A Complex and Changing Air War

Jan. 1, 2006

Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan III, commander of USAF’s 9th Air Force and US Central Command Air Forces, met on Oct. 27, 2005, with the Defense Writers Group in Washington, D.C. What follows are excerpts of his remarks about unmanned aerial systems, air support for urban combat operations (especially the November 2004 fight for Fallujah), and ways of performing new missions in the war on terror.

You’ve Come a Long Way

“In March of 2002, the mission briefings over Southern Iraq at that time, the mission commander would get up and he’d say, ‘OK, we’re going to have the F-15Cs fly here, the 16s are going to fly here, the A-6s are going to fly here, tankers are going to be here today.’ Then they would say, ‘And oh by the way, way over here is going to be the Predator.’ We don’t go over there, and he’s not going to come over here and bother us. … It was almost like nobody wanted to talk to them. … It wasn’t too long before … people were incorporating the Predator into the mission plan as part of your ‘gorilla package.’?”

Evolution of the Predator

“It gives me the ability to put a persistent stare overhead. That’s where I talk about the target development piece. Other airframes don’t have the loiter time to be able to quietly stay, hang overhead for hours at a time if necessary, and develop this target. Quite honestly in this insurgent environment, that’s been one of the real values of that. A long loiter UAV, especially with the reachback that the Predator provides.”

Electronic Fratricide

“Part of the issue is, we have such a proliferation across the field, all well-intentioned, of jammers and systems to keep our soldiers and marines safe—the right thing to do, but they have unintended consequences. If you had a soldier in here today, he would tell you that we have systems that we give him to keep him safe and to provide some cover against electronically detonated IEDs, that when they’re on, he cannot use his radio. For him to make a radio call, he has got to turn it off so he can transmit or receive. That’s not perfect. But then again, too, if I create a notch in his jammer to allow him to transmit on that frequency and the insurgent learns where that frequency is and he’s then smart enough to move to that notch— … It’s a hard problem. People overstate how easy this is.”

Fighters vs. UASes

“Right now, I’m taking the Litening AT and the Sniper, [the] latest generation targeting pods on an F-16 or an F-15E or an F-18, and I can put that overhead a target, and I can provide the same kind of coverage as I could potentially with the Predator now. Right now, the Predator video can be beamed down to the [controller] on the ground. I have that capability in some of my advanced targeting pods but not most of them yet. … With the Predator, I have the ability to beam that video not only down to the ground but also to higher echelons of command, depending on the importance of the target and what’s happening. I can’t do that with a targeting pod. … The nontraditional ISR mission [has] been very, very effective in making things happen.”

UAV Crowding

“Here’s the problem we’re getting to: … I anecdotally understand we have over 1,000 UAVs on the ground, in the [area of responsibility], with the majority of those flying below 3,000 feet. That is a very thick environment. We have in fact had occasions where they have run into helicopters. Fortunately, to my knowledge, we have not hurt anybody yet. We have damaged airplanes and knocked them down, but we’ve not injured anybody. … My fear is, the day will come where we will have a C-130 full of troops and … a Scan Eagle, a Shadow, a Pioneer, whatever, is going to come through the cockpit and take out a C-130 because we did not deconflict. … Above 3,000 feet, we deconflict via altitude. I deconflict via space. I deconflict via time. … But folks have got to play by those rules, and I will tell you not everybody who’s flying UAVs in the AOR is a rated pilot that understands that and that deconfliction piece.”

Airpower: The Fallujah Model

“Prior to the actual [Fallujah] operation itself on the ground, there were a number of what were referred to as shaping operations. It was a very, very joint fight [as] most of those bombs that were dropped during that time frame were in fact Air Force and Navy as we went essentially down in the industrial section of Fallujah, down in the southeastern section. … While it was in the Marine AO, … it truly was a joint operation. … During the actual assault phase going in, … a majority of the air that was used during that time frame was in fact the Marines. And part of that was by design. … They wanted to use their organic air. I have no problem with that.”

Deterrence, Iraq Style

“The bigger piece was there was a very clear intelligence signal that the insurgents, once we put pressure on Fallujah, were going to try and cause a fight somewhere else. Mosul was an area of concern and so was Al Qaim. So, if you go back and check, you would find that during that period everyone surged, and I had the carrier and the assets, my own assets, and then we were actually providing increased coverage in the north over Mosul and then over on the western edge waiting to see if the insurgents erupted. It turns out they were not able to effectively do so, so there wasn’t that much of a fight to see in that regard.”

