The Air Force plans to establish, within the next two years, the 116th Air Control Wing–a “blended wing” part active duty, part Air National Guard–at Robins AFB, Ga.
It will be formed by the merger of the Guard’s 116th Bomb Wing, which has lost its B-1 bombers, with the active duty 93rd Air Control Wing.
This new unit, the first of its kind, will operate all of the Air Force’s Joint STARS aircraft. It is a mission of considerable importance and prestige. These aircraft, which can find and track moving targets on the ground deep in enemy territory, are prized assets and constantly in demand by theater commanders.
The wing commander will be an Air National Guard officer. The deputy commander will be from the active force.
The blended wing initiative is just one example of how far the Air Force’s two reserve components, the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command, have come in their integration with the active force.
- Hundreds of Guard and Reserve pilots are serving as flight instructors with Air Education and Training Command. They work at a dozen bases and account for about one-fifth of the Air Force’s total instructor pilot force.
- Maj. Gen. Ronald J. Bath, director of Air Force Strategic Planning, is an Air National Guardsman from Washington state. Maj. Gen. Craig R. McKinley, deputy inspector general of the Air Force, is a Florida Air Guardsman. One-third of the Air Force people working on the Quadrennial Defense Review are from the Guard and Reserve.
- When the Air Force deploys abroad, either in response to crisis or to perform ongoing duties like patrolling the no-fly zones in Iraq, it draws forces from designated “buckets of capability” called Aerospace Expeditionary Forces. In the last AEF deployment cycle, the Guard and Reserve contributed 25 percent of the aviation and 29 percent of the expeditionary combat support.
Lt. Gen. James E. Sherrard III, commander of Air Force Reserve Command, says that his organization now “plays an integral role in the day-to-day Air Force mission and is not a force held in reserve for possible war or contingency operations.”
“Once upon a time, the reserve forces of the US military were exactly that: reserve forces,” said John J. Miller, writing last year in National Review. “Our country held them back like fire extinguishers in the basement, hoping we wouldn’t have to use them but knowing where to find them in an emergency. Today, however, the reserves are more like an air conditioner, turned on whenever the temperature hits a certain point.”
ARCs in the War on Terror
However, the traditional mission of the reserve components–activation at a time of national crisis–has not gone away. Three days after the terrorist attacks last September, President Bush ordered a partial mobilization of reserve members from the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.
As of April 17, the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command had a total of 37,866 people mobilized, more than the reserve components of any other service. So far, that is the peak for the current operations.
In Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, the Guard and Reserve have flown bomber and fighter combat missions, most of the air mobility missions, and much more.
Through the middle of May, the armed forces had flown more than 22,000 combat air patrol sorties over American cities in Operation Noble Eagle. Of these, some 80 percent were flown by the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command.
“Air Force Reserve aeromedical evacuation aircrews were among the first to respond and provided almost half of the immediate [aeromedical evacuation] response that was provided,” Sherrard told the Senate in February. “Tragically, we found there was little need for their service. The larger need was in mortuary affairs support, of which the Air Force Reserve provides more than 75 percent of our Air Force’s capability. One hundred eighty-six trained Reservists immediately stepped forward, in volunteer status, for this demanding mission.”
USAF Lt. Gen. Russell C. Davis, chief of the National Guard Bureau, also testifying in February, said, “In all of the attention to the war on terrorism, some may forget that we also have had over 1,700 National Guardsmen on duty in Bosnia through this same period. About 1,000 more are supporting operations from Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Hundreds more are helping to enforce the no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq.”
Air Force and Total Force
In 1970, Melvin B. Laird, who was then Secretary of Defense, proclaimed a “Total Force” policy whereby the armed forces would put greater reliance on their National Guard and Reserve units.
From the beginning, the Air Force was the leader in implementing the policy. Even today, the Army has an uneasy relationship with its reserve components. There is a strong Naval Reserve, but the Navy does not have a National Guard element.
In the Air Force, the Guard and Reserve account for more than 65 percent of the tactical airlift, 35 percent of the strategic airlift capability, 60 percent of air refueling, and 38 percent of fighters. They also make significant contributions to rescue, bomber, and combat support missions and have an increasing presence in space, intelligence, and information operations.
