Bowing to fiscal reality, the Air Force has decided to level off for awhile on its plan to field forty combat-coded fighter and attack wings. For the time being, it will settle for thirty-seven wings and concentrate on supporting them properly.
Budgets for the next few years will not buy enough fighters to achieve the forty-wing goal. In addition, USAF will be converting 270 of its F-16A fighter and attack aircraft into interceptors for modernization of the air defense fleet. The fighter-attack force stood at 36.7 wings at the beginning of 1987 and had been projected to top thirty-seven wings before the year was out.
But as Gen. Robert D. Russ, TAC Commander, told AFA’s Tactical Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla., January 29-30, there was no desire to push ahead with a force structure of “hollow units,” short on flying hours and spare parts. The Air Force chose instead to stabilize at thirty-seven wings, a number that it can keep ready in peacetime and that it could sustain in combat if war began.
It isn’t an ideal arrangement. Even with additional wings, the United States would still have to shuttle its forces around to meet worldwide commitments. War plans in the major theaters depend critically on time for reinforcements to arrive from Stateside bases. Some assets—such as tankers, airlifters, and specialized aircraft for electronic combat—are in short supply.
But if the force is short on numbers, the quality is impressive. Modern equipment, ordered during the defense surge of the early 1980s, is coming on line steadily. USAF will continue to trade out its older tactical aircraft as far-ranging F-15E dual-role fighters and more late-model F-16s enter service. Gen. Charles L. Donnelly, Jr., CINCUSAFE, reported that mission-capable rates in Europe are the highest in history-87.5 percent for F-16s and 79.3 percent for F-15s. The rate of aircraft out of commission because of maintenance or supply is at an all-time low, he said.
If NATO has time to bring in its full complement of reinforcements in a crisis, General Donnelly said, “the Soviets would be foolish to come across the border, because we’re going to crack ’em good!” Gen. Carl E. Vuono, Commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, attested at the symposium that cooperation between air and ground battle units has never been smoother. The tactical air forces may field only thirty-seven wings, but they will be very good wings indeed.
The Plans for Change
Moreover, all of the tactical air forces—active-duty commands, the Air Guard, and the Reserve—are together on a carefully considered concept of how their capabilities ought to evolve in the years ahead. In Orlando, General Russ’s presentation emphasized modernization plans for the attack force and evolution of tactical reconnaissance—which he said will include at least five squadrons of unmanned vehicles—in the not-too-distant future.
• The attack force. Distinction between close air support and battlefield air interdiction will blur in the fluid combat scenarios of the 1990s. Replacements will be needed for the aircraft that perform those missions today. (See “New Road-map for AirLand Battle,” March ’87 issue, p. 108.)
The Air National Guard’s highly regarded A-7 will be updated, becoming the A-7 Plus with the addition of two plugs, an afterburning turbofan engine, and a series of avionics modifications. The Air Force, supported strongly by the Army, wants to phase the relatively slow A-10 attack aircraft out of high-intensity combat duties and replace it with an F-16 variant called the A-16. Substantial numbers of A-l0s would be converted to OA- l0s to form the forward air control fleet of the future. General Russ reminded the symposium audience that the A-16 would be part of, not an addition to, the F-16 procurement already planned. He also acknowledged that the Office of the Secretary of Defense may insist on seeing other options before going along with the A-16 proposal.
A questioner from the audience asked about the importance of stealth, or low observability, in close air support and battlefield air interdiction. General Russ pointed out that “every airplane was stealthy before we had radar” but that gunners still managed to shoot down a lot of them in those days. Stealth is important, he said, but “in an environment where you have to persist and stay in the area—rather than come in and go out—you have to have more than [stealth alone] to survive.”
• Tactical reconnaissance. The current recce force consists of thirteen RF-4 squadrons, primarily film-based units. In the early 1990s, they will begin changing over to electro-optical technology. An EO-based squadron, General Russ said, will cost only about a third as much as a film-based unit. It will require about half the number of personnel, a seventh the number of vans, no water or chemicals, and less than half the supporting airlift.
