On Expedition, Hanging Tough

Sept. 1, 2007

The recent US military “surge” in Iraq has given a hard push to the Air and Space Expeditionary Force.

Record numbers of airmen are overstaying the standard 120-day deployment. Over just the past year, the rate at which airmen are breaking the 120-day AEF deployment goal has nearly doubled, rising from 26 percent to just over 50 percent. Moreover, as the Air Force shrinks, there will be fewer airmen and aircraft to go around, a situation that will put even greater pressure on a heavily tasked force.

However, service leaders insist that the AEF concept is working as intended and will survive at least the next few years without a major redesign. “We can stay at this level as long as we have to,” said Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Chief of Staff.

Speaking with reporters at the Pentagon in June, Moseley noted that the AEF was meant to manage both the peacetime and wartime demand for Air Force capabilities by regional commanders, and can hold up under current requirements, which he characterized as “slightly above surge” levels.

The phrase “Air and Space Expeditionary Force,” or AEF, has two distinct meanings—one broad and one narrow.

The broad meaning refers to all the Air Force airmen, civilians, aircraft, and support units that either are already deployed overseas or are available for such a foreign deployment in a regular or emergency rotation. It comprises at least 98 percent of the entire Air Force, say USAF officials.

The narrow meaning refers to an individual “bucket of capability”—composed of combat and support forces that have been earmarked to train, deploy, and, if necessary, fight together through a given period of time.

The Air Force maintains a total of 10 of these “little” AEFs, each with roughly comparable numbers of personnel, aircraft, and capabilities. They normally deploy in pairs. They go to real-world operations for four months to a year. Afterward, they start a buildup to the next deployment. They recuperate, train, take professional military education courses, and then enter an intensive period of exercises, intelligence briefings, and drills before heading out again. Whole or partial units and individuals may be called for specific AEF functions.

According to the Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph AFB, Tex., each pair of AEFs will deploy with between 25,000 and 27,000 airmen, up a bit from the average of just under 25,000 last year. Commander requisitions have compelled the Air Force to “reach forward” into future AEFs to find the necessary people, resulting in a foreshortened period of rest, retraining, and reset for about half the Air Force’s deployable personnel.

However, this stress and strain has yet to manifest itself as a drop in retention rates. They remain high. In fact, Air Force active duty retention rates met or exceeded goals in the second quarter of 2007. Recruiting also has remained strong, except in the Air National Guard, which has fallen as much as 25 percent short of its goal in recent months.

Moseley noted that the impact of the Air Force’s high operations tempo has been softened somewhat by the fact that the pool of deployable people has been expanded considerably in the last couple of years.

“When I became Chief, we had only 40-something percent [of] folks in … deployable buckets,” he noted. “Now we’re up to 98 or 99 percent.”

Even though virtually all serving airmen are in the AEF “library”—meaning their unique experience, background and skills have been catalogued and filed in a database that makes finding and assigning them easier—“that doesn’t mean they will deploy,” Moseley pointed out. Missile launch officers, for example, don’t go abroad on AEF assignments, but they may have special language skills that may be required in an emergency. All airmen could be called for AEF duty even if their usual job tends to keep them Stateside.

“We should live in an expeditionary mind-set,” Moseley said. The recent nonstop pace of deployments, he said, “truly is … what the world’s going to look like for us over the next 10 or 15 years.”

The Air Force has become practiced at expeditionary operations, too. For 16 years, Moseley noted, the Air Force has learned to be efficient at setting up expeditionary airfields, “mobilizing and deploying our people,” using its war reserve materiel kits, “setting up the billeting, … the office space, … the command centers, … the mess facilities, the clinics,” and then taking them down and moving on.

Lessons learned in this process have been constantly assessed and applied to make the successive deployments go more smoothly. The other services study the techniques employed by the Air Force’s RED HORSE base setup specialists.

