Washington Watch: Lessons Learned and Re-Learned

Aug. 1, 1999

Two months after the bombs stopped dropping in Yugoslavia, the Lessons Learned industry in Washington is cranked up and in full swing. The debate over the victory in Operation Allied Force–how big it was, what the decisive factors were, who gets the credit, and what could have been done better–will probably rage on for some time.

Indisputable are these facts: For the first time in history, the application of airpower alone forced the wholesale withdrawal of a military force from a disputed piece of real estate. The US Air Force was the chief engine of the campaign, carrying out more strike and support missions than any other service or any Allied partner. Precision guided weapons and stealth met or exceeded expectations. The 78-day operation was successfully conducted with the loss of only two Allied aircraft and no Allied combat casualties. A greater percentage of the active and reserve components of the Air Force was committed to the air campaign than was called on for either Vietnam or Desert Storm.

DoD’s own lessons learned apparatus is already in place. The study will be headed by Deputy Defense Secretary John J. Hamre and Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman USAF Gen. Joseph W. Ralston. It is expected to take as much as a year to digest what happened and translate it into applicable policy, strategy, and budgetary action.

A Need for Speed

The Air Force has established its own team to feed the Pentagon study, but having borne the brunt of the air campaign, it must move much more quickly to size things up and take steps to posture itself for whatever comes next.

“We can’t wait a year … or two years” to learn the lessons of Operation Allied Force, USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Michael E. Ryan told Air Force Magazine in a late June interview. The force must “reconstitute and recover” from the action, which saw a substantial depletion of munitions stocks, loss of training time, sharply accelerated engine and airframe usage, deferral of depot maintenance, and a heavy toll on deployed personnel, Ryan said.

The Air Force will need time to “rest the force and recuperate it, and let people get … their personal and professional lives back together,” he added. Making quick use of the knowledge gained from the campaign will speed the process of regrouping, he said.

The air campaign demonstrated the indispensability, in any kind of military action, of controlling the air, Ryan pointed out. It was not a startling revelation, he added, and in the Balkans, the concept of air supremacy was not so much vindicated as reaffirmed.

“To do any kind of military operation, whether that’s air or ground,” he said, “[we] absolutely must have air superiority.”

Against a well-equipped, well-trained air force and Integrated Air Defense System, “we essentially owned the air,” he noted. Faced with the speed and precision of Allied attacks, the Serb integrated air defense network “went into a mode of trying to hide. … We forced [it] to become essentially ineffective.” Serb radar operators quickly figured out that attempting to guide weapons toward Allied airplanes meant they got “a missile followed by a bomb right down their throat.”

Regardless of whether it was simply forced into hiding or destroyed, the Serb IADS went off the air, achieving the desired effect, Ryan explained. That effect was freedom for NATO airplanes to conduct 35,000 missions over Yugoslavia, suffering the loss of only two airplanes and no lives to enemy fire.

“We want every adversary to make the same decision these guys did,” Ryan said. When given the choice of going against US­led airpower, they would say, in Ryan’s words, “Oh, let’s not.”

The bottom line in Allied Force, Ryan said, was that “a very, very well-run air operation … brought a cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of the Serbian forces from Kosovo. “That fact,” he added, “can’t be rewritten, no matter how hard the pundits try to rewrite it.”

The nation should be very proud of what was an “incredibly professional operation … given all the political and military restrictions that were put on,” Ryan declared. Those restrictions were hardly secret: The US wanted to strike more strategic targets right from the start, but NATO Allies insisted on a more gradual approach.

It Was Inevitable

In a June 4 op-ed column for the Washington Post, Ryan said, “The campaign did not begin the way that America normally would apply airpower–massively, striking at strategic centers of gravity that support Milosevic and his oppressive regime.” A month into the campaign, he wrote, it became apparent that a constrained, phased approach was not effective. NATO broadened the air campaign to produce strategic effects. The result, Ryan said, summing up while the operation was still in the final stage, was that “Serbia’s air force is essentially useless, and its air defenses are dangerous but ineffective. Military armament production is destroyed. Military supply areas are under siege. Oil refinement has ceased, and petroleum storage is systematically being destroyed. Electricity is sporadic, at best. Major transportation routes are cut.

“NATO aircraft are attacking with impunity throughout the country. With the continued buildup of our aircraft and better weather, the attacks are intensifying and the effects are mounting.

“Cracks in the Yugoslav military and police forces are widening. Draftees are failing to report for duty. Unit desertions are on the rise.”

The intensification of the air effort and the cumulative effects of previous strikes meant that it was “inevitable” that the Serb army would be destroyed, Ryan wrote.

“Airpower could not stop the door-to-door … thuggery and ethnic cleansing that [were] going on, directly,” Ryan told Air Force Magazine. “The only way you were going to be able to do that [was by] taking it to the heart of the matter-in this case, to Belgrade.”

In a broader sense, Allied Force underlined that “in almost every situation, you’ll have to have airpower involved, even if it’s only for humanitarian reasons, in lifting forces in, and resupply. There are very few instances I can think of where airpower doesn’t apply … in some way.”

