The Expeditionary Force Under Stress

July 1, 2005

Nearly a year ago, the Air Force reconfigured the schedule for its 10 rotating Air and Space Expeditionary Forces (AEFs). The setup used since 1999 had made each airman in an AEF vulnerable to deployment for up to 90 days every 15 months. That plan was scrapped in favor of 120-day deployments every 20 months.

The change, which went into effect last September, stemmed from operations in Iraq. Airmen deployed there frequently stayed longer than the supposed limit of 90 days. The change was made to better meet the demands on the ground in Southwest Asia.

The situation has not improved. Far from it. A year ago, the 90-day schedule was being breached by about 10 percent of airmen. Today, despite the longer tours, 20 percent of airmen stay longer than 120 days.

Air Force leaders still lay the blame on Iraq. They note that there has been a flood of new taskings from the Army and from US Central Command. Often, airmen need extensive training before they deploy and more time to master the mission in-theater. Longer tours provide more continuity, too.

These factors, they say, account for the doubling of the number of Air Force members surpassing their tour limit.

The Air Force today has a steady-state need for 20,000 airmen to deploy overseas and carry out vital rotational assignments. That is 250 percent more than was the case before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The majority of these rotational jobs—some 17,500—are in the CENTCOM area of responsibility in Southwest and Central Asia.

Another 3,000 airmen are deployed outside of the AEF system, largely on overseas training assignments. The figures do not include the many thousands of airmen permanently stationed in Europe and the Pacific.

A Steady State

This is the new steady state. The demand for airmen is “not expected to decline for some time,” said Gen. John P. Jumper, USAF Chief of Staff, in the memo announcing the AEF schedule extension last year. (See “Longer Deployments,” August 2004, p. 60.)

Today, the Air Force is heavily engaged in unconventional missions, and the service is still trying to adjust. Airmen are at work on the ground in Iraq, driving trucks, protecting convoys from insurgents, providing security forces in Iraqi prisons, and interrogating captured terrorists. The Air Force has formed teams to find and neutralize the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that have proved so deadly in Iraq.

These are not “traditional” missions, by a long shot. The AEF system originally was designed to reduce stress on a force conducting long-term enforcement of “no-fly” zones over southern and northern Iraq. Aviation packages (primarily aircrews and maintainers) dominated the force mix, and the “watch” missions were generally dull and predictable.

Brig. Gen. Stephen L. Hoog, commander of the AEF Center at Langley AFB, Va., said aviation packages now provide only a third of the airmen deployed in a typical AEF. The other two-thirds fill combat support missions, such as those that assist Army operations.

Most aviation personnel are deploying at a “sustainable level,” but not all, said Col. Dana Hourihan, chief of the AEF matters division on the Air Staff. Unmanned systems, intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance teams, and refueling and airlift crews continue to be heavily tasked.

The Air Force recently increased the use of C-130s for tactical transport in Iraq. The step has helped the Army get 350 trucks per day off the perilous Iraqi roads.

These C-130 crews are “flying above the IEDs and ambushes that challenge convoys,” Jumper told Congress in April, but they are heavily tasked. There are currently nearly 3.5 AEFs’ worth of C-130 personnel deployed to CENTCOM’s area. That is nearly twice the sustainable rate.

Hoog noted in an interview that 29 percent of all aviation personnel are coming from the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command, where much of USAF’s mobility capability resides.

Mobility forces have had to adapt quickly to operations in the war zone. The C-130s flying in Iraq “are not flying standard approaches” noted Hourihan. “They’re flying tactical approaches” to minimize their exposure to ground threats such as the shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles that have hit several military and civilian aircraft.

The AEF Center is supporting 101 operating locations worldwide, not all of which are air bases. The “driver,” said Hoog, is the need to provide “Army support.” Today, there are more than 2,500 airmen directly supporting the Army. Many have drawn convoy duty, where they, too, face the danger posed by IEDs and ambushes.

Airmen Convoys

The combat convoys are the most prominent example of airmen filling missions that traditionally belonged to the Army. It is dangerous work.

SSgt. Amelia C. Solomon put her convoy training to use almost daily when she got to Iraq. In an Air Force news release, Solomon explained that she volunteered for an Iraq deployment because she had never been to the desert.

“I thought I was volunteering for a three-month deployment with the Air Force, not a six- to eight-month deployment with the Army,” she said.

After undergoing initial training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., Solomon headed to Southwest Asia for additional preparation—including live weapons training.

“We’d be driving down the road and shooting at targets that would pop up,” said Solomon, of the 100th Logistics Readiness Squadron at RAF Mildenhall, Britain. The training proved invaluable. Nearly every time a group of convoys would leave a base in Iraq, at least one would come under attack.

“We sent out at least five convoys a day, and … one night all five of our convoys got hit,” said Solomon, who was awarded a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in a mission last year. An IED blasted the trailer of the vehicle in front of her, and “we ended up rear-ending that truck.”