From 90 to 120

The AEF was once based on a 90-day deployment, but that was increased to 120 days to reduce the number of transits from home base to theater, and to lessen the strain on equipment.

“The sweet spot for us is between 90 and 120 days on our [tactical] aviation deployments,” Moseley said. The four-month spell is deemed not too arduous for the airmen who rotate in and out of overseas deployments, and is the right duration for equipment as well. Longer deployments require taking along more spare parts and support gear, and are less efficient.

However, deployments now come in three lengths, not just one. Most fighter unit deployments are 120 days, but bomber units have been extended to 179 days, mainly because it costs less and puts less wear and tear on the airframes to swap them out less frequently.

Stressed career fields, such as security forces, special operations, logistics, civil engineers, and certain intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance systems, are also on a 179-day deployment rhythm. They remain the low-density, high-demand mission areas.

For forward base commanders and certain other specialties, the deployment period is for a full year. Such jobs tend to be those where the learning curve is high, where accumulated knowledge or continuity is mission essential, or where practical considerations demand a longer term.

Maj. Gen. Anthony F. Przybyslawski, commander of the Air Force Personnel Center, noted that contracting officers, for example, are needed for 179-day deployments, “if not a year,” because “this is a cultural thing. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the type of work contracting officers do requires a relationship being built” with local businesses. Short-dwell buyers are not trusted.

Until recently, the AEFs were managed by the AEF Center, located at Langley AFB, Va. The AEF Center now reports to the personnel center.

Przybyslawski, a former AEF Center commander, said nothing was “broken” that required the shift. It was done simply to be more efficient—and logical.

“When you look at it, … the execution of the AEF is a personnel operation,” he explained. What was missing, he said, was the recognition that the personnel system of the Air Force is ultimately about supporting the needs of combatant commanders. There was no clearly established direct link between the personnel system and regional commanders requiring USAF capabilities.

The new structure connects “the entire chain of custody of our people, from the time they’re assessed, trained, assigned, developed, promoted,” Przybyslawski said, “and now we also do support to the warfighter: making sure that the airman who goes downrange is a full-up round, has had the opportunity for the training, is experienced.”

By October 2008, the AEF Center’s personnel activities will all have migrated to Randolph Air Force Base, he said. It will be like an air operations center, except that it will focus on the routing of people, not aircraft. The hardware aspects of the AEF will remain at Langley.

“I call this ‘operationalizing’ personnel,” Przybyslawski said.

The constant creep of the numbers of people exceeding the 120-day goal will not ultimately break the AEF concept, Przybyslawski asserted.

It’s true that “reaching forward” into future AEFs to get the required numbers of people does tend to “erode somewhat the 120-day construct,” Przybyslawski acknowledged, because “you’ve eaten into that next rotation.”

However, the AEF is simply the way that the Air Force presents forces to the regional commands, and it will dutifully provide whatever is needed.

“We’ll never say to the COCOM that, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t support this because we only go for 120 days,'” he said. “This is war, Americans are getting killed, and airmen are in the fight.”

Some capabilities are not needed and don’t deploy. Right now, there’s no need for F-15Cs in either Iraq or Afghanistan because neither theater poses an air superiority threat. Although assigned to AEFs, F-15C units stay home, flying Operation Noble Eagle missions or doing other tasks, but the expense of moving them is averted. However, individual pilots are still called to serve staff functions, such as in the theater combined air operations center.

The Eleventh

Forces in certain areas also don’t deploy, since they are, in effect, already forward deployed. Przybyslawski noted that forces in South Korea are sometimes called the “11th AEF,” because they are forward based, and most of those assigned there are on one-year unaccompanied tours.

“They are in the AEF, but they’re not deployable,” he said.

Likewise, some ISR people who perform their mission from home base—intelligence interpretation specialists at Beale AFB, Calif., for example—are considered “deployed in place,” Przybyslawski said.

