Strengthening the Real-World Force

April 1, 2006

The operational Air Force is simultaneously fighting the enemy and transforming itself. In other words, the service is applying the lessons of recent combat actions to its missions today, even as it changes in major ways to meet future needs.

That is the word from senior USAF leaders who gathered for the Air Force Association’s annual Air Warfare Symposium, held Feb. 2-3 in Orlando, Fla.

At this year’s event, top officers referred repeatedly to the concept of “interdependence”—that is, the tight interweaving of various service functions to produce a more powerful and more efficient combat whole.

Such emphasis was natural, given the imminent release of both the Pentagon’s Fiscal 2007 budget and the final report of the year-long Quadrennial Defense Review, both of which gave heavy attention to ways and means of strengthening “jointness” within the American armed forces.

Speaking about issues affecting the operational force were four commanders: Gen. Ronald E. Keys (Air Combat Command), Gen. Paul V. Hester (Pacific Air Forces), Gen. William T. Hobbins (US Air Forces in Europe), and Gen. Lance W. Lord (Air Force Space Command).

All explained the challenges inherent in the symposium’s theme, “Forging the Interdependent Force.”

Keys of Air Combat Command noted that 2005 was a busy year for his forces—and not simply because of the war in Iraq.

Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Noble Eagle, and the demands created by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma all taxed the Air Force. At the beginning of the year, USAF aided nations devastated by the Asian tsunami; at the end, USAF was flying relief missions to earthquake-ravaged Pakistan.

“Wars and operations … are my operational challenge,” Keys said. These missions can create financial problems. Last year, ACC canceled $402 million in planned spending, “including $132 million in facility projects and $71 million in peacetime flying hours,” he said.

Crossing the Divide

“That’s a philosophical divide that we have never crossed before, to cut flying hours in order to pay bills,” including soaring fuel costs.

Keys noted that much of the money was restored at the end of the year, but unflown flying hours cause damage to readiness that cannot really be made up. “Sorties didn’t get flown, training didn’t get done.”

Keys said, “We lost some combat capability,” which is dangerous.

The general noted that advanced, realistic training is the factor that underwrites Air Force dominance in air combat. Other nations—countries that “are not our allies”—know this and are taking a page from the Air Force playbook.

“They’re coming after us,” Keys said. “They’re as smart as we are, they’re starting to train like we are, they’re developing tactics like we are, and they are a potent force.”

ACC is dealing with equipment and regulations that are not necessarily tailored for the Air Force’s expeditionary nature. He noted the case of Operation Allied Force, the 78-day NATO air war in the Balkans in 1999. USAF wanted to put up a Predator control tower for that war, but, under the rules of the time, it would have taken six months just to award a contract.

Keys noted that these rules “were perfectly fine for an in-garrison, peacetime situation.” That is because the Air Force “wanted to make sure the concrete was the best price and it was going to be [military] standard and it was going to last for a thousand years,” he said. The system does not work so well when responsiveness is needed.

Similarly, Keys went on, the Air Force needs equipment that works in tough, expeditionary settings.

“That means it’s going to be sustainable in an expeditionary environment,” Keys said, explaining that whether it is “the heat of the desert, or the humidity and rain in Southeast Asia, … it’s got to work [and] be mobile.”

A targeting pod that only works 60 percent of the time in dust or heat is not truly expeditionary equipment, he said.

Lord, then head of Air Force Space Command, said that he has had extensive discussions about capabilities with all unified combatant commmanders, and, in these conversations, talk always gets around to two major subjects. One is the need for more and better intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR). The other is the need for more-connected communications.

The need for additional ISR capability is well-documented, and Lord does not believe that the situation is hopeless, as some claim. The Air Force, according to Lord, must “really work on the ‘I’ part” of the ISR challenge, but “I think we know how to do the ‘S’ and ‘R.’?” The challenge is not gathering data, it is turning the information into useful intelligence.

Space Command could use some help from the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, however. The commander said that all of the services depend on space-based combat capabilities, but almost no one from outside the Air Force is active in their development. More soldiers, sailors, and marines are needed in the program, he explained, so that “we can really integrate the kinds of capabilities” being developed.

No “Joint Credit”

Lord noted that, because troops do not receive “joint credit” for these assignments, other services are not inclined to send officers to help develop space systems. “In some cases, we’ve got more foreign and allied officers helping us [than] folks from our own other services.”

Lord said the benefits are clear when the services work together on space-related issues.

