The 100-Wing Air Force

July 1, 2008

It seemed like a throwaway line. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, in an April speech at Maxwell AFB, Ala., asked the airman audience to “think through what more we might do … to enhance the air capabilities of other nations.” Gates put a name to this worldwide partnership concept, suggesting the US should “pursue a conceptual ‘100-wing air force’ of allies and partners to complement the ‘1,000-ship navy’ ” which the US sea service was trying to assemble “across the maritime commons.”

Tails of the various wings. (DOD photo by SrA. Patty Zimmerman)

This idea didn’t get much press. It was blown out by Gates’ criticism of the armed services for supposedly failing to give it their all in the wars of Southwest Asia. What, though, did Gates really intend

Gates may take credit for the new name, but the term “100-wing air force” sums up a concept USAF for some years has been pushing hard. From securing basing rights and sharing intelligence to schooling friendly air forces in counterterrorism and setting up international training opportunities, the Air Force has worked to lay the groundwork for integrated international cooperation.

The best clue is the comparison to the 1,000-ship navy. This term (a strange echo of the Reagan Administration’s planned “600-ship navy”) refers to an informal, constantly evolving international fleet combating threats to maritime security. The idea is that all nations using the high seas are threatened by piracy, smuggling, and terrorism, so it simply makes sense to work together to stop these threats. First articulated by US Navy Vice Adm. John G. Morgan Jr., and Rear Adm. Charles W. Martoglio, the concept has been championed by Adm. Michael G. Mullen, first as Chief of Naval Operations and now as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“In many ways, the ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’ slogan [applies] to developing a stable security environment that enables global, regional, and national prosperity,” Morgan and Martoglio wrote in the November 2005 issue of the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings. The 1,000-ship concept hinges on like-minded nations contributing what they can, when and where it makes sense. No treaties are in play, and nations work together when they have common goals.

If this sounds like a recipe for free-riding on US military strength and experience, that’s because it is. Still, nations in many cases would shy away if Washington was perceived as pushing its own agenda too hard.

The US doesn’t even need to be involved to reap the benefits. American and Navy officials cite cooperation between Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia in protecting the Malacca Strait as an example of international action that helps the US without American participation. Similarly, new NATO members in Eastern Europe are flying air defense missions defending European security without US involvement.

The same concepts easily transfer to a 100-wing air force. Recognizing not only that the Air Force cannot police the entire world and that relationships are key to long-term cooperation, USAF has in recent years shifted its international focus from equipment sales to so-called political-military affairs.

Numbers are only suggestive. The US Air Force has recently said it has 19 fighter-attack wings, 10 bomber and ICBM wings, 18 ISR wings, and 34 mobility wings—81 in all. This implies that the US can still be expected to contribute the lion’s share of resources to the 100-wing air force.

USAF published official security cooperation strategies in 2004 and 2006. They are to be replaced by a new Global Partnership Strategy, which the service hopes to have completed around the end of the summer. The new strategy will include classified, nation-by-nation strategic plans to help direct the Air Force’s key relationships. This currently includes 60 country-specific strategies, plus larger strategies for Central America (as a region) and NATO territory.

The 2006 document notes, “These countries were identified as having the greatest potential to contribute air, space, and cyberspace capabilities to partner security or to a coalition.” The country roadmaps might include combined training goals, proposed logistical improvements, interoperability improvement plans, and other ways to improve integration.

The interests of the US and friendly nations “more often than not coincide,” said Bruce S. Lemkin, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for international affairs. Longstanding relationships mean that partner nations “can take care of their own security in a way, frankly, that means we don’t have to do that—but they’ll be able to operate with us when it is appropriate.”

NATO participation creates standards and expectations for Allies to cooperate. A wide range of friendly air forces now work together to share intelligence for the War on Terror, and often sit side by side in air operations centers. Nations participating in the F-35 program are buying into a 30-year relationship with the United States. Air Force Special Operations Command is doubling the size of its foreign internal defense capability, which teaches foreign air forces how to defend against terrorism and insurgency. The list goes on.

Familiarity can breed success. For example, the US worked closely with Thailand and other nations to deliver aid after the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but essentially worked in a supporting role. There will be more. This is, by another name, the 100-wing air force.

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