Expeditionary—and Seriously Extended

Aug. 1, 2006

The age of expeditionary airpower hasn’t always been a smooth ride. Because of the stress and strain caused by frequent overseas duty, the Air Force has tried to limit deployments of airmen to no more than 120 days in any given 20-month period.

Success, however, remains somewhat elusive.

There have been some improvements. However, Air Force officials note, the service continues to see a steady rise in the number of airmen whose expeditionary duties extend beyond the notional 120-day goal. That, they say, is worrisome.

These officials do not believe that the expeditionary Air Force concept, unveiled in 1999, is broken or beyond repair. Nor, they argue, is it in need of a complete overhaul.

Even so, the problem is serious enough to prompt service officials to take another look at the Air and Space Expeditionary Force (AEF) structure and operation, with an eye toward fixing problems left unaddressed in earlier reforms.

Col. Brian T. Kelly, commander of the Air Force’s AEF Center, located at Langley AFB, Va., reports, “Requirements are on somewhat of an upslope.” He went on to say the AEF structure is healthy and functioning much as was intended when it was set up back in the 1990s.

Designed to serve as a force management tool during constant contingencies short of major war, the AEF, said Kelly, naturally is going to come under greater stress during a major combat operation—or two.

Numbers Going Up

Kelly reported that the number of people breaking the Air Fore deployment goal is increasing. It was 20 percent two years ago, when the goal was 90 days; it is now 26 percent, and the goal is now 120 days. (See “The Expeditionary Force Under Stress,” July 2005, p. 30.)

In June, there were 24,559 people deployed as part of AEFs to more than 100 locations worldwide. That figure is about 25 percent higher than was the case in the pre-9/11 era.

Over the last two years, the Air Force also has added about 4,000 people to the ranks of those deploying with the AEFs. Most of the add-ons have been sent to backfill missions that have been performed by Army or Marine troops either needed elsewhere, or by those who need to return to home bases for training or rest.

“We’re supporting [US Central Command] requirements, and, yes, some of them are what would be traditional Army or Marine roles,” Kelly reported.

Those roles range from driving trucks on dangerous Iraqi roads to performing civil affairs functions aimed at shining up the US image in Afghanistan. The jobs are called ILOs, or “in lieu of” Army and Marine troops.

Some of the extended deployments stem from the fact that airmen need extra training for these tasks, which are sometimes not their regular specialties.

Kelly noted that the Air Force troops were specifically requested by USCENTCOM under a program called Joint Sourcing Solutions. CENTCOM will request specialists in related fields if the primary specialists are overtaxed. Legal specialists, for example, are among those sent for “stabilization operations,” which is how the AEF Center prefers to describe the “hearts and minds” civil affairs functions.

Some of the 4,000 are performing “blue” missions, too, Kelly said. Among those are tactical airlift crews that stepped in to fly some of the cargo around Iraq that had been going by truck convoy. The convoys have been plagued by insurgent-placed improvised explosive devices. Putting some of the convoy load onto airlifters has helped reduce IED casualties.

The AEFs are not the whole deployment story. Above and beyond the AEFs, there are about 8,000 to 10,000 Air Force people “on other types of temporary duty or … forward-based for other things,” Kelly noted. The demands of theater commanders have also made it necessary to send some airmen overseas on one-year temporary duty assignments. There are about a thousand of these special TDY cases, and many are headquarters staff or other experts who cannot be spared after just a few months; their on-site expertise is required to effectively conduct planning and missions.

When they come back, these special TDY airmen are exempt from the AEF rotation for six to 12 months, depending on the job they are going to next, but after that, they are back on-call.

A Goal, Not a Requirement

Col. Jim Ogden, chief of the AEF matters division of the Air Staff, said that while the 120-day goal is the standard, USAF is supplying people to meet the needs and requests of the combatant commander.

“If the operational requirement calls for it, the deployment could be 180 days or 365,” Ogden said. The length of the deployment depends on the skills and experience required, he added.

The AEF “is how we present forces to the COCOM,” Kelly said. “It gives us better visibility into the force.” When US Central Command chief Gen. John Abizaid asks for a capability, “we are better at knowing where it is” due to the extensive work that has been done to catalog the skills and education of USAF personnel, Kelly said. “The AEF makes the Air Force healthier.”

Together with the Navy, the Air Force is supplying about one-third of the overall force deployed to the CENTCOM area of operations, Ogden noted.