He cited the case of Col. Michael J. Carey, commander of the 90th Space Wing, F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo. Carey was sent to al Udeid AB, Qatar, where he worked in the combined air operations center as director of space forces in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. One of his first tasks was to deny the enemy command and control.

While that might sound easy, it was not, because there was great danger of “collateral damage”—disruption of the US forces’ link to GPS signals. Those signals had to be preserved at all costs. “Mike was able to work with his colleagues, understand the two objectives, and put those together in a way where we could truly make the space forces interdependent in that kind of operation,” said Lord.

Lord said AFSPC operational equipment is performing well. The Air Force has nothing “to be sorry about [concerning] our stewardship of the Global Positioning System,” Lord said. The command has decided to take “a little risk now in the constellation sustainment” to free up money and accelerate the next generation GPS III constellation.

Space Command’s worldwide navigation, ISR, and communications systems help the Air Force overcome the distances that complicate operations in the Pacific Theater, Lord said.

The chief of Pacific Air Forces, Hester, agreed wholeheartedly with that statement. The Pacific region is so vast that commanders cannot routinely put up reconnaissance aircraft and keep them airborne for the length of time that would be needed to give the “persistence” of coverage that is now required for operations. Hester said, “Space helps us with that.”

PACAF also is moving, of course, to improve its access in the theater for aircraft. The command recently received the first contingent of C-17 strategic airlifters permanently based outside the continental United States. Eight Globemasters are headed to Hickam AFB, Hawaii, where they will be flown and maintained by a Total Force team.

In 2007, the first of another eight C-17s will arrive for permanent basing at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska.

Hester said the Hawaii C-17s will immediately boost USAF responsiveness in the Pacific. Their flying time to potential hot spots on the East Asian rim will be eight hours shorter than is the case with airlifters stationed on the US West Coast.

Guam Is Big

In the Western Pacific, Andersen AFB, Guam, occupies a central spot in PACAF’s plans. Hester said he expects fighters, refueling tankers, and bombers to continue to rotate there on an indefinite basis.

Bombers have been present in the Western Pacific for two years now, at the specific request of the commander of US Pacific Command. Hester said he does not expect PACOM to change its standing request for “continuous deployment of those bombers” at Andersen.

One system that will be permanently based on Guam is the RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial system. Six Global Hawk spyplanes will be assigned to Andersen, and Hester thinks there is room for many more.

“I would take a … lot more of those things and put them all at Guam,” he said.

Global Hawk also presents an opportunity to build ties with major countries in the region. Japan, Singapore, Australia, and South Korea have all expressed interest in the partaking of capabilities the Global Hawk offers, Hester said, to the extent that they are “considering putting money into the research and development and the sponsorship of certain sensors.”

Japan may want to base Global Hawks of its own on Guam. The RQ-4 “needs an opportunity to be away from airports so that it can spiral up and get over the top of [the] airlines, and then do its business,” Hester said. He noted that this would be tricky on Honshu, given the extreme crowding of Japan’s airspace.

Hester suggested that Guam could become the site of a Global Hawk “pen,” from which Japan and other nations could operate their own systems. Hester’s advice: “Let’s all work Global Hawk issues together.”

Bilateral agreements are important in the Pacific, he said, because there is no NATO-like alliance structure. In the Pacific, relationships must be built one country at a time. Hester said equipment is often a good starting point.

South Korea is now buying the F-15K and Singapore the F-15SG—advanced variants of USAF’s F-15E Strike Eagle. (See “Aerospace World: Boeing Unveils F-15K,” May 2005, p. 22, and “Aerospace World: Singapore Buys More F-15s,” February, p. 21.) These buys make sense, because “if you’re going to buy another piece of equipment, you must be thinking about … who you’re going to be [using it] on the battlefield with,” Hester said. Common equipment encourages officer and senior enlisted exchange programs, so that “we can teach you and you can teach us, and we can then mesh those [experiences] together on the battlefield.”

Economic growth in the region “produces an opportunity for folks to want to protect their economy and to … protect those lines of communication and lines of commerce,” Hester said. As he put it, this development also provides an excuse for some to become militarily “adventurous.” As a result, he noted, “Military competition is high and growing in the Pacific arena.”

P-s-s-t. It’s China

Hester named no countries, but he no doubt was talking about China. The communist giant’s booming economy has become a powerful magnet for natural resources—most notably crude oil, which Beijing purchases from Persian Gulf nations and transports by tanker through the constricted Strait of Malacca. Lately, China has begun to build up its naval and airpower as a means for protecting its economic lifeline.

