The Heavy Toll of High Optempo

April 1, 2008

The war in Southwest Asia may be unfolding in a specific geographic region, but it exerts a strong gravitational pull on the entire Air Force. Combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, bringing constant deployment and redeployment of equipment and personnel, have piled up on top of USAF’s other, more permanent missions worldwide.

As a result, Air Force readiness has been plunged into an increasingly precarious position.

The Air Force has performed superbly, but the stress and strain have been adding up. Events such as the recent grounding of the F-15 fighter fleet and imposition of flight restrictions on many mobility forces make this point, said top USAF officials speaking at the Air Force Association’s annual Air Warfare Symposium, held Feb. 21-22 in Orlando, Fla. The Air Force’s ability to provide dominant air, space, and cyber capabilities could be compromised if the demands of nonstop combat are not addressed soon, they warned.

Joint service members assigned to the Special Operations Command-Pacific prepare to board a C-17 Globemaster III at Hickam AFB, Hawaii. (USAF photo by TSgt. Shane A. Cuomo)

The service’s equipment is quickly wearing out and, though the number of airmen continues to decline, operating tempo goes on at a high level. Funding to sustain these capabilities for the long term has not kept pace with the requirement.

Gen. John Corley, Air Combat Command

A relatively small force repeatedly deploys to the Middle East for combat, said Gen. John D.W. Corley, commander of Air Combat Command. He said that the combat hours add even more stress and pressure to every airframe in the USAF inventory. “I’m still generating the same sorties, but I’m doing it with far fewer airplanes,” Corley noted.

USAF has effectively transitioned from a garrison force to an expeditionary force, Corley said, but the optempo and the demands have only increased. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the US has drastically reduced its force structure. Thirty-eight fighter wings have been reduced to the equivalent of 20, and the Air Force now has fewer than 200 bombers, Corley said.

When it comes to end strength, the service has dwindled from 535,000 airmen in 1990 to a planned 316,000 in the next year. With funding tight, the service has had to further cut back on manpower in an attempt to free up money to pay for new equipment—and keep old iron flying.

The age of the fleet is a big concern. Corley pointed to the increasing capability of combat air fleets worldwide. This threatens the underpinning of the service’s mission: dominance of the air.

The longer legacy aircraft are kept in service, the riskier the Air Force’s position becomes. Over the past few years, potential adversaries have slowly caught up, Corley warned. With the benefit of watching 17 years of American combat operations, competitors and rogue nations have a good understanding of how the United States employs airpower—and have developed programs to counter it.

Aircraft maintenance personnel from the 392nd Air Expeditionary Wing inspect and refuel an A-10 Thunderbolt II in Southern Iraq. (USAF photo by SSgt. Shane A. Cuomo)

The Air Force’s F-15s and F-16s— now decades old—are inferior to new fighters built in China, such as the J-11B, and in Russia, such as the Su-27. The Chinese multirole fighter is an adaptation of the Russian model.

The once-dominant advantage possessed by F-15s and F-16s has eroded in the face of new foreign fighters that average about six years of age. Even with new F-22s flying operational missions, USAF’s fighter force averages more than 20 years of age.

As a result of last year’s F-15 crash in Missouri, many Eagles remain grounded and other fighters have had to sub in. This is particularly noticeable for the Noble Eagle homeland air defense mission, where F-15Es, F-22s, and Canadian CF-18s have filled in for the grounded F-15s.

A requirement for cross-domain dominance—in air, space, and cyberspace—will drive the redefinition of air combat and Air Force operations. Whether the goal is humanitarian relief, bombs on target, or “strategic paralysis,” Corley said USAF must “look for opportunities to improve our current operations,” adding, “we need to do that now.”

Gen. Carrol Chandler, Pacific Air Forces

Gen. Carrol H. Chandler, commander of Pacific Air Forces, noted that his airmen, though nominally based far away from the wars in Southwest Asia, are fully engaged in the fight. On average, more than 2,000 PACAF airmen are deployed to the war region every day. Earlier this year, PACAF sent F-16s from Misawa AB, Japan, to fly patrols in Southwest Asia, and C-130s from Yokota AB, Japan, are providing airlift as well.

That comes on top of other missions. Some 6,800 airmen serve on the front lines of the Korean Peninsula.

Within PACOM’s area of responsibility are, in addition to the United States, five of the world’s largest armed forces—China (which is rapidly arming), Russia (in the early stages of remilitarization), North Korea (nuclear armed and belligerent), India, and South Korea.

