Airpower on Demand

April 1, 2010

In January, Air Force Gen. Duncan J. McNabb traveled to Afghanistan to help plan a new surge of personnel, equipment, and supplies into that war zone. The commander of US Transportation Command arrived at an important moment. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the overall commander, was pushing into action 30,000 troops recently assigned to the Afghan theater.

It was a Monday, and the date was Jan. 11, 2010.

“The next day, Haiti hits,” McNabb said during AFA’s February Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla. He was referring to the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that devastated the impoverished Caribbean nation, killing scores of thousands.

The disaster brought a rapid change of plan for America’s transportation forces. The new marching order was to press ahead on the surge in Afghanistan and at the same time “do everything you can to take care of Haiti.”

Overnight, McNabb’s TRANSCOM forces, especially its air mobility elements, had to shift gears. It was spinning up a giant contingency operation for Haiti while in Afghanistan, on the far side of the world, requiring a surge of airlift assets. Without standing down in Afghanistan at all, it pressed into service other forces for Haiti.

This scenario is emblematic of the range of potential scenarios the Air Force is facing today, McNabb added. “It just shows you how quickly you are going to be asked to do things, and our force needs to be very agile in the ability to do all of those kinds of things.”

Relief supplies are offloaded from a C-17 at Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (USAF photo by SrA. Laura Turner)

A Balancing Act

While the US presence in Iraq is diminishing quickly, an enormous challenge in Afghanistan is requiring a great deal of the Air Force’s resources and capabilities—particularly intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance aircraft, airlifters, and aerial refuelers that support a world-circling air bridge.

At the same time, the Haiti effort—a massive, multinational disaster relief operation—reaffirmed to service leaders the fact that operational flexibility is not just a good idea; it is central to the success of American military efforts around the globe.

The balancing act comes at a time when the force is grappling with a flat budget, struggling to recapitalize its aged aircraft fleet, expanding its capabilities to conduct irregular warfare, and dealing with new challenges such as cyberwar and the spread of stealth technology.

So-called low-intensity conflicts playing out in areas ranging from Northwest Africa to the Horn of Africa through Iraq and on to Afghanistan are dominating the news today. Still, senior leaders were quick to warn against extrapolating too much from today’s wars. The debut of the Russian PAK FA stealth fighter prototype in January indicates other nations are seeking to increase their conventional military capabilities, too.

“I think the assumptions that we continue to hear being made, that the kinds of wars that we’re going to fight for the future are the wars like we’ve got now—I have little to no confidence in that,” said Gen. Roger A. Brady, head of US Air Forces in Europe.

While the PAK FA’s strategic effect is unknown at this point, Brady said, it demonstrates the willingness of other nations to pursue fifth generation technology. “What’s important is how do we maintain air dominance,” he added. “We must continue to do fifth generation and sixth generation research … because other people clearly are.”

A year after President Obama’s initial Afghan reinforcements began arriving, the country is now the primary focus of US military efforts. Resources from Iraq have been redirected east. A country with tough terrain and “very interesting neighbors,” as McNabb called it, requires a force expansion largely dependent on airpower.

In most wars, the Air Force would carry about 10 percent of its cargo by air, he noted, but in Afghanistan the number has shot up to as high as 30 percent.

Airdrops have expanded with the US presence, McNabb said—often vital to getting supplies to isolated forward operating bases. In 2008, 16.6 million pounds of supplies were airdropped into the country, according to Air Forces Central statistics. As of November 2009, Afghan airdrops spiked to 32.3 million pounds.

The Air Force is still testing new methods of aerial resupply, including a technique called “low-altitude, low-cost” drops, where airlifters fly 265 mph, low-altitude passes during drops and use disposable parachutes so time and energy are not spent cycling them back to units. As of February, three C-130s from Dyess AFB, Tex., have been equipped to carry out this mission, McNabb said, with more planned.

