The Security Forces Rewrite

Jan. 1, 2006

Airmen need secure airfields to project power. No one knows that better than a member of USAF’s security forces.

More than 30,000 airmen serve in SF, but the field is in flux. An upsurge in expeditionary air operations is shaking up a mission that was once tightly focused on defending established bases at home or abroad. Today, security forces are part of a new warfighting concept. In operations from Tuzla to Thumrait, airmen of the security forces have been among those “first in” to set up major operating bases in the so-called “nonlinear” battlespace.

Experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq are changing the way airmen secure their bases. It is no longer enough merely to guard a perimeter. Mortar fire that has rained down on Balad Air Base in Iraq provides just one example of the modern threats to base security. Future joint concepts of operation—like forcible entry and vertical envelopment—will take airmen and their air bases deep into dangerous territory.

That’s why Air Force security forces are in the midst of a transformation all their own. “This is an outstanding force as it is right now,” said Brig. Gen. Robert H. Holmes, the director of security forces and force protection. However, he added, “Security forces, in our mind, must change to be a relevant warfighting capability.”

Indeed, they are taking on a formal role as a force that can command joint offensive and defensive operations at expeditionary sites.

“Installation Security”

Lingering Cold War policies have kept security forces tied to outdated measures of merit and what Holmes called “installation security”—that familiar job of guarding the base and patrolling a flight line. Policy, regulations, and evaluations all reflected traditional tasking, not the warfighting tasks security forces were facing.

Holmes saw this problem as being a headquarters issue. He set out to change planning and programming for active and reserve component security forces in the US and worldwide. “A lot of folks take issue with [the change], saying, ‘Well, you’re not giving yourselves credit, because you’re doing a great job in the war right now,’?” Holmes went on. “Well, they are doing a great job … in spite of the institutional validation that we’ve given them.”

It was a problem that had to be fixed. A complete re-examination of the missions and operating concepts for Air Force security forces began in late 2004. “We’re about a year into it,” Holmes reported. “We’ve gone through a fairly hefty analysis phase.”

The security forces leaders have determined that SF has two major mission areas: that of security operations and of air provost. Security operations are active and passive measures taken to protect, defend, and fight from an air base, whether at home or abroad, said Holmes. The air provost mission is defined by Holmes as “those activities that are associated with police services, law enforcement, and administrative security activities to provide the installation operating support.”

This is not the first time the Air Force has rethought security operations. Over the years, the service has moved back and forth in its conception of what security operations should be. It started with the act of protecting flying operations overseas—pure expeditionary operations.

Watching German and Japanese forces attack and overrun airfields early in World War II convinced planners that airpower needed ground protection. In November 1941, Gen. H.H. “Hap” Arnold authorized the Army Air Forces’ first air police units and established the air provost marshal in the early 1940s. Air base security battalions were formed in 1942 with the mission of protecting advanced fighter bases.

They were trained in defensive infantry tactics. Each unit was equipped with four M2 half-track vehicles, 12 M3 armored cars fitted with .50-caliber machine guns, four self-propelled 75 mm guns, and 12 additional .30-caliber heavy machine guns. Airpower analyst Price T. Bingham, writing in the summer 1987 issue of Aerospace Power Journal, noted that early plans called for 296 air base security battalions, but, “by 1943, the threat had failed to materialize (except in China in 1944-45).”

Wars in Korea and Vietnam plunged security forces into active combat. The security operations concept centered on base defense with a very active concept for security forces.

The Tet Example

In Vietnam, for example, Tan Son Nhut Air Base was home to 7th Air Force headquarters and the powerful Military Assistance Command Vietnam. During the early 1968 Tet Offensive, the Air Force’s 377th Security Squadron at Tan Son Nhut faced off against a night attack supported by three battalions of Viet Cong forces. Lead Viet Cong elements pierced the defenses of the air base, but the 377th stood as the main holding force until the next morning, when Army reinforcements arrived. Around the bunker where security forces made their stand were hundreds of Viet Cong dead.

The Vietnam experience actually tightened the focus on air base defense as a function of fortifications and layered perimeter defenses, with the enemy trying to cross a defended line.

Air base survivability got even more complex through the 1970s and 1980s, when the threat of air attack seemed to grow in scope and magnitude. Analysts first pointed to Israeli air attacks on Egyptian bases in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War as an example of what could happen if bases were knocked out. Then the Soviets posed yet more challenges. Neutralizing air bases in the NATO nations of Europe was a big objective. All believed Warsaw Pact forces would attack with everything from Soviet surface-to-surface missiles to undercover Spetsnaz trained to infiltrate and kill. Debate swirled around how difficult it would be for Soviet attackers to crater runways—and for NATO to repair them.

