Washington Watch: The Instrument of Airpower

April 1, 1993

All things considered, the Air Force more than held its own in the latest round of the running battle over military roles and missions. USAF came away with its special nature and leading role in the application US airpower stoutly reaffirmed.

The vehicle for this was the report “Roles, Missions, and Functions of the Armed Forces,” issued in mid February by Gen. Colin L. Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is not the last word on roles and missions issues, which will almost certainly wax hotter at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill as military bud gets, forces, and options continue to shrink. Even so, the Powell report makes a case for Air Force airpower that looks built to last.

The report was prepared by the Joint Staff in consultation with Pentagon staffs of the uniformed services through many months of analysis, dialogue, and fine-tuning. Issued under General Powell’s signature, it reflects the thoughts and thrusts of all the service chiefs. In it, they join forces against critics who question why each of the four military services should be allowed to continue to own and operate aircraft in hard times and absent the Soviet threat.

“The claim that America has four air forces, implying that it has three more than it needs, makes a wonderful sound bite but distorts the facts,” the report declared. “In fact, America has only one air force, the United States Air Force, whose role is prompt and sustained offensive and defensive air operations. The other services have aviation arms essential to their specific roles and missions but which also work jointly to project America’s airpower.”

General Powell elaborated on that point at a press conference. He de scribed USAF as the “first and fore most” instrument of US airpower and called it “the best in the world. It dominates the skies and space over any battlefield that American troops may have to set foot on.”

The Nation Is “Well Served”

The JCS Chairman did not slight the other services by comparison. “The nation is well served by each one of our services’ having an air component,” he declared. “The real issue is not whether to get rid of one or more of those components” but to “make sure that we have not overinvested in any.”

The four-air-forces issue has been around awhile. Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) raised it again and with gusto last year in a landmark Senate speech. The influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee called attention to a number of alleged redundancies and overlaps of missions, weapons, and forces. He said the nation can no longer afford them, and he exhorted General Powell to conduct a “no-holds-barred” roles and missions review to identify and eliminate them.

At the time, the Joint Staff’s roles and missions review that would culminate in the Powell report was al ready well under way, mandated by the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. That law requires each JCS Chair man to reevaluate military roles and missions and issue a report once every three years. Senator Nunn’s purpose was to light a fire under the review. Its results left him cold. He faults the Powell report for not coming to grips with major issues and says he will raise them again as part of his committee’s hearings on the defense budget.

Near the end of last year, in its Fiscal 1993 defense authorization bill, Congress directed the Pentagon’s roles and missions reviewers to take a hard look at possible tradeoffs among different types of long-range landbased and seabased aircraft and among the missions they perform or are destined to perform. This directive addressed the central question in the roles and missions arena insofar as the Air Force and the Navy are concerned. As Senator Nunn framed it: “What is the best and most effective way to provide air interdiction in the future–with long range bombers from the United States or with large numbers of aircraft carriers with medium-range bombers on their decks?”

At stake in that question are the fates, in terms of numbers and missions, of all major Air Force and Navy aircraft now being planned, developed produced, or modified. They include the Air Force’s B-1 bomber, B-2 bomber, F-22 fighter, and possible multirole fighter, as well as the Navy’s proposed carrier-based F- 1 8E/F strike fighter, upgraded F-14 strike plane, and A/F-X multirole fighter, a plane originally seen solely as a deep-attack plane to succeed the A-6.

It seems ever less likely that both services will be able to afford all such aircraft, which is why Congress pushed them to reexamine air roles and missions with an eye to reducing the types and numbers of planes. The Powell report left the issue up in the air, but General Powell said at his press conference that it remains under study and that it must be resolved.

“Obviously, we’re going to have fewer airplanes, a lot fewer, and . . . we have to be sensitive to the mix of airplanes,” he said. As forces are cut the number of “aircraft will be cut other things will be cut…. We want to make sure we take down the right mix of capability.”

