The most impressive thing about US tactical forces today is their solid competence in basic, everyday tasks of combat. Well trained and superbly equipped, they go about their duties with a steady assurance. In one demonstration after another, they sustain operations at a punishing pace and put down firepower with great accuracy.
Speaking at AFA’s tactical warfare symposium in Orlando, Fla., on January 21-22, Gen. Robert D. Russ, Commander of TAC, recounted as an example the results of a sortie surge exercise by the 19th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Shaw AFB, S. C.
Working with twenty-four F-16 aircraft, the squadron launched 160 sorties in 12.5 hours for a rate of 6.7 sorties per aircraft. There were no aborts. (By contrast, fighter aircraft in World War II averaged one combat sortie every four days. One sortie a day was still considered pretty good in the Vietnam era.)
All of the aircraft reached the range and delivered their ordnance. Forty percent of the bombs dropped were bull’s-eyes. The F-16s returned from 150 of the sorties in Code One condition, ready to fly again without maintenance. The ten aircraft with problems were back in commission within two hours.
“That sort of reliability has not been seen before in our tactical forces,” General Russ said. Results like those seen at Shaw also depend on bright, highly motivated sortie-generation crews who can bring out the best in good systems. “These men and women are not born that way,” General Russ said. “They’re taught that way by some damn good NCOs.”
The question is whether tactical forces can keep up such quality through the next five years when defense budgets drop, perhaps by hundreds of billions of dollars.
The Air Force stands to lose three of the thirty-eight fighter and attack wings it has at present. General Russ said that deployments and exercises will be reduced and that Red Flag—the world-famous training program for fighter pilots that simulates combat—will also be cut back.
Production of fighter aircraft is expected to decline, too. USAF hopes to preserve intact its most critical modernization programs, including the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF), but is sorting with some anguish its other requirements into “nice to have” and “need to have” piles.
“Voice-activated switches are nice to have,” General Russ said. “Manual switches are need to have. A new 20-mm gun is nice to have; the old gun with maybe some improved ammo is need to have.”
Allocating the Reductions
The tactical forces will take their wing structure cuts by retiring older airplanes, mainly F-4s, General Russ said. The newer aircraft will be redistributed among the wings that remain, and the Air Force will concentrate on keeping them at peak readiness.
That will be a trying job in itself, since the Operations & Maintenance account has been hard hit already in the first wave of budget reductions. O&M pays for fuel, flying hours, spare parts, and general upkeep of the force.
Tidal W. McCoy, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Readiness Support, told the symposium audience that combat sustainability will soon begin to suffer. It hasn’t happened yet, he said, because spare parts are budgeted two or three years before they show up in squadron supply bins.
By 1991, Mr. McCoy said, “we could have a serious downward spiral in our military capability. . . . If we’re not careful, we could be in the same situation as we were in 1979 and 1980 when the forces were in an unready and dangerous situation.”
General Russ said that, as budget reductions proceed, the trick will be to strike the right funding balance between strategic and tactical forces, the procurement and operating accounts, and R&D and the rest of the budget.
“We won’t have the luxury of the broad-based R&D program we currently have,” he said. “We’ll have to trim that somewhat and direct our efforts more toward solving known problems. Second, we’ll have to cut some of our options sooner. It’s nice to be able to look at a problem two or three different ways and then pick the best solution,” but budget circumstances force early foreclosure of options and acceptance of the development risk that goes along with that approach.
There will be heavy emphasis on system reliability. “The tactical forces won’t support a production decision on any program without demonstrated reliability,” General Russ said. “We can’t afford to buy ourselves out of problems.”
Reliability saves both maintenance costs and manpower. General Russ expects an Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) squadron to operate with thirty percent fewer people than an F-IS squadron does. Improved mean time between failures (MTBF) of systems on the new fighter will reduce all kinds of support requirements, ranging from spare parts to the number of C-130 airlifters that accompany the squadron on a deployment.
