The Last Tactical Mile and Other Tales

Dec. 1, 2007
In its negotiations over the 2008 defense authorization bill, Congress has moved toward ordering the Pentagon to examine anew the roles and missions of the armed services. It has been more than a decade since the last such Pentagon review, and most lawmakers thought a new one was overdue. They are right.

Roles and missions is a classic defense issue. What service branch does what? Who gets what resources? The most notable roles and missions change of all time was the creation of a separate Air Force in 1947. That step, which stripped the Army of its air units, was supposed to settle airpower issues for good.

Things have not quite worked out that way. For six decades, control of airpower has continued to be a flash point. The last big flare-up came in the mid-1990s, when Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) zeroed in on America’s “four air forces.” This time, though, an honest review actually could produce something useful.

Air Force Basic Doctrine defines a “role” as “the broad and enduring purposes” of a service—for USAF, to organize, train, and equip forces “for prompt and sustained offensive and defensive air operations.” This role is based on specific functions. The word “mission”—often used instead of “function”—refers to a task assigned to a unified command.

USAF never has claimed sole ownership of aviation functions. It accepts that other services need airpower—as “organic” adjuncts of their traditional and distinctive roles on land or at sea. Comprehensive airpower has always been the Air Force’s role.

An evenhanded roles, missions, and functions review could resolve a pair of questions that now are clouding that position.

The first concerns who ought to provide fixed-wing airlift in a combat theater. Fueling the controversy is the C-27J Joint Cargo Aircraft, a small airlifter sought by both the Army and the Air Force in a joint program. The Army wants some 75 C-27s to replace old and outmoded Army fixed-wing transports. The Air Force could buy up to 70 JCAs as part of its airlift force.

This raises an obvious question: Why does the Army need airlifters at all? Gen. T. Michael Moseley, USAF Chief of Staff, calls intratheater lift an Air Force “core competency.”

In an Oct. 11 letter to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Gen. Richard A. Cody, Army vice chief of staff, gave two basic rationales. One is that the Army has a doctrinal right to move vital supplies “the last tactical mile” to ground troops. A second was that ground commanders had to have their own aircraft because they can’t rely on the USAF system to move supplies with urgency when asked.

The Senate Armed Services Committee some months ago observed that such claims “have a familiar ring: ‘I can’t count on it in wartime if I don’t own it all the time.'” It is an un-joint view if ever there was one.

Indeed, the Senate correctly voted to shift the Army’s $157 million JCA request to the Air Force and force DOD to put USAF in charge. The final authorization measure, whether it supports or rejects that position, will not settle the issue. It is bound to come up again.

The second big airpower question concerns the nation’s fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, flown by the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps.

Last March, Moseley launched a campaign to make USAF the “executive agent” for all medium- and high-altitude UAVs (those flying above 3,500 feet), regardless of service. He argued that USAF is “organized, trained, and equipped” for this role. Having the Air Force shape and manage the fleet, he said, would improve the flow of intelligence data, prevent duplication of acquisition, speed up deliveries, and modulate use of scarce bandwidth.

Moseley’s plan, however, generated strong pushback from other services —especially the Army, which suspected an Air Force power grab that would work against Army interests. This stance swayed Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, who turned thumbs down on the Moseley proposal.

Here, the roles and missions issue is murkier. UAVs clearly fall within classic Air Force functions, but they also fit in, to some degree, with the organic functions of other services.

Still, the other services’ desire for UAV autonomy needs tempering. Lest anyone forget, UAVs are air vehicles, and those that fly at medium and high altitudes are in the Air Force’s traditional domain.

Though command relationships technically were not part of the executive agency proposal, a joint approach to actual employment of UAVs would greatly expand their availability in a combat theater and reduce potential airspace conflicts.

Regarding combat employment, however, prior experience does not inspire much optimism. Twice in Iraq —in Desert Storm in 1991 and Iraqi Freedom in 2003—deep attacks by Army Apache helicopters seriously hindered fixed-wing air operations. Apache operations, recall, are supposed to be “organic” to ground combat, too.

There is no persuasive argument for a land commander to have his own airlift force, or for an Army, Navy, or Marine Corps commander to have his own high-flying UAV force. Anyone who is really interested in supporting the needs of the warfighter would wish to see these systems overseen by USAF for the joint force.

The JCA and UAV issues, though important, are not overwhelmingly so. They do not compare to earlier clashes between the Air Force and Navy over how US power projection should be divided between long-range Air Force bombers and Navy carriers, or between the Air Force and Army over the development and employment of attack and utility helicopters in the 1960s.

Still, if Washington decision-makers are wise, they will move expeditiously to resolve these questions in the Air Force’s favor. It is unseemly to pretend the other services aren’t pushing beyond their traditional roles and missions. Agreement on this point surely is fundamental to any true advances in military jointness.