An Expeditionary Force Searches for Balance

Nov. 1, 2010

The expeditionary Air Force has experienced momentous shifts in the last year, the service’s senior leadership told attendees at AFA’s 2010 Air & Space Conference in September.

USAF surged forces to meet contingencies in Haiti, Pakistan, and elsewhere while removing forces from Iraq and repositioning much of its combat power to support the expanded war in Afghanistan. The expeditionary Air Force today, however, is severely strained after years of war. With the completion of the recent reduction of legacy fighter aircraft, it is a force flying expanding missions with significantly fewer combat aircraft.

The fatigued mood of the service’s senior leadership was inadvertently illustrated by Lt. Gen. Harry M. Wyatt III, director of the Air National Guard, who didn’t skip a beat when asked where he would make additional cuts in his force structure if told to do so.

Airmen deployed from Little Rock AFB, Ark., change a brake assembly on a C-130 at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. (USAF photo by TSgt. Chad Chisholm)

“I’d probably take the cut on my wrist,” Wyatt replied wearily, generating awkward laughter. “I’m at that point, at least in the Air National Guard, where I don’t know that we can take any more cuts without sacrificing some capability or capacity.” Without getting specific, Wyatt said the Air Guard would have to “step back” from a given mission or look for better and more efficient ways to carry it out.

“I think that’s kind of where we’re going to be coming to anyway with the fiscal situation like it is,” he added.

Wyatt’s view was echoed by several other senior leaders and combatant commanders. The service, like the rest of the military, is in the midst of balancing its assets and missions while moving as much combat power into Southwest Asia as possible. The service is making serious choices about its posture and composition in a time of war.

“We are about at a crossroads here again, as we try to terminate a couple of major combat operations,” said Gen. Roger A. Brady, commander of US Air Forces in Europe, referring to Iraq and the desired future drawdown in Afghanistan. “We will have a considerable debate, … and as senior leaders, we need to make sure that the debate is shaped in the terms of our strategy and what we want to be in the world.”

USAF pressed assets rapidly into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The reduction of approximately 250 legacy fighter aircraft freed up funds to invest in existing force structure, buy new munitions and modernization efforts, and acquire intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance aircraft such as the MC-12 Liberty Project Aircraft, said Gen. William M. Fraser III, head of Air Combat Command.

The push is having an effect, as approximately 9,700 ISR sorties were flown over Afghanistan from January to July, according to USAF figures. (Barely 3,600 sorties were flown in the same period in 2009.) Troops needing airborne ISR can thank Liberty Project Aircraft and the Predator and Reaper drones pouring into theater.

Fraser said all 37 MC-12s had been delivered to the Air Force by September. Thirty are forward deployed to Southwest Asia to aid USAF’s buildup to the equivalent of 50 remotely piloted aircraft combat air patrols by the end of 2011.

The Air Force will continue to surge ISR assets to Afghanistan after 50 CAPs are in place, he added, with an eventual goal of 65 CAPs in theater. (The force is on track to hit this goal by 2013.)

A B-2 comes in for a landing at Andersen AFB, Guam. B-2s deploy to Guam as part of a continuous bomber presence in the Pacific region. (USAF photo by A1C Julian North)

A Significant Need for Resources

The assets are making a real difference. Lt. Gen. Donald C. Wurster, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, singled out the “remarkable accomplishments” his airmen have achieved with the development and expansion of airborne special operations assets, such as the Reapers of the 33rd Special Operations Squadron and the addition of a second dissemination and analysis squadron, the 56th Intelligence Squadron. Air commandos are leveraging these tools to kill or capture many high-value terrorist and militant targets.

New capabilities for AFSOC must be adaptable and scalable to various scenarios, Wurster said, but the command will still pursue force modernization where appropriate. He noted the first AFSOC MC-130J was in production in September, destined to replace Vietnam-era MC-130Es and Ps.

New equipment has been slow to arrive, however, and the strain on existing forces is beginning to show.

Wyatt said it is difficult to see how the Air Guard can recapitalize its elderly F-16 Block 30 fleet before the aircraft reach the end of their service lives—making it essential for ANG to examine service life extension program options in the Fiscal 2012 budget. Wyatt said the fighters, which populate the bulk of the Guard’s 16 air sovereignty alert sites, could last four to five years longer with lower wing skin replacements. If the F-16 program office confirms a SLEP could provide even more life (10 years or so), the case for upgrading radars, command and control, and avionics improves as well.

The strain is not just limited to the fighter force, said Fraser, pointing out that the service’s fleet of HH-60 Pave Hawk rescue helicopters is being driven hard in combat.