Airpower for the Army
Here and there, the interservice feud about close air support continues to bubble (see also “Sorting Out the AirLand Partnership” on p. 50 of this issue). Former Under Secretary of the Army James Ambrose has complained that “we are not getting the fixed-wing close air support that we need.” A substantial faction in the Army bitterly opposes the Air Force’s plan to employ a modified fighter, the A-16, for close air support rather than designing a new airplane from scratch for that role.
The organizations that should know the requirement best—Tactical Air Command and the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC)—have no argument with each other, though, at least not at the top levels.
Gen. Maxwell R. Thurman, TRADOC Commander, says that “I won’t get drawn into [a discussion of] Mr. Ambrose’s comments” and that he will leave choice of airframes to people who understand flying better than he does.
“Bob [Russ] and I are clear on interoperability,” General Thurman told the symposium. “We put up the requirements. They satisfy them. So far, we’re a satisfied customer.” Responding to a question from the floor about his preference for a forward air control platform for the future, General Thurman declared himself for “whatever it takes [for] Bob to do the job.”
And as General Russ explains it, the Army could hardly be more central to TAC planning. “The tactical air forces have two missions—[to provide] air defense of the continental United States and to support the Army,” he said. “Historically, most people have thought that our support for the Army was close air support.
“In reality, all tacair missions are to support the Army. We keep ‘enemy fighters off the Army’s back.
That’s counterair. We delay and disrupt the enemy before [his force] can be brought to bear. That’s interdiction. And of course we do close air support.”
The New, Improved Army
General Thurman said the Army has held its active-duty strength constant in recent years (although adding considerably in Reservists and Guardsmen) so that it could invest in modernization of weapon systems. That equipment is now in the field, and the new, improved Army moves faster, reaches deeper, and hits harder than ever before.
Rate of advance with the old M60 tank was nineteen kilometers an hour. The Ml, which General Thurman calls “the world’s best tank,” churns along at forty-five kilometers an hour. And when it gets where it’s going, it is lethally effective.
“I took one a year ago and fired four out of five rounds into a target at two kilometers,” General Thurman said. “If a fifty-five-year-old, one-eyed field-artillery officer can do that, think what some nineteen-year-old kid who’s been trained on it can do!”
He also gives top marks to the M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Allegations of its vulnerability are based on dumb interpretation of test results, he claims.
“What they’ve asked us to do is shoot a tank round at [the M2] and see if it will do any damage,” General Thurman said. “Yes, it will do some damage. In fact, it might deadline it.
“Let me give you an analogy. If I took an F-16 and put it at the end of the runway, fully loaded with munitions and fuel, revved it up, and fired an AIM-91, at it, what do you think would happen? You would say that’s stupid. You take the thing off and fly it, and through the capabilities of the man and the machine, we kill the other guy before he kills us.” The same principle applies to survivability of the M2 in combat, he said.
Also in service is the Multiple-Launch Rocket System (MLRS), which enables the Army to attack from thirty kilometers away. When the Tactical Missile System (TACMS) is fielded in 1990, the Army will have a hundred-kilometer weapon, too. These systems would work in concert with the Air Force in pounding the enemy’s rear echelons to disrupt his flow of reinforcements to the forward line of troops.
The Army eagerly awaits Joint STARS, an airborne system being developed in cooperation with the Air Force. It will look deep and sort out targets on the ground. It should be ready in the early 1990s, shortly after the Army’s deep attack capability is operational.
B-52s on the Flanks
The deepest counterattack of all would be carried out by conventionally armed B-52G bombers on loan from Strategic Air Command. During the symposium, Lt. Gen. James P. McCarthy, then Commander of SAC’s Eighth Air Force, described the new concept.
In wartime, the heavy bombers would deploy to forward operating locations on the periphery of Europe. Forty-five suitable airfields have already been identified. SAC would “chop” operational control of these forces to the theater commander and furnish him a SAC general officer to advise in their employment.
