The expeditionary Air Force is rushing to adapt itself to a new type of expedition. It is a change that will affect airmen throughout the service.
For more than a decade, USAF’s expeditionary units focused on enforcing “no-fly zones” over Iraq. Emphasis was on deployment of aviation forces. Aircrews flew hundreds of thousands of combat air patrols, looking for threats which materialized sporadically.
The war changed this. The US dissolved the no-fly zones, along with any need to enforce them. Airmen started flying combat missions, which are continuing but at a slower pace. Support operations got greater emphasis.
Unsurprisingly, this has generated pressure to reorient USAF’s expeditionary system, which comprises 10 rotating combat groupings and their support elements.
Gen. Hal M. Hornburg, the commander of Air Combat Command, recently observed that Air Force leaders are “compelled” to think about the system in new ways. As a result of this, he said, “we have a different emphasis.”
According to a June 4 announcement by the Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. John P. Jumper, a new expeditionary deployment schedule will go into effect Sept. 1.
When it does, the possible deployment period for each airman will increase to 120 days, up from the 90 days that previously had been the limit.
Because each air and space expeditionary force period will be longer, the entire cycle will lengthen, too. The cycle once lasted 15 months. Now, it is going to last 20 months.
Thus, while an airman will be vulnerable to overseas deployment for a somewhat longer period, he or she will now have to experience that vulnerability once every 20 months, rather than once every 15 months, as before.
Officials hope the new schedule will increase stability and predictability in the lives of airmen. They also believe that it will not undercut force readiness.
It will, however, lead to longer duty periods for some airmen and perhaps for many.
Needed: 20,000 Airmen
“The demands on our deployable forces have not diminished and are not expected to decline for some time,” said Jumper. “We have a new rotational requirement for nearly 20,000 airmen—about three times the demand prior to Sept. 11, 2001.
“Further, the Air Force component commander in the Central Command area of operations has asked us to deploy people for longer tour lengths to allow greater continuity for expeditionary commanders in the field.”
At the heart of USAF’s expeditionary system are the 10 discrete packages of airpower and support capabilities called air and space expeditionary forces, or AEFs. At the start of each deployment phase, a pair of AEFs become vulnerable for overseas assignment. There are five pairs of AEFs, and the rotation of these five constitutes a cycle.
The basic concept dates to the early 1990s. Impetus came from the demands of Operation Northern Watch and Operation Southern Watch, the patrols of the no-fly zones over Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
By the mid-1990s, the “watches” were wearing out aircrews and ground crews. Compounding the problem was the fact that many of the same units were sent again and again to patrol the desert, disrupting training schedules and family lives.
Something better was needed, and AEFs were the solution.
In the mid-1990s, Jumper, who formerly commanded the air component of CENTCOM, advocated a new, “expeditionary” approach to air operations. He argued that the Cold War-style garrison structure couldn’t keep up with the needs generated by multiple crises and deployments.
Gen. Michael E. Ryan, then USAF Chief of Staff, formally restructured USAF into 10 air expeditionary forces, mainly to deal with the burden of running the Iraqi no-fly zones.
The AEFs spread around the deployment burden to more units and created predictability where none had existed before. There was nothing magic about 90-day deployment windows and a 15-month cycle—those durations were chosen partly to get airmen back to their home bases before their skills got too rusty and to ensure that the same person wouldn’t have to go to the “sandbox” every holiday season.
The watches, however, had become a steady state, seemingly without end. To enforce the no-fly zones, airmen flew 10 times as many sorties as they had in all-out war during Desert Storm.
Hornburg, the ACC commander, recalled that the desert no-fly zone operations “essentially were burning our training.”
Today, however, because of the way USAF crews are flying, “I’ve changed the way I look at it,” said Hornburg.
When the Air Force was flying combat air patrols in the desert, he said, the pilots “weren’t in there doing close air support, [and] we weren’t exercising our wartime skills.” He added, “Well, we are today.”
In the old days, aviation packages used to dominate AEFs sent to the Gulf. Now, the natures of the continuing operations in Iraq and in Afghanistan are changing that situation.