The Strait of Malacca, lying between Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, is also threatened by transnational terrorists and modern day pirates. This and other developments present major challenges for a small, economy-of-force organization such as PACAF. The solution? The Air Force must help find a way for American interests to “overlap others’ interests and to be able to encourage them to join us in worthy causes,” such as protecting commerce.

Hobbins, the commander of US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), faces demands that are no less daunting.

Europe is wealthy on the whole and is home to a large concentration of American treaty allies. Hobbins said 17 of 22 coalition members in Iraq lie within US European Command’s area, and 12 of 19 partners in Afghanistan are from the theater.

“It’s not just a coincidence,” he said. “Active engagement pays off when it counts—in going to war.”

NATO has enlarged in recent years, adding former Warsaw Pact nations, and even some states that were once part of the Soviet Union. The growth comes with growing pains.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, NATO began performing an “air policing” mission for its members, to defend the air sovereignty of the alliance’s 26 members. “If you ask my Brit friends what this amounts to,” Hobbins said, the British would say “this is a dog’s breakfast of command and control.”

Poland and Slovakia fly MiG-29s; Denmark has F-16s; the Czech Republic flies the Saab-BAE Gripen. Romania has upgraded MiG-21s, and Germany still flies F-4s. Britain has several types of non-American fighters.

“As we brought countries like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into the NATO fold, they came with the old Soviet radar systems,” Hobbins added. “Their recognized air picture does not match our recognized air picture, so we’ve got to find a way to meld these things together.”

All this is in a region where some countries can be overflown by a fighter aircraft in as few as five minutes.

Building Better Bases

Hobbins said Europe is the midway point from the US to many critical areas, and Ramstein AB, Germany, is in the midst of major upgrades. An advanced, robotic cargo terminal can now load a C-5 in an hour—a job that used to take 4.5 hours. Meanwhile, the C-5’s fuel hydrants are now “located underneath the ramp on the base, allowing refueling of a C-5 in just 30 minutes,” instead of the two hours refueling used to require.

Similarly, Hester is encouraged by improvements planned for Yokota AB, Japan. Once an all-US base, Yokota will soon host Japan’s Air Defense Command and a Bilateral Joint Operations Center for missile defense. Japan-based 5th Air Force also is building a new intelligence center. Hester said “All of this is unfolding at a very, very rapid rate.”

PACAF also is refining its presence in South Korea. A US Army helicopter brigade is coming to Kunsan Air Base, and plans call for the soldiers and their equipment to be fully integrated with the Air Force facility. Hester said the command seeks to avoid creating an Army “section of the base that they can go and play in and call it Army land.”

US Army troops scattered throughout numerous camps and forts near the border with North Korea are being pulled back and consolidated into more defensible positions on the Korean Peninsula.

Further, the headquarters for US Forces Korea is expected to relocate to Camp Humphries, near Osan Air Base, when USFK vacates Yongsan Garrison in central Seoul in 2008.

In Europe, USAFE also is looking in new directions. Operation Enduring Freedom has a “situation,” Hobbins said, “where the line that exists between Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, and Algeria is … where we’re finding the roots of terrorism growing.”

While the sometimes-strained relations with longtime European allies garner a lot of attention, Hobbins said many other countries to the east and south of Europe’s center are eager to engage with the USAFE. He cited Algeria, Bulgaria, Morocco, Romania, Tunisia, and Ukraine as nations that are interested in greater military contact with the United States. This could come through mentoring programs or by the nations hosting training exercises.

Hobbins said Romania has a training center “twice as big as anything we have,” that can host joint air-ground exercises.

USAFE is leveraging the “diverse capabilities” of the nations in its area of responsibility. For nations such as Morocco and Romania, hosting NATO forces can build military professionalism and legitimacy. For longtime NATO members, the NATO Response Force is driving a new expeditionary mind-set.

The NRF is similar in concept to USAF’s Air and Space Expeditionary Force. NATO members contribute forces on a rotating basis. “It’s made up of modules of capability, and truly it is a coalition of the willing,” Hobbins said.

For example, the Czech Republic offers chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear-explosive (CBRNE) response capabilities, and Norway provides strategic sealift. Nations “have to offer up that capability,” he said.

The NRF’s first mission of 2005 was to the United States—a relief effort after Hurricane Katrina.

A month later, the NRF was headed to Pakistan. Forty-two nations contributed to the NRF earthquake relief effort, while C-130s were provided by Britain, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, and Turkey.