“The Pacific is not a theater at war but it’s not a theater at peace” either, said Chandler.

Left to right: SSgt. Jeremy Woodruff, A1C Zack Demeter, and TSgt. Ben Walker assemble GBU-38 bombs at Bagram AB, Afghanistan. (USAF photo by MSgt. Demetrius Lester)

Nowhere is this more true than on the Korean Peninsula, where the United States is adjusting its forces and helping South Korea better deter the North Korean military massed just miles north of Seoul.

The South Korean military is making great improvements in its combat capability and effectiveness, US officials say. The American presence on the Korean Peninsula, mainly soldiers, is on path to draw down to about 25,000 personnel in the coming years, from about 37,000 in 2003.

USAF, however, is staying put. Chandler said the Air Force is committed to the defense of South Korea, and will continue to field a squadron of F-16s and a squadron of A-10s at Osan Air Base, near Seoul, along with two F-16 squadrons at the remote Kunsan Air Base.

Earlier this year, the Kunsan F-16s were replaced with advanced Block 40 models, putting fighters with new data links, all-weather capability, and improved avionics at the forefront of South Korea’s defense.

Maintaining allies and relationships is critical to doing business in the region.

“It’s my belief that persistent involvement is the key,” Chandler said, noting that PACAF is fine-tuning the placement of its personnel, training, and equipment throughout the Pacific.

Central to PACAF’s long-term basing strategy is the “strategic triangle” of Guam, Hawaii, and Alaska. The command has also taken steps to move out farther if necessary. Continuous bomber rotations of B-1, B-2, and B-52 bombers and supporting tankers have been on Guam for four years now, Chandler noted.

As part of PACAF’s efforts to bolster its rapid reaction capabilities, the Air Force has set up on Guam the 36th Contingency Response Group—which combines RED HORSE engineers with security forces, combat communications, and airlift mobility support squadrons.

The unit can quickly establish an airfield during a crisis or a humanitarian disaster anywhere in the Pacific.

The Pacific Theater will see a steady buildup of capability—both in combat and mobility power over the next few years. For some capabilities, an infusion of new equipment cannot come quickly enough.

Chandler said the tankers at Hickam AFB, Hawaii, are about 45 years old and average about seven hours of maintenance for every flying hour. “In the end, we keep [KC-135s] in the air on the backs of our maintainers,” he said.

Air assets will shift to address new security and operational needs. For example, PACAF is progressing with plans to bed down the RQ-4 Global Hawk on Guam beginning in 2009. The Air Force has worked to articulate a vision on what can be provided in the area of “global vigilance” for strategic partners in the region, Chandler added.

The unmanned aerial vehicle can play a key role in monitoring sea-lanes and aiding in natural-disaster recovery across the Pacific in the years ahead.

On the snowbound upper Great Plains, aircrew members at Grand Forks AFB, N.D., ready a KC-135 Stratotanker for a refueling mission. (USAF photo by SrA. Chad M. Kellum)

A PACAF “Global Hawk capabilities forum” is planned this month in Hawaii and at Beale AFB, Calif., to discuss with allies how the new capability will be used in the region.

Other areas of the Pacific also have new capabilities arriving soon. Three of the seven programmed F-22 squadrons will be assigned in the Pacific, and PACAF’s organic airlift capability will be enhanced with the addition of two C-17 squadrons—one at Hickam and one at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska.

Gen. Arthur Lichte, Air Mobility Command

For Air Force mobility forces—no less than fighter and bomber forces—the demands are multiplying.

Gen. Arthur J. Lichte, head of Air Mobility Command, said airlift requirements continue an upward trend and are being met with a smaller personnel contingent. “We made the right choices as an Air Force to start drawing down our force, but … we have to … start thinking about future operations,” he said.

AMC’s end strength has declined by six percent since the onset of war in September 2001.

Lichte related today’s worldwide mobility operations to the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift and the “first shot of the Cold War,” when airlift redefined the possibilities for American airpower. As was revealed in dramatic fashion over Germany in 1948, global airlift became an integral part of US foreign policy.

In 1948, the mission was delivering cargo—the lifesaving supplies Berliners needed to survive the siege.