Not Enough Dollars

Moves to cut “specific numbers of wings” and to do other things in the name of efficiency and economy would show up in the Defense Department’s Fiscal 1994 budget, General Powell said. “The kinds of dollars that we have to generate to make our contribution to the President’s program and the President’s emphasis on the economy and the budget can’t be dealt with just by roles and missions changes,” he asserted.

The JCS Chairman indicated that naval air roles are being reassessed more rigorously than are those of the Air Force. “We have to take a hard look at the investment mix with regard to deep-strike aircraft coming off carriers, as opposed to what the Air Force can do.”

“I think the Navy does have a role to play in deep strike,” General Powell said. The major questions, he said, are “how much investment should be put in that role and what the proper mix of aircraft should be.” The Navy would respond to them in its Fiscal 1994 budget, he said, “and I would not . . . wish to prejudge what the Navy might want to do.”

The report discussed the long-range airpower issue under the heading “theater air interdiction,” or TAI. Its summary: “Sufficient numbers of land and sea based bombers and attack aircraft need to be forward deployed or rapidly deployable to provide quick response to short-notice crises. Strategic bombers, previously dedicated to cold war nuclear missions, are now available to support TAI. Therefore, in the determination of total aircraft required for TAI, it is necessary to consider the contributions of both bombers and attack aircraft.”

Close air support (CAS) of ground troops has long been regarded as a classic air-role issue. Should the Air Force, with its fixed-wing aircraft, or the Army, with its attack helicopters, be assigned all, or top, command responsibility for CAS? The Powell report acknowledged that “perhaps no aspect of roles and missions has spawned more debate . . . than the question of close air support.”

So saying, it proceeded to court even more controversy by parceling out CAS among the services, officially acknowledging, for the first time ever, a CAS role for Army and Marine Corps helicopters. The JCS recommendation: “Include attack helicopters as CAS assets and realign and clarify functions and doctrine to include CAS as a primary mission area for all services.” As its primary and collateral CAS missions, the Air Force would continue to “provide fixed-wing CAS to the Army and other forces as directed” and “provide fixed-wing CAS to amphibious operations,” respectively.

In the apparent absence of an intercontinental bomber threat, the Powell report recommends “eliminating or drastically reducing” the numbers of Air National Guard squadrons long responsible for continental air defense. There are twelve such squadrons with about 180 fighter aircraft. Their mission could be carried out by CONUS active-duty squadrons primarily concerned with other matters, said the Powell report.

Among other things, the report recommends combining Air Force and Navy primary fixed-wing flight training and requiring both services to use the same primary trainer. It proposes to retire Air Force EC-135 nuclear war commend-and-control aircraft and to shift their mission to Navy E-6A Take Charge and Move Out planes with common purpose.

Senator Nunn had raised the possibility of dispensing with USAF’s forty or so EF-111 area-jamming planes and having the Navy’s 133 EA-6Bs perform that mission for both services. The Powell report rejected the suggestion, noting that the Air Force and Navy planes have “similar but specialized capabilities” that “give military commanders a range of options in combat, complicate any enemy’s air defense, and reduce aircraft attrition.”

“If, for example, only EA-6Bs were in the inventory, Air Force bombers would be restricted in the way they could be employed to attack enemy targets as part of a ‘strike package,'” the report declared.

In a broader vein, the JCS moved to give the Air Force something it has long coveted: greater control over all US military space operations. Subject to further study, the JCS proposes to eliminate the unified US Space Command created in 1987 and reassign its military space mission to the unified US Strategic Command that came into being last June 1.

This would strengthen USAF’s hold over military space programs. Although it would do away with a unified command that has been–but need not have been–commanded by an Air Force four-star, it would keep in business two companion commands that the Air Force has had under its wing–North American Aerospace Defense Command and Air Force Space Command.