The two Air Reserve Components look much alike, but the Guard is larger and it has more aircraft. Although both of them are assigned a full range of Air Force missions, Air Force Reserve Command is weighted more toward mobility and the Guard more toward fighters.
The biggest difference is that the Air National Guard is organized as state militia which can be called to federal duty.
“If you ask an Air National Guardsman or Air Force Reservist what are you, they will tell you they are part of the US Air Force,” Bath said. “A member of the Army National Guard, asked the same question, is more likely to identify himself as a Pennsylvania Guardsman or a Missouri Guardsman, identifying more closely with their states.”
The Air Reserve Components “identify with their parent service very closely. They also identify around the missions of the Air Force,” he added.
“Wherever you find the United States Air Force, at home or abroad, you will find the active and reserve, side by side,” Sherrard said. “You can’t tell us apart, and that’s the way it should be.”
Bath himself is an example of the Air Force’s openness to Total Force integration. He began his military career in the enlisted ranks, as a boiler operator and heating specialist with the Nevada Air National Guard.
Watching RF-101s take off and land at the Reno airport, young Bath decided he wanted to fly airplanes. In short order, he finished college and became an officer and was soon flying RF-101s instead of watching them.
When the Gulf War began, Bath was a lawyer in private practice in Reno. He was also an RF-4C pilot with the Guard, deployed in that capacity to the Gulf.
In 1996, Bath was named Air National Guard advisor to the National Defense Review team. He moved from there to USAF’s new Quadrennial Defense Review team, becoming deputy head and, in 2001, director. Since 1998, he has been affiliated with the Washington state Air National Guard.
This March, he was named director of Air Force strategic planning, a choice Air Staff assignment held in the past by rising stars of the active duty force.
Demands of a New Strategy
One of Bath’s concerns in his new job is how the Air Force will develop and fit its capabilities to emerging demands. The Air Force will have its combat power packaged into 10 Aerospace Expeditionary Forces, and it will take some doing to get all of them properly modernized and equipped.
Citing the 1999 air campaign in the Balkans, Bath said that “Kosovo itself put demands on our people and our iron that was the equivalent of a Major Theater War, of five-plus AEFs.”
However, the force sizing standard for the armed forces has changed since then. In the Quadrennial Defense Review last fall, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld threw out the “two MTW” standard, which specified that the services should be able to respond to two nearly simultaneous Major Theater Wars.
In its place is a “4-2-1-plus” standard. It prescribes that the force be ready to defend the homeland and deter aggression forward in four critical theaters–Europe, Northeast Asia, the East Asian Littoral, and the Middle East/Southwest Asia. In addition, the force must be able to swiftly defeat aggressors in any two of the critical regions in overlapping time frames, while preserving the option to defeat one of the aggressors in a fight that could require occupation of the enemy’s homeland or a change in its leadership regime.
“It doesn’t appear that the small-scale contingencies are coming off the plate,” Bath said. “But it doesn’t appear that we need to think of the classic two MTWs like we used to. So we need to start thinking about taking some of the forces that we were earmarking in the war plans for an occupation in the second MTW and use those in that classic ‘deter forward’ or ‘swiftly defeat’ in two of the four regions.”
For the Air Force, the new standard does not lead to reduced requirements.
“What we have found is that future demands, predicated upon specific war games, are going to drive a demand for aerospace capabilities that is far greater than the numbers we used in Kosovo,” Bath said. “I think the demand here on our air and space forces is greater than the demands that came out of the older, two MTW strategy.”
One of those watching the situation unfold is retired Maj. Gen. Donald W. Shepperd, former director of the Air National Guard, who has argued for years that the Air Reserve Components can and should make a strong contribution to current Air Force operations.
“The uncertain world demands continued military involvement, and it’s not likely we are going to get much help in increasing the size of the active force,” Shepperd said. “So we are left with deciding how to best use what we have.”
The Force Mix
What percentage of the force can be safely put into the Guard and Reserve
For some of the services, that question might have quality connotations, but not for the Air Force. The Air Reserve Components are at least as good as the active duty force, and everybody knows it.
