The Long Reach of Air Combat Command

Dec. 1, 1995
Since its founding in 1991, Air Combat Command has been organized and reorganized. Functions have been added, taken away, then added back. ACC merged most of the forces of Strategic Air Command (SAC) and Tactical Air Command (TAC), cut troop levels, and slashed aircraft inventories by roughly forty percent.

Through it all, the Air Force’s US-based fighting units deployed continuously into live-fire situations worldwide, setting a furious pace few expected to see in the post–Cold War era.

Now, the expeditionary fighter and bomber units under ACC’s flag have shaken down into what appears to be a stable force structure with fairly predictable funding. However, they still are saddled with a punishing operations tempo. Margins are narrow, and the fighting forces are running hard to keep up.

Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, who last summer succeeded Gen. John Michael Loh in the top ACC job, noted that, for the sheer pace of operations, peacetime demands can seem “tougher than war.”

Even as General Ralston spoke, USAF units deployed from the United States to forward locations were flying strike missions in the Balkans, combat air patrols over northern and southern Iraq, counterdrug missions in the Caribbean, and air support of relief missions in a variety of overseas locations. In the US, nondeployed ACC units kept up a rigorous training schedule.

General Ralston said that the pace is particularly rough for US-based personnel handling “systems that are small in number but in high demand by the CINCs,” or regional commanders in chief. Such systems, he said, include the service’s E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft.

The Air Force tries to keep personnel from spending more than 120 days a year deployed away from home base. Exceeding that level eventually causes experienced airmen to leave the service, and extended tours are only too common for USAF personnel operating these high-demand systems.

In response, ACC has added crews to certain aircraft to relieve some of the burden. Noted General Ralston, “We will come a lot closer to [limiting TDYs to 120 days] this year than last year.”

Still, ACC’s leaders agree that the problem persists and will continue to generate major difficulties for the near future, at least. “I cannot see, right now, any significant change in optempo,” reported General Ralston. “As in anything, there is a limit to what [the fighting units] can do.”

Air Combat Command is not a joint-service organization and would not go into action on its own. Rather, it provides trained, combat-ready forces to the US regional commanders in Europe, the Middle East, the Far East, or other military theaters. These commanders always want as much airpower as they can get.

Too Few and Too Busy

The command’s fighting forces, however, are now forty percent smaller than the combined forces of SAC and TAC in 1991. Moreover, these units are struggling with a fourfold increase in contingency operations since the late 1980s.

As a result, ACC’s forces sometimes are too few and too busy to be able to meet all the demands being placed on them by the regional commanders.

General Ralston acknowledged this problem and explained that ACC is attacking it in a number of ways. First, he pointed out, the squadrons receive “outstanding” help from the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, which supplement the active forces when requests for airpower outstrip the available units.

“The Guard and Reserve have been absolutely crucial . . . in helping us meet our requirements,” he said.

Second, planners have begun to conduct “worldwide tasking”—borrowing aircraft and crews from one theater or command and deploying them to contingency operations in another theater, in order to relieve forward-deployed units that must return to US bases for needed training or rest.

Last, General Ralston said, he and other ACC leaders in some cases have gone directly to CINCs and told them bluntly, “We just cannot provide what you’ve asked for. Please reevaluate your requirements.” He added that, in some cases, “a reallocation was made.”

There are no other ways to squeeze more work out of the available forces, General Ralston claimed, adding, “I don’t know of any other variables.”

In the name of economy, the Air Force in the past few years has cut back on its power-projection forces, most of which reside in ACC wings and squadrons. The next systems to go will be USAF’s EF-111 escort jammers and F-4G “Wild Weasel” defense suppression systems, also ACC assets.

The bomber fleet, while far busier than in the past [see “Heavyweights for the New Strategy,” October 1995, p. 24], does not get called on to deploy to contingency operations as ACC’s tactical airlift and strike and fighter assets do and is not considered as “overtasked” as other force components are.

