It will take nearly a year to “reset” the rotational schedule of the Expeditionary Air and Space Force, USAF’s network of 10 self-contained, rotating, air combat legions. The EAF schedule had been disrupted by Operation Iraqi Freedom.
However, actual reconstitution of combat forces and weapons can be completed more rapidly, largely because of careful advance planning and the brevity of Gulf War II. That goal should be achieved within months.
Such are the basic conclusions of senior Air Force officers who have been assessing the service’s capabilities and requirements.
They say Air Force plans call for establishing, by next month, a temporary, recovery-period EAF system. This force, operating on a 120-day schedule instead of the standard 90-day rotation, will handle overseas contingencies during the period that it takes for Gulf War II combatants to refit and recover.
In normal times, the EAF comprises 10 “Air and Space Expeditionary Forces,” or “AEFs.” (For more on the state of the EAF, see “Expeditionary Air Warriors,” p. 24.) AEF pairs are organized to meet operational needs short of major theater war.
Lt. Gen. Ronald E. Keys, deputy chief of staff for air and space operations, said USAF will set up a brace of new AEFs, beginning roughly in July. The first two, “AEF A” and “AEF B,” will replace forces now leaving the Gulf. They will be succeeded in November by another pair, “AEF C” and “AEF D.”
These four provisional AEFs will cover the Air Force’s responsibilities until March 2004. By then, senior officers say, the EAF will be able to resume a peacetime rhythm of deployments. AEFs 1 through 10 will have been reconstituted and readied for action.
According to Keys, the interim AEFs will be cobbled together from “residual” forces which were not called to fight in Iraq.
Keys also discussed some of the already apparent lessons learned from Operation Iraqi Freedom that confirm the Air Force was headed in the right direction, conceptually and with respect to investments.
Keys spoke with Air Force Magazine in April, after the conclusion of the war.
Re-establishing the Construct
“ Sometime around March 2004, we’ll be … all cleared off” of deffered training and maintenance and with resupply of units, Keys said. At that time, he went on, the AEF construct will be “reset.”
By the end of April, around 70 percent of Gulf War II’s combat aircraft and associated personnel were on their way back to home stations, Keys reported. This reduction was a “direct response” to releases granted by Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander of Central Command.
In fact, Air Force units began coming home as soon as air operations ended. Some aircraft remained in theater to deal with pop-up attacks from Iraqi militia and irregulars.
Central Command deemed the swift return of airpower forces acceptable and vitally necessary. The view was that the force had to quickly reconstitute to be ready for any new major contingency. Keys said, “You get the hard stuff done earlier in your cycle, and that gives you a little bit of buffer toward the end, so that if the weather is bad or something happens, you’ve got it down.”
Fully half of the deployable Air Force went “downrange”—Keys’s term for the OIF theater of operations. “We’ve got AEFs 7 and 8 downrange, and then 9 and 10 went downrange, pieces of 1 and 2 [deployed], … then pieces of 3, 4, 5, and 6,” he said.
The new, interim AEFs will comprise personnel either not deployed during the crisis or who went early and rotated out some time ago. “You take the residuals of [AEF] 3, 4, 5, and 6 and blend them, [with] other pieces and parts, into two AEFs and get them ready to go … and bring back the people who fought the war,” Keys explained.
He hastened to add that the term “residual” is not pejorative.
“ These folks are trained, qualified people,” he said. “Some of them actually started downrange [and] got called back.” Some airmen in certain specialties that are in short supply will have to hang on for longer deployments or may get a shorter rest period, Keys noted.
Keys went on to say that it is too early to tell what the long-term airpower requirement will be in Southwest Asia but that “we’re hoping it’s going to be smaller” than that required for the 11-year aerial occupation of Iraq, enforced through the no-fly zones, Northern and Southern Watch.
That was a major effort. However, the forces needed to enforce the two “watches” did not constitute a full AEF, reported Keys. “They were smaller,” he said. “I think it was probably a third of an AEF, in terms of people and equipment. ”
Keys believes that the long-term Air Force commitment will be diminished because the Iraqi threat now has been removed. “We are not there to colonize Iraq,” he said. “Our job was to go in, win the war, stabilize the country, get the proper people back in control of the country, shake their hands, and leave. ”
“ Proof” of the Wars
To Keys’s mind, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq provided “the proof of the AEF.” They worked exactly as planned, he said, with units trained and ready for their assignments when their rotation came up and the service able to reach forward into future AEFs as the need arose without problems.