She had smashed the truck’s windshield with her head and injured her knees, but Solomon “jumped up on the top” to man the truck’s M-60 machine gun until the convoy made it out of the town through which it had been passing.

The combat convoy training now held at Lackland AFB, Tex., is “based on what we did in Iraq,” Solomon said. “We had the schoolhouse come to Iraq—the instructors actually came on convoys with us.”

The success of training programs such as this is inspiring the Air Force to increase the training for all its deploying airmen.

With global requirements seemingly set at a permanently high level, officials are weighing a series of new programs. To ensure that each airman receives the proper expeditionary education, the Air Force has divided its proposed training into three categories.

The goal is to provide all deploying airmen with “a baseline skills set, based upon his or her specialty” to keep them effective and alive, said Hourihan.

Jumper emphasized, “Every airman is expeditionary,” so the service must prepare its personnel.

The proposed first level of training, for all expeditionary personnel, will “focus on the skills that every airman needs to deploy,” said Hourihan. “This training will concentrate on basic force-protection competencies for self-defense and defense of an installation.

This is really “indoctrination training,” he said. With every airman expected to be part of the expeditionary Air Force, this “really could be best achieved through [expanded] basic military training.”

To that end, Air Education and Training Command favors expanding the Air Force’s basic military training program by 10 days, Hourihan said.

The second training level will create “expeditionary combat airmen.” This will “focus on providing the necessary skills to operate outside the expeditionary base perimeter,” Hourihan said.

Engineers, combat convoy drivers, and contract specialists who go out into local communities are among those who would benefit.

Battlefield Airmen

“Classically, we’ve trained our airmen to operate inside the fence,” said Joel Peterson, principal Air Staff advisor for AEF matters. Hourihan added that many deploying airmen currently get their combat skills training at an Army facility, where convoy and prison missions are old hat.

The most intense training would be for the battlefield airmen—those who operate deep in hostile territory. This includes combat control teams, pararescue jumpers, tactical air control parties, and those with related skill sets.

In May, integrated product teams were working to determine the best training regime for the battlefield airmen and the expeditionary combat airmen. There is “a lot of momentum” for improved training, and “it is absolutely necessary that we do this,” Hourihan said.

Proposals will be reviewed at the next Corona meeting of four-star generals this summer. There is a lot of “best-practices sharing going on right now,” Hourihan said, and the Air Force wants to institutionalize the programs.

Aiding the Army

In terms of overall requirements, “it looks like we’re at a plateau” in the CENTCOM region, Hourihan said. But in many cases, newly stressed specialties “happen to be a lot of the same ones where we are lending support to the Army.”

Army and CENTCOM requirements are going to remain high, he said. “Our stressed career fields—there is no immediate end in sight to the stress they’re going to feel.”

The Air Force announced in February that roughly 200 airmen in “key and critical operational and joint task force staff positions” will begin deploying to the CENTCOM region for a full year.

This change comes “in response to requests from [CENTCOM] joint task force commanders seeking continuity,” the press release explained, “where the local culture requires more time to establish meaningful ties with local people and host governments.”

In addition to these 365-day “temporary duty assignments,” the Air Force also has thousands of airmen on six-month tours. Hoog said everyone must keep the purpose of the AEF in mind. The system does not exist to get airmen home in 120 days; it exists to present forces and capabilities to combatant commanders.

There are a “whole boatload” of career fields that do not fit neatly into the 120-day deployment schedule, he noted.

Today, 20 percent (3,900) of deployed airmen stay longer, mostly on 179-day assignments. Those on extended tours include airmen in fields such as RED HORSE construction, “detainee operations,” convoy personnel, security forces, and critical medical care teams.

Building the Library

Jumper last year challenged the Air Force to get as many airmen as possible into the Air and Space Expeditionary Force “library,” the database of airmen eligible for deployment.

Having as large an AEF library as possible has long been the goal, but Jumper threw down the gauntlet with a memo last year calling for the four-stars heading the Air Force’s major commands to “aggressively review” the personnel they exclude from deployment and “take immediate steps” to increase the airmen in the library.

Hoog told Air Force Magazine that unless an airman is a student (30,000 are, at any given time), just returning from an unaccompanied overseas tour, or in prison, the goal is to “get them in.”

Not all categories of airmen are equally likely to deploy, but it is important to have an “inventory” of personnel who can, Hoog said.

The center is trying to get commanders to align the Air Force’s “internal rhythms” with the AEF schedule. In the past, airmen were often exempt from deployment if it conflicted with a permanent change of station (PCS) move.

USAF is trying to “sync up” these schedules so that airmen are not ordered to move during a scheduled deployment. There are now cases where a PCS has been delayed to accommodate AEF requirements—in the past, Hoog said, “PCS won out.”

There are currently 260,500 airmen in the library. That number should increase to roughly 325,000 in the future as entire new categories of airmen join the system. This will represent roughly 90 percent of the Air Force’s total active duty strength of 359,700.