“When I was there, I was starting to see cracks, and we haven’t seen cracks before, in some of the bulkheads,” Fraser said of his visits is deployed rescue units.

An HH-60G lands at Kandahar. Pave Hawks are being pushed hard in Operation Enduring Freedom. (USAF photo by TSgt. Chad Chisholm)

Wurster said the system holding down the highest crew deployments currently is AFSOC’s fleet of MC-130P Combat Shadows, as the wing box repairs on the MC-130E/H fleet have pressed the remaining Shadows and MC-130W Combat Spear aircraft into service more frequently. MC-130Ws have been shifted to missions such as battlefield overwatch, Wurster noted, and limited strike roles. Some are now equipped with a basic strike package, a “gunship minus” upgrade, as he called it, leaving the tanker fleet to supply airlift.

In the next few years, the Air Force is also steering precious investment dollars into its nuclear enterprise, particularly assets now under Air Force Global Strike Command. Lt. Gen. Frank G. Klotz, Global Strike commander, and other USAF leaders involved in nuclear matters said much nuclear force investment and detail work remains. About 2,500 additional personnel have been moved into the nuclear enterprise, said Maj. Gen. William A. Chambers, head of strategic deterrence and nuclear integration on the Air Staff. But several of the systems now managed by AFGSC need a “significant influx of resources,” he said. The personnel managing and maintaining the nation’s fleet of nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles also need to be preserved.

Klotz anticipates a nuclear force funding increase over the next several years, to focus on efforts such as the modernization of B-52 components and life extension of the ICBM fleet. Other areas needing attention include the nation’s missile field infrastructure, Klotz said—such as security systems, revetments, and silos—and a replacement program for the command’s small fleet of UH-1 Huey helicopters.

Capt. Jason Ruiz runs through a preflight checklist on an MQ-1B Predator at JB Balad, Iraq, before a “push off” mission in August. His unit launched the aircraft, then handed over operational control of the Predator to a unit back in the US. (USAF photo by SrA. Matt Coleman-Foster)

While deliberations with Congress continue, Klotz told Air Force Magazine he expects a replacement program sooner rather than later—in the 2015 to 2018 timeframe.


Pentagon leadership has also pressed the Air Force to begin an analysis of alternatives next year on a successor to the fleet of AGM-86 Air Launched Cruise Missiles, the B-52’s sole nuclear-capable cruise missile in the active inventory. The ALCM is due to leave service by 2020.

The Air Force’s ICBM and bomber fleet will change in composition in the coming years—especially if the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is approved, Klotz said.

To conform to New START limits, the US will maintain up to 60 nuclear bombers and 420 ICBMs. Klotz said he believes USAF can achieve this with little trouble. The command is still working on recommendations for managing the portion of the B-52 fleet that is to lose the nuclear mission and perform conventional tasks only (at least 36 of the USAF’s 76 B-52s), but he said a final construct is being worked out within the Defense Department.

A C-5 takes off from Al Asad AB, Iraq. The Galaxy transported vehicles and equipment from the Iraq theater of operations as part of the drawdown. (USAF photo by SrA. Perry Aston)

“I think we have a very good approach, which will have minimal impact on the training and operations of the B-52 force,” Klotz told reporters.

The Air Force’s mobility forces have been heavily involved in Afghanistan operations, and were crucial to the final stages of combat operations in Iraq and the transition of forces to the Afghan theater. Operations in and around Afghanistan have fully ramped up since President Obama ordered an additional 30,000 troops into the country in December 2009—and a drawdown of 80,000 troops from Iraq by Aug. 31. At the highest levels of DOD, said US Transportation Command’s Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, the pressure to hit the August deadline to “close” out of Iraq was intense.

The combined efforts of Air Mobility Command and the other components of TRANSCOM pulled it off, McNabb said. “If we hadn’t, I wouldn’t have shown up here today,” he joked in his presentation.

Beginning in December 2009, teams from TRANSCOM visited key transit nodes in Southwest Asia, from Kuwait to Bahrain to forward airstrips such as Camp Bastion in Afghanistan and the airport at Mazar-e Sharif. They looked for ways to improve throughput of aircraft such as C-17s to rapidly offload cargo—sometimes within 30 minutes of landing—and take off again. To get supplies and materiel to forward bases, different air-drop techniques were used, such as high-altitude container delivery system drops and low-altitude, high-speed passes.