In addition to a higher cost (about $3 a pound to move by air, compared to 30 cents a pound by surface, McNabb said), the logistical picture is complicated due to lack of airfields in the massive country. Throughput, as a result, becomes vital—from hubs such as Kandahar and Bagram to forward bases such as Camp Bastion in Helmand province, where throughput increased 400 percent since June of 2008.

Cameron Freeman (r) briefs CMSgt. Mark Villella, AFCENT command chief master sergeant, at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. (USAF photo by TSgt. Jeromy Cross)

Coordination Is Key

Working with Air Forces Central last year, McNabb said, air facilities received more ramp space, matting, and new equipment such as k-loaders and fuel pumps or new parking plans for aircraft to increase flow.

Just as critical as airdrop, the opening of the Northern Distribution Network has eased supply worries. A series of routes through Europe and Central Asia have helped relieve the pressure on Pakistan routes—where 50 percent of Operation Enduring Freedom’s nonlethal cargo travels through.

Nonlethal supplies such as construction material, food, and medicine now transit through the Caucasus and Russia since early 2009, with more than 7,866 containers delivered so far.

The unforgiving terrain means airpower is similarly key to combat power, said Lt. Gen. Donald C. Wurster, head of Air Force Special Operations Command. “Just imagine if the United States Army and the Marine Corps were over there trying to … stabilize an Afghanistan without the airpower we have that gives them ISR overwatch, that gives them mobility by air, … that gives them on-call strike within minutes of a troops-in-contact scenario,” he said.

Underpinning this power is the Global Positioning System satellites, said Gen. C. Robert Kehler, head of Air Force Space Command. To meet demand, forces in Afghanistan should see improvements in the GPS coverage this spring—as a two-year effort to reposition the constellation is now under way.

Three more GPS satellites are being added to the active set of 24, allowing the coverage to spread out and improve over rough terrain such as in Central Asia. “As soon as you start to move [the satellites], coverage begins to improve,” Kehler added.

Remotely piloted aircraft, such as the Predator and Reaper flown by AFSOC airmen, are involved in US and NATO’s most sophisticated efforts to track and target terrorists—“to the degree that they know which buildings they’re talking about,” Wurster added. The fusion between RPA crews and ground troops make the capability “indispensable,” he said.

Close air support, particularly provided by AFSOC’s fleet of gunships, continues “to daily save lives and take lives in ways that will produce strategic gains,” Wurster said. The Air Force is launching an effort in 2011 to acquire 16 new J-model gunships by 2015—increasing the size of the fleet to 33 aircraft. This will represent a net increase of eight (after eight older gunships are retired).

Coordination is critical in OEF’s coalition of 43 nations—38 of which are European, Brady said. One of USAFE’s most in-demand activities is the training of joint terminal attack controllers—or JTACs—which other than Predators and full-motion video, are the most sought-after capabilities in-theater, he said.

“We’ve got to the point where everyone wants a JTAC; even (provincial reconstruction teams) want a JTAC,” he said.

USAF Capt. Dave Paland (l) and Canadian Air Force Capt. Ryan Peters land a C- 130J at Bagram Airfield. (USAF photo by SSgt. Manuel J. Martinez)

Earlier this year, USAFE airmen certified Estonian and Latvian JTACs heading to Afghanistan, and plans to double the rate at which the command trains them, beginning this month (going from 72 a year to 144). Through NATO and USAFE efforts, Brady said, the goal is to certify schools from across Europe to train to a set standard sought by US Joint Forces Command.

Just three months before Operation Unified Response, the military’s response to the Haitian earthquake, USAF Gen. Douglas M. Fraser, commander of US Southern Command, visited the country. When he heard the news of the quake he “understood what this could look like.”

Of a nine million person population, three million were directly affected and, as of Feb. 18, more than 200,000 lives were confirmed lost.