The alliance is slowly developing an expeditionary mind-set, but it needs a push. “We’ve got to solve … airlift for this NATO Response Force,” Hobbins said. “Clearly the [existing] C-160s and C-130s do not meet the outsize cargo requirement for NATO equipment.” Nine members have decided to procure the Airbus A-400M, “delivering a load that’s somewhere between the C-130 and the C-17,” he said.

The Air Force has its own urgent procurement needs. Keys said modernization can come in several forms, but his preference is for “new-new” equipment—new buys of new technology. Examples of this include the F-22 Raptor, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Predator B hunter-killer UAS, and Global Hawk.

His second preference is for “old-new” modernization—making old equipment new again through technology insertion, new weapons, avionics, and data links. Keys cited the operational benefits of this approach, such as Link 16 data links halving the time needed to get a close air support pilot on target.

Least desirable to Keys is “new-old”—new purchases of old equipment, such as F-15s. This eats funding without delivering the major increases in combat power ACC is looking for. The Air Force is already busy, and will be shrinking, so focus is important—there is no money to be wasted when the existing problems are so urgent.

Keys cited improvised explosive devices in Iraq as a problem still needing a solution. The problem is not just technology; procedures also must be improved. “You’ve got to know where the convoys are,” he said.

Unlike the execution of an air tasking order—which precisely lays out departure times, routes, and return schedules—the convoys the Air Force is trying to defend are chaotic. It is as if airmen see a pallet in Iraq and spontaneously decide to throw it on the truck and drive it to its destination. “That’s great enthusiasm, but that doesn’t get you covered by an F-16 with a pod,” Keys said. “We need some command and control of this whole operation.”

Despite the difficulties, the Air Force is performing well, he said. As of early February, ACC alone had 150 aircraft and nearly 8,000 airmen deployed to 29 locations worldwide.

“If you’re a terrorist and you’ve got static on your phone, that’s me,” Keys concluded. “That contrail overhead, that’s me. That shadow passing over you, that’s me. That computer that will not boot, that’s me. … And that will continue to be me until our children and grandchildren … emerge from this cloud of terrorism into the sunshine of security and choice.”

“Engagement” With China—Still a One-Way Street

In the past year, Gen. Paul V. Hester of Pacific Air Forces has hosted visits by several high-level Chinese contingents.

Each contingent comprises some 20 Chinese general officers, Hester told the audience at AFA’s Orlando Air Warfare symposium. He brings these groups to Hawaii for discussions that keep Beijing apprised of PACAF’s plans in the region. The point is to prevent surprises and misunderstandings.

The meetings have been “as open as we can possibly be,” Hester said. “I’ve showed them everything that we are going to bed down in the future and what we’re bedding down now, and all of the exercises that we’re running and who we’re doing them with.”

The command participates in a series of multinational exercises with Pacific nations “from India all the way around to Korea.”

The meetings serve to inform China about US military capabilities. Hester said he “took the opportunity to show them the results of Resultant Fury last year, when we had the opportunity to sink moving ships at sea.” When satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions sink a ship, “it makes a powerful impression.”

This has not been a two-way street, however. Reciprocal engagement is “absolutely zero,” he said.

“I’ve tried to go” to China, noted Hester. “I’ve been told that I can’t go this year.”

High Standards for Global Strike Systems

The Air Force needs a new attack capability that is “responsive, persistent, precise, [with] global effects for the warfighter,” said Gen. Ronald E. Keys, commander of Air Combat Command. B-2 stealth bombers are slow. F-22 Raptors carry small bomb loads. And nuclear missiles are overkill in almost all circumstances.

There are a variety of ways to achieve effective long-range strike: either by having high speed, which allows attack to come from far away, or “you can be overhead, almost invisibly,” Keys said.

One high-speed option is a conventionally armed intercontinental ballistic missile, something Air Force Space Command and US Strategic Command have considered. This is “just one of the options that are available,” said Space Command chief Gen. Lance W. Lord, but “the speed, range, lethality, [and] accuracy of that kind of system would certainly fit into that portfolio.” Conventional ICBMs would not offer much persistence, however.

The Air Force’s need for a new strike aircraft is more well-defined. USAF was recently directed to move the “in service” target date for a next generation bomber—which could be unmanned—to 2018 from 2037.

It is “going to look a lot like a B-2. It will be a B-3 [or] something like that,” Keys said. His “personal view” about the next generation long-range strike system is that, unlike today’s stealth bomber, it is “going to be unmanned.”