Faced with war in Iraq, US mili-tary leaders again put a heavy load on a familiar set of scarce, highly valuable Air Force systems and units. Intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft, battle management airplanes, combat search and rescue teams, stealthy strike systems, combat control teams, and the like all played vital war roles, as they have in most contingencies in recent years.
These kinds of capabilities are constantly overtasked. In fact, they comprise what DOD calls “low-density, high-demand” systems—LD/HD for short.
The Navy and Marine Corps constantly deploy EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft, and the Army suffers from a shortage of Patriot air defense systems. However, while all of the services experience LD/HD woes, the heaviest burden falls on the Air Force.
Long before shooting started in Iraq, the Air Force’s E-3 AWACS and E-8 Joint STARS surveillance and battle management aircraft, U-2 spy airplanes, RC-135 electronic intelligence aircraft, and HH-60 combat rescue helicopters, to name only some, were already in heavy demand and short supply.
In Plain English
Somehow, the funding needed to buy a sufficient number of these systems never seems to arrive. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld highlighted the problem in a 2002 speech at the National Defense University, Washington, D.C., when he noted that defense transformation requires not only more new systems but also “rebalancing” of the military’s weapons and forces.
The Pentagon needs more of its low-density, high-demand assets, Rumsfeld said. He called the term itself “a euphemism, in plain English, for ‘our priorities were wrong, and we didn’t buy enough of what we need.’ ”
Afghanistan showed the value of unmanned systems, he continued, but also highlighted their limited numbers. According to Rumsfeld, “The department has known for some time that it does not have enough manned reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft, command and control aircraft, air defense capabilities, chemical and biological defense units, as well as certain types of Special Operations Forces.”
Despite this knowledge, the Pentagon has repeatedly underinvested in these capabilities while “continuing to fund what were, in retrospect, less valuable programs,” Rumsfeld asserted, adding, “That needs to change.”
The Air Force is in a particularly difficult position when it comes to LD/HD systems, as a majority of the most stressed out platforms are USAF aircraft. All indications are that high-demand capabilities will continue to be overtaxed in the future.
Success and Strain
Shortly before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, Gen. Robert H. Foglesong, USAF vice chief of staff, told a Congressional panel that 18 of the assets the Air Force considers low-density, high-demand were already in “surge.”
LD/HD comprises not only manned systems operated by Air Combat Command but also unmanned aerial vehicles such as the MQ-1 Predator and RQ-4 Global Hawk. Also included are eight Air Force Special Operations Command capabilities, including gunships and combat controller teams.
When Operation Iraqi Freedom began, requirements surged through the roof.
The strained systems are in demand for an obvious reason. They offer unique but indispensable capabilities, and warfighting commanders consider them essential.
Simply put, one can never have too much intelligence, rescue, or battle management capability—traditional LD/HD areas. Theater commanders always want more.
Further, these capabilities tend to be expensive and difficult to develop, so the Air Force doesn’t buy many.
Consequently, systems such as E-3 AWACS, plus crews, are fully tasked in wartime. This happened with the E-3 in the Iraq war—a situation that came less than two years after the US had to turn to NATO E-3s to help defend US airspace in 2001 and 2002, so that the American E-3s could deploy for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
Though few in number and constantly overtaxed, such assets were crucial to the war in Iraq. “LD/HDs won this war, there’s no doubt about it,” said Maj. Gen. Robert F. Behler, commander of the Air Force Command and Control and ISR Center at Langley AFB, Va. In an interview, he said that time-critical targets were destroyed in Iraq more effectively than ever before, and “LD/HDs allowed us to do it.”
Over Iraq, the AWACS and Joint STARS battle management fleets were in heavy use, directing air traffic and locating and tracking ground targets. According to Lt. Col. Mike Peterson, head of ACC’s Airborne C2 Systems Branch, USAF’s AWACS fleet had a “full deployment” during Iraqi Freedom, while the smaller E-8 Joint STARS community experienced its largest deployment ever.
The E-8s were in highest demand during OIF, but the AWACS community has had no break since the 9/11 attacks.
The E-3 system and crews have been “kind of pushed to the limit,” Peterson said, but the end of hostilities meant they were able to begin returning home for much-needed rest and reconstitution.
There are two ways to resolve the LD/HD issue: either increase density or reduce demand. The Air Force is attempting to do both, but similar efforts have in the past failed to solve the underlying problem.
Gen. Hal M. Hornburg, ACC commander, noted in an April interview that increasing density—that is, the number—of expensive systems is difficult, “so we have to work on the demand part. … Many of these airframes and systems are not being used as effectively as they should be.”
