating as a team.

“What we are not doing is at the four-star level down to the one-star level down to the lieutenant colonel, down to the chief master sergeant level down to the staff sergeant; we are not coaching, leading, and mentoring our airmen as we were coached, mentored, and led,” said Hornburg. “That has to stop.”

As to transformation–“the dreaded ‘T’ word,” said Hornburg in an aside–it may well have been a feature of the Air Force from its beginnings. There was, first of all, the transformation to a nuclear-capable force. There was the transformation from Vietnam to Desert Storm. Then there was the precision guided munitions revolution.

In World War II, it took 9,070 weapons to drop a bridge. In Korea, it took 1,100. By the Vietnam era the number was down to 176. And today

“Now we drop two bridges per airplane, if we are using F-117s,” said Hornburg.

Today’s combat forces are codependent on mobility and space forces, the ACC chief cautioned. Without tanker support, the now-famous 15-hour F-15E mission over Afghanistan would have been impossible. Without space capabilities, weather prediction, navigation, and guidance would disappear.

“We need to … harden space to make it totally 100 percent dependable,” said Hornburg.

Then there is C4ISR–an amorphous term, Hornburg noted. It has so much lumped in together it needs focus, or it is an area that will continue to drift.

Some of the Cs in C4ISR may be more important than some of the other Cs, according to the Air Combat Command chief. He would order things like this: command and control, with the enablers of computers, communications, and ISR.

And the one C he values above all others is not command, but control.

“The science of control enables the art of command,” he said.

Gen. Gregory Martin

The need to fight terrorism on a global basis should not really have come as a surprise, said Gen. Gregory S. Martin, commander of US Air Forces in Europe.

That is because the end of the Cold War did not usher in a period of international harmony, sweetness, and light. In just the last decade, the men and women of USAFE alone have participated in more than 67 events, from full combat to humanitarian missions.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, “we really went into a period that I think of as a simmering peace,” said Martin.

Terrorist connections were evident in a number of strikes against US forces and cultural symbols. In 1993 there was the first World Trade Center bombing and attacks on US peacekeeping forces in Somalia. Later in the decade, the bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed more than 200 people. Then the bombing of USS Cole in Yemen increased national awareness of the al Qaeda threat.

“Over the last 10 years, just about the time you sort of think the world is safe for democracy, another event occurs,” said Martin.

Terrorists declared war on America some time ago, according to the USAFE chief. It just took some time for the US to connect all the dots of various events, figure that out, and respond in kind.

“They’ve been at it. They are serious, and we are awake,” said Martin.

For the Air Force, fighting this new war will involve a number of imperatives. One of them is access–access to as many facilities in the area of operations as possible. Another is coordination from allies and acquaintances. Since Sept. 11, such help has been freely offered, said Martin, with more than 136 nations offering some sort of assistance. Eighty-nine countries have granted overflight rights and 76 have offered landing rights. Twenty-three have offered to host US forces.

Finally, the US needs to be able to conduct rapid operations of all kinds, from military to diplomatic and financial.

“We need to be able to make some very quick circle turns,” said Martin.

Current operations have exposed some things the US Air Force needs to do better, according to the USAFE commander.

Force protection could be improved. Today it is manpower-intensive and not particularly technological.

“The most sophisticated sensor we have is a dog and the standoff distance is a leash,” said Martin.

The Air Force needs to know more about more places in the world. It needs to institutionalize the ability to supply small teams of high-tech triggers, such as forward deployed spotters, in remote locations.

There is much still to learn about the use of Predator, Global Hawk, and other long-range reachback air and space operations. And even though the Air Force has devoted much attention to humanitarian airlifts over the past 50 years, more could be done in such areas as airdrop technology.

“There are things that can be done to give us a much better and much more accurate delivery of the things that are important and necessary from all weather and all altitudes,” said Martin.

Gen. William Begert

Gen. William J. Begert, commander, Pacific Air Forces, took AFA on a quick country-by-country tour of his area of responsibility and the contributions PACAF has made to Afghan operations.