The system also established plans for dealing with units that return from deployment, Keys went on.
“ You don’t immediately drop off the books,” he said. “You still have some residual capability, and, fairly rapidly, we can bring you back up.”
That concept was put to the test and worked, he said.
Reconstitution of the force will not require substantial downtimes or significant drops in mission capability rates, as was the case following the Kosovo conflict, Keys reported.
This stems, in part, from the war’s short duration. Keys noted that USAF fighters did not burn up a lot of their remaining service hours to fight the war; combat operations lasted less than a month and involved the kinds of flying the fighters would have done in peacetime training, anyway.
“ They only went for 27 days,” he said, adding that the situation would have been different “if they had gone for 78 days [the duration of the 1999 air war over Serbia] or a hundred days.” That would have produced questions about the life expectancy of the fighters. He went on, “Of the 300 or 400 fighters we had down there, how many sorties would they have normally flown? Did they add a few hours? Yeah, probably. Significantly more? I don’t think so.”
In the war, USAF only lost two fighter aircraft—an F-15E strike fighter and an A-10 attack aircraft. In short, said Keys, the war produced no urgent need for fighter replacements. The fighter fleet is aging and “we’d like to turn them over” for new airplanes, but should remain viable until the planned replacement time, Keys said.
Thanks to update programs for both the F-15 and F-16 in the last decade, USAF expects the fighters to be in good shape until the arrival of the F/A-22 to replace the F-15 and the F-35 to replace the F-16, Keys said. The fighter fleet was “extended” in useful life because the Air Force has “precisionized” them, he said. By that, he means USAF has given all of the airplanes the capability, in some form, to drop precision munitions.
Munitions in “Good Shape”
The Air Force dropped thousands of precision munitions on Iraq, but production had already been accelerated. That means the bins will be refilled in a few months’ time, said Keys. “We’re actually in pretty good shape,” he asserted. “The [Joint Direct Attack Munition] we had ramped up to maximum [production rate] anyway.”
The service expended about 4,000 JDAMs in Operation Iraqi Freedom and is now procuring about 2,500 a month.
About 66 percent of all weapons dropped were of the precision guided type, a somewhat smaller fraction than had been predicted in prewar assessments. Keys said the smaller PGM fraction stemmed from the B-52 fleet’s ability to attack Iraq’s field forces with huge quantities of unguided “dumb” weapons. “Mass has a quality all its own,” Keys noted.
He said there is an effort to speed up the lessons learned effort. The “big issues” are how to replace equipment lost in the war, which and how many munitions to buy, and where to focus the effort.
“ Where are you going to reconstitute something?” Keys asked. “If you had [war reserve materiel] stocks, are you going to put them in the same places around the world as you had them, preconflict?”
Keys said experiences in Iraq could be applied directly to a developmental program.
“ The things we are looking at buying now, … with just a little bit of a tweak, could reflect a lesson that we learned,” he explained. “Was there something that was not as interoperable as it should have been? Is there something coming on the market right now which, had we had it a month ago, we could have used? ”
For the most part, the Air Force did not have to defer depot maintenance during the war. Maintenance on some aircraft was accelerated, so they would be ready in time, Keys said.
He said that, because of prewar maintenance and care given to the aircraft that saw combat, “I don’t think there will be a tremendous impact” on mission capable rates.
“ There’s some analysis going on right now about what kind of spares we need to fill up the bins, ” he added.
Keys said an important innovation was creation in Kuwait of the Air Component Coordination Element, headed by Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Leaf. He served as personal representative of the Combined Force Air and Space Component Commander (CFACC)—USAF Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley—to the Coalition Force Land Component Commander (CFLCC), Army Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan.
Leaf’s job, Keys said, was to “straighten out the special kinks that happen during a fast-moving war.” In addition, he went on, “every major land force had an ACCE with them, and their job was, if their priorities weren’t being looked at properly, or there was going to be a change to the ground scheme maneuver, or there was something happening on the air side that the land force needed to know, they got that. ”
The position was crucial in the opening hours of the war, when the decision was made to launch the ground forces without a preceding air war. Air operations were supposed to start March 22. When timetables were advanced, communication between the CFACC and the CFLCC was critical. The new position “paid us big benefits because of the fluid nature of this war, ” said Keys.
