Seven Pillars of Airpower

June 1, 2002

One night in April 1999, USAF Brig. Gen. Daniel P. Leaf jumped into the cockpit of his F-16, ready to fight the air war over Serbia. His Block 40 fighter, based at Aviano AB, Italy, was decked out for Close Air Support, sporting two 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs, a LANTIRN pod for low-altitude night targeting, and the Block 40 Improved Data Modem for sharing offboard target data.

Leaf, the commander of the 31st Air Expeditionary Wing, got his night vision goggles ready and launched, along with another identically equipped F-16.

However, the mission that night was not CAS. The mission, rather, was to strike Serbian air defenses. The goal was not to just “suppress” their capability, but to destroy it. The 2,000-pound bombs were to be used to eliminate surface-to-air missiles, radars, launchers, and support vans.

Joining Leaf and his wingman were four other F-16s. All four were Block 50s. Each was outfitted with a High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile targeting pod to sense electronic emissions from SAM radars and Block 50 IDMs tailored to the counter-radar mission, and carried AGM-88 HARMs.

Unfortunately, neither of these two basic F-16 variants could carry out the SAM destruction job alone. The two Block 40s lacked the HARM Targeting System that is essential for locating and identifying SAM electronic emissions. The four Block 50s had the HARM system, but their AGM-88s were not capable of destroying the Serbian system. The Block 50s were not designed to accept both the HTS and the LANTIRN targeting pods necessary for the heavier, more-destructive laser-guided bombs.

The air warriors did the best they could to jury-rig a workable operational package, with mixed results. Nobody had good situational awareness. Each lacked a critical capability possessed by one of the other platforms.

The four Block 50 pilots–flying without night vision goggles–struggled to maintain flying formation with their two Block 40 counterparts and nearly lost it a couple of times.

And the two versions of the IDM–one optimized for CAS and the other for radar suppression–were not interoperable. “We had to share information via radio comm,” recalled Leaf, now the two-star director of USAF operational requirements. “That takes more time and is less secure.”

The challenges were emblematic of problems that faced the Air Force more broadly. Required operational thinking had not been done in advance, when hardware decisions were made. The problem extends beyond the F-16; the inability to communicate across disparate Air Force platforms and between different services is well-known but still unresolved.

Said Leaf: “We tend to think of solutions to combat problems in terms of single pieces of equipment, not an integrated solution.”

Enter the New Chief

Gen. John P. Jumper quickly resolved to change all that, having begun work as Air Force Chief of Staff the very week of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Jumper was confronted immediately with the task of contributing to a major joint war on terrorists, and there would be no room for fielding weapons packages that could not keep pace with fighting concepts.

“We’re all wedded to [procurement] programs,” Jumper said in an interview. “We argue programs on [Capitol] Hill. We defend programs in the [Pentagon] building. It’s program by program that we think. And it leads to people … wanting to make incremental improvements to programs. We don’t reward anybody for finding a whole new way of doing business.”

He added: “Where is that person?”

Jumper is attempting to lead by example. He is crafting seven notional task forces, each dedicated to a core capability he believes the Air Force must cultivate to perform its most vital missions.

Perhaps foremost among these new groups is what Jumper has called the Global Response Task Force. Plans call for this task force to be able, on short notice, to attack terrorist targets with stealth and precision anywhere around the globe.

The Air Force is also developing these other task forces:

  • Global Strike, geared to circumventing or breaking through an enemy’s anti-access theater defenses.
  • Air and Space/C2ISR, formed to provide civilian and military leaders with rapid Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance data.
  • Homeland Security, formed to track and, if need be, defeat air threats within US domestic airspace.
  • Nuclear Response, centered on Air Force ICBM forces and bomber-based weapons.
  • Global Mobility, able to swiftly provide food, shelter, and other forms of relief to ravaged areas of the world.
  • Air and Space Expeditionary, providing tailored force packages to handle the full spectrum of contingencies. This task force will have an overarching or integrating role.

The Global Strike Task Force concept first emerged in 2000, when Jumper–then commander of Air Combat Command at Langley AFB, Va.–embraced it to showcase the tip-of-the-spear capabilities of the stealthy F-22 fighter and B-2 bomber.

Now, as service chief, Jumper has his major commands developing seven different Concepts of Operations for the newly named task forces. When these CONOPS are completed, units may begin training together in anticipation of deploying as part of an operational task force dedicated to a particular mission–homeland defense, for example.