Bomber wings are occupied with integrating new aircraft and weapons, focusing on readiness for the conventional mission, and consolidating their aircraft at fewer bases. The units routinely practice globe-girdling “power-projection” missions lasting thirty or more hours, but they don’t bump into the 120-day TDY limit nearly as often as their fighter or surveillance counterparts do.

Lt. Gen. George K. Muellner, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, said the Raven and Weasel aircraft can be phased out because “we have, in the future, more capability in stealth, . . . which reduces the amount of capability you need” in defense suppression or jamming.

Each time such cuts are made, Air Force leaders say the resulting force is one they can live with and that the cut causes only a “reasonable risk.” General Ralston acknowledged that the definition of reasonable risk lies “in the eyes of the beholder.”

He asserted that each reduction has been made on the basis of what senior Air Force leaders deem the “most likely scenario” that the forces will face. They do not base such judgments solely on their perception of a “worst-case scenario,” said General Ralston. The goal, he added, is to maintain a “balance of capabilities.”

In the Air Force, he said, “we are risk-averse people. We want to make sure that when we tell the political leadership we can accomplish a mission, we have a high probability of accomplishment.”

He noted, however, that USAF has a steadily decreasing margin of error. “Is there a lot of margin there?” the General asked rhetorically. “I’m afraid not. I think if we’ve found that we had excess capacity, we’ve already taken that out.”

With each “downsizing,” more and more extensive war-gaming, modeling, and simulation is done to “play” the resulting force against a variety of contingencies. Decisions are based on this data, as well as real-world experience, he said.

“Is it a prudent risk?” he asked. “Can we manage it? . . . Can we handle what the national command authorities want us to do? . . . I feel pretty confident that the answer is yes.”

Establishing Priorities

General Muellner revealed that ACC has “no more attrition assets” in its F-15E fleet. From now on, he explained, each loss of an F-15E “will directly cut into” the Air Force’s deep-strike capability. General Ralston confirmed that fact. He added, “If we don’t buy any more combat aircraft, . . . [then] based on projected attrition we will start eating into our combat force structure” in 2000 or 2001.

He added that ACC estimates it needs eighteen more F-15Es to maintain the force at its prescribed levels through 2010, when a new strike aircraft—a stealthy successor to the F-16—will become available.

On the question of additional fighter buys, General Ralston defers to the Chief of Staff, Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, who has stated his priorities. General Fogleman, asked by Congress where he would spend additional funds if they were to become available, named the F-22 fighter, C-17 transport, F-15E fighter, and F-16 fighter—in that order.

“By and large, Congress has [followed] that list” in its FY 1997 deliberations, General Ralston said.

Options for dealing with the attrition problem boil down to the following: “Buy more airplanes, . . . SLEP [Service Life Extension Program] some of the airplanes you have, maybe take some airplanes out of the boneyard.”

When it comes to bombers, General Ralston’s priority is not more B-2 Stealth bombers, but the munitions that will make the existing—and paid-for—bomber fleet more formidable.

“We’ve got to have . . . the standoff and precision munitions for the bombers,” he said, referring to such weapons as the Joint Direct Attack Munition and Joint Standoff Weapon, both under development.

He added, “That’s the number one ACC priority with regard to bombers—those conventional modifications.”

The ACC commander agreed with the Pentagon’s recent bomber study that said putting funds into precision munitions will pay off more quickly and more decisively than investing in new bombers. General Ralston also doesn’t want to introduce budget elements that would upset the “carefully laid out” funding sequence for other systems, which are higher on the list of priorities.

General Ralston bristles at any suggestion that the Air Force has “rolled over” and accepted budget and force-structure cuts without putting up much of a fight.

“The Air Force, on numerous occasions, has stood up and fought very, very strenuously to maintain what we felt we had to have,” he said. “We, as an Air Force, have been united. . . . There have been times when . . . we have stood up and said, ‘Absolutely not. . . . We cannot take a cut on this point.’ ”

This was particularly true in the case of the F-22 fighter and precision munitions, said General Ralston.