Since 1992, NORAD, USSPACECOM, and its component AFSPACECOM have been commanded by the same Air Force general. As proposed by the Powell report, this arrangement would remain in effect minus USSPACECOM. The AFSPACECOM commander would be responsible for the operations of all US space systems and intercontinental ballistic missiles. His boss would be the commander in chief of USSTRATCOM, also an Air Force four-star.

Multiple Organizations

Separate space commands now run by the Army and the Navy may well disappear. “Even with the cold war over,” says the Powell report, “our national security depends on a robust space capability. But we can no longer afford to allow multiple organizations to be involved in similar, independent space roles and functions.”

The Army and Navy would retain space components but at diminished levels. The Powell report proposes to assign “small Army and Navy components . . . to CINCSTRAT” and to space program and planning offices “to ensure that space systems [are] developed to support all services’ needs.” The Air Force, though, would be responsible for the development of all future military space systems.

The Air Force would also be designated the lead service to coordinate with NASA in operating and utilizing Landsat remote earth-sensing satellites. AFSPACECOM would take charge of all Defense Department functions at NASA.

There is more for the Air Force. Says the report, “To streamline military satellite communications operations, all operational responsibilities for the Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS) will transfer from the Defense Information Systems Agency to the Air Force. Responsibilities for the Navy’s Fleet Satellite communications (FLTSATCOM) system will also transfer to the Air Force. Both DSCS and FLTSATCOM will remain under the combatant command of CINCSTRAT.”

The Air Force set the stage earlier for combining space and strategic operations under USSTRATCOM. It said it will transfer 20th Air Force, which was created in 1992 to own and operate land based ICBMs, from Air Combat Command to Air Force Space Command.

ICBMs once belonged to, and were synonymous with, Strategic Air Command. When SAC went out of existence last year, the strategic nuclear missiles were moved to Air Combat Command, successor to both SAC and Tactical Air Command, but they have seemed out of place in the ACC world of warplanes. The ICBMs would seem more at home in AFSPACECOM, where launching payloads on big boosters, some derived from ICBMs comes naturally.

Regardless of which command maintains ICBMs, STRATCOM has final call on them. Established at SAC’s former Offutt AFB, Neb., headquarters last year as a unified strategic combatant command, STRATCOM would control and operate all Air Force and Navy strategic nuclear weapons in crisis or in war. Under the previous arrangement, it would have been necessary to chop ICBMs from ACC to the unified Strategic Command. Under the proposed arrangement, they would stay put in AFSPACECOM, a STRATCOM component command.

Similar Jobs

AFSPACECOM will take from ACC six ICBM wings with roughly 1,000 missiles in silos at six operational sites west of the Mississippi River, plus an ICBM training and testing center at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., headquarters of 20th Air Force. Gen. Charles A. Horner, boss of US military space operations, sees the move as “fitting,” because “launching satellites and ICBMs is basically the same job” and there are common grounds for training, equipping, and organizing crews for each job.

Air Combat Command is involved in a key recommendation of the Powell report: to combine in a single unified command the CONUS-based combatant forces of all four services–those in ACC, the Army’s Forces Command (FORSCOM), the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet (LANTFLT), and the Marine Corps’ Marine Forces Atlantic (MARFORLANT).

Asserts the Powell report, “The time has come to merge these forces under a single CINC whose principal purpose will be to ensure their joint training and joint readiness. Units already accustomed to operating jointly will be easier to deploy. Overseas ClNCs will be able to focus more on in-theater operations and less on deployment and readiness concerns.”

The report called USLANTCOM at Norfolk, Va., “particularly well-suited to assume this new mission” because it already embodies LANTFLT and MARFORLANT and works closely with ACC and FORSCOM. The command would “shift from a predominantly maritime orientation to a more balanced combatant command headquarters.” Its four-star CINC could be drawn from any of the services, not just from the Navy as is now the case, and “we would probably rename” it to reflect its different focus and makeup.