Hand in hand with the military lesson learned is its hardware counterpart: The Air Force has to have the F-22.

“Sure, we did OK against some MiG-29s that came out,” Ryan allowed, “but if you look at system vs. system, we need the next generation of air superiority to clean them out. We don’t want any fair fights.” The Serb air defense system may have been suppressed, but it had depth in surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery, and fighters and remained dangerous throughout the conflict, Ryan said.

“We can’t say this was easy and therefore we don’t need modernization,” he noted. “This was not easy. This was hard. … So we can’t lose sight [of the fact that air superiority is] the enabler for everything else that we do.”

When asked if the other services grasp the importance of the Air Force’s role, Ryan said, “I think so.” To do their operations, the other services need that cover which the USAF provides, he said.

The US has enjoyed control of the air in every armed conflict since Vietnam, and “we take it almost for granted, but we can’t. We’ve got to keep working on it,” he added.

At Lightning Speed

A second lesson of the conflict was the necessity to keep information flowing at lightning speed to everyone who needs it, Ryan said.

Command and control, as well as the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities of the force, is “something we have to pay a lot of attention to,” Ryan observed.

“Our ability to execute this program-this war-showed the leverage you have when you’re able to … move information around rapidly and make decisions” based on it.

The Link 16 data-sharing system, which essentially permits different aircraft, ships, or facilities to exchange information securely in real time, will be crucial in future operations, Ryan predicted. While the Air Force and Navy are “pretty well committed [to the system programmatically], we need to get on with the fielding of it,” he added. The system will make possible to “within minutes, retarget, refocus, and command and control the force.” While the airplane-to-airplane benefits of sharing tactical data are obvious, he said, the system will also feed and draw on the whole military network of sensors, permitting an even finer ability to manage the force “in an agile way.”

The effectiveness of precision guided weapons was supremely evident in Yugoslavia, Ryan observed, and “day/night, all-weather precision” is the third-ranking area warranting close attention.

The joint direct attack munition-used only by the B-2 in all weather to attack the most highly defended targets in Belgrade–as well as the new joint standoff weapon and the venerable Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missile, all of which are satellite-guided, “did a fantastic job,” he asserted.

The conflict showed “there’s a place for mass, and there’s a place for precision.”

He noted, as an example, that precision guided bombs succeeded in boxing in aircraft on a runway. Then highly accurate bombers came and destroyed the airplanes and the rest of the runway with unguided bombs.

The Air Force must continue to work on the mix of precision guided munitions of various expense and dumb and cheap bombs that can still be accurately delivered by smart airplanes.

The service can’t and shouldn’t “rely … on one class of munition or one class sensor or [in] one class of range. You have to have full-spectrum capability, depending on the situation that’s presented to you,” Ryan observed.

Another lesson re-learned was “what a wonderful, disciplined, trained, and committed force we have,” Ryan said. “These people, whether … on the ground or in the air, … did an unbelievable job.”

Once again, the Air Force was “in expeditionary mode,” Ryan said, bedding down personnel and equipment “in lots of places we’ve never been before.” Tent cities sprang up and operations commenced in numerous sites and, at some, were taken down just as quickly as the force packed up and went home.

“We do this expeditionary business pretty well. In fact … very well,” Ryan said. “In 38 hours, we’re there and ready,” which was “a tribute to these great people who respond to the call.”

Now that the attack aspect of the operation is apparently over, the Expeditionary Aerospace Force concept will become “the blueprint” for USAF’s recovery, Ryan said.

“What we’re doing is recovering back to the AEF [Aerospace Expeditionary Force] schedule,” Ryan explained. “It’s our template for day-to-day operations around the world.”

“Downtime Mode”

The AEF plan creates 10 force packages that will range from “on alert” for deployment to a contingency, all the way down to packages that have just returned from a contingency and are in downtime to recuperate, Ryan explained. In the case of Allied Force, units that went to the conflict earliest and worked hardest–flying the most missions without relief–will be first to go into the downtime mode. Units that were less heavily tasked will occupy a place somewhat higher in the rotation.

“We do this at a squadron level,” and there are formulas that determine which units most urgently need rest and retraining, Ryan said.

Particularly hard hit by the war were people and systems in the “low-density, high-demand” mission areas: Joint STARS, AWACS, and U-2 reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft, special operations, and EA-6B electronic jamming units, he noted. In some cases, a system was so heavily tasked that all operational and all training assets were rushed into the fight, leaving a gap in training replacements at home.

A system exists for maintaining such mission areas at “sustainable” levels of deployment “without driving the force into the ground,” Ryan noted. In a Major Theater War, however, “all that goes out the window.” Those gaps must now be filled, and substitute capabilities for such systems may have to be found.

“We’ll work with the Joint Staff and others to see where we can plug holes or reduce the size of the mission we may have forward at the time,” Ryan said. That may involve handing some missions off to other services that have approximate capabilities.

“We were the ones that surged,” Ryan added, so the services that played lesser roles in the war should now fill in on the housekeeping missions.