He added, “Every year, when it comes down to the final throw, someone always wants to say, ‘Well, let’s slip the F-22’ ” a few years. The F-22, he asserted, is “absolutely crucial to the future of air superiority, which every CINC out there has to depend upon.”

Though ACC’s power-projection forces have shrunk, they have gained capabilities that make them, pound-for-pound, more potent than before.

“We have a more capable force than we did in the [Persian] Gulf War,” General Ralston said. During that conflict, the Air Force fielded just eighteen F-15Es with the Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) system, which gives a precision, laser-guided bomb capability.

“Today, we’ve got over 200 F-15Es . . . and 250 F-16s” that are equipped with LANTIRN, General Ralston reported. “This is an enormous increase in terms of combat capability and precision attack capability.”

He further noted that the AIM-120A Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile had been deployed to the fighting forces only in the last weeks of the Gulf War and only in small numbers. Now, “every F-15C squadron is AMRAAM-equipped,” he said.

General Ralston, like other senior USAF officers, believes that the Defense Department may conduct another review of force structure with an eye toward shrinking the military yet again. However, he said he did not expect that such a review would lead to another significant cut in ACC force structure, so long as the current Pentagon spending plans hold up.

“I believe, based on the modernization plan we’ve just forwarded [to the Defense Department] and the assumptions that we made about the budget level, . . . that we do have an affordable . . . modernization plan.”

The modernization plan, in which ACC units have a huge stake, calls for a careful phasing of spending that moves the F-22 into production in the early 2000s, at about the same time that the F-16 replacement—dubbed the Next-Generation Fighter—is in the development phase. As F-22 production winds down, NGF production will ramp up.

The Air Force has been “phasing” modernization since the 1970s, when fighters were recapitalized. In the 1980s, it was the turn of the strategic forces—bombers and ICBMs. In the 1990s, it’s airlift—the C-17 and C-130J.

In the next decade, said General Ralston, “it will be time for fighters again,” and the need is urgent. When the first F-22 reaches the flight line, the F-15 will have been the premier US fighter for thirty-three years, he noted.

“We have never flown a fighter that long without replacing it,” he said. “Does that mean we can’t do it? No, I think we will do it, . . . but one could argue that the thirty-three-year-old F-15 is too old to be the free world’s front-line fighter.”

New Aircraft

New major systems take a long time to develop, and the Air Force’s technology does not change as quickly as is commonly thought, General Ralston observed. One case in point for ACC is unmanned aerial vehicles.

“We’re getting into UAVs in a big way,” he said. “We understand they have enormous potential. We also understand they have enormous challenges. . . . We’re going to have to take it one step at a time.”

He anticipates that UAVs offer promise first in the field of reconnaissance, and “later, as the technology develops, certainly there are other applications as well,” but “I think it’s some time off before we’re going to have a credible UAV reconnaissance capability, in significant numbers, that will allow us to . . . provide a meaningful capability to the CINCs.”

Though funding for UAVs appears in the next budget, “by the time you execute that, . . . get it delivered, . . . get personnel trained, and get it . . . up and running,” a decade can easily pass, he said.

Though ACC will continue to “have an open mind” to take advantage of technological opportunities as they arise, it is wise to “throw in a bit of pragmatism” and not depend on new systems to pay off quickly, he said.

General Ralston said he is comfortable with the Air Force’s spending levels on research and development because they seem to be staying constant relative to the overall budget. It will, however, be “ten to fifteen years” before it can be known if the money was spent on the right technologies.

He is also satisfied with the direction that the Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST) program is taking, though “it’s too early to tell” if the Air Force will get from it the F-16 replacement it must have in fifteen years. The JAST program is slated to generate a new family of fighters for the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force.

The JAST Program Office has been attentive to the Air Force’s stated need for an affordable, capable airplane, he said. But “we have also been responsible on the other end” in not demanding performance that would be expensive to acquire but not absolutely necessary.