LANTCOM’s “cold war mission, to defend the Atlantic sea-lanes and undertake offensive operations against the Soviet Union, has fundamentally changed,” says the Powell report. “While continuing to perform a vital NATO mission, it has the capacity to undertake. . . additional responsibility in keeping with the revised military strategy.” The proposed unified command “would facilitate the training, preparation, and rapid response of CONUS-based forces,” would support and train forces for United Nations peacekeeping operations, and would stand ready to respond to natural disasters.

ACC would gain warfighting status as the air component of the proposed unified combatant command, just as Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) and US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) are air components of US Pacific Command and US European Command. At present, ACC has no theater combatant status or responsibilities. It now exists, as did Tactical Air Command, only to train, equip, and provide forces for theater ClNCs.

General Powell was asked whether the Navy is unhappy about losing its longtime dominion over the Atlantic theater and being forced to share its CINCLANT four-star billet with the other services. “The Navy is on board the [new] CINCLANT concept,” he replied. “They see merit in it. It’s an exciting idea.”

It clearly did not come easy. The JCS Chairman described the proposal for the new unified command as “one of the most controversial of all the issues” in the roles and missions review. He said it had been under study “for two and a half years, and we finally reached the point of maturity where we think we can go forward with it.”

General Powell emphasized that the services kept joint operations uppermost in mind throughout the review. “We’ve brought a new sense of jointness to the armed forces,” he declared. “We emphasize that we’re now fighting as a team.”

Adaptive Joint Packages

From this approach came a recommendation for “adaptive joint force packages”–flexible, quick-response, combined-armed forces for which Air Combat Command, with its fighters, bombers, and combat support aircraft, and Air Mobility Command, with its tankers and transports, seem tailormade [see “The Air Force Sharpens Its Aim, ” p. 24].

Such force packages would contain “a mix of air, land, special operations, space, and maritime forces tailored to meet the supported ClNC’s requirements, potentially at lower cost than today’s [overseas] deployments,” the Powell report declared. They would help the US to maintain potent a “forward presence” around the world even as forward-stationed forces are sharply cut back.

The success of those forces deploying abroad could very well depend on the effectiveness of theater air defense (TAD), a mission now shared by the Air Force and the Army, both of which want it all. The Powell report finessed this issue, recommending further review of TAD “requirements, capabilities, and deficiencies” to come up with “the appropriate mix and quantities of air and missile defense systems.”

There is a school of thought at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill that the Powell report went as far as it could reasonably have been expected to go in shaking up the status quo, given its unfortunate timing. The White House and the Pentagon changed hands just as the JCS finished working on the report. General Powell made the point that he ordered up the roles and missions review under one set of civilian leaders and delivered the report to another. He claimed that politics had nothing to do with the report, made no apologies for it, and noted that roles and missions remain under review as “an ongoing process,” with more recommendations to come.

They had better come fast. Those who are satisfied with, or tolerant of the Powell report seem solidly outnumbered by its critics. The Pentagon is under increasing outside pressure to come up with dramatic and far-reaching changes. President Clinton intent on his domestic agenda and looking for every dollar he can reasonably cut from defense, has made it clear that he stands with Senator Nunn and like-minded lawmakers intent on roles and missions reforms.

Rep. Ronald Dellums (D-Calif.), new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is notable among them. He leaves no doubt that he will focus on roles and missions issues much more sharply than did his predecessor, Les Aspin, who left the committee chairmanship in January to become Secretary of Defense. Mr. Dellums says he had “hoped that the Powell report would present a more in-depth review and would recommend more substantial changes than it does.” He joins Senator Nunn in calling for a “bottom-up review” aimed at restructuring the armed forces.

This may be the year in which roles and missions issues and budgetary issues finally converge and become indistinguishable from one another on Capitol Hill. Congress is poised to exert indirect but lasting influence on roles and missions by virtue of decisions on weapon systems and force structures. Such king-size questions as the mix of combat aircraft among and within the services–the four-air forces issue–could be ripe for resolution at the wrong hands.