Perhaps more importantly, the task forces will serve as organizational and planning tools, valued for the forethought they generate in the Air Force, service officials say.

Jumper sees the task forces as conceptual instruments to more sharply focus USAF operational requirements, research and development, acquisition, and budgeting on the service’s seven most critical operational capabilities.

Each of the seven task forces will be headed by a colonel. These task force “champions” will have the authority to compile lists of acquisition programs that best support a particular task force’s battlespace effects.

Programs that make the list will be rewarded with budget authority and service backing. Crosscutting programs–those that appear on more than one task force list–will win the greatest level of Air Force sponsorship, according to Jumper. “So the program people are now trying to be attractive to the person who’s trying to create the [operational] effect,” he explained.

The unfolding of this initiative parallels that of a new agile-acquisition effort, designed to speed delivery of more carefully tailored weapons and support systems to the operator.

Guide for Planning, Programming

Jumper said that the Air Force must be able to “describe how we go to war and how we interface with the other services” before considering what systems to buy to carry out particular missions. “This CONOPS-based way of doing business is one we are also trying to bring to our planning and programming system,” he said. “We do that by describing our capabilities in terms of task forces.”

Jumper’s somewhat abstract notion has proved a bit tough to swallow for some Air Force officials schooled in more practical endeavors such as flying to Point A or developing Weapon B.

In late March–after months of discussing the concept in and outside the service–Jumper was still organizing focus sessions for two-star generals to sort out what the task forces were all about, Air Force officials say. Among the participants were budget officials who remained uncertain how effects-based planning would affect their work.

Some service officials have wondered aloud why there is no task force dedicated to key Air Force missions such as special operations, information warfare, or training.

In response, Air Force leaders say they sought to cap task forces at a manageable quantity, between six and 10. At the same time, service officials are beginning to identify important missions that span all seven task forces, including global mobility, information operations, and innovation.

Unlocking Innovation

Whatever the template, Air Force officials emphasize the paramount objective is to focus on broad capabilities, making technology a means to an end and not the end itself.

“Are we pursuing the F-22 because it goes Mach 1.7 in supercruise and is stealthy and has integrated avionics?” Leaf asked. “Heck, no!” He pointed to the premier fighter’s operational value against advanced enemy air-to-air and SAM systems.

In that vein, Leaf thinks the task force focus will help Air Force officials better articulate service needs to external audiences, like the Office of the Secretary of Defense or Congress.

It should also spur new ideas for attacking operational problems. Leaf said innovation has for too long been almost the exclusive domain of the acquisition community. The growing complexity of missions across the conflict spectrum demands that operators get “out in front of the problem intellectually,” he said. “We should be able to have enough imagination and vision to look at unique and new applications of emerging and existing technology,” Leaf observed.

While the Air Force is extremely self-critical, said Leaf, “the truth of the matter is we’ve won our last few wars 59-0 and we’ve got a great Air Force.” The new task force approach, Leaf said, is simply “the next iteration of air and space thinking.”

For Jumper, this new way of thinking seems natural.

“If we describe ourselves in this way, and it captures most of what we do, then why don’t we plan and program that way, too?” Jumper asked in a February speech at the Air Force Association’s national symposium in Orlando, Fla.

What has stood in the way in the past? “This is a challenging endeavor,” Leaf explained. “It’s hard to take the warfighters’ ideas about what they need, capability-wise, and translate that into something that can be formed in sheet metal and titanium and composite and computer chips.”

Jumper’s next iteration in air and space thinking aims to more effectively bridge a long-standing gap between operators and acquisition officials, officials say.

Well before a production line is tooled, operators must better understand how particular technologies or equipment will advance Air Force capabilities in the battlespace, according to Maj. Gen. Danny Hogan, the mobilization assistant to the service’s director of plans and programs.

Hogan said that, for the first time, the Air Force’s many communities will “all use a common capability template” that will reflect “the adequacy of our capabilities both in the near term and the far term.”

Where Rubber Meets the Ramp

As Air Force officials see it, reliance on the task force concept might have prevented or at least identified problems that only became apparent in past operations.

“This task force approach, in my mind, would have clearly shown us early on how reliant we are on the destruction and suppression of enemy air defenses,” said Leaf of the Kosovo air war, “and resulted in higher priority–sooner–for [F-16] Block 50 night modifications. That increase in priority, incidentally, has since been made.”