The Air Force is creating new “posturing and coding guidance” to bring missileers, as one example, into the AEF system. Officers sitting on missile alert are already directly supporting a combatant commander—Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright at US Strategic Command—so it is expected that they would actually deploy on a “very limited basis,” Hoog said. But the Air Force wants to have them available.

Forces stationed in South Korea are also directly supporting a combatant commander and are, for all intents and purposes, already forward deployed. But Hoog observed that the Army recently redeployed forces from Korea to aid in Iraq—because missions are prioritized.

Desert Duty

Central Command gets the lion’s share of USAF’s deployed forces. According to AEF Center data, CENTCOM has more than 17,500 airmen assigned for AEF 5/6, which is “on call” this May through August.

The next largest customer is US Pacific Command, which has a rotational requirement of less than 850 airmen.

CENTCOM’s demands can affect other deployment locations such as Iceland, where the US has long supplied air defense forces, and Guam, where bombers bolster US combat power in the Pacific. These missions are ongoing, but the deployments may be curtailed to meet other requirements.

Operation Noble Eagle still demands a sizeable number of assets. The homeland air defense mission has a rotational requirement of nearly 250 airmen, and forces committed to Noble Eagle vary depending on threat levels and special events.

“The last time I checked, there was not an [air defense] alert site near Crawford, Texas,” noted Hoog, referring to the President’s ranch, where top government and foreign officials sometimes gather.

The Air Force is adapting to new realities in other ways as well. Northern and Southern Watch were primarily air superiority missions—the job was to ensure Saddam Hussein’s air forces didn’t take to the skies in violation of UN resolutions.

As of April, noted Hourihan, there were no F-15Cs (strictly air superiority aircraft) deployed to CENTCOM’s region—but there were plenty of F-15E Strike Eagles.

Fighter aircraft are now heavily engaged in “urban CAS” operations—close air support missions in dense urban environments. These can be among the most stressful and demanding missions for pilots, as they typically require the Air Force to defend land forces in close contact with both enemy forces and civilians. Peterson said this “incredibly complex mission” is creating some of USAF’s most skilled pilots.

That contrasts sharply with the situation in 1999, when the AEF system kicked off. At that time, the goal was to spread the pain of a deployment around more personnel and to limit the time in the desert. Prior to 9/11, most AEF missions failed to challenge pilots in any meaningful way, and their skills withered.

The opposite is now often true, and an AEF deployment is when an airman’s skills are sharpened. The rotations provide an unexpected benefit—they get a “large portion of the Air Force involved and combat ready,” Hoog noted.

Skill loss still worries some mobility personnel. Peterson noted that “the things that they aren’t doing” are a concern in the mobility community. For example, C-17 crews are finding themselves too busy to practice airdrops with the Army. Mobility units are “just busy enough” that they cannot catch up on training, he said.

This is a reason not to lengthen the standard deployment even further to, say, six months.

There is also a limit to how long airmen can be deployed before time away from home drains morale. Even with 20 percent of those deployed away from their home stations more than four months, the vast majority of airmen are still on the standard schedule. Further, one official noted, with a shorter tour, airmen require less “downtime” to recover after a deployment and can quickly “spin up” for a new assignment if needed.

Like a Champ

Overall, Hoog said, the four-month rotation is right for the Air Force and the system is “working like a champ.” The AEF system also identifies shortfalls and highlights where to find “surge” capability.

“We know how much we can support,” Hoog said.

Officials say the old 90-day rotations were driven by a different requirement and that airmen have taken the change in stride. Deployments may be longer, but individuals deploy less frequently, and even those on longer tours generally know exactly how long they will be away.

New Missions, New Demands

The requirements in Iraq are not what the Air Force is used to. Officials consistently express the willingness and ability to assist on the ground in Iraq, but the new missions require that the Air Force become expert in fields that often do not translate at the airmen’s home stations.

Airmen are serving as combat convoy drivers, prison guards, on counter-improvised explosive device teams, and are on the ground negotiating contracts with Iraqis and other foreign nationals.

These are not core Air Force missions. One official said that the Air Force has no prisons of its own, and while a truck driver is a truck driver, combat convoy operations are an entirely different beast.

The Army and US Central Command requirements are now fairly well understood, but there are still changes that pop up which the Air Force must meet.

The service recently received a tasking to provide 45 interrogators for CENTCOM, noted Brig. Gen. Stephen L. Hoog, commander of the AEF Center at Langley AFB, Va.

This is not a typical Air Force mission, and intelligence officers or Office of Special Investigations agents were the logical place to turn for the personnel. But both of those communities were already overtaxed, Hoog said.

In the intelligence specialties, many officials “wear the Air Force blue suit” but are funded and managed by national-level intelligence agencies, noted Joel Peterson, principal advisor for AEF matters on the Air Staff. The Air Force only “controls” about 40 percent of these intelligence personnel at any given time, he said, which can exacerbate shortages in a field that is already high demand.

The Air Force met the tasking for interrogators by finding “capacity” among communications lieutenants holding security clearances, Hoog said.