Jointness Was Paramount
Overall, a major lesson was that “interconnectedness”—not just within the Air Force but between the services—pays huge dividends. Communication between the services and the collection and dissemination of human and mechanical intelligence was “unprecedented.”
As an example, Keys described a situation where a human agent overheard a discussion about an SA-3 surface-to-air missile system hidden in an orchard. The tip was passed to the air operations center in Saudi Arabia, which contacted the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. The AOC asked NIMA to look at its optical database, then send coordinates back, said Keys. “Meanwhile, we’ve got a Predator headed that way; the Predator finds it, [the forward air controller] sends in an F-16, the F-16 drops a [Wind-Corrected Munitions Dispenser] on it, so we kill that. ”
Total time from tip-off to destruction of the SAM: under 30 minutes, said Keys.
A similar process was used when US intelligence observed Saddam Hussein entering a Baghdad compound and a B-1 destroyed it within 12 minutes of being ordered to attack it.
“ There were about a hundred time-sensitive targets,” reported Keys. “They were regime, they were Feyadeen, they were SA-3s, they were [rocket launchers], they were surface-to-surface missiles, they were [satellite communication] antennas—things that popped up that we had to get.”
Many “clever ideas” were put into action, Keys said. A Predator unmanned aerial vehicle armed with Hellfire missiles escorted Black Hawk helicopters carrying a captured Iraqi officer. Some Predators, he said, actually were flown remotely by operators at their Nevada home base. Predators also fed live video to AC-130 gunships and performed other escort duties.
The B-52s, which could loiter over the battlefield, were equipped for the first time with laser guided bombs, in addition to their Joint Direct Attack Munitions. The wiring was routed through a targeting pod for the Have Nap missile. These B-52s could, by virtue of their GPS antennas, get excellent coordinates for ground targets and pass these on to other aircraft. They also fulfilled a reconnaissance role, Keys said.
A newly organized special Air Force team, called a Contingency Response Group, jumped into Iraq with Army paratroopers and quickly evaluated an airfield in northern Iraq for use by USAF airlifters. They called for the things needed to get an airfield up and running quickly
“ The world doesn’t wait for you, you’ve got to keep pushing [these ideas] so you have them ready,” he noted.
Two Out of Three
Keys said that, before the start of the war, he worried about three things—chemical attack, extremely bad weather, and access problems. Two of the three—bad weather and access limitations—came to pass, but “branches and sequels” of the war plan allowed for effective “work-arounds,” he said.
When Turkey declined to host about 100 strike aircraft, it presented a major problem.
“ That … requires you to rethink your plan,” Keys said, adding, “That’s [the loss of] 100 sorties or more a day that you’re counting on.” While some aircraft could be repositioned, others could not, given the shortage of ramp space in other locations.
Aerial refueling was the answer, but it meant the tankers had to fly longer distances. “They use more gas, so they had less gas to give,” said Keys, and this posed “a big problem” for Navy fighters coming toward Iraq from carriers steaming in the Mediterranean.
The weather did turn bad, as fierce sandstorms enveloped much of Iraq. Fortunately, the Air Force had overhead a number of synthethic aperture radar systems that could “see” through the dense and obscuring sand.
The biggest lesson was one that confirmed the long-standing approach of the Air Force and US military as a whole. “The joint, integrated force is a more effective, more leveraged force than any individual force,” Keys said. The presence of a powerful air armada over the battlefield and a powerful ground force moving toward Baghdad confronted Iraq with a no-win situation.
“ If you spread out and try to hide and camouflage yourself, … you’re going to get destroyed in detail by the world’s premier land force,” said Keys. “And if you do the [opposite] … and try to move to meet this land force that’s rolling up the highway, then you make yourselves extremely vulnerable to us,” meaning modern air and space power.
“ It was probably the best-integrated war we’ve ever fought,” Keys asserted. “We were better trained, better organized, better equipped. Seventy percent of our shooters were combat experienced. It was a force to be reckoned with.”