No, That Brown Roof

“One of the things we found … hard was when you’re dealing with an urban environment; we’re looking from the ground, looking down. It was very, very hard sometimes to quickly get the pilot’s eyes exactly on the target that the JTAC and the ground commander were talking about. In all honesty, if you took an overhead picture of Fallujah and looked down, it’s a town full of literally flat brown roofs and a couple of mosques here and there. … There’s one instance I can speak of in Fallujah where from the ground I looked up and I saw three different buildings. From the air, the roofs were all connected.”

Map Reading 101

“We went into this fight with everybody having the exact same map all the way down to the company commander up to the folks in the airplanes, and so now, believe it or not, it got to the point where people would say, ‘OK, do you see the ‘L’ in ‘Fallujah’ on the map? Go two blocks south from that, and that’s where I want to start from.’ Because the first Fallujah going in, you may remember, we had to use the crossroads to the east [of the city as] the starting point. ‘You see the highway crossroads to the east? Yep. OK, now going from there, going west’—and you kind of follow yourself in and count streets and all that kind of thing. We were much better at it.”

Precision Rules

“If you go back and you count the numbers in Fallujah, what you will find is that as long as you count strafe and rockets, as … semi-[precision guided munitions], … every weapon dropped in Fallujah during that time frame was a PGM. They were either laser guided Maverick, Hellfire, or they were laser guided GBU-12s, 500-pound weapons, or they were in fact GPS guided weapons. So as you and I count forward from Desert Storm, Allied Force, marching our way forward, we’re to a point now where in this kind of a tight urban environment we were essentially precision guided. That was the name of the game, to make things happen.”

Not LD/HD by Choice

“Know that [assets] are not low-density, high-demand because we want them to be that way. We’d all love to have more. Unfortunately these systems, as we go through our force structure, we just don’t have the numbers. … Things like U-2s, Rivet Joints, [Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System and AWACS aircraft] are in that category, although right now I’m not using AWACS, and you could make a case that Predator’s in the same boat in making that happen.”

Intel Sustainment

“This kind of fight, an insurgent fight, … [is] intel intensive, and so any kind of sensor system that I have that will allow me to put a persistent surveillance over the battlefield is better. The problem is trying to sustain that fight. There’s a magical balance between the requirement and sustainment. … If one is good, two must be better, and three must be really much better. You have to be very careful. [CENTCOM commander Army Gen. John P. Abizaid] warned us all to make sure that we pay attention to the ability to sustain this fight because … this is not something that’s going to be over with in just a couple of months. … We need to make sure that we pace ourselves and we can sustain it.”

Old Platforms, New War

“A very good case in point … is the JSTARS—a tremendously valuable system, designed principally and obviously to fight the Fulda Gap tank war during the Cold War, but has during Desert Storm and since come to be [an] invaluable asset in Iraq, especially now as we begin controlling, looking at some of the borders in the wide open western desert spaces, its GMT radar being able to pick up obviously vehicles that are moving, and then our ability to cue that with other systems.”

Retaining Airmen

“I worry about AWACS, I worry about Predator [crews]. Predators have been in combat now for over a thousand days straight. … We have some high stress career fields—security forces right at the top of the list, [explosive ordnance disposal], civil engineers. … The issue is, our force structure was not designed for this kind of a fight, and we are also being asked to do things with our security force airmen that we’re not trained for.”

Maintaining Forward

“My legacy airplanes forward are actually doing very, very well, and I’m flying them at a higher use rate than I would back in the States. And I’m doing all the normal maintenance things. I’m doing phased maintenance, your major time overhauls, if you will, on an airplane, and I’m doing them in some expeditionary environments. At Kandahar you’ll see A-10s and EA-6s [in] expeditionary tents, if you will, and the kids are doing well.”

Old Things Break

“At the same time I will also tell you that we’re finding that with the tempo and the age of some of the systems, we are in fact planning some new and unique breaks. The best example, probably, is the C-130 fleet, and I’m sure you’re probably well aware that we’ve found some cracks in the airframes that have caused us to restrict … the loads they can carry. We began to see those, then we had to re-evaluate. [The cracks] were beginning to show up sooner.”