The late Cold War concern about how to keep airpower in operation crested with Salty Demo, an exercise run at Spangdahlem AB, West Germany, over a five-week period in 1985. The goal was to test the ability of a typical tactical fighter base to keep operating.

Active defense and base recovery after attack were the watchwords. The security operations concept centered on security police in an active defense role, restoring tactical command and control, and making combat repairs for base recovery after attack. Dealing with potential nuclear and chemical attacks was another vital task.

With threats such as these, defending the base—installation security—was the guiding focus.

In the 1990s, terrorism brought to the forefront a very different set of threats. The 1991 Gulf War’s blanket of American air superiority and the collapse of the Soviet Union brought the old Cold War certitudes to an end. Gone were the discussions about cratered runways and hardened aircraft shelters. Suddenly the new focus was on guarding the base’s perimeter and the people within. An early danger sign was the Oct. 23, 1983, Beirut bombing that claimed 241 US servicemen. However, it took the June 25, 1996, Khobar Towers disaster to put force protection at the top of security concerns.

Holmes’ personal experience in the 1990s made him aware of the need to expand the security operations concept. During that time, Holmes was a combat controller, serving in a variety of special operations forces special tactics assignments. Part of the job entailed personnel recovery missions.

Not Integrated

Those who carried out these missions—the Air Force’s small special tactics teams of pararescuemen and combat controllers—also needed a security force and a quick reaction force, but, as Holmes recalled, “We often had to piecemeal the security force from whomever might be part of the joint task force.” It worked, but it “was not necessarily an integrated or organic security capability.”

In the special tactics community several years ago, Holmes continued, “we began to ask the question: … If we’ve got Air Force security folks, why can’t we train and equip them to be organically part of personnel recovery [and] to put that firepower on the objective when you’re doing a very critical and select mission to go into deep battlespace to retrieve a person or precious cargo?”

What finally blew up the old ways of doing business, however, was the Global War on Terrorism. The war in Afghanistan—Operation Enduring Freedom—became the first major example of how airpower worked in a nonlinear-battlespace campaign.

Scattered around that huge country were airmen on the ground, directing coalition fighters and bombers to fleeting and emerging targets. No battle lines existed, as in Desert Storm; key battles of late 2001 erupted across Afghanistan. Airmen made the most of precision weapons, targeting, and improved tactical and operational communications links. They ended up with a new way of warfare.

During this period in Afghanistan, Holmes was deputy commander of Task Force K-Bar, and he brought with him to USAF’s security forces his direct knowledge of this new battlespace. He took over the SF directorate in 2004. By then, operations in Afghanistan and Iraq had put the spotlight on new requirements for security operations. Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in its early days was deemed by one A-10 pilot to be “the scariest place on the planet.” During major combat operations in Operation Iraqi Freedom, airmen opened up Tallil Air Base (now called Ali Air Base) as a forward operating site within hours after the US Army seized it from Iraqi forces.

The need for change became obvious. One who saw it was then-Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the head of coalition air forces in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Moseley moved from that job to become USAF’s vice chief of staff and now Chief of Staff.

“If you joined the Air Force not long ago and became a security forces person, you would have spent a lot of your time guarding missile silos, guarding bombers, alert fighters, guarding gates, or at least being at a gate,” he told an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) audience in October. “After we stood up 50 expeditionary bases in [Southwest Asia] and after we’ve had attacks on the bases, after we have had rockets and mortar attacks on the bases, after we’ve had aircraft hit on arrival and departure with surface-to-air missiles and small-arms fire, and after we’ve looked at what does it take to secure an airfield in an expeditionary sense, this security force business takes on a whole different light.”

Post-combat stability operations underlined the need for change. Locations such as Balad Air Base remained a prime target of insurgent forces. Balad was significant in another way, too. Next to it was a main logistics support area for the Army, known as Camp Anaconda. Balad, said Gen. John P. Abizaid, US Central Command commander, was becoming a primary air “hub” in the region.

Not Keeping Pace

From Holmes’ perspective, policy and regulations for security forces were not keeping pace with real-world needs. “As I came to this job, I asked a lot of questions,” said Holmes. “That’s when I began to understand that our validation was against Cold War, fixed-base installations.”

In the drive for transformation, USAF security forces risked being left out as missions changed, said Holmes.