Hornburg maintained that the Air Force could turn to alternative aircraft in some instances as substitutes for AWACS or Joint STARS because all missions “don’t require the full capabilities.”
Therefore, the service needs to work with the warfighting commanders to “sort out the differences” between what is required for a mission and what is merely desired, said Hornburg.
The Joint Staff has been trying to do that for years. The Joint Staff’s Global Military Force Policy attempts to manage use of specific assets by setting priorities, validating requirements, assessing availability, and preparing options for providing the needed capabilities. Warfighting commanders are to specify what must be accomplished, not ask for specific platforms.
Sometimes, the Joint Staff has stepped in and denied theater commander requests for certain assets, notably AWACS aircraft.
Assets assigned to the Global Military Force Policy are updated annually. Systems subject to the force policy are nominated by the services. The policy is in effect during peacetime, which includes periods of contingency operations. The list of systems subject to GMFP is classified, but a Joint Staff spokeswoman noted that the majority of the regulated systems should be readily apparent. The services are fully aware, for example, that there are not enough AWACS birds to go around.
The GMFP system has certainly served to moderate the demand for overtaxed systems, but the problem still exists.
Besides trying to suppress the appetite of theater commanders, the Air Force wants to improve the efficiency of the existing LD/HD systems. The service has launched numerous upgrade programs designed to relieve pressure on overstressed systems. The goal is to give the same number of airframes the ability to contribute more. Here, radar and data link improvements are most common. In this regard, Behler singled out the AWACS for special note. Upgrades are making the back end of the aircraft “much more efficient,” he said, which makes the software faster and the entire AWACS “better.”
Linking Up the Systems
Meanwhile, the Network Centric Collaborative Targeting program will link the E-3’s radar with ground information from the E-8s and intelligence from RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft. Behler said NCCT is “taking all that [information] and putting it over a data link” so that battle managers can perform collaborative targeting. The hope is that the leverage provided by NCCT will reduce strain on the individual aircraft.
Other efficiencies can be found by realigning assets. For example, the Air Force recently announced a plan to hand over ACC’s combat search and rescue mission to AFSOC. The change, to take effect Oct. 1, is designed to enhance the efficiency of CSAR missions, “thus increasing mission focus and effectiveness,” according to the USAF news release announcing the change.
This move follows several others that have attempted to increase the availability of rescue assets. Late last year, USAF announced that the active 355th Wing at Davis–Monthan AFB, Ariz., would pick up a CSAR mission, with most of the aircraft—HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters and HC-130 refuelers—coming from a Reserve wing in Oregon that is being converted to an air refueling mission.
Meanwhile, the Air Force is extending the service life of some of its HH-60 helicopters and is converting 10 existing WC-130 weather reconnaissance aircraft to HC-130 configuration for CSAR refueling.
The LD/HD situation did not begin on Sept. 11, 2001, though increased taskings that began with Operation Enduring Freedom have certainly exacerbated the shortages. The problem has been around for a long time. In October 1999, Gen. John P. Jumper told lawmakers that a specific group of systems and their crews had caught the Air Force’s attention. Jumper, who was then commander of US Air Forces in Europe and is now Chief of Staff, testified that LD/HD crews had been “stretched to the limit” during Operation Allied Force, the air war over Kosovo.
In Allied Force, SOF teams were required to provide the rescue capabilities until ACC’s combat search and rescue assets could arrive in Europe. The Air Force “acutely felt” the lack of a permanent theater CSAR capability, Jumper said.
After the conflict, the constant demand for all LD/HD systems meant that the Air Force could not reconstitute them as it did other Air Force assets. In testimony, Jumper noted, “Heavily tasked ISR and rescue communities have not progressed as well and continue to be heavily tasked.”
A similar situation emerged after the 2001 war in Afghanistan. High-demand units had little chance to recover since warfighting commanders continued to require their specialized capabilities even for low-intensity operations.
This Time, Buy Enough
Most of these overused systems are out of production, so upgrades can only go so far. Officials are looking ahead to new platforms to help alleviate the pressure, but they also caution that new systems can also reach LD/HD status, unless planners exercise great care.
The first thing USAF can do is avoid acquiring a system that “becomes, at birth, LD/HD,” Hornburg said. He specifically cautioned against limiting purchases of Predator and Global Hawk UAVs. “If we are going to buy, let’s buy where it isn’t LD.”
