Dec. 1, 2008

Airlift on Thin Ice

With “Airlift on Thin Ice” [October, p. 32], John Tirpak continues his valuable series of annual updates on air mobility. But I think he underemphasized the real challenges to initiating a successful fix to the national air mobility system, which is in some danger of experiencing a major systemic or operational failure in the near future.

The real challenge isn’t technological or a series of Band-Aid fixes to geriatric aircraft. A young fleet of widebodied, next generation tankers, C-17s, and C-130Js offers the capacity to move the core of our military requirements. A few C-5Ms and C-27Js at the margins will allow the military to move the critical loads too big for the C-17, and to quiet the gabbling of a few organic users about responsiveness and/or having to plan ahead on their movement requirements. No, such a fleet won’t be state-of-the-art or as efficient as possible, but it is available and it will work over the next half-century, particularly if the Air Force manages to wear out the C-5M fleet astutely.

The thorny problem in all this is that the Air Force and the defense community are locked into some bad habits in the way they formulate airlift policy. Among these are:

(1) Failure to articulate a coherent and politically robust “grand strategy” for air mobility policy since the 1960 Presidentially Approved Courses of Action and its update, the 1987 National Airlift Policy.

(2) Persistent efforts to develop scenario-based mobility studies to guide investment—studies which never survive the flow of events, evolving strategies, and/or the political maelstrom long enough to have more than peripheral effect on what happens or actually hits the ramp.

(3) Piecemeal approach to planning, which should, but does not, correlate all the essential elements of air mobility simultaneously, including technology; the attributes of the active, guard, Reserve, and civil reserve airlift fleet components; all the battlefield and organic airlift assets of all the services; full exploitation of maritime alternatives, industrial base, and political realities; joint command relations and operational doctrines; and so on.

Are there solutions? Of course! But this is [a letter to the editor], so there’s only space to suggest that the road to air mobility health probably begins with a new national air mobility policy endorsed by the President and Congress and, perhaps, a break from the habit of justifying force structure with a train of scenario-based studies. A better, albeit politically difficult, approach would be to focus on production and modernization—maintaining as large and steady a flow of modernized systems into the fleet as the budget will allow. Put good iron in the fleet and let an unpredictable world come as it may.

Col. Robert C. Owen,

USAF (Ret.)

Daytona Beach, Fla.

Warheads on Foreheads

Just a couple of comments on the October 2008 issue:

In “Warheads on Foreheads” [p. 44], the comment is made that “the Air Force began pouring concrete into the nose of the [500-pound] bomb.” Actually, this warhead, the BLU-126/B Low Collateral Damage Bomb (LCDB, or “LoCo”) was a variant of the BLU-111A/B (Mk 82) developed by NAVAIR’s PMA-201 as a quick fix to the battlefield need for urban use of precision guided munitions causing minimal collateral damage. Spearheaded by Cmdr. Tom Hole, development of the weapon occurred during 2006, concluding with 10 live-fire tests in December that confirmed that the bomb produced less than 10 percent of the fragmentation pattern of the basic BLU-111. The first 48 weapons were available for use in Iraq by March 2007. When looking at photos of LGBs and JDAMs, these warheads are easy to spot by the additional yellow band behind the suspension lugs. The other thing unique about them from the USAF perspective is that they have the US Navy’s thermal protection coating.

Maj. Jim Rotramel,

USAF (Ret.)

Lexington Park, Md.

Daylight Precision Bombing

The article “Daylight Precision Bombing” in the October issue [p. 60] identified the problem caused by the limited yield of the 500-pound bombs used after 1943, but failed to note that the design of the B-17 and B-24 was the source of the problem. Those responsible for strategic bombing planning and aircraft requirements, in their focus on accuracy, had not put sufficient emphasis on what size of bombs would be needed to achieve the desired effects when the bombs hit the target. Once US airmen had a chance to see the results of the German bombing of Great Britain, they realized that even 2,000-pound bombs had practically no effect against buildings adequately protected by sandbags, but by then, the B-17 and B-24, which could not carry bombs larger than 2,000-pounds internally, were in production. Although these aircraft could carry 4,000-pound bombs under their wings, this configuration limited range and altitude so much that they were not used operationally. We should hope that those responsible for the design of the next bomber have learned that flexibility demands a weapons bay with room to carry very large, heavy munitions.

Lt. Col. Price T. Bingham,

USAF (Ret.)

Melbourne, Fla.

Stuka Terror

The legend of tank buster Ernst Rudel (“The Stuka Terror,” October, p. 66) lives on among today’s A-10 community. Rudel was interviewed extensively in 1972 by Battelle Labs to apply his close air support experience to the Warthog’s design. Before the formal A-10 tactics doctrine was developed, it was not uncommon to see Hogdrivers reading Rudel’s “Stuka Pilot” for advice on tactics (“Never fly straight and level for more than two seconds over the battlefield.”). His ideas could be found in TAC’s 1977 “A-10 Coloring Book,” which recommended tactics and attack angles on Soviet armor. Rudel would routinely launch by himself before his pilots were awake to meet with the ground commander he would be supporting that day, then fly back to his FOL to personally brief his pilots before leading them on that day’s five or six combat sorties.