Now the centerpiece is creating a security force that can take over joint command and control, plus conduct offensive and defensive operations around the expeditionary air site. “What we’d like to be is the enterprise leader for security operations for a deployed joint commander,” explained Holmes.

It’s a dramatic doctrinal and operational change. Previous base defense concepts even for contested areas hooked Air Force security personnel to perimeter defense while counting on Army or Marine Corps units in theater to defend the zone beyond the perimeter. Typically, the air base was at a hinge point between ground sectors.

Under the old procedures, the commander had to coordinate with three different maneuver elements such as brigade combat teams (BCTs) or Marine expeditionary units (MEUs). That left base commanders having to beg forces from maneuver elements. Other US forces or coalition partners might be willing to help, but it was not a priority for them. These forces might not even be near the base perimeter at all times.

The solution? Treat the air base as a maneuver element in its own right. Granted, the runway doesn’t physically move. Yet a new status as a maneuver element gives the air base and its security zone a clear and recognized place in joint terminology. It emphasizes the air base as a fighting position plugged in to the joint command and control network for the battlespace.

“This is not checking IDs at a gate,” said Moseley. “This is not walking around a perimeter, around an alert site. … Get outside the wire … and begin to think about what’s a threat to this airfield, what do we have to do to defend it so we can operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week?”

Treating the forward air base as a maneuver element will become the leading mission for security forces. “We operationally will begin to align ourselves with a warfighting construct of training and alerting, deploying, and reconstituting, much like you’d see if you look at our sister service capability,” said Holmes. USAF security forces will add more combat skills, and their mission will be organized around expeditionary warfighting as the top priority.

“Right now, we don’t do that with our security force,” Holmes said. “There’s no institutional rigor or integrity systematically of preparing, training, and deploying our force.”

To Holmes, it’s no longer the right framework. The goal of expeditionary combat, not base security, will shape the security forces under this new concept. Base security remains an essential mission but loses its status as the force-sizing metric.

Six Miles Wide

All maneuver elements have a specified area for operations. For now, that base security zone will include the base and a boundary out to perhaps 6.2 miles, approximately the range of stand-off threats such as mortars and man-portable missiles.

Holmes says these joint operating areas are going to be relatively fluid. Many future battlefields could look a lot like the early days of Afghanistan, with its multiple joint operating areas that did not touch geographically. USAF security forces must be ready to take an active defense or even offensive role centered on the air base, and the boundary of the operating area may expand.

It’s possible to envision, in forcible entry or other deep operations of the future, a nonlinear battle where the operating area will be carved out as a joint operating area, with security forces having the same responsibilities as a brigade combat team or an MEU. That is at the heart of why the security operations concept must change.

In the past, said Holmes, SF leaders thought this BCT or this MEU would handle a base’s external threat because they were adjacent to the base. The fluid nonlinear battlespace erases the old lines. Now the base is an “autonomous joint operating area” and may not have joint ground forces linked to it.

Under the new security operations concept, that’s just fine because the air base in its operating area requests help or fires just as would any other maneuver element—be that a small SOF team or a larger ground force. It calls the joint force commander, and response decisions are made at the operational command center.

That’s how the battlespace works today. Plans call for USAF security forces to be trained, equipped, and prepared to be full members of it. Moseley at AEI described the new security forces mission as tackling security “in a true joint sense, and in a true combatant sense, so that there’s no threats to this airfield that we haven’t thought about.”

“What we’re not trying to do is build an infantry battalion,” explained Holmes. “There will be tasks that will require us to understand infantry [tactics, techniques, and procedures],” he said, but the emphasis on net-centric operations, C4ISR, and control of fires will ensure the end result is airmen’s work.

Holmes does not plan to increase manpower. At present, he has about 24,000 active duty security forces and another 9,000 SF in the reserve components. After Sept. 11, the new identified requirement soared to 41,000 slots. On paper that left a gap of about 8,000 spaces.

Drawing a Line

To Holmes, adding manpower is not the long-term solution. Piling on more personnel slots would not solve the underlying problem of transforming security forces into an organization structured first and foremost for expeditionary operations. “Our answer forever has been more manpower,” he said. “I’m drawing the line to say, no, we’re going to be a lighter, leaner force.”

Why this is possible becomes clear after a closer look at the maneuver element concept.

The new security operations concept will use improved sensor technology for threat intercept and command and control. The team of the future will be interconnected so they can draw on Predator with a Hellfire or an A-10 or an F-16, said Holmes, much the way early operations functioned at Ali and Kirkuk during the first weeks of OIF.