An MC-130 Combat Shadow from the 17th Special Operations Squadron, Kadena AB, Japan, takes off from Udon Thani, Thailand. Combat Shadow crews are among the most heavily deployed in the Air Force. (USAF photo by SSgt. Jeremy Henderson)

Praise for the Super Galaxys

The shift, with thousands of personnel and tons of materiel moving from the US, Iraq, and other points into Afghanistan, was difficult enough—but 2010 was an exceptionally busy year for air mobility. In January, mobility forces surged to the Caribbean to support relief efforts for the Haitian earthquake.

In February, a coup occurred in Kyrgyzstan, spurring TRANSCOM to suspend air tanker operations at the Manas airfield and reposition assets within 72 hours.

Tanker support to operations in theater continued largely uninterrupted, McNabb noted, and was moved back after the situation had stabilized.

In April, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted and shut down European airspace for three weeks, affecting 423 total missions. Airmen acted quickly to reposition key medical evacuation routes from Germany to Spain, Iraq, and other stops that were not affected by the ash cloud.

July saw mobility forces move again, to support flood relief operations in Pakistan, as airmen helped set up distribution points and aircrews delivered food, water, and shelter supplies.

Much like the combat air forces, the mobility force is putting in hard hours in operations across Southwest Asia, and its equipment composition is on average slightly newer and healthier. With C-17 production slated to end at 223 airframes for the Air Force, Gen. Raymond E. Johns Jr., AMC commander, told reporters in September the command is going to push to bring all of its C-17s up to current production line standard, the Block 18.

An F-22 Raptor intercepts a “hijacked” Gulfstream 4 aircraft over Alaska during Vigilant Eagle, an anti-terrorism exercise in August put on by NORAD and Russia. (USA photo by Maj. Michael S. Humphreys)

This will improve the process of doling out missions to the fleet, since they will all have similar range and performance capabilities. Earlier aircraft will receive extended range fuel tanks, new computers, and other improvements standard on late model C-17s.

Once the fleet is up to the Block 18 standard, the command will start exploring fleetwide upgrades for an improvement program.

Johns also praised the performance of the three C-5M Super Galaxys currently in service, equipped with new engines and avionics. They are now able to deliver equipment to ground troops in Afghanistan via stops such as Rota, Spain. Before, use of the C-5 would have been limited in this type of mission, Johns said, because of reliability issues with earlier configurations. Crews told Johns, however, that when it comes to the Super Galaxys, “the airplane doesn’t break.”

In Europe and the Pacific

With severe fiscal limitations now a reality and an expanded Afghan campaign under way, the military’s global posture and forward basing is getting a hard look. USAF assets in Europe and the Pacific are in the mix, senior leaders noted.

Forces in both the Pacific and Europe deploy frequently to operations in Afghanistan, in addition to supporting treaty allies and partnership building exercises with other militaries—and any reduction of forward presence would affect these activities.

“I’m worried about it, and no, we can’t handle it with [US-based] forces,” said Brady, when asked if USAFE force structure could be filled by Guard and Reserve deployments.

“You get a lot out of forward forces,” Brady said. In addition to building partnerships (such as the recent deployment of F-15s from RAF Lakenheath, UK, to support Baltic air policing efforts in Lithuania), forward forces from Europe are more readily positioned to assist in Afghanistan.

Fifty of USAFE’s 148 fighters have been deployed to Southwest Asia in the past few months, Brady said in September, and in Afghanistan, more than 39,000 coalition troops are from NATO or European allies. “When we go to war, we go with our European allies,” he added. “I think we do need to have a credible discussion about what the nature of our engagement overseas is going to be.” Further erosion of forward presence will mean fewer training events and fewer opportunities to develop partner capability and capacity.

In the Pacific, however, activity has spiked in the last year. In response to the sinking of a South Korean frigate in March and rising tensions with North Korea, South Korean and US forces staged the Invincible Spirit combined air and maritime exercise on the peninsula and the Sea of Japan. Invincible Spirit featured the combat exercise debut of the F-22 Raptor in South Korea, Gen. Gary L. North, Pacific Air Forces commander, said in September.

An HH-60G Pave Hawk crew performs munitions training at Moody AFB, Ga. The pilots took turns flying tactical maneuvers during the mission. (USAF photo by A1C Benjamin Wiseman)

Equipment upgrades are coming as well. Osan AB, South Korea, will soon be equipped with A-10C— the modernized version of the Warthog—with the 25th Fighter Squadron scheduled to receive its last C model in February 2011. This will provide a huge improvement in the air-to-ground combat capability on the peninsula, North added.

PACAF is seeing a great deal of investment, with a third Pacific squadron transitioning to F-22s. At JB Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, the Air National Guard accepted its first F-22s in July, and will eventually build to a total of 20 aircraft.