He started in northeast Asia, with Japan. The US has three air bases there, all well-cared for and funded largely by the host. The Japanese military itself is becoming more and more interoperable with the US, as it buys AWACS aircraft and other equipment and considers buying tankers.

“The Japanese are great hosts and important strategic partners in that part of the world,” said Begert.

Nearby, South Korea is a nation that has never really known peace. Two PACAF bases there are important demonstrations of resolve to counter North Korea, a nation famously named as part of President Bush’s “axis of evil.”

The standoff in Korea remains so sensitive that when the Navy withdrew USS Kitty Hawk from the region and sent it to the Indian Ocean, PACAF forces took up some of its deterrent role.

“The [commander in chief of Pacific Command] and the South Koreans felt it was important that we send our F-15Es from Alaska down to the Korean peninsula as a deterrent force to let the North Koreans know that we were still paying attention,” said Begert.

US-China relations are returning to a more normal state following the collision between a Chinese fighter and a Navy P-3 last spring. China’s air force–large, with many older aircraft, but rapidly developing–reflects its overall development of military strength.

China would be a tough opponent, if it ever came to that.

“We are all hoping for a soft landing on this, that the opening of markets and their economic growth will similarly at some point down the road also blossom into a political environment that is similarly open and peaceful,” said Begert.

Malaysia and Singapore have cracked down on al Qaeda networks within their borders. Efforts in the Philippines are ongoing.

India, since Sept. 11, has similarly wanted to help, said Begert. Long-strained US-India relations may have turned a corner. The PACAF chief recently returned from a five-day visit to the country, where he traveled to three bases, including one near the tense border with Pakistan.

“They showed me … everything. I got in the cockpit of the Su-30 and had a great chance to talk to the pilots and maintainers and talk to senior officers,” said Begert.

Guam, with its modern complex of runways and weapons storage, has been a key player in shuttling forces to the Afghan theater of operations. Early on in Enduring Freedom, as many as 70 airplanes were on the ground at Guam, preparing to move west, at any time.

Diego Garcia, if anything, has been even more important. This British-owned archipelago of Indian Ocean islands was temporary home to many of the tankers and bombers that dropped the majority of the tonnage in Afghanistan.

“It has been a very quiet, successful operation with very little in the way of press coverage, by design,” said Begert.

Overall, PACAF is a relatively small command, with 40,000 personnel and some 400 airplanes. And those airplanes are old, by Air Force standards. The average age of PACAF tankers is 42 years. The C-130s based in Alaska are, on average, 28. The F-15s at Kadena AB, Japan, are the oldest in the inventory.

“One of the ways … I describe PACAF is that it is somewhat geriatric,” said Begert.

Lt. Gen. Russell Davis

Lt. Gen. Russell C. Davis, chief, National Guard Bureau, returned to Jumper’s main theme of transformation.

The nation’s Guard and Reserve are true transformational organizations, he said.

“We are continually getting new equipment and integrating it in. And that is very key,” said Davis.

The Guard and Reserve are also transforming into organizations with more emphasis on homeland security. The definition of this job is still being drawn up, as the new Northern Command/Homeland Security Command structure develops.

But the readiness of US reservists to adapt to this task is beyond question. Just look at what happened on Sept. 11. Across America, Guardsmen stopped what they were doing, put on their uniforms, and reported for duty–any duty, anything to help.

“On 11 September, … we had Army Guardsmen guarding the Pentagon and other key sites in Washington,” said Davis. “People just show up.”

Since then Guard and Reserve aircraft have protected the skies over the US, and Guardsmen have stood watch at many of the nation’s transportation nodes. For the first time, uniforms have become a feature of daily life in many big US cities. And Davis noted that the response from ordinary citizens has been tremendous.

“People walk up to our young people, shake their hands, and thank them for being there,” he said.

Peter Grier, a Washington editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “Bush’s Nuclear Blueprint,” co-authored with Executive Editor Robert S. Dudney, appeared in the March 2002 issue.