The Guard and Reserve have always picked up a lot of the action in wartime. One out of every five Air Force people who deployed to the Gulf War, for example, was a member of the Guard or the Reserve.
In years gone by, though, it was often assumed that there had to be a fairly low ceiling on the Guard and Reserve share of the force mix because of a factor called the “rotation base.”
In those days, a significant part of the active duty force was stationed overseas. Air Force members expected several overseas tours during a career, but they also expected to spend part of their careers at bases in the United States.
If too much of the force structure at home was in the ARC, it would eat into the number of Stateside assignments to which active duty people could return in between their overseas tours. Obviously, active duty people could not spend their entire careers abroad, so preservation of the rotation base was fundamental.
A related consideration was that contingency deployments–a staple of Air Force life in the 1990s–fell mostly to the active duty force. As late as 1999, the Guard and Reserve were covering only a small fraction of the deployments to the Southwest Asia “Sandbox.”
If the force mix got too thin, the contingency deployments would come around even more often for the active duty force, and the frequency of deployment was already a problem.
To top matters off, Bath pointed out, “As we drew down the forces post-Cold War, we drew down more on the active side than on the Guard and Reserve sides.”
Taken together, these considerations could be expected to point toward a lesser presence for the ARC in the force mix, and that might have been so, except for several developments.
As the Air Force drew down in size in the 1990s, it also pulled back from overseas bases. Today, most of the force is based in the continental United States and projects power in an expeditionary mode. That has greatly reduced the rotation base problem.
Another change is that the Guard and Reserve have become expeditionary, too. They account for about one-fourth of the aviation assets on the “iron list,” available to deploy as part of the Aerospace Expeditionary Forces. For the AEF rotation cycle that began in March, the Guard and Reserve signed up to provide 13 percent of the expeditionary combat support but, in fact, supplied 29 percent.
Future Total Force
Many of the innovations seen today, including the blended wing, grew out of a broad concept from the 1990s called “Future Total Force.” It proposed combining active duty, Guard, and Reserve components in new ways to better take advantage of the unique strengths of each of them.
In the late 1990s, for example, the ratio of experienced to inexperienced pilots in the active duty force had fallen to about 40-to-60, far below the desired ratio of 55-to-45. There were not enough experienced pilots to team with the new pilots to train and upgrade them efficiently.
Meanwhile, the Air Reserve Components were pilot rich, with experience levels around 80 percent, and looking for available cockpits, which the active force had in abundance. How about putting inexperienced active pilots with experienced ARC pilots in a “hybrid ” wing that would yield benefits for all concerned
Air Force Reserve “associate” units had been operating for years at active duty airlift and refueling wings, but blended fighter organizations had not been tried until Air Force Reservists were assigned on a test basis to the 78th Fighter Squadron at Shaw AFB, S.C., in 1998.
Future Total Force also proposed that the Guard and Reserve could carry more of the contingency deployment workload, especially if the tasking could be given well in advance and broken up, if need be, into smaller packages in which a 90-day rotation could be shared by different crews, each covering 15 days. That proposal is now in effect and working well with the AEFs.
ARC-active integration was nudged along by Shepperd during his tour as director of the Air National Guard from 1994 to 1998. He assigned officers to each of the Air Force’s major commands–in addition to, not instead of, those traditionally assigned as Guard assistants–to help with daily operations, exercises, and planning.
Shepperd absorbed manpower losses in his own staff in order to place Guard people with their active duty counterparts, but the integration worked every bit as well as he had hoped it would.
The Wing at Robins
Secretary of the Air Force James G. Roche told Congress in February that experimentation in the Future Total Force concept would be exploring still other new organizational structures.
“Blended units,” Roche said, “will integrate active, civilian, Guard, and Reserve capabilities in creative new ways that may appear as radical departures from the past but which have already been part of the Air Force business practice for years. Flying and support functions, for example, will be so integrated with component personnel as to be invisible to outside observers.”
What Roche had in mind, first and foremost, was the blended 116th Air Control Wing at Robins. It was a solution, not only to more effective Air Force operations but also to a burning political problem.