He added, “That is one of the arguments that I and many others are trying to make about the F/A-22.”
Unfortunately, making high-density purchases is easier said than done. Future aircraft that could offset shortages in the ISR and stealthy strike categories will include the E-10 multisensor command and control aircraft and the F/A-22 Raptor, but these systems are themselves expensive and face uncertain production futures.
F/A-22 production is currently limited: A Congressionally imposed cost cap could result in a production quantity that makes the Raptor an LD/HD system from birth. And the experience with the inadequate sizes of the AWACS and Joint STARS fleets does not bode well for large purchases of the E-10.
“ A lot of people try to do defense on the cheap,” said Hornburg. “Defense is not cheap.”
He added that the Air Force has a responsibility to acquire only those items that meet genuine warfighter needs, because acquisition dollars are too scarce to waste on “experiments” that belong in laboratories.
USAF will attempt to head off one glaring shortage with a new acquisition.
The HH-60s used for search and rescue are among the most overtaxed of all DOD systems and are aging rapidly. ACC will hand off to AFSOC a plan to seek an expanded fleet, of larger helicopters, to replace these aircraft.
Plans call for 132 medium-lift helicopters to replace the 105 HH-60s, with deliveries expected to begin around 2010. Although desired specifications have not been finalized, both Sikorsky and a Lockheed Martin and AgustaWestland team are expected to offer helicopters to compete for the new program.
Meanwhile, systems such as Predator and Global Hawk are in their production infancies. With continued commitment and funding, these UAVs could buy their way out of low-density status. The case for large fleets was boosted by the systems’ performance in recent operations.
The “Other” Shortages
Not all the shortages exist in easy-to-visualize aircraft. Career fields and capabilities can also become LD/HD, and the service is working to eliminate these “choke points” as well.
Behler called attention to the Air Force’s combined air operations centers, which are elaborate, centralized air command posts. Only two CAOCs exist—in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The center in Saudi Arabia proved to be an invaluable asset in coordinating air operations for Iraqi Freedom. Now, however, the Defense Department plans to largely withdraw from Saudi Arabia.
Sometimes the choke points exist not for lack of personnel but for lack of speedy and sophisticated equipment.
“ We don’t need more people—we need more efficiency,” Behler said. “We need more machines talking to machines.” If the processing and dissemination choke points can be eliminated, USAF will become much more effective, he added.
The LD/HD systems come complete with their own crews of overtaxed airmen.
Some career fields, however, have enough equipment but not enough personnel. Shortages of pilots, battle managers, and linguists that existed prior to 9/11 have been compounded. New shortages emerged with the new requirements that arose from operations Noble Eagle, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom.
“ We need more engineers, we need more cops, we need more [intelligence officers],” Hornburg noted. He acknowledged, however, that USAF is not going to get more people.
Air Force officials have followed Rumsfeld’s lead on this issue and say the service will seek to address personnel shortages through realignments—not by seeking increased end strength. If a series of manpower reviews can free personnel from jobs better handled by civilians, the LD/HD communities stand to benefit.
Top officials have said that once internal reviews are complete, airmen will be directed toward career fields showing the greatest need. Most prominent among the shortages has been the need for nearly 9,000 additional security forces to meet post-9/11 security requirements. But the Air Force also considers AFSOC’s combat controllers and pararescue jumper specialties to be LD/HD.
Even though the Air Force plans to increase manning in some career fields, being overtasked makes it difficult to bring new personnel up to speed.
After training for new E-3 battle managers stalled, USAF allocated additional positions to the AWACS schoolhouse. But during the buildup to OIF, there were no E-3s or crews to spare, so training simply ground to a halt.
“ We’ve been working towards an increased crew build,” ACC’s Peterson said, but contingency operations repeatedly complicated those plans.
Fortunately for the AWACS community, taskings and deployments were settling down by the end of April. With a backlog to work through, however, getting a full complement of new AWACS crews trained could take “upwards of a year,” Peterson noted. And that assumes no new operations pop up.
Even if fully staffed, officials point out that battle management systems have nowhere near the density present in other categories of aircraft. Behler noted that USAF has thousands of “shooters” (fighters and bombers) and “movers” (airlifters and tankers) but only a handful of battle management and command and control systems.
Even with the increasing emphasis on using UAVs for ISR and strike missions, there is a considerable deficit to make up before the shortages can be eliminated.
However, Behler believes it is not realistic to expect USAF will ever be able to eliminate LD/HD systems.
“ The attention is definitely there,” he said, “but we never have enough money. That’s just the way it is.”