The Air Force will reduce its ranks to just 316,000 people by Fiscal 2009. How will that affect the AEF structure, which is already short of people to meet all requirements

Przybyslawski said the first step is a broad process of “housecleaning” to make it clear what kinds of capabilities the Air Force really possesses.

Throughout the Air Force, he said, there are unit type codes, or specialties, that are grouped together in only partially manned organizations. The force has been drawn down, but the units are still in place, with vacancies. The fact that all these organizations are on the books implies a capability that really don’t exist, he said. The service is working to “determine which authorizations are no longer there.”

He said the Air Force will take two units of a particular UTC that are only half-manned and make “one good one” out of it.

When that’s done, the true capabilities of the Air Force will be known, and it will be less likely that the service will be asked to provide people in excess of what it can really give.

“Starting with Cycle 7,” which begins next year, “you’ve gotten rid of all the chaff of vacant UTCs that have occurred as a result of force shaping and PBD 720,” the Pentagon document that approved the Air Force’s cut of 40,000 full-time-equivalent positions.

The result will be “a clearly defined capability of the AEF,” Przybyslawski continued, and at that point, Moseley “will be able to truly articulate what his Air Force truly looks like, in capability.”

Smaller, for Sure

COCOM requests are “brokered” by the Joint Staff, and it will know what the Air Force has on hand to meet a requested capability—and what it doesn’t.

It will be “a smaller Air Force,” Przybyslawski acknowledged. The service will not refuse requests for forces, but after the shakeout of empty units, “what we have to be able to do is articulate to the COCOM when we just don’t have any more people to do it,” he asserted.

The Air Force has been tasked to provide an ever-increasing number of airmen to relieve Army and Marine Corps forces needed for ground combat duty. These “in lieu of” assignments range from guarding prisoners at detention centers to driving vehicles and defusing unexploded bombs.

In 2004, when the ILOs were first called, less than 2,000 were requested. In Fiscal Year 2007, the number of ILOs is going to be around 5,073. Next year, it is expected to be 6,000.

The ILOs are not part of the AEF. Those assignments are filled separately, and Przybyslawski said that about 85 percent of the ILO slots are filled by volunteers.

“We announce the requirement,” he said, just as any other kind of assignment is published. The announcement lists the job to be done and the skills needed, and “we get the volunteers.” In fact, he said, the personnel center routinely gets calls from airmen saying, “I want to deploy. Find me something.”

The ILO assignments are one-year tours, and they are managed by the personnel center, not the AEF Center, but the two coordinate the assignments.

Besides patriotism, Przybyslawski said a big motivator for the volunteers is the opportunity to “be in the fight” and directly support the war effort near or at the front lines. It helps propel careers by broadening experiences and offering an opportunity for recognition and medals, and is more interesting than “sitting at a base” in the States.

Some ILO jobs are considered so plum that the AFPC actually must convene competitive assignment boards to award them. The job of “provincial reconstruction team leader,” for example, provides the opportunity to have responsibility similar to “being a squadron commander somewhere,” Przybyslawski said.

“They’re out there living in the villages, working with the regional governor, and they’re trying to help rebuild the country. … We don’t have a school for that, but by gosh, we’re doing it, and the people love it.” Such ILOs typically go for an abbreviated Army or Marine Corps course before deployment.

“It’s My Turn …”

Przybyslawski noted that one of the 12 Outstanding Airmen of 2007, SMSgt. Tammy L. Brangard-Hern, who works at the AFPC, was already scheduled for a deployment overseas when she was selected for the honor. Numerous volunteers offered to take her place, he said, “so she could be part of that program. But she’s gone to deploy. Because … she said, ‘It’s my turn to go, and I want to go.'”

Volunteers don’t meet all the ILO requirements, however, and in those cases, the personnel center will go first to people in a given career field who “haven’t been overseas for a long time.” Even then, if the chosen airman is being given less than 60 days’ notice of a one-year deployment, “we would make it a 179-day tour” through the AEF and that person’s replacement would fill a one-year hitch as the ILO.