Basing the Global Hawk on Guam will help intelligence sharing partnerships, North noted. The 36th Wing at Andersen Air Force Base received the RQ-4 on Sept. 20.

Cooperation with the world’s largest democracy—India—is “very comprehensive,” North said. PACAF seeks more opportunity to build ties, as India continues to modernize its air forces. The nation will soon select an advanced new fighter, and has declared its intent to acquire C-17s. Despite the demands for forward presence over long distances within their own command, about 2,500 PACAF airmen are also consistently deployed to Afghanistan, North said, adding that two of his C-130s from Yokota AB, Japan, are consistently supporting CENTCOM operations.

Despite the tension created by expanding missions in conjunction with shrinking force structure, senior leadership needs to keep national strategy and goals in perspective while examining operations, Brady added.

“The budget will affect what we can do with the strategy, but we owe it to Americans to at least know what the right answer is and let other people figure out whether or not we can afford it,” he said.

A Scourge of Suicide in the Ranks

By Amy McCullough, Senior Editor

The number of airmen committing suicide has risen nearly 50 percent in just the last year, the Air Force’s top enlisted leaders said at AFA’s Air & Space Conference in September.

There were 71 airman suicides through mid-September, up from 56 through the same time last year. “The fact is, we’re … at an all-time high,” said CMSAF James A. Roy. “No one is exempt from this—young airmen, very senior airmen.”

The spike in suicides has caught officials’ attention across the Air Force, and senior officers and enlisted leaders are trying to tackle the problem. A panel of command chief master sergeants from Air Force Global Strike Command, Air Force Reserve Command, Air Force Space Command, Air Combat Command, and US Air Forces in Europe all agreed they need to take action because even one suicide is too many.

“We have the highest quality of recruits in the history of the United States Air Force, especially if you test it by the [Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test],” noted Gen. Stephen R. Lorenz, AETC commander. “The law says we have to have at least 60 percent” from the top three categories on that test. On average, historically, USAF has about 80 percent. “Today, recruits coming in, 98 percent of them are in the top three categories. The quality is absolutely phenomenal.”

ACC has adopted an approach dubbed the Comprehensive Airman Fitness program to keep the force healthy. It is based on four pillars: physical, emotional, and spiritual health and social fitness.

“We believe that if we have airmen operating within those pillars, then we will have some connected airmen, and they will feel like they are part of the team,” CMSgt. Martin S. Klukas, ACC command chief, said. “We feel like we can reduce suicides on that front.”

Every command also has adopted the wingman program, which encourages airmen throughout the ranks to look for signs of distress amongst their peers.

Some commands, such as USAFE, even stand down a couple times a year so they can spend time letting airmen and their families vent. The small group sessions give leaders a chance to see what’s on airmen’s minds. It also gives them new ideas for attacking the problem, said CMSgt. Pamela A. Derrow, USAFE command chief.

“The key is, give them the tools before they need them. It cannot be just another program. It has to be heartfelt,” Roy said. “We have to instill resiliency.”

Building resiliency also can help airmen deal with the long-term stress that comes with fighting two wars, Roy said. For some airmen, the deployment-to-dwell ratio has dipped below one-to-one, meaning they are deployed for six months and then are home for less than half a year. In high-demand career fields, such as “defenders” and special tactics personnel, airmen typically see their home time cut short, as training for the next deployment ramps up, he said.

Lt. Gen. Donald C. Wurster, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, said high optempo is one of AFSOC’s biggest challenges. Wurster said he tracks, by name, the airmen who are nearly continuously deployed.

The 2011 Noncommissioned Officer Retraining Program, which is intended to fill stressed career fields, should help repair some of these imbalances in the force. Mandatory retraining for some airmen began in September, and the program will push more than 350 airmen into new career fields in the next few months, Roy said.

The chiefs also fielded several questions from the audience about the Air Force’s new physical fitness program, implemented July 1. The chiefs acknowledged that building a new culture of fitness won’t happen overnight, but all said it was a priority.

Space Command had an 82 percent pass rate in the first two months after the new fitness program was implemented. The 18 percent failure rate means there is plenty of room for improvement, but AFSPC’s CMSgt. Richard T. Small, the command chief, said he is encouraged by the fact that Air Force-wide, the number of airmen who scored excellent on their physical training test has nearly doubled—jumping from the low 20 percents to the high 30 percents.

“That’s a message that’s not coming through,” Small said. “This is about getting on board. Fitness is … about capability. It’s a credibility issue with the joint team, and when I go to war with the joint team, I want them to know they can rely on me.”