According to the Air Force, the aviation requirement formerly accounted for 42 percent of the airmen deployed to the region. In the AEF grouping that deploys this summer, aviation will account for only 18 percent.
The reason for the change in percentages is that the Air Force is putting more and more emphasis on combat support forces—security police, communications technicians, truck drivers, fuels experts, and the like.
For them, lack of training isn’t a problem. While deployed in Iraq, troops in these combat support units are busy performing their primary jobs and, as a result, don’t have to worry about losing their edge through lack of training events.
Jumper summed up the situation: “A tasking to support Army operations with 2,000 of our expeditionary combat support forces required us to reassess our planning assumptions and to adjust our AEFs to a new mission set.”
The latest major change affecting Air Force deployments was a requirement to provide more convoy drivers and security forces to the forces of CENTCOM. Those are jobs that historically have been performed by the Army. “We were glad to help out there where we could,” said Hornburg.
Still, close work with the Army can sometimes require additional acclimation, and longer deployment periods could prove helpful. With 120-day deployments, airmen will likely increase their levels of proficiency. New people will be coming into the theater less frequently, and so the experience level should be higher.
Top service officials on several occasions debated whether the benefits of longer tours (such as more stability in the theater) would outweigh the negatives (such as longer separation from an airman’s home station).
The leadership believes that the most important benefits of the AEF will be unaffected by this change. Either period—90 or 120 days—allows for meeting combat requirements in an orderly manner, while offering predictability for the troops.
The change is considered permanent. “This evolution of the AEF is not a temporary adjustment,” Jumper wrote. “It is recognition of new demands around the world for air and space power.”
Hornburg expanded on that explanation.
In the past, he said, “we wanted to change our aviation packages every 90 days … because our aviation packages were losing their edge, but they’re not now. If you look at the fact that we are going to have a pretty significant laydown in Southwest Asia for the foreseeable future, it does not make good sense operationally to change the AEFs every 90 days when we can do it every 120 days.”
Hornburg also noted another benefit stemming from longer deployments: a reduced transportation burden. Traditionally, the Air Force changed out its AEFs four times per year. “Doing it three times a year, you save that percentage of transportation costs and everything else,” Hornburg noted.
The Air Force concedes it will not be able to keep some airmen on this 120-day schedule, and it worries that some will continue to be deployed for six months at a time.
These extended tours are seen most frequently in the security forces, but they also affect airmen in some very small career fields. Example: Frequency management experts, of which USAF has exactly two available for deployment.
Maj. Gen. (sel.) Anthony F. Przybyslawski, then commander of the AEF Center at Langley, said in an interview that the Air Force keeps a close watch on such airmen. Their schedules have fluctuated.
During Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, 7.3 percent of deployed airmen were extended beyond 90-day deployment windows. The figure dropped as low as one percent during the post-Operation Iraqi Freedom reconstitution period, but it has risen again to 10 percent.
The pair of AEF 9 and AEF 10 are up for deployment this summer. The projection for that pair is that extensions will once again be back at 7.3 percent, but the Air Force will continue trying to adjust to the new requirements while living within the bounds of regular AEF rotations.
“This is the transition,” Przybyslawski said.
Extensions are worrisome, for a number of reasons.
To begin with, some airmen might get burned out. For example, security forces are essentially operating under an “AEF A” and “AEF B” construct—half a year deployed and half a year at home station. While retention has not suffered to date, leaders are keeping a close watch on morale.
Another concern is that the schedules are designed to offer recovery, normal operations, and training time during the 12 months airmen are supposed to be at their home bases. The long-term effect on those who are not getting that recovery time is still unknown, but there are worries.
The system meets higher-than-normal demands by reaching forward to dip into the upcoming pair of AEFs. The structure allows identification of needed personnel.
Brig. Gen. William L. Holland, former director of AEF matters on the Air Staff, says the priorities are providing capability first and personnel stability second. “The AEF construct allows us to do that,” he said, and it has repeatedly proved to be flexible.
