The Air Force at War

March 30, 2015

The Air Force’s speed, reach, and versatile combat power are in growing demand around the world. But USAF now must solve a very serious problem: Adapt the smallest force in its history to fight in conflicts where its core strengths could be challenged or thwarted in so-called “contested and degraded environments,” from Asia to Europe to the Middle East.

Though tools such as mobility and global intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance are in more demand than ever, the Air Force is 40 percent smaller than the one that won the Gulf War more than two decades ago, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III said at February’s Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla. “There is no excess capacity. … Everything is committed,” he said.

Meanwhile, other nations have invested heavily in military space capabilities, airpower, and air defenses.

For example, today the average age of the fleet of China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is much lower than USAF’s. The PLAAF’s fleet of fourth generation J-10 fighters is five years old on average, while USAF’s F-16s are an average of 24 years old.

Both Russia and China are now working on fifth generation fighter programs as well. At some point, Welsh said, “no matter how fast the Air Force tries to accelerate, the momentum of others will put them in the lead.”

This dynamic has the service concerned, as nearly every core mission USAF performs is affected by the changing global military balance. From close air support, to combat search and rescue operations, to defeating modern mobile surface-to-air missiles, to command and control and battle management of air campaigns, the US dominance in air, space, and cyberspace power is narrowing today—and could have consequences in battle. “My challenge, today, first and foremost, is to take care of my people and win today’s fight,” Air Combat Command’s Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle said in Orlando. “And then, still project dominance into the future.”

USAF taskings to support the nascent battle against ISIS terrorists has quickly overtaken diminishing demands from Afghanistan, and other scenarios are also no longer theoretical. The Air Force flew ISR missions near Ukraine in the aftermath of last year’s Crimea crisis, using RC-135s and RQ-4A Global Hawks to gather intelligence on the disposition of Russian forces. In September, F-22s flew into combat for the first time, navigating the potential danger of Syria’s air defense networks during the first wave of strikes on ISIS targets. “A year ago here, we weren’t talking about ISIS or Crimea,” Air Force Global Strike Command’s Lt. Gen. Stephen W. “Seve” Wilson said. Preserving a globally responsive Air Force capable of projecting power “at a moment’s notice” despite these demands is vital to nearly every potential scenario USAF could find itself called into, he pointed out.

The Crimea crisis has served as an eyebrow-raising case for just the kinds of problem sets USAF could find itself dealing with. Russia’s use of “hybrid warfare”—combining rapid movement of irregular and disguised regular forces, as well as combined arms formations in eastern Ukraine—has kick-started both NATO and US military “collective security” planning to respond to these types of threats, US Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa’s Gen. Frank Gorenc said in Orlando. “We are infusing air capabilities designed to defeat the ‘hybrid warfare’ that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has very effectively done on the eastern side of … Ukraine,” he said, adding that the US and NATO are working to fine-tune a variety of capabilities that clear the “ambiguity” of these military operations, such as tracking surface-to-air missiles moving back and forth across borders.

In the Asia-Pacific, China has steadily increased the military and political pressure on tiny reefs and islands in the South China Sea, fashioning some into airstrips and military garrisons capable of hosting aircraft. Pacific Air Forces commander Gen. Lori J. Robinson called this a “concerning” trend to both the US and its regional allies in Asia. Many see the potential for China to use these outposts to contest sea lanes and restrict access to international airspace.

The spectrum of conflicts “floats,” Carlisle said to reporters, from a permissive operation such as Afghanistan to a heavily contested anti-access, area-denial scenario (A2/AD). “When we talk about A2/AD,” people always think about China, Carlisle said, but these capabilities are present in many other areas, such as Russia, Syria, and Iran. “The contested environment … will be a factor anywhere in the future,” Carlisle said. With the F-35 not entering the force in large numbers for several years, USAF is now figuring out how to link up both its most modern assets—like the F-22—with its fleet of F-15Cs, F-16s, and other “legacy” aircraft, to enable airmen to survive operations in contested and denied areas.

Some enhancements are in the works, from putting Sniper targeting pods and prototype long-wave infrared sensors on F-15Cs, to getting Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars back into the F-16 modernization program after the radars fell victim to sequester-induced cuts. “We need that,” Carlisle said of the AESA radars for the F-16 fleet. But many of these efforts require investments in the near term, and ACC is “trying to figure out how to fit [them] in” to the service’s long-range plans. Concerns about air battle management and command and control are why the Joint STARS recap is a top modernization priority and recapping USAF’s air battle management workhorse—the E-3 fleet—is also a concern.

