Fighting for Airspace

April 1, 1997

In 1995, Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, commander of Air Combat Command, warned that the Air Force needed to start paying closer attention to the availability of its airspace and ranges. He voiced concern that the force might not always have room to train as it should and announced that he had created a special ACC office to get on—and stay on—the case.

“This issue is more important than the F-22 or B-2,” he said. “If we lose our airspace, . . . then we’re going to be out of business as an Air Force.”

General Ralston, now vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, thought the Air Force needed to make a more vigorous case for its training needs because it was sure to be asked to withdraw from airspace and range areas in the post–Cold War retrenchment. Moreover, the General said, the Air Force in some areas “ought to be working on getting more.”

Now, the problem foreseen by General Ralston has arrived, caused by two primary factors. First, there is fierce competition for access to military training areas. Col. Chuck Gagnon, the chief of ACC’s Airspace and Ranges Management Division, reported that USAF is up against claims from land developers, ranchers, American Indian organizations, mining corporations, recreation clubs, other federal agencies, and more.

Compounding the problem is a second factor—growing USAF requirements. Though the Air Force has suffered force cuts and base closures and now has fewer aircraft and aircrews in fewer places, its overall space requirements haven’t diminished. Far from it. Changing tactics, techniques, and weapon systems are certain to expand the Air Force’s needs, officers said.

Three Problems

USAF operates 34 ranges encompassing some nine million acres. More than 60 percent of that land (5.4 million acres) is available for dual use by the military and the public. This includes managed forests, farming and grazing areas, and protected wetlands. In this huge area, the Air Force presently faces numerous operational airspace and range issues, but perhaps the three most significant problems can be found in Nevada, Arizona, and Idaho.

The Air Force’s concerns in Nevada and Arizona are linked and grow out of the onrushing need for a renewal of the Military Land Withdrawal Act of 1986.

The Nevada case: By far the most important issue confronting the Air Force is the need to shore up its access to the airspace over and territory of the Nellis Range complex in southern and central Nevada, which the Air Force uses for operational combat flying training.

Air Combat Command manages the Nellis Range, which encompasses about 3.1 million acres. Colonel Gagnon said flatly, “Our number one priority is renewal of the Nellis Range complex in the year 2001.”

The Arizona case: Air Education and Training Command manages the 2.7-million-acre Barry M. Goldwater Range in southern Arizona. The Air Force uses it primarily for initial training of F-16 pilots.

Together these two ranges constitute about 60 percent of the Air Force’s total range space. Both have been used by the military since before World War II, but they do not belong to the Air Force outright. Congress has over the years “withdrawn” the lands from the national pool and set them aside for the exclusive use of the armed forces.

The latest withdrawal, passed in 1986, gave the ranges to DoD for only 15 years, and it must be renewed by 2001 or it expires. As part of the renewal process, the service must submit a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) to Congress in 1998, and then Congress will have until 2001 to consider the request.

This is not the first time around for the Nellis and Goldwater ranges. The last renewal requirement came up in the mid-1970s, according to Lt. Col. Tom Lillie of USAF’s Range and Airspace Division at the Pentagon. It took Congress 10 years to work it out. During the intervening 10 years, the military was given permission to continue using the land.

However, the 1986 Withdrawal Act included the requirement for an EIS. Previously, the Air Force had done a less extensive environmental analysis. Producing an EIS for this 2001 renewal will cost the Air Force approximately $15 million.

The most serious Air Force concern, however, is not cost but the study’s potential as a magnet for critics and opposition. This problem already has begun to materialize as environmentalists, business groups, and others line up to demand greater access to the areas or to further restrict military access to them.

Colonel Gagnon said his team has stressed to unit commanders that Air Force training needs must be explained to the American people. They’ve found that in many cases the public has identified better locations to meet those needs.

Colonel Gagnon noted the increasing sophistication of the public and some of the interest group claimants. “They are better educated, better organized, and well funded,” he said. “The planes and people, you get through the annual budgeting process, but . . . you get [the places to train] by going out to the American public.”

More Acres Needed

In the Idaho case, the Air Force faces a different kind of range problem. The Air Force is not merely trying to maintain current levels of access but is seeking a significant expansion of an existing site.

The difficulty stems from a move that the Air Force calls the Enhanced Training Initiative. ETI calls for creation of an additional military range in Idaho—specifically, a range for use by the 366th Wing, USAF’s air-interdiction composite unit located at Mountain Home AFB. The base already has a 100,000-acre range. Though large, it is now not sufficient for the new tactics and techniques carried out by the wing’s long-legged bombers and fighters.

Wing officials realized they needed to modify their airspace and range arrangement to provide “the best training today and into the future,” stated Col. Gerald F. Pease, chief of USAF’s Range and Airspace Division at the Pentagon.

