U.S. Air Force Maj. Tory Lodmell, quick response assessment team lead from to the 821st Contingency Response Squadron, Travis Air Force Base, Calif., clears a C-17 Globemaster III for take-off from Delamar Dry Lake, Nevada, during U.S. Air Force Weapons School Integration held at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Dec. 4, 2021. Contingency Response Squadrons specialize in training and rapidly deploying personnel to quickly open airfields in austere locations around the world to establish, expand, sustain and coordinate air mobility operations. Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus
Photo Caption & Credits

Strategy & Policy

Jan. 21, 2022

Air Base Squadrons 

The Air Force is about to roll out another aspect of its new Force Generation model (AFFORGEN): Air Base Squadrons are designed to provide forward-deployed units the necessary support to conduct operations from widely dispersed and likely austere locations with a minimal footprint of people and gear.

The new concept is the connective tissue between Agile Combat Employment (ACE)—the scattering of forces to many operating locations—and AFFORGEN, which seeks a more rational and sustainable deployment rhythm for the Air Force writ large.

Air Combat Command envisions sending elements to forward bases, comprised of Airmen who already know each other and train together on a daily basis. They’ll have prepared together for the specific areas where they’ll be deployed, and take with them the aircraft and equipment they already know and work with. 

It’s a break with the “crowdsourced” model of the past 20 years, in which Airmen were plucked from units servicewide and deployed individually, meeting their new teammates at a major, centralized base, and falling in on some other unit’s aircraft and gear. It was an efficient personnel model for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the enemy was limited to small-force ground attacks, but is considered unworkable to deter or fight a modern peer adversary. 

AFFORGEN sets a new four-phase deployment rhythm, in which units 1) receive broad training for full-spectrum warfare; 2) receive theater-specific training for where they’re going, with exercises and certifications; 3) are available to deploy or deploy on taskings from defense leaders, and 4) return for rest and reset, depot maintenance of equipment, upgrade of personal training and education.        

Initial Operational Capability (IOC) for Air Base Squadrons is targeted for October 2022, said Col. Frank Marconi, Chief of ACC’s Logistics Readiness Division at Air Combat Command. Full Operational Capability (FOC) is targeted for fiscal 2025, he said. For now, Air Base Squadrons is an initiative of ACC but may be expanded to other commands.

“This is an ACC concept,” he noted. “This is not an Air Force concept. We will fall under [USAF’s] air base elements. This is how ACC is going to present forces.” 

The concept will develop in exercises “we’re calling ‘Agile Flag’ … over the next couple of years,” Marconi said. Some of these will take the form of “Dynamic Force Employments,” similar to Global Strike Command’s Bomber Task Force deployments. There will be a few repetitions before units take on real-world assignments from combatant commanders.

Because the deploying unit will already be fully equipped with the people and gear needed, it can “get out the door in a timely manner,” Marconi said. “They won’t be crowdsourced downrange.” Under the previous model, a forward-based squadron could have personnel from as many as 70 different locations, who would “meet each other at the line of scrimmage,” as ACC commander Gen. Mark D. Kelly says. 

The composition of the unit will only be “exactly what we need,” to keep the footprint as small and light as possible, said Lt. Col. Scott Johnson, Deputy of ACC’s Future Operations Division. The unit may deploy to a “main operating location, but then also be able to split off [and] … maneuver to dispersal locations,” along the lines of USAF’s “hub-and-spoke” concept for ACE.

The destination will be important in determining how big the team will have to be, since “if we’re only going to one location it will be a lot lighter than if it goes to two or three,” considering each operating location will need a core group of Airmen.

The deploying team will be “like a ‘Mission Support Group Plus,”’ Marconi said. “It has airfield operations … [and] base security, so it will be able to defend [itself]. It’s got logistics readiness—that’s your fuels guys, your transportation and supply. It’s got civil engineers, and contracting,” to negotiate the purchase of local food and water, and there will also be communications and medical personnel.

Operators and maintainers—“mission generation force elements”—are a separate grouping “and will not fall under the Air Base Squadron.” The final element will be command and control, Marconi said, which will also “likely come from the same location.” 

The support, operations, and command and control elements are sourced separately because of the way the Air Force presents forces to regional commanders, Marconi said, enabling the gaining unit to “scale it to what they need.” The combatant commander will be able to “order it all up … or just pieces.”