Thus deployed, the B-52Gs would operate against preassigned “strategic areas of responsibility” deep in enemy territory and go after targets that lie beyond the reach of fighters. The big bombers would not need refueling en route, so they will not compete for scarce tanker resources.
General McCarthy said that sixty-one B-52Gs will be assigned to a purely conventional role in FY ’89. These aircraft will not be equipped to carry cruise missiles, but later on, they will be augmented by up to eighty-nine more B-52Gs that will have cruise missile capability.
The concept of operation gives the B-52s a good chance of reaching their targets and getting out again, General McCarthy said. The bombers will penetrate along routes that bypass the concentrated defenses of the central battle. They will fly low—never above 400 feet—mainly at night, with fifty-mile spacing between aircraft. They will strike simultaneously from different points of the compass.
A typical target, General McCarthy said, might be a rail transloading yard in Hungary. Each B-52 can carry fifty 1,000-pound bombs. In the near future, the weapons load may include Tacit Rainbow loitering missiles for defense suppression and Israeli-developed Popeye guided munitions—which USAF calls “Have Nap”—for point attack.
Such operations would disrupt the enemy’s war effort, impede his flow of reinforcements and supplies to the central fight, and force him to divert military assets to defend rear areas against attack.
This is a completely new concept for SAC bomb wings, which, unlike tactical units, are unaccustomed to working from forward operating locations. To prepare, they have begun practice deployments to austere bases in the United States and will proceed by stages to more difficult deployments with larger forces. They are also flying more low-level training missions at night, using the equipment, techniques, and tactics needed to penetrate enemy airspace under the cover of darkness.
Operating Under Attack
In 1985, the Air Force ran a major wartime survival test called “Salty Demo” for two weeks at Spangdahlem AB, Germany. It was known ahead of time that European bases were vulnerable to some degree, but results of the exercise told a worse story than officials had expected. A moderate attack on the base would be enough to severely restrict its ability to generate sorties. Salty Demo led to a recovery effort called “Air Base Operability,” which is just now shifting into high gear.
“This is not a small program with a few widgets and a couple of generators,” Secretary McCoy said at the symposium. “We will be spending three or four billion dollars in the next five to eight years in this area, and there are unfunded needs in the range of another four to five billion.”
European bases are threatened in various ways. Newer Soviet attack aircraft have the range and weapons accuracy to do serious damage. Spetsnaz commando forces would have airfields high on their list of targets. Tactical ballistic missiles are another means of assaulting bases. Chemical and biological weapons pose yet another kind of danger.
Secretary McCoy said there are two basic approaches to air base operability. One relies on hardening of facilities, active defense, and rapid repair capability. The other emphasizes dispersal, mobility, concealment, and deception. The Air Force program will employ both approaches. Defense beyond the base perimeter is the Army’s job, and Secretary McCoy said “we will start holding the Army’s feet to the fire” to ensure that the protection is there.
“We must also make certain that all of our airmen are prepared to contribute to base recovery after an air attack and to defense of the base during ground attack,” he said. “We cannot afford to have the sortie generators standing around watching while fifty civil engineers fill holes in the runway or 150 security policemen repel a Spetsnaz assault.”
Exploring Better Methods
Tactical units all the way down to squadron level now have Air Base Operability sections. Training and exercise programs are under way. Meanwhile, the Air Force is exploring better methods of fighting fires, repairing bomb damage, and operating in a chemically contaminated environment. It is also following up on a 1983 suggestion by the Defense Science Board that the cover and deception program be rejuvenated.
Mr. McCoy said that the first phase of the cover and deception program would consist of such things as dummy aircraft and fake landing strips. The second phase will add signature emitters to the dummy aircraft to confuse enemy sensors that try to sniff out the fakes.