The current USAF proposal for the Idaho initiative includes withdrawing from public use another 12,000 acres, within which the Air Force would construct a 300-acre bomb-drop site. However, ranchers could continue to use the area outside the 300-acre drop site to graze livestock.

Additionally, the proposal calls for 30 electronic emitter sites of up to an acre in size as well as four five-acre and one 640-acre sites that would simulate industrial areas. The simulated industrial areas would be classed as no-drop areas and only used for electronic scoring.

This current ETI proposal is not the first that the Air Force has produced. Two earlier proposals called for withdrawing much more acreage and were abandoned under political pressure. The current plan has evolved through negotiations and discussions with various interest groups.

Colonel Lillie said that, as a result of public review of this latest proposal, USAF has included a third proposed location for the 12,000-acre drop site.

The Colonel said that a draft EIS for the plan would be made available for public scrutiny for the required 90-day comment period, then the final EIS should be issued in August 1997. The proposal would then wind its way through the federal government, making stops at the Department of the Interior and Congress.

Prognosis: Uncertain

Air Force officials from Mountain Home, ACC, and the Air Staff have contributed to the effort to try to mitigate local concerns. Still, no one in the Air Force believes that the proposal is a shoo-in. Asked for a prognosis, Colonel Pease would say only that the current proposal seems to be “more favorably received than others in the past.”

ACC officials emphasized that the Idaho initiative is based on very specific training requirements. However, Col. Ronald G. Ohlendt, deputy chief of ACC’s Airspace and Ranges Management Division, pointed out that the application of airpower is constantly evolving and that weapon systems change and tactics with current systems change. Thus, he said, it’s impossible to guarantee that the Air Force will never change its practices over the next 80 or so years. “I may be back in 10 years and say we found that the B-1 is better used flying this way than that way,” he said.

Colonel Ohlendt said that today’s airspace and range structure has been in place for decades and no longer fits the needs of the modern Air Force. Fifty years ago, he explained, aircrews could get effective training in a limited column of airspace about five miles in diameter. Those days are long gone, and the space requirement is increasing for three basic reasons.

One reason is the advent of sophisticated new munitions.

“In the last 10 years, we have brought on a vast array of very highly technical, sophisticated precision munitions,” stated Colonel Ohlendt. “Air tactics have changed. We are employing those precision guided munitions differently. We have learned through Desert Storm and other things that we have to expand the envelope that we fly in, not only to preserve our resources but also to ensure our effectiveness and proper employment of these PGMs.”

All those new capabilities expand the need for airspace and ranges. It is not possible to train with extended-range weapons on “back yard ranges built for gravity bombs,” noted Colonel Pease.

The second factor complicating the situation is the fact that advanced technologies make it possible to conduct round-the-clock and all-weather combat operations.

Until recently, combat aircraft couldn’t operate effectively in bad weather or at night, so the Air Force had no need to structure its airspace to provide that kind of training, Air Force Secretary Sheila E. Widnall explained in a recent speech. Training operations took place during the day and in fair weather. Now, she added, the Air Force looks toward fielding systems with all-weather and day and night capability, and training must keep up.

The third factor is the advance of aircraft technologies that permit greater performance.

In his 1995 statement, General Ralston called particular attention to the planned arrival of USAF’s F-22 air-superiority fighter, with its ability to fly at supersonic speeds without resorting to fuel-gulping afterburners. This means that, in actual combat, the aircraft will be able to travel much further and patrol a much larger area.

This single characteristic of the aircraft, he said, requires the service to make its case for a larger training airspace.

The upshot is that no wholesale return of airspace and ranges to the federal government is possible without serious damage to Air Force training. In the words of Secretary Widnall, “Without ranges, we can’t train, and if we can’t train, we can’t fight.”

Echo of the 1970s

No physical boundary surrounds military airspace, and relatively little of it is set aside solely for use by the armed forces. Today’s military training airspace was developed in the 1970s, according to Colonel Pease. It was placed within civil-commercial aircraft routes, creating irregular-shaped patches [see map, p. 72].

“People have a tendency to look at the map of airspace and say that you own the whole world—you own all the airspace,” said Colonel Pease. Actually, he said, DoD conducts operational flying training in about 20 percent of the national airspace.

When individuals ask him how much airspace the Air Force has returned since the end of the Cold War, the Colonel said his quick reply is “about 30 percent.”

However, he is not referring to the return of actual airspace but to a reduction in total flying hours. He said that, in 1988, USAF aircraft worldwide accounted for about 3.3 million flying hours. In 1995, the figure was about 2.3 million.

“If we’re flying 30 percent less, that means we’re using the airspace 30 percent less,” explained Colonel Pease. “So in my mind, we have given back 30 percent.