For the transition, the Air Force is working up a three-part sensor package. These sensors—for visual low altitude, visual medium altitude, and infrared—will also be used by the Navy. The same sensor suite will be installed in RF-4 aircraft and in an unmanned vehicle that the Navy is developing for both services. The drone should appear around 1993.
“We hope to build, initially, at least five squadrons of unmanned vehicles,” General Russ said. The drones would be assigned to RF4 units and would be the reconnaissance platform of choice against heavily defended fixed targets. Since the unmanned vehicles will fly a programmed mission, though, they will be unable to detect, avoid, or react to a mobile enemy. The manned reconnaissance aircraft will be around for awhile.
The size of the RF-4 fleet will decline, primarily through attrition, until the late 1990s, at which point the Air Force will be in the market for a replacement. When the new aircraft enters service, the reconnaissance fleet will probably begin building up again. General Russ said that no decisions have been made about a successor for the RF-4, but that it will most likely be a modification of some existing aircraft.
• Composition of the force. Of today’s 36.7 tactical wings, only 14.7 are flying aircraft currently in production. That ratio will improve, however, as more F- 16s are delivered to replace F-4s. In its new budget proposal, the Air Force is requesting forty-two F-15Es and 180 F-16C/Ds in FY ’88 and hopes to keep a procurement pace of 222 fighters annually for several years thereafter. TAC will also be taking over the FB- ills from Strategic Air Command, enough for one tactical squadron in FY ’90 and another in FY ’92.
In the air defense fleet, the last of the old F-106 interceptors will be gone soon, and the F4s will be retired by 1991. Air defenders will convert completely to F-15s and F-16s, and these are the airplanes they will be flying for the next decade.
General Russ and General Vuono assured the symposium audience that the two services regard USAF’s attack aircraft and the Army’s attack helicopters as complementary, not competing with each other for missions. In modern theater warfare, they said, there would be more than enough targets for everybody. “The Army and the Air Force have decided that the combination of the attack helicopter and a fixed-wing close air support aircraft provides us with the maximum amount of flexibility and the maximum amount of firepower,” General Russ said.
A question about airfield denial weapons drew a pointed response from General Russ. “We have tried for years to develop a good airfield munition,” he said. “We have had one failure after another. We finally said, let’s buy the French Durandal because at least it works—maybe not as sophisticated as we’d like, but a heck of a lot better than rolling in at 8,000 feet and having everybody and his brother clean your clock. I’d rather come in at a couple hundred feet at high speed.” Work continues, he said, on a better anti-airfield munition.
Toughening Up in Europe
In Europe, the quality improvements to the force are strikingly visible. General Donnelly reported that the new fighters are performing superbly and that they are easy to maintain. All tactical aircraft in USAFE are now equipped with jam-resistant Have Quick radios, and the command has upgraded to newer versions of the Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles.
Training is improved, too. Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation (ACM!) sorties, for example, have increased by nearly forty percent over the past five years. The European Distribution System, the C-23 Sherpa, is in service, moving spare parts around the theater. General Donnelly estimates that, in wartime, the Sherpa shuttle could mean the difference in 600 sorties a day getting off the ground.
To take some of the pressure off strategic airlift requirements in the event of war, USAFE has prepositioned 500 C-141 loads of critical mobility equipment at the point of intended use or in centrally located facilities. The Minimum Essential Facilities program will provide aircraft parking space and put seven days’ worth of fuel and munitions at the European bases to which reinforcement squadrons from the US would deploy. Even so, the insufficiency of intertheater airlift remains one of General Donnelly’s main concerns.
Another is that there aren’t enough precision standoff weapons to cover every situation in which they would be useful. “We cannot afford one standoff weapon for every target,” he said. “We have to missionize the standoff weapons to go after certain targets that are high value and that can, in fact, be hit. We will zero in on the critical targets and go after them with our smart standoff weapons.”