In a recent demonstration, black mesh cloth in the shape of aircraft was laid on concrete, with some real aircraft parked nearby. “We had some pilots run in on it, and ten out of fifteen times they went after the black cloth rather than the real aircraft,” Mr. McCoy said. “Sometimes even the simplest kind of deception can be effective.”
Another goal of Air Base Operability is to make it easier for fighters to work from damaged runways. This has put Secretary McCoy at odds with others in the tactical community on specifications for the Advanced Tactical Fighter.
Secretary McCoy told the symposium audience that in Pentagon meetings, “McCoy is saying I want thrust reversers on it because I want it to be able to stop fairly short.” Pressed on this point by questioners, he said he’d “like it to be proven that it’s impossible to come up with a technology or an approach—braking systems, thrust reversers, or something—that would give us that capability.”
Earlier, General Russ had made the case against thrust reversers for the ATE He said that the Air Force believed initially that it could have this feature at moderate cost and without a big penalty in additional weight of the aircraft. It then found that the cost was appreciable and the additional weight was 1,000 pounds. With thrust reversers, the ATF could land in about 2,000 feet. Without them, it needs 3,000. General Russ said that the tactical forces had considered the value of the 1,000-foot difference and decided it wasn’t worth the extra money and weight required to get it.
Watch on the DMZ
The armistice in Korea has held for thirty-five years, but peace is far from secure. North Korea makes no secret of its desire to consolidate the peninsula under Northern control. If and when that desire achieves critical mass, the South Koreans and their US allies could, at best, expect a few hours’ warning of invasion.
Brig. Gen. James E. Chambers, PACAF Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, brought the symposium audience up to date on allied concerns about the North Korean order of battle.
At the time of the armistice, each side backed off two kilometers, creating a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in between. Soon, however, they began inching up, seeking slight advantages of terrain and better observation points. As a result of these incursions, the hostile guard posts are now separated by several hundred yards rather than four kilo meters, and exchange of gunfire is not unusual.
General Chambers said that the North Koreans learned some military lessons from the war, when their human-wave tactics failed and allied fighters broke up their long logistics lines. Today, sixty-five percent of the North Korean military force is massed along the DMZ. Ten thousand AAA guns defend against airplanes. The artillery is heavily bunkered, some of it in caves, and is virtually inaccessible to air attack. North Korean aircraft and armor are also kept in underground shelters.
The allies do not know how many tunnels the North Koreans have dug under the DMZ, but the number is significant. They provide concealed routes for invasion.
North Korea has a large fleet of tactical aircraft, but most of them are old. More important, General Chambers said, North Korean pilots fly only three to six sorties each per month, not enough for real proficiency. The South Koreans and their US colleagues average fourteen to eighteen sorties a month.
“The biggest problem is North Korean special forces,” General Chambers said. “They are 80,000 to 100,000 strong, and about half of them are forward-deployed. They can come over land, under land, by water, or by air.”
The North has about 250 An-2 Colt aircraft, each able to carry about twelve special forces paratroopers and their gear. “It’s a simple airplane—high wing, great visibility,” General Chambers said. “It takes off at 100 knots, flies at 100 knots, and lands at 100 knots. It’s a difficult target to pick up on radar. When you do pick it up, it’s hard to shoot down. It has a fabric cover, and it’s a low heat source.”
Some of the An-2s would likely get through, but a great many of them would be lost. The North Koreans would be flying them over mountains and down valleys mainly at night and at altitudes of fifty to 100 feet. That should generate heavy attrition, even if the Colts could avoid defensive fire. Land and sea penetration routes would probably work better for the commandos.
A fundamental goal of the allied war plan is that Seoul, the South Korean capital, not fall. Since Seoul is a scant thirty miles from the DMZ, the defense cannot afford to yield much ground.
In case of war, the allies would try to hold the main invasion forces near the DMZ, beat back special forces attacks where they occur, use tactical airpower to go after choke-points on the invasion routes, and buy enough time for reinforcements to arrive.