Ground zero for the task force approach may well be Leaf’s requirements shop. There the focus is turning increasingly to the task of providing the acquisition community a clear description of the battlespace effects sought by the warfighters. From there, technologists can identify hardware and software solutions.

Leaf said that the Air Force wants to “capture the concept … of effects-based requirements that are not quite so [slanted] to a specific program.” Instead they will describe “capabilities needed to achieve what the warfighter sets out to do.”

Toward that end, the Air Force is creating a new quarterly process called Capabilities Review and Risk Assessment.

“Now we’re taking it further intellectually, [such that] we have this collection of things to achieve this effect,” said Leaf. “And we may see elements of capability that contribute in a way we didn’t recognize before. [Or] we may see redundancies.”

Future operational requirements documents also will describe “desired effects and required capabilities,” rather than pinpoint a specific platform or weapon–like the F-22 or small diameter bomb, Leaf said. From that, he added, the service may derive “annexes or volumes that address the specific system capability.”

War on Terrorism

The Air Force may get an opportunity in the near term to test its embryonic task force approach. The early thinking about what is needed for counterterrorism attacks is a capability “to go in and strike something of significance quickly and rapidly and accurately, but not necessarily [in] a sustained effort,” said Gen. Gregory S. Martin, the commander of United States Air Forces in Europe.

The Air Force has laid out an emerging CONOPS for the Global Response Task Force. The service anticipates keeping warplanes on alert as part of a package aimed at quick strikes against terrorist targets.

“Using actionable intelligence for some fleeting targets, [the task force] combines alert strike platforms based in selected locations with the ability to launch and receive updates en route to allow the GRTF to respond rapidly” to direction from civilian and military leaders, according to a draft operating concept the Air Staff circulated earlier this year.

The briefing acknowledges this “new enemy” is different from traditional nation-states the United States has fought in the past. A terror group is “unconventional in its actions, dispersed in its location, and concealed by disguise,” the draft briefing said.

In response, the Air Force wants GRTF to serve as a “poised force,” capable of acting “swiftly, precisely, decisively, and globally,” according to the document.

Martin explained that the next step is to address the question, “What are the things you need to do that?” He went on to say, “Well, you need proper intelligence [preparation] of the battlefield that is more along the way of predicting what the enemy courses of action will be and where they will be. Then you need, obviously, the right mobility force. You need the right [communications] links. You need the right picture in the cockpit. You need the right weapons.

“So once you put that all together,” Martin continued, “you basically understand from the different types of tasks’ scenarios … what systems you need to do that. And now, the guy that’s in charge of that task force will line those systems up in terms of which ones are most important for his ability to conduct the operation. Which modernization programs will pay him the biggest dividend in being able to execute the task he’s given?”

The approach may make it more difficult for Air Force officials to invest heavily in high-technology gadgets before their value in the battlespace is known, officials say. When system developers come up with a new technology, now “we’ll be able to bring it into our Global Strike Task Force or other construct and look at existing capabilities, identify where it fits, see if it’s merely redundant and duplicative, [or] see if it’s complementary,” said Leaf.

Sometimes, he added, the service will find that a new capability “really does change the entire approach” and does not merely lead to the conclusion, “Guess what? We can blow up bridges faster now.”

“We’re still probably going to need to blow up bridges sometimes,” Leaf continued. “But many of the elements of warfighting are much more exquisite than that in modern scenarios and need a better-defined intellectual construct.”

Effects Multiplier

To those who might consider Jumper’s task force framework just another passing phase in the Air Force, think again, says Maj. Gen. David A. Deptula, director of plans and programs at Air Combat Command. He says the concept has substantial foundation in Air Force thinking.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, where Deptula was the principal air campaign planner, the Air Force found it could render key targets inoperable with just a few carefully placed strikes, greatly multiplying the effectiveness of each sortie.

In warfare, said Deptula, “you can achieve dramatic effects across an entire theater by using quality intelligence to focus your targeting, rather than seeking the absolute destruction of each and every target.” Similarly, he said, Jumper’s task force approach attempts to sharpen the service’s focus on practical results, which means “translating the notion of an effects-based perspective to planning and funding our force structure.”

If Jumper’s vision takes off, the thinking goes, it might just have a similar, multiplying effect.

Elaine M. Grossman is senior correspondent for Inside the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Her most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Halt Phase Hits a Bump,” appeared in the April 2001 issue.