Should the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact ever attack Western Europe, USAFE bases would be struck in the first wave. Consequently, extensive effort goes into preparations to absorb such a blow and keep the bases in operation. General Donnelly said that it takes a USAFE runway repair team just four hours to patch twelve big craters and have the surface ready to taxi on and fly from. They do this with precast concrete slabs that, in peacetime, are used for parking lots. That not only gets double duty from the material but also solves a storage problem.
Fuel trucks moving about a flight line under attack would present a lucrative target to the enemy. USAFE, therefore, is storing its fuel in hardened underground tanks with lines leading directly into aircraft shelters, where refueling can be done without exposure. The command has sixty-eight semihardened and chemically filtered operations facilities and is at work on other sheltering and hardening projects to support all critical wartime activities.
A new chemical protection mask, now being introduced, is lighter than its predecessor and allows better visibility. The number of hospital beds available on a contingency basis has increased by more than 100 percent in the past three years. Four Flying Ambulance Surgical Trauma (FAST) teams stand ready to deploy within four hours to anywhere in the command. Complete depot-level repair can be done in Europe on four types of aircraft—the F-IS, the F-4, the A-b, and the F-111. In addition to the obvious benefits, General Donnelly said, this provides a “warm base” for expediting maintenance in wartime.
In a program to promote a sense of heritage and pride, USAFE is actually encouraging “nose art”—the painting of names and pictures on airplanes. Since bureaucrats tend to dislike nose art as much as the troops tend to like it, this form of decoration has been in disfavor in recent years. A standard objection is that it interferes with camouflage. USAFE overcomes this easily. The aircraft shelters are stocked with cans of spray paint. The nose art will disappear quickly if the balloon goes up.
Blue Water and Electronics
What forces in Europe are preparing for, basically, is to fight a modern, high-intensity version of the classic air-land battle. The situation in the Pacific is different. With the exception of Korea, Pacific Air Forces’ ingress routes to potential targets are all over blue water. This limits the advantage to be gained by low-level flying tactics. “You might be able to hide behind a hill, but it’s kind of hard to hide behind a wave,” Maj. Gen. H. T. Johnson, Vice CINCPACAF, told the symposium.
This means that PACAF crews would be extraordinarily reliant on electronics to enable them to penetrate contested airspace, avoid detection, and elude threats. “Our greatest concern in the Pacific is electronic combat,” General Johnson said. PACAF is intent on controlling essential parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, denying its effective use to the enemy, and reducing his opportunities to engage US aircraft with his fighters and SAMs. Assuming that Soviet Far East forces follow doctrine, General Johnson said, they would plan to jam a third of PACAF’s electronics, destroy another third, and expect the remaining third to collapse on its own.
Currently, PACAF has only one offensive electronic combat asset—a squadron of F4G Wild Weasel radar suppression aircraft—based forward in the theater. They would have to hold the line until EC-130H Compass Call (communications jamming) and EF-111A (radar jamming) reinforcements arrived. No US ally in the Pacific has an offensive electronic combat capability. PACAF would very much like to have its own jamming aircraft, available to go at the first shot of war. Their absence forces the command to depend heavily on defensive electronic combat systems and techniques.
Moreover, those defensive electronic combat systems are in urgent need of improvement. “We presently deploy with threat-warning receivers and self-protection devices that are programmed for a single subtheater threat,” General Johnson said. “To truly meet the total threat, we must place emphasis not only on expected target area threats but also on en route threats, including Soviet naval systems. This means we need a responsive Area Reprogramming Capability [ARC].” Reprogramming is faster—once a decision to reprogram has been made—than it used to be, General Johnson said, but “we further need to reduce this decision time from days to hours.” In anticipation of Area Reprogramming, PACAF has modified its radar-warning receivers so they can be updated in minutes with a change of software.
The PACAF tactical fleet is completely outfitted with Have Quick radios, a jam-resistant but non-secure communications system. Anticipating that the enemy will eventually find a way to counter Have Quick, PACAF continues to voice its requirement for secure, unjammable communications.