The day of the earthquake, Fraser’s deputy, Army Lt. Gen. D. K. Keen, was visiting the US Embassy in Port-au-Prince. Air Force Maj. Kenneth Bourland, visiting Haiti with Keen, was killed in the quake.

“Everybody suffered some consequence,” Fraser said.

Haitian government infrastructure, United Nations personnel, and Fraser’s own troops were affected by the disaster, further complicating response efforts. The total capability of the United States was directed to respond by the President, Fraser said. Joint Task Force-Haiti was established, composed of more than 13,000 personnel on shore and ships and officials and military personnel from 109 nations. At its peak, Jan. 31, the operation numbered around 22,000, Fraser said.

On a normal day, Port-au-Prince’s international airport handled 10 to 12 flights a day. With the control tower all but destroyed and the seaport demolished, coordination needed to be restored and capacity greatly expanded.

By Jan. 14, a team of AFSOC combat controllers had parachuted in and set up air traffic control operations on a card table on the airfield. They were followed by TRANSCOM’s Joint Task Force-Port Opening, a small team of airmen and other service members who operated an airfield, moving cargo to staging areas.

Building Connections

Air Force pararescuemen arrived to assist in the grim task of retrieving survivors from pancaked buildings, Wurster said. “We had young pararescuemen three stories down in collapsed structures, laying next to cadavers that were in many cases days old, while they dug out survivors,” he said.

Soon the airport was running almost nonstop, marshaling civilian, military, and contractor flights nearly continuously. On Jan. 16, 65 air missions were recorded, and by Jan. 19, the flow peaked at 160 flights.

“Initially, it was food and water, but over time, the priorities changed,” McNabb said, and the system had to respond accordingly. High-speed transit lanes were established for airlift and rotary lift from sea, with a restored port capacity soon up and running.

Estimates suggested about 250 cargo containers a day would sustain a million people, McNabb said, and without water, 150 containers would still be needed daily. Once figured, the formula was the nut of the effort. “I told them, ‘Here’s what I need to do,’ and they put all the pieces together and moved very quickly,” Fraser said, singling out Air Mobility Command for bringing “huge amounts of capability on a dime.”

As of Feb. 16, more than 3,283 sorties were recorded into Port-au-Prince airport, carrying more than 17,000 tons of supplies. By Feb. 19, Fraser reported, more than 2.2 million meals were distributed—plus 2.6 million-plus bottles of water.

SSgt. Kevin McCray raises a tow bar to move an F-16 for maintenance at Kunsan AB, South Korea. USAF and the South Korean Air Force are both improving their capabilities on the peninsula. (USAF photo by SrA. Jonathan Steffen)

It wasn’t long before officials were compiling lessons learned.

“It was the last thing I expected to deal with,” Fraser said of Haiti. “Hurricanes, yes; earthquakes, no.” While combatant commands can’t be manned for worst-case scenarios, training and augmentation—drawing in elements of other commands—is critical to success of such an operation. Rather than air-dropping supplies—which is inherently insecure and leads to poor resource distribution—early port opening capabilities were essential. Also proving key were expeditionary air traffic control capabilities, ISR flights to detect the movement of refugees, and balanced logistics to ensure supplies didn’t back up on a runway.

In addition to working with partner nations, Fraser said the effort made huge strides in building connections with civilian agencies and nongovernmental organizations. “In a lot of cases where NGOs were very hesitant to work with the military, they are now working and coming in to find military capacity to work with them, just because of the relationship they have grown on the ground,” he said.

As Haiti proved, new security concerns can emerge in unexpected places. Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., commander of NORAD and US Northern Command, highlighted another example: the spike in traffic through increasingly accessible Arctic sea-lanes and the accompanying territorial and resource disputes.

These events are creating “some stress, some competition” in the region, and national leadership—in conjunction with DOD and the State Department—must develop a new strategy which is “more clear” and utilizes lessons from operations in the Antarctic.