The policy arose because some people were getting just a few days’ notice of a year-long tour, and “that was unacceptable,” Przybyslawski said.

About 20 percent of the Air Force’s AEF requirements are filled through the Guard and Reserve. That portion, too, is accomplished through volunteers.

“We don’t like mobilizations,” Przybyslawski said.

The way it works is that, about two months before an AEF is set up, the “Reserve and Guard will come in, look at our requirements, and they will take them off our plates.” The reserve components take the slots “for those tasks they know they can get volunteers for.”

The reserve components, however, get some flexibility from the Air Force. It permits four Guardsmen, for example, to share a single 120-day tour, with each serving a 30-day stint. Such accommodations—which are necessary because some civilian-airmen simply can’t serve for more than a month at a time—are only possible in slots where long-term dwell or continuity is not a requirement for the job.

“That’s dependent on the COCOM allowing them to do that,” Przybyslawski said, but it seems to work, “and I think we do better than any of the other services through that concept, of getting our Guard and Reserve to help us out through the volunteerism.”

The AEF system is perhaps “the most flexible tool” available to the Pentagon in filling overseas manpower requirements, Przybyslawski asserted.

“If you ask the Navy for a finance officer, they can provide you that, but the [USS] Kennedy has to come with [him], because he’s tied to the Kennedy.”

He observed that the AEF, pressed as it is, has proved able to “ramp up, ramp down, sustain, respond to the wildest requirements,” and not crack the morale of the rank and file in the process.

“I am confident” that with the AEF, “we can flex the force to rapidly build up; it gives us a tool to bring it down. … It’s a nifty idea. The people who invented it should be proud.

Managing AEFs With Fewer Aircraft

As the Air Force shrinks to 316,000 uniformed personnel, the number of aircraft the service flies will also be reduced. The number of F-16s in the force, for example, will shrink by about 100 airframes a year during the next decade. How will the Air Force maintain the capabilities of the Air and Space Expeditionary Forces with a shrinking force structure

One way will be through munitions. The advent of precision weapons such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition has reduced the number of aircraft required to be assured of destroying a target. The new Small Diameter Bomb, which weighs in at only 250 pounds, practically doubles the number of targets each individual aircraft can destroy.

Unmanned aerial vehicles will also fill some of the gap. Both the MQ-1 Predator, and its big brother, the MQ-9 Reaper, are classed as “strike” aircraft by the Air Force, despite their capabilities as intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance platforms. Armed, they can serve as junior versions of fighters equipped with targeting pods possessing real-time video capability.

The B-1B bomber is proving to be a highly effective substitute for fighter aircraft, offering high-speed response to requests for close air support, long dwell time, and a considerable weapons load, now with mixed munitions. The Air Force is looking at putting targeting pods on B-1Bs as well, to give them the advantages of self-lasing capability and yet another “eye in the sky” with full-motion, real-time video.

As the F-22 and F-35 enter the inventory, they can do double or even triple duty, able to serve as penetrating strike aircraft, air superiority aircraft, and ISR sensor platforms, all at once. However, they cannot be in more than one place at a time.

“With fewer fighter squadrons available, there will be fewer squadrons assigned to any given AEF pair,” Air Combat Command said in response to a query.

“However, actual aircraft deployment numbers depend on the capabilities requested by the combatant commanders. In some cases, we will be able to accomplish the mission with fewer aircraft, but that will not always be the case.”

ACC went on to say that its “first commitment” is to support combat operations, and it will do “everything in our power, with the resources given to us, to support our combat commanders as they achieve their objectives.” However, “only time will tell how our aging fleet will endure future deployments.”

ACC went on to say that its “first commitment” is to support combat operations, and it will do “everything in our power, with the resources given to us, to support our combat commanders as they achieve their objectives.” However, “only time will tell how our aging fleet will endure future deployments.”