The shape of the AEF today is far evolved from its origins in 1999, when the Air Force recognized the time had come to institutionalize its new “expeditionary” status. In those early days, more than two-thirds of Air Force personnel didn’t deploy because they were not in the “library” of people who could be called on to meet requirements. The system at that time was chiefly aimed at giving airmen more predictability in their lives, with greater warning of when deployments would come and how long they would last. It was a response to constant, back-to-back deployments to meet contingencies such as the wars in the Balkans and the aerial blockade of Iraq, known as Operations Northern and Southern Watch.

Today, the AEF library contains more than 85 percent of all Air Force active duty personnel. Much of the remainder is deemed exempt from deployments. Those individuals tend to be in Joint assignments, in school, in recruiting, or in the missile launch business, Kelly said. However, their skills are still known and cataloged, and they can be pulled to a deployment if necessary.

Forces in certain places don’t typically rotate on the AEF schedule. Combat forces in South Korea, for example, stay put.

While the AEF team has contemplated rotating combat forces in Korea, it “doesn’t do much for us,” since they would have to be replaced by something else, Ogden said. Army units have rotated out of Korea into the CENTCOM theater, but USAF combat units have not been requested.

The AEFs are 10 combat outfits with roughly comparable combat capabilities. Deployed in pairs, they typically have about 12,500 people and about 130 aircraft, ranging from fighters to airlifters to search and rescue helicopters.

An AEF cycle begins when its constituents come off a deployment. The airmen go home for a period of rest and reconstitution, then go into a period of training and professional military education. After about 18 months—under ideal conditions—the constituent units begin to prepare for the location to which they’ll deploy by studying intelligence and honing their skills or learning new ones. Soon after, they go to their deployment location, and most can anticipate spending four months there. Then, the cycle begins again.

Compressed Cycles

For certain specialties, however, the cycle is compressed. Those in specialties needed by the COCOM for 180 days or more are grouped into “bundles,” rather than pairs, and follow a different schedule.

For the purposes of the AEF, the most-stressed career fields—the ones typically pulling 180-day deployments—are vehicle operators, signal analysts, pavement and construction equipment operators, security personnel, and medical personnel. They are the people most involved with setting up, maintaining, and protecting expeditionary airfields, running an expeditionary base, and caring for wounded troops.

Kelly noted that, over the years since Operation Enduring Freedom began, the career fields under the greatest stress haven’t changed much. However, he noted that one specialty that is rapidly joining the ranks of those most in demand is explosive ordnance disposal. They are the troops working to disarm and neutralize the IEDs.

“All the services are ‘all-in’ with their IED capabilities,” Ogden noted.

As requirements shift, some other fields occasionally feel the pinch of longer tours, but not permanently. Office of Special Investigations personnel and logistics personnel will have surges of requirements forcing 180-day tours or one-year TDYs.

Of the whole AEF deployed population of 24,559 airmen, between 16 and 18 percent are in the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve.

It was widely anticipated—even by some former top Air Force officials—that the AEF schedule, or indeed the whole construct, would fall apart under the demands of constant deployment in wartime. That hasn’t happened.

“The health of the AEF isn’t measured in terms of the number of folks deploying longer than 120 days,” Ogden said.

“The construct itself holds up very well: five pairs [of AEFs] to respond to the full spectrum of conflict. But the demand sets change over time,” he said.

Certain parts of the Air Force, Ogden said, “are always stressed, when supply and demand are mismatched.” However, he said, “The system can handle that. It can reset and respond to the full range of requirements.”

The biggest adjustment so far took place in 2004, when the AEFs, which had been on a cycle of 90 days deployed every 15 months, went to a cycle of 120 days every 20 months. The changes produced benefits in that trained troops stayed in place longer, with an increase in vital experience. The change reduced the number of unit swaps—thereby reducing transportation costs and sorties—and was welcomed by a majority of troops, who were happy to have five months more time at home station in exchange for 30 more days deployed at a time.

Wanted: Less Turbulence

The Air Force is “constantly” looking at ways to revamp or reset the AEF so that it continues to function with as little turbulence to the force as possible, Ogden reported. He said that a summit of AEF and personnel chiefs at the O-6 level was held in March at the Pentagon.

They determined that, for the near term, the Air Force should “retain the current AEF construct,” while focusing on improving the “depth and health” of the force pool in high-demand specialties.

For the long term, the group decided to request a study from the Rand Corp. under Project Air Force. The study has not begun yet, but has been “nominated” to be done in Fiscal 2007, Ogden said. Rand would study the AEF in the context of “Adaptive Planning and Global Force Management.”