Today, airlifters and tankers constantly move cargo, passengers, and fuel to and from the US Central Command area of operations. Each day in the theater, Air Mobility Command lifts more than half of the average daily tonnage of the Berlin Airlift but with only one-fifth the number of aircraft, Lichte pointed out. And while the Berlin operation lasted for about a year-and-a-half, mobility forces have been at this mission for the last six-and-a-half years.

Aerial refueling tankers, the enablers of global power, offload about 408,000 gallons of fuel every day. Since September 2001, Air Force tankers have cumulatively delivered almost one billion gallons of fuel just to support the Global War on Terror, Lichte noted.

With high fuel costs becoming more of an issue to the budget-conscious Air Force, additional scrutiny is used to determine the most efficient transport routes. Work is also proceeding on using advanced alternative fuels—such as the recent successful use of a blended synthetic fuel in the C-17.

Airmen prepare a B-2 stealth bomber at Andersen AFB, Guam. The B-2 is deployed from Whiteman AFB, Mo. (USAF photo by SSgt. Vanessa Valentine)

Halfway around the world, tankers out of Hawaii, Alaska, Japan, and Guam create the air bridge required to move air assets throughout the Pacific.

The refuelers there create effects not often ascribed to the flying gas stations. Perhaps more than any other command, PACAF uses tankers to dissuade, deter, and defeat adversaries.

The similarly overlooked Civil Reserve Air Fleet has become an integral cog in the mission of moving materiel from the United States to the front lines, said Lichte. New partners are being brought into the CRAF process.

Tactical airlift is an increasingly critical piece of the war effort. Part of this owes to the development of the Joint Precision Air-Drop System, which uses Global Positioning System guidance to precisely deliver air-dropped supplies. This enables increased use of C-130s and C-17s to ferry supplies to troops on the ground. This in turn reduces the exposure of ground convoys to devastating improvised explosive device attacks.

In January, officials say, the Air Force took about 12,000 soldiers and marines off the roads through the use of airlift.

While there is less cargo going into Iraq and Afghanistan than at the beginning of OEF and OIF, the need now is for time-sensitive cargo to get to its destination quickly. The C-130 Hercules fleet is a vital part of this mission.

Security forces airmen conduct a search of Iraqi police officers before granting access to a secure area at Sather AB, Iraq. (USAF photo by MSgt. Andy Dunaway)

The Air Force plans to modernize 222 of its C-130Hs, but a large number of C-130Es remain on flight restriction and are effectively taken out of the fight, a fact that concerns Lichte.

In the meantime, older aircraft are repeatedly patched up and put back into the theater, gathering more hours and wear and tear. “We’d like to get rid of all the E models, period,” he said. Unfortunately, the C-130 is yet another platform suffering because of the euphemism of “fiscal reality.”

With the recent stand-up of US Africa Command, Lichte observed, there will be a new demand for mobility as the US government expands its relationships on the continent while dealing with vast distances and limited infrastructure.

The question of balance between C-17s and C-5s will only become more acute, Lichte said. Does it make more sense to repair and upgrade large numbers of C-5s, or to buy and fly additional C-17s? The question has not yet been answered, but it needs to be—and soon.

Gen. C. Robert Kehler, Air Force Space Command

As airmen assess danger, they see that it exists not only in the traditional air realm. The danger exists in space as well. China’s Jan. 11, 2007 anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) test is proof positive that space is not a sanctuary. “Our expectation is that we will be challenged,” said Gen. C. Robert Kehler, head of Air Force Space Command.

The danger to assets in space is especially troubling because of the enormous strides USAF has made in providing on-orbit capabilities in recent years. Kehler said AFSPC has performed 56 successful launches in a row, and now has five years of on-orbit operations without a premature failure, both new records.

Assets in orbit also need to be protected. “Some of our on-orbit assets today [are] well protected, … others are not,” Kehler said bluntly.

The ASAT test gave the Air Force’s space warriors a sense of “urgency” that was much needed in order to realize that space dominance should not be taken for granted, he said.

SrA. Jonathan Cantrell, a crew chief at an air base in Southwest Asia, removes the cooling tube from a U-2 sensor pod as the pilot prepares for takeoff. (USAF photo by Sra. Levi Riendeau)

Successful ASAT strikes are only part of the vulnerability puzzle. Physical security of ground segments and stations is part of the equation, as well as security of data links to valuable assets like the GPS constellation.

Many of the Air Force’s satellites are lasting longer than their planned service lives, but this is a double-edged sword, argued Kehler.