The Air Force is aggressively pursuing the use of “off-board” sensors—such as Joint STARS, AWACS, and satellites—and piping the information down to “shooter” aircraft. [See “Electronic Warfare, Economy Style,” November 1995, p. 24.]

“It makes sense . . . to exploit all that information that is already out there in the ether,” General Ralston said. If the big sensor systems are lost, ACC combat planes “still have a fairly autonomous capability; . . . we’re no worse off than we would have been.”

But he is concerned that in the zeal to cut costs on JAST aircraft, “we are going to be forced into more and more trade-offs.” Off-board systems may completely substitute for expensive on-board avionics.

If that happens, “we are going to have to give up autonomous capability on airplanes,” General Ralston said. “And then, if something happens to the information net, you’re not going to be able to fall back” on the on-board systems because they won’t be there.

The General said that he will not promote the creation of F-22 derivatives as enthusiastically as ACC has to date.

“We need to keep our focus and our energy on getting the F-22 as we know it” because it is such a crucial capability, he said. “I have no doubt” that the F-22 will spawn variants, he continued, but such talk creates an opening for opponents of the plane to demand delays while derivatives are designed. Such stretch-outs could threaten the program.

Just getting the F-22 “A model” to the flight line—on time—“will be a magnificent accomplishment,” he said.

Maintaining Airspace

Another issue he will be putting heavy attention on will be the availability of training airspace.

“I’ve created a division here and told them that this issue is more important than the F-22 or B-2 . . . because if we lose our airspace, . . . then we’re going to be out of business as an Air Force.”

The service must make its case for training airspace more effectively, he said, because the advent of the supercruising F-22 (it will be able to fly at supersonic speeds without resorting to fuel-gulping afterburners) will make such ranges ever more critical. Though there may be ranges where the Air Force can “turn back airspace, . . . there are other areas where we ought to be working on getting more.”

Air Combat Command has a very broad plan covering the next twenty-five years, started in 1991 under former USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill A. McPeak. The “Mission Area Plans” replace what used to be called “roadmaps,” as in “fighter roadmaps” and “bomber roadmaps.” The MAPs sketch out generalized missions that must be accomplished, then describe, in increasing detail, the tools and enabling technologies required to meet the mission.

“You could take it all the way down to the F-16 avionics roadmap if you wanted to,” General Ralston said.

Development of the MAPs is “a strategy-to-task process,” he explained. “Then we apply fiscal restraints, which you always have.”

New MAPs are completed each August. They feed into the next year’s budget request and program objective memorandum process.

General Fogleman said that the MAPs provide an opportunity to “imagine what we will need to be doing in 2020 . . . then work backwards,” so that projects are started in time to meet the anticipated situation.

Composite wings—created along with ACC to further blur the lines between “tactical” and “strategic” forces, as well as to create ready-for-war expeditionary packages—have made their point, but General Ralston said they will not be phased out.

“I have been a big proponent of composite wings from a training point of view,” General Ralston said. The training offered by getting dissimilar aircraft working together as they would in wartime is “just superb,” he said.

“I don’t see us turning back the clock” on the concept, the General continued. “I think people recognize the benefits of that.” Besides, he added, with fewer bases, “you’re going to have a mixture [at each one] under any circumstances.”

Though both SAC and TAC had distinctive “cultures,” ACC has not yet developed one, General Ralston said. Because of the merger, though, ACC people have “a far broader perspective of airpower. People understand power projection . . . to a much greater extent than they used to.”

The General agrees that the Air Force should continue reshaping itself for the future, but a few aspects of the change give him concern.

“One of the things that hurts . . . as you go through a drawdown is that in many cases you are forced into single-point failures,” where everything hinges on a few systems. “And if you happen to be wrong” about where you can do without backup systems, “then you’re in bad shape.”

He explained that the Air Force has become “very heavily dependent upon information and information flow. What if we guessed wrong on that, and we are not able to do the defensive IW [information warfare] that we’d like to do? And we’re so dependent on that information . . . if somehow it is denied, or manipulated, can we recover? I guess I worry about that.”