General Johnson said that the command practices emissions control—keeping communications to a minimum to avoid giving away the position or intention of battle elements—and “frequency deconfliction,” or management of the electromagnetic spectrum in such a way that enough jamming power can be applied to disrupt enemy communications without jamming one’s own at the same time. The use of electronic combat equipment and techniques is a major part of exercises and training in the Pacific, he said. At the Crow Valley range in the Philippines alone, US and allied aircrews fly more than 20,000 training sorties a year, with heavy jamming and intense electronic action built into the curriculum.
“When timeliness, range, and payload are considered, there are conventional missions that cannot be accomplished and areas of the world that cannot be reached without SAC’s strategic bomber and tanker forces,” Brig. Gen. George W. Larson, Jr., Assistant DCS/ Plans at Strategic Air Command, said at the symposium.
SAC plans to allocate more of its bomber fleet to theater operations (see “Bombers for the Battlefield,” January ’87 issue, p. 20), and the theater CINCs will take all of the sorties they can get under this arrangement. Eventually, every SAC bomber—including, probably, the Advanced Technology Bomber when it gets here—will be assigned some conventional tasking.
A major limitation is that the only precision-guided weapon that SAC now has for standoff attack is the Harpoon missile, designed for use against ships. For theater missions, SAC hopes to add a precision weapon with terminal guidance that it could fly into a target as small as an office. The technology to do that is available, and candidate weapons are being evaluated, General Larson said.
“Today, our conventional bombers are required to overfly the target, penetrate terminal defenses, and pay critical attention to route planning,” he said. The new standoff weapon will enhance the bomber force’s conventional capability and reduce the danger to aircrews, but SAC has other improvements in progress as well. In contrast to the standard, easy-to-predict approach routes that heavy bombers took to their targets in the Vietnam War, current tactics emphasize random patterns that will keep the enemy guessing. There is more emphasis in training on low-level night operations as well.
“The work on improved accuracy has already netted significant improvements that benefit conventional capability,” General Larson said. “The offensive avionics systems recently incorporated into the B-52 have cut the Circular Error Probable [CEP] in half.” When the Global Positioning System is installed, he said, that will lead to a further decrease of eighty-seven percent in the CEP.
Gulf States Turbulence
US military presence in Southwest Asia is minima!, but US interest in the area is anything but. Two major exports from this part of the world—oil and terrorism—are of compelling concern to the United States and its allies. In addition, an unpredictable development in the Iran-Iraq war could shift the regional power balance in a direction that would have global consequences.
The Soviet Union is interested in the area, too, and has been building up its Southern TVD (or theater of military operations), which now has thirty mechanized and armored divisions and nearly 1,000 tactical aircraft at its disposal. That force has changed in composition as well as in size. In 1978, for example, it included nine air defense regiments and nine fighter-bomber regiments. Currently there are four air defense regiments and eighteen fighter-bomber regiments. The Soviets continue to be a major supplier of arms to the Iraqi side in the Gulf war.
US Central Command, which coordinates American military interests in the area, has only 400 people there, involved with a security assistance program that totaled $2 billion last year. These people also do a great deal of listening and talking. CENTCOM has 6,100 C-141 loads of ammunition prepositioned in Southwest Asia. If it ever had to take a direct hand in matters there, it would call on all of the US armed forces for troops and support. The air component of CENTCOM consists of conventionally armed B-52s and the tactical squadrons of Ninth Air Force.
Maj. Gen. Davis C. Rohr, Deputy CINCCENTCOM, speaking at the Orlando symposium, said that the sweeping size of Southwest Asia and the general lack of infrastructure lead most states to emphasize tactical airpower in their military planning. Of the nineteen nations in CENTCOM’s area of responsibility, only one—little Djibouti—does not have a tactical air force. Iraq has a large tactical air force, but General Rohr said that only recently did the Iraqis begin to use their Russian and French fighter-bombers with real authority against Iranian oil facilities and other targets in the Gulf.
A member of the audience asked what air bases CENTCOM might use should it ever need to deploy forces to Southwest Asia. General Rohr replied that “we wouldn’t go in unless asked,” but that “many of the Gulf states are happy for us to be over the horizon. Should we need to go in to protect almost anybody except Iran, we would be invited and invited relatively rapidly.”