A Force For the Long Run

Dec. 1, 2006

The political ghost of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who resigned under fire on Nov. 8, will haunt the Pentagon for some time. He has put a deep imprint on the place. For the Air Force, that legacy is not altogether positive.

His thinking was evident in the Pentagon’s latest Quadrennial Defense Review, unveiled this year. Rumsfeld, greatly influenced by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, shifted DOD emphasis away from “traditional” conflict—that is, against nation-states—toward war with “irregular” forces such as terrorists, insurgents, and guerrillas.

Low-intensity conflict, the QDR said, is now the “dominant form of warfare.” Fighters and other advanced weapons were of relatively less value. The services would have to adjust accordingly.

Every transition is also an opportunity. With Rumsfeld’s power now at an end, his successor may want to reconsider that QDR decision, at least as it pertains to the Air Force. The question is this: Has DOD overemphasized irregular warfare

One who thinks a great deal about that issue is Gen. Ronald E. Keys, head of USAF’s Air Combat Command at Langley AFB, Va. As the ACC boss, he’s in charge of some 1,100 aircraft, 25 wings, 15 bases, and 105,000 troops and civilians. He has no choice but to take the long view, and thus his words have special weight.

“I think there is a danger, and we worry about that,” Keys told the Defense Writers Group, a gathering of Pentagon reporters, on Nov. 9 in Washington, D.C. “Across the Air Force—particularly in Air Combat Command—I had better be able to fight tonight, and I’ve got to be able to fight 30 years from now, too.”

Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t the only wars to consider. “You’ve got to be able to fight in North Korea,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to defend in the China-Taiwan Strait. You’ve got to be able to go to Iran.” Such scenarios would entail high-intensity clashes with large national forces. Those nations could be defeated only by a technologically advanced “conventional” military.

Keys has said before that the Air Force is spending a lot of time “trying to find one white SUV racing down the road” in Iraq. He went on to say, “When you get to Korea, your problem is not finding one white SUV; your problem’s going to be 1,000 tubes of artillery shelling Seoul. It’s going to be four tank armies.”

Keys said USAF needs versatile platforms, equally good in a permissive environment or a “kick-down-the-door” scenario. The stealthy F-22 Raptor fits the bill to a T, but Rumsfeld imposed a drastic cut—reducing the buy from the 381 that USAF considered the minimum requirement to only 183 today.

“I’ve got 183 of ’em; that’s what I plan to live with,” snapped Keys, when asked if the Air Force would seek more. “I need 381. I can afford 183.”

Legacy aircraft such as the F-15 won’t carry the mail indefinitely, either. “It’s got a score of 108 to nothing in combat,” Keys observed, “but it won’t be 108 to nothing in combat for the next 30 years.”

Ironically, Keys noted, modern fighters are ideal even for low-intensity war. “With the F-22 or the F-35,” said Keys, “you have the ability to get in where people don’t see them, the ability to listen where people don’t know you’re listening, and to find things that people don’t want found.” Many ignore this reality, however.

USAF will continue to seek high-end, adaptable weaponry. That will at times bring the service into conflict with “people who think you are too sophisticated and you’ve got too much technological overmatch,” said Keys. Success is not assured.

The centrality of irregular warfare is exerting a worrisome influence on the Air Force in another, indirect way—through confusion over Air Force and Army roles and missions.

The problem stems from the Pentagon’s large-scale diversion of USAF airmen into missions normally performed by Army soldiers—the so-called “in-lieu-of” taskings. Thousands of airmen are filling in for Army troops. This has been done to allow the ground service to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan even as it remakes itself into a lighter, more mobile force at home.

“We have a problem,” said Keys. “I’m spending money to train people in skills that I don’t maintain in the United States Air Force.” Example: Airmen driving 50-caliber gun trucks in Iraqi convoys, or airmen serving as volunteer interrogators.

He notes that ACC security forces, in any 12-month period, are deployed to Iraq for six months and prepping for the next deployment for two months—eight months in all—making it hard to meet ACC’s own needs. When it comes to explosive ordnance disposal specialists, truck drivers, and combat engineers, the story is much the same.

Providing “outside-the-wire” base security poses a special problem. “I’m paying for light infantry and getting armored fighting vehicles for my folks,” said Keys. “The question is, should I be doing that against all of the other things I should be doing?” Inevitably, Air Force readiness is diminished.

The ACC chief knows his remarks aren’t welcome everywhere. According to Keys, “These are unpopular questions that people don’t like to speak about, but the unspeakable will happen, whether you speak about it or not.”

The bedrock of current US military doctrine is “full spectrum dominance”—the ability to defeat the enemy at any point on the ladder of escalation. It hinges on the ability to control the skies, swiftly defeat an invading enemy, and rapidly take the fight to the adversary. It requires, in a word, airpower.

That is worth remembering. Some new emphasis on irregular threats was warranted, but overcorrection can be dangerous, and it is not easy to know when that has happened.

“How will you know?” asked Keys. “You only know if you screw it up when a war happens. That’s the hard part. There’s no metric out there that tells you you’ve got exactly the right force.”