Unlike the case with terrestrial systems, the Air Force is largely stuck with what it launches aboard satellites. “You can’t go replenish them … with new software or with other new features you would like to put on,” Kehler said.

Space Command is delighted with the long-lasting service the satellites have provided thus far, since this allows the pace of modernization to slow down at a time when the service is scraping for every dollar it can muster.

A Strong Force for the Future

The Air Force may be losing billets due to the personnel drawdown, but the men and women in the Air Force today are the best possible recruits the service could hope for, Gen. William R. Looney III told AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium.

In his final appearance at the event as the commander of Air Education and Training Command, Looney told the audience that the service is well on its way to meeting its 2008 active duty goal of 27,800 new airmen with a force of 1,244 recruiters across the nation. The ratio of recruits to recruiters came to 22 to one—the best of all the services. USAF only spent $8,741 per recruit in signing them up, which includes enlisted bonuses and loan repayments. The effort resulted in the Air Force leading all military branches in top flight recruits, known as 13-As. Ninety-nine percent of the enlisted force has a high school degree and 91 percent don’t require an entry waiver.

The service is seeing challenges in some areas—notably recruiting enough doctors and dentists, Looney said. With the high cost of medical school and competition in the private sector, the Air Force has to contract out for medical and dental services in many instances, which is proving costly. To counter the trend, AETC has launched a new recruiting initiative to attract candidates who agree to put on a blue suit in exchange for the Air Force footing the cost of their degree.

The service’s much-touted expansion of basic military training will also commence in October, with construction of the necessary facilities nearly complete at Lackland AFB, Tex., Looney said. The new BMT course will run 8.5 weeks instead of 6.5 and will emphasize more combat and expeditionary skills. The Air Force is also planning to reveal the location of its Common Battlefield Airman Training center by summer. The site finalists are Arnold AFB, Tenn., Barksdale AFB, La., and Moody AFB, Ga.

Closing his remarks, Looney confirmed that he plans on retiring from active duty this year. In February, President Bush nominated Lt. Gen. Stephen R. Lorenz, commander of Air University, to replace Looney as AETC commander.

Toward a Defense of the North American Theater

A good portion of USAF’s current operational burden is over America. Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., the head of US Northern Command and of North American Aerospace Defense Command, says the recent stand-down of the Air Force F-15 fleet forced air defense operations into a significant readjustment.

NORAD borrowed F-22 crews that were qualified for air defense, but whose squadron was not yet operational. Those crews were paired up with Raptors at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, to help maintain air defense.

The Canadian government dispatched some of its CF-18 fighters to Elmendorf as well, and Air National Guard F-16 units expanded their participation in Operation Noble Eagle (ONE)—with some Guard units flying from two or three separate alert sites.

“We were able to adjust the force and maintain the level of security we required,” Renuart said. Now, many of those F-15s are back off restriction and are flying missions again.

Maj. Gen. Henry C. Morrow runs the second busiest numbered air force, Renuart told the symposium audience. Morrow, commander of 1st Air Force at Tyndall AFB, Fla., and an Air National Guard officer, is air component commander for NORTHCOM.

“Every day, Hank is launching fighters to intercept some aircraft that is not complying with the rules of our national aerospace system. Fortunately, most of that is buffoonery,” Renuart quipped. But ONE aircraft are ready for combat and have come close to shooting down threatening aircraft several times.

Noble Eagle shows no sign of slowing. More than 48,500 ONE sorties have been flown since September 2001. First Air Force typically manages a fleet of 40 fighters—mainly ANG and Reserve aircraft—at roughly 20 locations across the country.

KC-135 tanker and E-3 AWACS sorties are also part of the daily mix in support of this largely unseen effort over American skies.

Renuart warned that some budget watchers argue that the Air Force should absorb the costs of such duties.

“There are some in government who would say you get no credit for that—you have to just absorb it out of what you do every day,” he said. “I think that’s unrealistic.”

New demands have even arisen from old missions—as evidenced by the restart of Russian bomber patrols around the edges of US airspace last year.

Even so, Renuart said his primary concern is for safety, not a Russian bomber threat.

Russian flights, mostly conducted by Tu-95 Bear bombers, are by and large legitimate training missions in international airspace, he noted. But the Russians are not filing an international flight plan, in accordance with international flight rules—and are flying in increasingly congested airspace along the polar routes near Canada and Alaska.

Russia has telegraphed when and where training events will occur, but the US would “like to continue to work with the Russians to get better transparency,” Renuart added.