Command and control animates discussions about USAF’s potential vulnerabilities in all missions. “We have got to figure out how to do real-time [C2] interoperability across all our domains,” Air Force Space Command’s Gen. John E. Hyten said, to “protect and move the data” where it is needed as soon as possible.

USAF is good at understanding if its networks are up or down, PACAF’s Robinson noted, but must do more to understand how to detect “degradation and detecting it and understanding” those threats. “With vast distances, and the need to command and control forces, what is our ability to continue operations? … Do you do it forward or do you do it with reach back? That’s what I think about when I think about theater airpower and the continuation of operations,” she said.

The services are steadily inching closer on how to build resilient, survivable data links for the joint force to keep up with threats seeking to contest and deny US airpower. This includes the ability to introduce new capabilities to cockpits via targeting pods. They could be used to provide information from “national technical means” in real time, Carlisle told reporters—measurement and signature intelligence, for example, to track and verify time-sensitive targets such as missiles.

Driving these needs in part is the proliferation of modern SAMs and integrated air defense systems that can target aircraft and weapons at longer distances than ever before, one weapons officer said. As USAF looks at a future where it must not only defeat long-range SAMs, but operate near and inside spaces defended by integrated air defense systems, data sharing and targeting are a rising concern, Maj. Tyson Wetzel, an ISR instructor with the 19th Weapons Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nev., said during a panel on USAF’s annual Weapons & Tactics Conference (WEPTAC). The combat air force needs to improve its ability to find, fix, and track modern SAMs before it can destroy or disable them. Potential adversaries have focused on making their SAMs increasingly mobile, built up jamming and use denial and deception tactics to protect these defenses. At extended ranges “cross-domain [ISR] collection is critical and we need some form of a fusion center to collect these data, and develop timely, actionable intelligence,” Wetzel said.

Command and control’s importance to survival spurred a “C2 summit” at the WEPTAC gathering this past January. Representatives from all USAF’s major commands and the services gathered to hash out ideas about what Carlisle called “Big C2”—and what it will look like a decade from now. USAF’s combined air and space operations construct has driven success on the battlefield over the last two decades, he noted, but its operations need to be modernized to respond to changing threats. “What will the AOC look like in 2025?” he said. “How do you federate that system? How much is reach back [to the operations center], how much is forward? What kind of data integrity” does one need

Concerns surrounding C2 and information sharing are not only a US military problem: They pervade coalition-style war in the 21st century. Nearly all contemporary US military operations involve support from allies and coalition partners, from Iraq and Syria to Eastern Europe, and increasingly intelligence and information sharing with these allies is a growing concern.

“There are two issues. One is policy,” said Gorenc. “And then there [are] technical challenges.” Every day in Europe, he noted, “we are trying to enforce standards to keep the capability of moving information from machine to machine.” Without the right C2 tools, and investing in this area, “you will significantly decrease the effectiveness of the coalition.” This is why USAFE-AFA wants to improve the hardware and software both US and NATO forces use to create mission systems. “I know there are policy issues, but the Holy Grail is hardware. We’ll work policy,” he said.

USAF’s more capable allies agree, and say more needs to be done—as it will affect joint operations in future, contested conflicts, they argue.

“The [United Arab Emirates] is playing a major role in coalition operations and with this strong participation, it has allowed the UAE to be a more integrated partner,” said UAE Air Force Lt. Col. Mohamed Hassan Ali Alanazi, a veteran F-16E/F Block 60 pilot and wing commander.

The UAE has supported coalition military operations in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and now Syria, he said, but it seeks to expand its integration with USAF and allied forces and overcome persistent information and intelligence sharing restrictions—affecting everything from mission planning to access to more sophisticated weapons.

Fostering Cooperation

“Working by ourselves we will have a small picture, and we want to change that,” Alanazi said, adding that he hopes the UAE can reach the same level of integration some of USAF’s NATO Allies enjoy. “There are areas which are affecting us, and we need to build up trust,” he said.