Next comes greater sensor coverage of the base boundary and zones beyond. Eventually “four folks may do the work of 13,” said Holmes.

They’ll get some help from unmanned systems such as the Desert Hawk miniature UAS. According to SMSgt. Tim Poland, superintendent of tactical automated sensor systems at the Force Protection Battle Lab, Desert Hawk is treated just like any other aircraft—even though its wingspan is four feet and it’s made out of polypropylene and Kevlar. A pilot and copilot team from security forces sends the UAS out for hour-long missions. Desert Hawk searches for threats such as suspicious vehicles, man-portable missiles, or insurgents with mortars or IEDs up to 6.2 miles beyond the base perimeter.

“This is a really great system,” said SrA. JoAnn Bonzi, deployed to Iraq with the 407th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron and flying Desert Hawk. “It allows us to cover a lot of territory that would be hard, if not impossible, to keep an eye on properly any other way.”

The full vision also includes having the air base operations center—or whatever it may be called in the future—serving as a command center for all joint forces in the area. That’s a logical extension of the net-centric capabilities security forces will bring to the battlespace.

Over time, the security forces field will reflect the change in its career paths, too. Plans call for new members to start out learning expeditionary combat skills and then move toward police services. Over a career, members could move between the two fields.

The new security operations concept will be an essential component of what the Air Force brings to future joint warfighting. Moseley has set the broader framework for security forces with his advocacy of smart “interdependence.”

Joint doctrine is changing, too. The Cold War rear operations doctrine has been in rewrite for several years. It will take the new name of “security operations.” Joint Publication 3-10 is still a work in progress, but there is top-level consensus emerging, and USAF’s new security operations concept fits right in.

Working the joint aspect is important. Said Holmes: “If you ask an Army officer, What is Balad? he will tell you it’s an LSA [logistics support area]. If you ask an airman, ‘It’s our fighting position.’ Both are true.”

The Air Force remains engaged with its major weapons systems during stability operations. “I think the airman has a greater stake,” Holmes said. The land component moves on, but airmen “are still pounding the pavement with our major weapons systems” and doing the tasks of shaping and dominating the battlespace, alongside support for stability operations. The Air Force still operates at a high tempo and with major combat systems—be it airlift, fighters, bombers, or tankers.

In theater, said Holmes, security forces are “beginning to operate under a construct of what we see emerging in the joint doctrine working groups and the draft JP 3-10 to do security operations.” It’s overriding “the old way of thinking.”

Expeditionary combat, not just base security, will now shape the security forces. Said Holmes: “We wear uniforms, we carry ID cards that tell us we’re combatants, so we need to be a capability based on what our service says our fight is going to be.”

Operation Desert Safeside at Balad

Security forces tested their outside-the-wire skills during an innovative operation at Balad AB, Iraq, from January through March 2005. Balad, a former Iraqi fighter base, had a 10,000-foot runway perfect for C-17s, F-16s, Predators, and other major weapons systems. Balad also was home to the Army logistics support area called Camp Anaconda. It fell within an Army security sector, but the base was surrounded by hostile areas. As a result, Balad regularly took rocket and mortar fire from insurgents and former regime elements—four attacks in one day in July 2004. “The unusual thing was, once we went five whole days without an attack,” one Air Force officer told the Christian Science Monitor at the time.

The risk to airmen, soldiers, and major weapons systems was just too great. In late 2004, then-CFACC Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan III approved plans for a mission by a composite group of highly trained security forces to conduct more day and night dismounted patrols in the sensitive areas north of the base. With just a month to train, the mission pulled together everything from military working dogs to Ranger-trained security forces under the name Task Force 1041.

It was a success. They captured insurgents, improved relationships with local residents, developed new intelligence sources, and most important, had no casualties during the operation. “You guys stayed aggressive with your patrolling and made a difference,” an Army unit told them when it was over. Operation Desert Safeside was named to reflect a Vietnam-era base defense mission, but it will serve as a template for future security forces operations in the nonlinear battlespace.

Rebecca Grant is a contributing editor of Air Force Magazine. She is president of IRIS Independent Research in Washington, D.C., and has worked for Rand, the Secretary of the Air Force, and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Grant is a fellow of the Eaker Institute for Aerospace Concepts, the public policy and research arm of the Air Force Association’s Aerospace Education Foundation. Her most recent article, “Eaker’s Way,” appeared in the December 2005 issue.