Training will also get close attention in the recovery period, Ryan noted.

Training that was deferred for the air campaign “needs to be reinvigorated so that we are agile and flexible [and still able to] swing the force to a different kind of mission,” he said. Tactics not practiced in Allied Force need refreshing in case they are called for in another theater.

“A Big Deal to Us”

The Air Force had “by percentage of force … a greater proportion deployed during this period … than we had deployed during Desert Storm or in Vietnam. So that’s a big deal to us.” However, “this is not the whole Air Force that we’re drawing down. … We still have a lot of capacity to cover the requirements that we have laid out there.”

Ryan allowed that “we’ll have to prioritize, some. And we’ll have to have others cover [some] things. But we do that all the time, anyway. … The Air Force will still be there in most areas. But we have to take the … forces that were committed down awhile to reconstitute.”

Had the AEF concept not already been well along in the works, with a goal of being set up by this October, “we wouldn’t know what to recover to, quite honestly,” Ryan noted.

The Air Force is “still calculating” what it will need in dollars in order to replace expended munitions, engines, and airplanes that were prematurely worn out, depleted spares kits, and other items. However, “we’ve gotten superb help out of the Administration and the Congress,” Ryan noted, with a supplemental funding bill worth over $13 billion, of which USAF’s share will be about $3.8 billion.

“We dropped a lot of munitions [and] … flew a lot more … time on the airframes than we expected to,” Ryan pointed out. By this month, he expected to know “what it is we need to do right now [in terms of replacements] and what we can afford to push on the budget next year or the year after.”

Senior USAF leaders said it will take six months to three years for the Air Force to fully recover from the Balkan War.

Units will be rested and back in the AEF rotation within about six months, while getting them full refresher training- “getting them back to the razor’s edge of readiness,” said one-and restoring the schedule of deferred exercises may take nearly a year. Buying replacement engines, missiles, bombs, and airplanes-even those already in the pipeline-will take up to three years simply because of the long lead time involved.

“CALCM is a good example,” Ryan noted. “We started pushing back in December or January to start rebuilding [the CALCM stocks, even before Allied Force],” he said. “And the quickest we could get started was the November [1999] time frame … with deliveries a year and a half after that.”

Asked whether the Air Force had simply been stretched too thin by taking on a Major Theater War almost on its own, Ryan said it had not been.

“We found, in this case, we were OK for this size operation,” he said. The Air Force did exercise Stop-Loss, an executive order which blocks people in key specialties from leaving the services until the cessation of hostilities-but Ryan reported he had very few complaints from those affected.

Disruption and Duty

“Most of them said, ‘Yeah, it disrupted my life a little bit, but when there’s a war going on, I know what my duty is,’ ” he related. The Air Force, he said, will do everything possible to help those affected by Stop-Loss to make a smooth transition to a postponed civilian life.

“We owe it to them,” he said, “having changed their plans and altered their future.”

The EAF structure requires about 2,300 to 2,400 more people to work properly without overtaxing some areas in the future, and Ryan is still not convinced the service has the right answer as to how many more are needed. Based on lessons learned from Allied Force, as much as an additional 2,500 may be required than previously thought.

“We’ve got a problem that’s in the 5,000 [personnel] range,” Ryan stated. While much of the problem will be attacked with outsourcing and privatizing, some re-engineering of the force may also be necessary, he allowed.

The operation also pointed up some deficiencies in the force.

“We don’t have enough SEAD,” Ryan said of Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses assets. USAF retired all its F-4G dedicated SEAD airplanes in Fiscal 1996, replacing some of the capability with the Block 50 F-16C with the HARM Targeting System, now known as the F-16CJ.

“We used almost every one of our Block 50 CJ capability by shipping [them to overseas bases], … and we had to cease training in the States,” Ryan reported. USAF had anticipated the shortfall and had already asked Congress to support purchase of 30 more F-16CJ airplanes in its last budget, but there were a number of such areas where there was inadequate depth in the force structure, he said.

“You’ll see us working that in budgets and [program objective memorandums] in the future,” he added.

Moreover, Ryan believes the “whole area of electronic warfare” needs to be rethought for the Air Force. He has commissioned a Rand study to work with an in-house Air Force effort to come up with a new electronic warfare plan.

“It can’t just be … pumping electrons,” Ryan said. “It has to be a balance between stealth, … jamming, … info warfare. They all play in this force protection business.”

The formal lessons-learned process for the Air Force will not wait on a final-draft, comprehensive review, Ryan said. He’ll settle for increments and the 80 percent solution because of the need to re-equip and restructure the Air Force on the fly. He has dispatched Brig. Gen. (sel.) John D.W. Corley to round up gun camera footage, eyewitness reports, battle damage assessments, and other kinds of data in Europe so that the raw information is not lost. Corley will report to Gen. John P. Jumper, commander of US Air Forces in Europe, “and Jumper to me,” Ryan said.

First installments on the subjective lessons learned–like those Ryan mentioned–will form the outline of whatever restructuring needs to be done. Then, the data will undergo “a more objective look” and serve as “our impetus for change,” Ryan added.