Partnership activities between Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and others must be expanded and investments should be made in better communications, command and control, and situational awareness in the far north, Renuart asserted.

The health of forward based fighter forces is a concern for leadership in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, as the combatant commands in both regions are heavily involved in partnership-building activities—of which the arrival of the F-35 is a critical component.

USAFE and Pacific Air Forces leadership are confident their needs will be met before legacy F-15s and F-16s retire. “I think it’s something that’s agreed,” Brady said, that the Air Force in Europe needs to get F-35s “around the same time the allies get them. It’s important for interoperability, to have a leadership role,” and to develop tactics, techniques, and procedures.

But age is a factor, Brady said, noting F-16s in Europe are already 8,000-hour aircraft. While service life extension programs are on the table, there are other options to consider to maintain the fleet. “There’s an open question as to whether or not you want to SLEP an 8,000-hour airplane,” Brady said, noting there are younger tails elsewhere in the force structure.

The High-End Competition

While maintaining a healthy fighter force weighs heavily on overseas commanders, “tremendous transformation” is taking place in the capabilities of many of our allies, said Gen. Gary L. North, commander of Pacific Air Forces. Just as USAF led the way toward establishment of a strategic airlift component with C-17s at Papa AB, Hungary, Pacific allies such as the South Korea have thoroughly modernized their military.

The Republic of Korea boasts around 400 modern fighters, including the F-15K and Block 52 F-16s, North said, and the country’s military is on track to assume wartime command of its forces starting in 2012.

“It will allow our forces to be much more flexible, interoperable, and lethal when required,” he added.

Given South Korea’s increasing capabilities, USAF has “several options” regarding the future of Kunsan Air Base, North continued. “I mean, who knows, by 2020 we might not be at Kunsan,” he said. South Korea is modern and robust, and so “it’s hard to tell where we will be in 2020, but we are planning very deliberately for full tour mobilization.”

At the same time, North said, he expects RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance aircraft to bed down at Andersen AFB, Guam, by the end of the year. The long-range ISR aircraft will provide valuable intelligence gathering capabilities, as several of the world’s largest armed forces (including Russia, China, India, and North Korea) are all neighbors in the theater.

“Our high-end competition is very good [and] it’s getting better,” North added.

The Air Force’s ability to surge capability when needed, and tailor it to the environment, is critical to success of future operations. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review emphasized this point, as it instructed the expansion of light fighter and mobility aircraft capabilities in the general-purpose air force, as well as expanding special operations forces working with foreign militaries.

“What we are trying to achieve with these programs (light mobility and light attack aircraft) is to provide a capacity-building platform and a schoolhouse cadre of aviators and maintainers that are regionally trained,” said North, speaking with reporters. In locations from Africa to South America and the Pacific, you find a lot of decades-old propeller-driven aircraft. “What we see is countries that can’t afford a $25- to $50 million fighter can afford an $8- to $12 million light attack aircraft,” he noted.

Light support operations—such as aviation foreign internal defense (FID), as conducted by AFSOC’s 6th Special Operations Squadron—are gaining in importance.

“Eighty-five percent of [US Special Operations Command’s] deployed forces go into the CENTCOM [area of responsibility],” said Wurster. “But there are still things to do in other portions of the world.” For AFSOC, building partnership capacity “farther down on the spectrum” is just as critical as activities with European and Asian allies. Building capacity with small air forces in places such as the African Maghreb, Southeast Asia, and the Arabian Peninsula is expanding. Wurster anticipates aviation FID growing to meet demands of any conflict and “pre-conflict” in these areas.

AFSOC’s 6th SOS retains about 200 personnel currently, and is responsible for FID activities across all geographic commands.

Helping allies address security hurdles before they emerge as threats is why activities such as FID are so important, Wurster said.

Most of this type of activity will remain quiet. “I can’t tell you where they are,” Wurster quipped in February. “But they’re places you’ve read about in the paper.”