Officials consider the rotational system an unqualified success. The number of airmen deployed through AEFs has varied dramatically since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, frequently going well above what the two on-call AEFs were able to accommodate. Even so, say officials, the system has done what it was set up to do in wartime: provide needed capabilities in an orderly and predictable manner.
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the Air Force had about 8,400 personnel deployed through the AEFs, primarily in support of Northern Watch and Southern Watch.
During Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, however, the number rose to 22,400. It climbed all the way to 107,300 for Operation Iraqi Freedom last year. At that time, personnel from eight of the 10 AEFs were directly supporting the war effort.
Officials maintain that the need to deploy so many airmen did not mean the system was broken. Far from it. The AEF setup actually helped by allowing planners to “look forward” into the next pair of AEFs for personnel and capabilities when the demands became too great for the on-call pair.
The system also allowed personnel to be released in an orderly manner once demands began to subside.
During the peak of OIF, all assets supporting CENTCOM’s requirements were assigned through the AEF system—the first time the Air Force was able to meet all its global taskings that way. The Air Force flew roughly 750 sorties per day. It set up and supported some 37 contingency bases in Southwest Asia.
As major combat wound down, the Air Force cobbled together two “contingency” AEFs (Blue and Silver), consisting primarily of airmen who had not deployed in support of CENTCOM’s operations. This allowed a period of reconstitution for airmen who had deployed.
AEFs Blue and Silver were each put on call for 120 days, giving the Air Force a prototype for the new schedule—and eight months to prepare for regular rotations to resume. For most airmen, the standard cycle picked up again with the pair of AEF 7 and AEF 8, which deployed in March.
Przybyslawski noted that Blue and Silver were able to meet almost all requirements without extending the assigned airmen. Unfortunately, the extensions that did happen were of the worst kind. Personnel who were already deployed were told they would have to stay in the theater beyond their expected return dates.
Przybyslawski described this as a “mortal sin.”
Officials came back to the idea of living up to a “contract” with the airmen—keeping them informed of how the AEFs will work for them and what is expected of them.
Hornburg takes the opinions of airmen very seriously, in that ACC supplies 36 percent of all forces in the AEFs. That is nearly double the number supplied by any other Air Force major command. Shifting to 120-day assignments obviously affects ACC, but perhaps in a good way.
“We’ve done some informal polling,” Hornburg said, “and, while I do not speak for every airman, … [they] are telling us that they would actually prefer one 120-day cycle every 20 months.”
Today, the post-OIF steady state requires deployment of roughly 22,000 airmen. With the exception of certain high-demand fields, two AEFs’ worth of capabilities should be able to meet the new steady state requirements. Most shortfalls concern support of contingency bases.
The Air Force has picked up some duties from a stressed Army. Przybyslawski said 1,620 Air Force personnel in AEFs 7 and 8 are filling Army shortfalls in security forces and logistics ground teams. This is essentially a quid pro quo; the Army in OEF mobilized to make up for shortfalls in the Air Force’s domestic force protection system.
“The first two letters of ‘US Air Force’ happen to be ‘US,’ so that’s the way she goes and we’re happy to do that,” said Hornburg, “but I’d be happier if we didn’t have such a support load over there, and we were able to get some of our folks rested.”
The Air Force strategy calls for shutting down some Southwest Asia bases as the situation improves. “The reason we’re stressed the way we are right now is that we had intended to shut down more bases over there than we have been able to … because of the status of the operation,” Hornburg explained.
The Air Force is broadly attempting to steer additional personnel into the overtaxed career fields. Of these, the most overtaxed probably has been security forces.
At present, the Air Force has about 272,000 airmen in “the library”—that is, on the rolls as deployable in AEFs. Jumper says he wants to increase that number, though doing so may prove difficult. The Air Force has marked off-limits those forces assigned to alert missile duty, missions in South Korea, or undergoing permanent change of station.
Jumper wrote that he asked all of USAF’s major commands to “aggressively review the assumptions upon with they exclude airmen from our AEFs and [to] take immediate steps to maximize” those available to the system.
“Let me be perfectly clear,” Jumper continued. “In our Air Force, every airman is expeditionary.”