Last summer, the Department of Defense and the Air Force decided to cut the B-1 bomber fleet from 93 aircraft to 60 as an economy measure. One of the results was that the 116th Bomb Wing at Robins would lose both its mission and its aircraft.
The Pentagon did not handle either the announcement or the Congressional notification very well, and the political heat expedited the idea of the blended wing.
The aircraft the blended wing will fly–the E-8 Joint STARS–is one of the most heavily tasked systems in the Air Force. It made its combat debut in the Gulf War, where a prototype performed better than its developers expected.
Joint STARS did not officially reach initial operational capability until several years later, but the demand for its services has never let up.
Up to now, the mission and the aircraft have been assigned to Air Combat Command’s 93rd Air Control Wing, also based at Robins. The wing presently has 13 E-8s, the most recent one delivered in May. Eventually, there will be at least 17 of these aircraft, although the total could conceivably go as high as 21.
The 93rd has begun mission and maintenance training for the 116th, which switches to the air control wing designation in October. For a time, the two wings will operate side by side, both performing the Joint STARS mission.
According to the plan, the transition to the blended wing will be completed in October 2004, if not sooner, with an Air National Guard officer in command. Thus, the Joint STARS mission gains resources, and a major Guard unit remains at Robins.
“Developing blended units will not be without challenge,” Roche said. “Outdated laws and policies would have to change to reflect requirements in command-and-control, fiscal, and personnel issues.”
One such glitch is that Guard officers report to their state governors under Title 32 of the US Code. They cannot simultaneously hold Title 10 authority–carrying federal status and control over active duty airmen under the Uniform Code of Military Justice–without giving up their Title 32 status.
The Air Force has requested legislative relief to head off that problem, which would present difficulties for a Guard officer in command of a blended wing.
The Frictions of Change
The world of the ARC has changed, and not everybody likes it. They would like to go back to the days of weekend training, an annual tour of duty, and activation that might come once or twice in an ARC career.
“Seamless integration is killing the Air Guard, and we are well on our way to supplementing the Regulars as the track to the airlines,” said a major from the Pennsylvania Guard, venting his spleen in a letter to Air Force Magazine last year.
He said the feeling among pilots of his acquaintance was that “I quit the Regular Air Force once, and if you make the Guard like what I left, I’ll quit again.”
Expressing a similar view, Paul Connors, Air Force editor of Defense Watch, wrote in April that “AFRC and ANG personnel are suffering from a serious case of ‘mission creep’ as local commanders–eager to show what their units can perform–have volunteered their personnel and units for an expanding number of missions worldwide such as support for assorted Air Expeditionary Force packages that Air Force planners need staffed.”
The flip side of the argument is that the nation’s requirements have changed, and the Guard and Reserve must change with them if they want to stay relevant.
So far, the predictions of personnel problems caused by the change have not been borne out.
Air Force Reserve Command continues to exceed both recruiting and retention goals, Sherrard said.
Last October, Maj. Gen. Paul A. Weaver Jr., then director of the Air National Guard, told the Defense Writers Group that retention “has never been better.”
Ironically, the ANG missed its recruiting goal last year, but the reason was that “I had to pull off our recruiters and pull back on recruiting because the retention in the Guard was so good,” Weaver said. “And if you looked at the units that are the busiest, normally they have the highest retention rates as well.”
In May, however, National Guard officials told Inside the Air Force newsletter that the extended mobilization and workload of the past year could prompt “a significant number” of Guardsmen to resign.
“It’s not wise to commit the reserves in a wartime capacity for a long period of time,” Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate armed services personnel subcommittee, said in April. “Otherwise, you’ll have no reserves left to commit when something else happens.”
There is no question that the reserve components are presently employed–as are the active forces–at a level that is hard to sustain. But what to do about it is something else.
“We couldn’t prosecute the war without the Guard and Reserve,” said Charles S. Abell, assistant secretary of defense for force management policy, and “it’s going to be a very long war.”
John T. Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is now a contributing editor. His most recent article, “The EAF in Peace and War,” appeared in the July 2002 issue.