The combat forces assigned to each AEF are as comparable in capability as possible. The advance of technology over the last seven years has made this comparability easier to achieve.

Jeff Williams, with Air Combat Command’s AEF staff, said modernization programs have substantially improved the capabilities of F-16s to the point where they have nearly all the potency of F-15Es in the attack role.

Targeting pods, particularly, “have allowed us to substitute F-16s for F-15Es” in precision attack, he said.

He noted, “We used to have F-16CJ and F-16CG,” which were the identifiers for F-16s that could carry high-speed antiradar missiles and those with night and precision attack capabilities, respectively. Now, with the Combat Configuration Implementation Program, “that will make these platforms identical in capability,” Williams said. “Before, we might have sent some of both, but now, either one can do both jobs.”

He also noted that F-15s and F-16s equipped with advanced targeting pods can perform a mission similar to that of the Predator surveillance drone, by offering real-time streaming video feeds to ground or headquarters forces. (See “Eyes of the Fighter,” January, p. 40.)

“We do have a mix out there, but for what’s being requested right now, either can do the job,” Williams noted. Similarly, Global Hawk and U-2 intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance platforms are becoming more closely matched in what they can bring to an AEF.

Component commanders “used to ask for a specific platform,” Kelly noted, but they “don’t have to do that as much with NTISR,” or nontraditional ISR capabilities such as the Sniper and Litening advanced targeting pods.

The F-22, when it becomes more widely deployed, “will be fantastic” at offering multiple capabilities in strike, air-to-air, and ISR capabilities, Kelly said.

It is precisely because the Air Force is upgrading its equipment that personnel cuts announced in the Fiscal 2007 budget—about 40,000 full-time equivalents over the next five or six years—as well as a planned 10 percent reduction in airframes will not unravel the AEF. (See “The New Air Force Program,” July, p. 30.)

Less “Density” in AEFs

The Quadrennial Defense Review “will drive some force structure changes,” Ogden acknowledged, but “a reduction in platforms does not necessarily drive a degradation in capability. There will be less density in AEF pairs,” but they should be able to get the job done, he said.

“The AEF is not a force-sizing device,” regardless of the size of the Air Force as a whole, he said.

There have been complaints for several years that the AEF takes too many people away from home base, leaving too few people or machines to get steady-state training and operations done, but “that is the nature of a nation at war,” Kelly said. When there are ongoing combat operations, “we … tend to tilt toward the warfighter … and meeting his needs.” He added that there have been some studies suggesting that steady-state operations at home base can be accomplished with as little as 30 percent of the overall force, leaving plenty of margin still for the AEF to draw more people.

In the next year or so, demands will begin to bite especially hard on the force as initial tranches of airmen are separated in the first rounds of USAF’s overall personnel cutbacks. There will be fewer airmen to draw on, and many will have done a long series of extended deployments.

“Next year, or the year after that, there will be challenges for the AEF,” Kelly forecasted. For that reason, the Air Force will have to succeed in its efforts to modernize its forces, so that it can accomplish the same tasks with fewer people and machines.

However, Kelly also noted that operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are probably not permanent and that the surge will eventually taper off.

“Will we keep the same requirements [for personnel]? I don’t see it. The demands will be going down in the next couple of years, … [although] I don’t want to be too optimistic.” In the meantime, “we will work hard at presenting the force that’s required.”

The difference that will bring success lies with the Guard and Reserve, Kelly said.

“The big thing is that this is a Total Force effort, and we’re better at it than the other services. We’re working to keep tour lengths reasonable, … but we are always looking to see if we can do it better.”

Getting the Total Force aspect right is “a priority for DOD,” Ogden said.

It seems that the Guard and Reserve will play a bigger role in the future. Gen. John D.W. Corley, vice chief of staff, said at a June symposium on Capitol Hill that the reserve components have “helped us, in terms of the AEF [because] we are integrated, not separate. We think we can do more in terms of the AEF … to continue to use the assets of the Guard and Reserve and keep them whole and viable.”

The Air Force has taken steps to ensure that the reserve components have moved “from a strategic reserve—the old, monolithic threat, bipolar world—… into part of the operational force.” The Air Force will continue to become “more interdependent” with the Guard and Reserve, he said, but that will require ensuring that they have “the right tools” to do the job.

Reflecting on the fact that the Air Force has been deployed to Southwest Asia for more than 15 years straight, and has learned valuable lessons from that long deployment, Corley asserted that “the AEF construct has served us extremely well.” The “AEF construct is the right one. My [view] is that it will continue to support us, … [and] there is room for growth for all our partners on this.”