“Airspace is four-dimensional. People forget that if no one is flying there, there’s no wall there. So anyone who flies knows that if there’s no flying activity, you can go right through the airspace using visual flight rules.”

Commercial airliners cannot do so, yet. An initiative of the Federal Aviation Administration called Free Flight, begun in 1994, may provide the solution. Essentially, it will reduce the old groundbased air traffic control infrastructure to a system that will enable pilots, whenever practical, to choose their own route and file a flight plan that follows the most efficient and economical route. Key to the concept is the use of emerging technologies for communications, navigation (Global Positioning System satellites), and surveillance.

According to the FAA, it is employing elements of Free Flight incrementally. As part of the effort, DoD expects to provide next-day schedules to the FAA in 1998 via a new, automated, special-use airspace-scheduling system. It is also working on same-day information.

Until Free Flight fully takes hold—possibly not before 2010—US airspace will continue to get more crowded. The FAA estimates that the air traffic rate will grow by three to five percent per year for the next 15 years, a rate the current airspace architecture cannot efficiently handle.

To Decommission, or Not

Meanwhile, some favor decommissioning military airspace to help solve the growing air traffic problem and to appease environmental concerns. Colonel Pease maintains that decommissioning is not a good answer. Compressing military flying training within fewer areas would simply create a much greater impact on the remaining locations.

“The answer is not necessarily to decommission some airspace used only 20 percent of the time and use another area 100 percent,” he said.

Keeping open underused ranges and airspace actually provides a means to reduce the military training impact. Colonel Pease said that the Air Force could use those alternate ranges at various times without disturbing the environment. For instance, the Air Force is working with the National Park Service to see how it might deconflict its flying training with peak park visitation periods.

As a result of an April 1996 Chief of Staff directive, the Air Staff and major commands are now conducting a study of USAF airspace and range requirements, from entry-level flying training to sophisticated operational combat training at Nellis’s Red Flag exercises. The idea is to produce a model that “delineates what we have and what we need by November 1998,” stated Colonel Pease.

In addition to reviewing its requirements for operational training, ACC will develop a database of Total Force (active-duty, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve) airspace and ranges. It will also identify shortages and excesses, as well as map out long-range operational airspace and range requirements for the Total Force.

ACC’s airspace and range team has taken a step that meshes well with the USAF-wide study. The team has been changing the way commanders view their requests for changes in locations used for combat flying training. They wanted to bring some rigor to the process.

“We have a lot of people who will tell you what they want, but we can no longer afford airspace and ranges based on what we want,” stated Colonel Gagnon. “There are a lot of people with legitimate competing interests, so we ensure that our needs are requirement-based.”

Colonel Ohlendt added that flying training must contribute to combat capabilities delineated in theater commander plans that will be used in combat. “We just can’t afford the luxury of excess capacity in terms of airspace and ranges. There’s a lot of internal hand-wringing and in-your-face type stuff with our unit commanders when they tell us they want more airspace. We say, ‘What’s the need?’ “

ACC’s Top 10

The membership of Air Combat Command’s Airspace and Ranges Management Division started with seven then rapidly grew to 30 as it added experts on environmental issues, contracting, and public affairs as well as aircrew training and range and airspace management.

Among the team’s dozens of projects, these are currently the top 10:

Nellis Land Use Renewal. [See p. 71.]

Chief of Staff Strategic Range Requirements Study. [See p. 74.]

Holloman II: Writing an environmenal impact statement to gain approval for the German Air Force to bring 30 additional Tornados to Holloman AFB, N. M., in 1999. Germany established a Tactical Training Center at Holloman in 1996.

Enhanced Training Initiative in Idaho. [See pp. 72–73.]

Nellis Range Study: Developing better business practices in managing the range, which hosts not just operational training, such as Red Flag, but also DoD research and development testing and Department of Energy projects.

Nellis Range Compatibility: Effort to exchange an Air Force land holding in another part of the US for a part of the Nellis Range that overlaps the Desert National Wildlife Refuge and is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Utah Test and Training Range: Move by ACC to assume management on October 1 of the UTTR, near Hill AFB, Utah, from Air Force Materiel Command.

NAS Oceana Beddown: Response to Navy’s movement of up to 400 fighters into the Oceana, Va., area, already heavily congested with USAF aircraft at Langley AFB, Va., Seymour Johnson AFB, N. C., and Shaw AFB, S. C.

Southwest Texas Electronic Scoring Site: Effort to provide Air Force bomber units with an additional electronic scoring training site in Texas.

Weapon Safety Footprints: Determination of the amount of space each USAF munition requires to land safely, so the Air Force can determine what constitutes a proper buffer zone.