“We want a cohesive team that’s trained together before [a] crisis,” Marconi noted, “so they’re ready to operate under pressure with the extra challenges that are presented when you’re deployed.”

The concept makes for “a light, lean, and agile [unit], which gets after [Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s] concept of Agile Combat Support,” he added.

Johnson said the concept is well suited to “strategic messaging” and strategic competition because it can deploy forces in places an adversary wasn’t “previously aware of or anticipating.”

ACE can be a cost-imposing and confusing challenge for an adversary, by spreading assets over a wide area and multiplying the number of sorties or missiles needed to strike them. This shell game is an acknowledgment that relying on well-provisioned mega-bases makes the deployed force too vulnerable.  

The ability to “disaggregate and then re-aggregate” is one of the key tenets of the concept, Johnson said. “We’ve built those fault lines into the construct.”

Flexibility is the key, Marconi said.

Combatant commanders “can order it up, we can tailor it, they can move it, we can move and maneuver.” He likened it to “the queen of the chessboard.”

The concept will be employed differently in the Pacific theater than in Europe. In the Pacific, aircraft will be needed to ferry units around to different operating locations, while in Europe, Johnson said, “You have a lot of NATO allies, you have a lot of other logistical advantages, so the mode of transportation is different.”

Staying “light and lethal” will mean consolidating specialties among Airmen. Fuels specialists, for example, might also be trained for security or weapons handling—what Brown has called “multi-capable Airmen.” This idea “buys down some of your logistics” requirements for support and personnel, Johnson said.

The theater will also be expected to provide some basic support capabilities so the Air Force doesn’t have to send everything forward.

“I could build a package that takes 30 C-17s, but that’s not agile,” Marconi said. While in some cases fire trucks, fuel trucks, and fuel bladders may go forward, the ABS will rely as much as possible on capabilities already on hand, or depend on the theater commander to provide them.

“I’m not going to bring in fuel tucks. I expect my fuel trucks to be there,” Marconi noted. “The major muscle movements, the large stuff … will already be there for us.” 

Johnson noted that as ABS takes shape, the Air Force must develop “this nascent capability with a ‘crawl, walk, run’ approach,” and must still provide personnel for current taskings, because “those don’t stop in the meantime.”

“It will be refined through shorter-duration, smaller chunks of the greater capability,” exercised over the next year or two, he said. Some exercises have already been conducted, and more will take place soon.

“In broad-brush terms, there’ll be some Dynamic Force Employments over the coming year across the world, where the ACC units we’re providing this capability to … execute this concept in coordination with allies and joint partners,” Johnson noted.

The wings designated as “lead” wings are “writing their own local exercises,” he added, and have done drills over the last year “to hone some of the elements of these concepts and find where their gaps are and their resource constraints and best practices.”

When the Air Expeditionary Force construct was created in the mid-1990s, one of the unintended consequences was that units deploying to an AEF wholesale left their home base with too few firefighters, security forces, or medical professionals. ACC plans to avoid that mistake with ABS.

Instead of sourcing 100 percent of the ABS from the home base, “if they can’t do the local mission, we will … backfill those from another base.” He said the right ratio of people to take from a single location hasn’t been determined yet, but could be around 85 percent.

Instead of bringing in backfill from another base, the Air Force may contract for some services, he said. “We’re still working through that,” but Marconi said it’s a high priority not to leave the home base empty-handed. “We don’t want to break the in-garrison unit.”

If additional people must be drawn into an ABS from another base, the plan is to bring them into the deployment model early, “practice as a team and prepare as a team,” Marconi stated. Firefighters, for example, would host other firefighters at exercises.     

“The plan is to stress them a little bit but not break them,” Johnson said.

“It’s where you buy your risk, right?” he added. “If you have less people than you’d like, are you going to buy the risk in garrison or are you going to buy it downrange?”

The bigger picture must also be kept in mind, he said. Retirees and families near bases have to be considered, as they would also be affected by the sudden departure of whole capabilities from that location.

“So our Total Force partners,” the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, may “play a big part in supporting our other Active-duty units,” or there may have to be contracted support, Johnson said.

An ACC spokeswoman said ABS “has been primarily constructed with Active duty in mind, but we’re looking at collaborating with our Guard and Reserve partners to develop the construct further.”There are a lot of tools the Air Force is researching to make sure the in-garrison mission continues to provide support for the military and their families and the retirees,” Johnson said. 

“We are not breaking the bench,” Marconi insisted.