Col. Al Allenback,

USAF (Ret.)

Montgomery, Ala.

GHQ Air Force

Many thanks for the interesting article in your excellent publication [“GHQ Air Force,” September, p. 62]. Being born immediately prior to the US involvement in World War II, I was only vaguely aware of the attitudes and control exerted by the Army command over the US Army Air Corps, being exposed to it through the magazines and newspapers I read as a young boy prior to USAF standing up as a separate member of the armed forces in 1947. I have always been curious as to the intent and impact of the GHQ Air Force element, and John Correll has made it much clearer to me. I can recall the effort required to create USAF and the arguments the Army used to prevent it; but, because World War II had already loosened the stranglehold the Army exerted, I was not exposed to the reasons for the GHQ and the importance of it standing up. So, again, many thanks for publishing the article.

I did notice one very slight glitch, and that would be when Mr. Correll mentioned the “XB-17.” According to most sources, the term was never applied to the Boeing Model 299 (NX13372) until some three months after its crash due to crew error on Oct. 30, 1935. Boeing used company funds to design and build the 299, and the government did not procure it or assign a military serial number, as it did not complete the USAAC evaluation trials. Popularly, however, the term “XB-17” has been in wide use ever since, and will most likely remain with us forever, as befits a truly remarkable aircraft. Again, my thanks to John Correll and to you for a very interesting article.

Robert Taylor

Ventura, Calif

Joint Base Dispute

The issues raised in “The Joint Base Dispute” (“Issue Brief,” October, p. 30) should not be underestimated. Adam Hebert correctly distinguishes between the Army’s recruit-driven force and the Air Force’s retention-driven corps. When quality of life drops (e.g., housing standards decline to the “lowest common denominator”), married airmen with skills marketable in the civilian world will be sorely tempted to pursue their options.

When I served on the staff of the AMC command chaplain several years ago, Air Force leadership was already proactively addressing these quality of life issues. Given the parameters of the joint basing process, however, there is only so much that can be done. For example, even at joint bases led by the USAF partner, it is challenging—improving facilities which are (by our norms) substandard will consume resources that would formerly have been used for ongoing improvement on the Air Force “side” of the installation. The implications are staggering.

When I was considering which branch of the armed forces to enter, my father offered his advice in two sentences. “Don’t go in unless you can go into the Air Force. They’ll take much better care of your family.” Coming from a proud combat veteran of the Marine Corps, these words carried great weight. The distinctions noted by a USMC sergeant major a quarter-century ago persist today, and the Air Force is wise in being wary of the ramifications.

Robert C. Stroud,

USAF (Ret.)

Poulsbo, Wash.

In Agreement

I was pleased to see the letter from my long-ago commander, Maj. Gen. Jack Gamble, questioning Secretary Robert M. Gates’ qualifications to be Secretary of Defense, given his obvious ignorance and bias against the Air Force’s role as an independent arm and its need for modernization [“Letters: Failure Is an Option,” October, p. 4].

In attributing the dismissal of Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Chief or Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley to managerial issues rather than to his basic disagreement with them over policy, Secretary Gates went beyond the Bush Administration’s deep-sixing the Army Chief of Staff and its Secretary. In those cases, they at least had the candor to acknowledge that policy was at the root of the matter.

And it’s disturbing, but not surprising, that SECDEF’s news conference on the firings got the media play it deserved, while SECAF’s follow-up presentation on the actual defense policy issues caused no ripples beyond the Beltway.

The Bush Administration, and the country, has now learned that former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki was right when he told Congress it would take “several hundred thousand” soldiers both to overrun AND to quickly stabilize Iraq. And former Army Secretary Thomas E. White was right when he questioned the intelligence basis for the invasion. Those lessons were learned the hard way, in lives, treasure, and international credibility.

But those lessons, learned in the small crucible of a one-nation counterinsurgency, pale to insignificance when you consider how we all might learn someday, suddenly, that we have lost the ability to project power quickly across great distances and WIN, all under the umbrella of air supremacy.

Lt. Col. Mark Foutch,

USAF (Ret.)

Olympia, Wash.

Air Force World

As a youngster, I would bicycle out to Hancock Field to watch the “Boys from Syracuse” fly their F-86Hs every chance I had. The loss of a pilot-driven mission is a sad page in their history, but inevitable in today’s world [“Air Force World: NYANG Unit Starts Mission,” October, p. 26]. I believe your statement of ending 61 years of flying fighters is hyperbole, even for what constitutes a “fighter” these days. Among the 138th Fighter Squadron’s many mission aircraft were two decades split between the A-37 Dragonfly and the A-10 Thunderbolt II.

As a side note, one of the unit’s gate guards is an F-94 serial No. 50-877. If it is as marked, this is an aeronautical gem more suited for the warm protection of the National Museum of the US Air Force than facing the brutal lake-effect winters of upstate New York. 877 was the second prototype YF-97—the first, 50-955, was built on speculation by Lockheed in a non-military version—which was the military version and later redesignated YF-94C. She is well-packed beneath a thick protective blanket of ghost gray paint, but sure would look pretty stripped to her bare metal birthday suit.

Jim Caiella

Richmond, Va.