Information and C2 sharing is an operational imperative for future operations involving complex scenarios such as integrated air and missile defense and defending air bases against modern threats. Robinson noted a visit to Japan’s Air Defense Center at Yokota Air Base, where Japanese Air Self-Defense Force and USAF airmen work jointly and demonstrate how important these activities are to the joint defense of Japan. The center is a success story in information sharing. PACAF’s Integrated Air and Missile Defense Center also attempts to foster this level of cooperation between USAF and its Asia-Pacific partners, she said. “When you can do that with allies and coalition partners, [it] underpins everything you do.”

At the operational level, airmen are working to adapt the force today to better deal with rising threats. USAF can’t wait for an F-X, the successor to the F-22 Raptor, to show up in the force. Carlisle said the command is already studying “Air Superiority 2030”—how to leverage advanced weapons, sensors, and “fourth to fifth generation” links to use all domains to provide air superiority.

Whether threats to air superiority or the danger of modern SAMs, the tactical problems the force may face are increasing in lethality. It is why weapons officers at this year’s WEPTAC conference took a deep look at concepts such as using Miniature Air Launched Decoys in combat, prioritizing Integrated Air and Missile Defense missile and weapon shots, and performing “nontraditional” personnel recovery and combat search and rescue in contested environments, several weapons officers told AWS attendees during a panel presentation.

The problems are daunting, but can be answered using a combination of existing assets and new tactics to operate in contested scenarios, the officers said. Maj. Michael Kingry, an HH-60 weapons school instructor and assistant director of operations for the 34th Weapons Squadron at Nellis who led a WEPTAC group focusing on rescue operations in contested environments, said potential adversaries could now wield modern IADS and jamming capable air assets to foil CSAR and personnel recovery efforts.

USAF must prepare for recovery operations in these areas by linking air, space, and cyber forces. Some technology gaps need to be closed, such as working on tools to resupply isolated individuals, incorporating MALDs into rescue planning, using better mapping tools on mobile devices, and improving false isolated-personnel beacons—to deceive enemy forces trying to capture friendlies, he said.

USAF needs to better tailor survival, evasion, resistance, and escape training for specific aircraft operating in specific regions, Kingry said, and work to better incorporate “nonconventional assisted recovery” practices: the use of specially trained local forces by special operations to assist in rescues.

Kingry encouraged the development of a “personnel recovery officer” in a squadron—be it a flying unit, space, or cyber unit—who would be an expert on leveraging its system in the event of a rescue situation. Better leadership would help move the mission “from a second or third level contingency to a well-practiced skill set … that we regularly train for,” he said.

Even close air support will look far different in these types of scenarios from the missions USAF flew over Afghanistan, leaders pointed out. In the near future, Carlisle told reporters, “I believe we are going to have to perform CAS in contested environments” —areas “where people are trying to not let us do CAS with increasing sophistication.” It is why USAF called together a weeklong CAS summit across the services at Nellis in March to discuss the future of the mission, to talk about lessons from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to adapt the mission for contested environments, addressing topics as diverse as data sharing to tactics. The meeting was to be an effort to identify “what we think are the gaps and seams” in the mission, Carlisle said. “And we’re hoping to solve a lot of this stuff.”

Welsh, speaking with reporters, said the services must get to a point where they all understand “what the future looks like in this arena.” This applies not only to tactics but also munitions, as future scenarios may see innovations like using a “large number of forward firing laser guided rockets, … something that fragments a rocket into a thousand bullets, creating the effect of a thousand round burst,” Welsh postulated—rather than the limited burst from today’s guns.

If the conversation sounds too theoretical, leaders emphasized there are important lessons to take from operations occurring today. Carlisle expressed “frustration” with critiques of the anti-ISIS air campaign, saying that by all metrics thus far “airpower is doing fantastic”—limiting the ability for ISIS to mass forces, produce and sell oil, and command and control its own forces. “What do you do with [troops] when you can’t mass them or command and control them?” he asked rhetorically. Regional allies, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council states, have also come a long way in their ability to carry out joint coalition air operations, he noted.

The F-22’s recent combat performance also holds promise for the force’s ability to adapt to these threats quickly. Carlisle said, across the spectrum the F-22 “has exceeded our expectations.” The fighter, designed as an air superiority weapon, has displayed a remarkable ability to “rerole and mission manage the entire force,” he said—whether by escorting a strike package or by using its sensors to identify and track targets and share information with the CAOC. “When you have F-22s in a package, every single [other] airplane in that package is better,” he concluded.