A year has passed since the Air Force divided itself into 10 Aerospace Expeditionary Forces in order to deal with a global array of commitments and contingencies. Though bugs still are being worked out, all signs are that the effort is paying off in the form of progress toward two key goals: getting more Air Force people to share the workload and giving more notice of when and where they might be sent abroad.
Compared with last year, the number of people eligible to deploy in AEFs is much higher, and it will double during the next year. Many of the affected airmen will have nearly two years’ warning of a possible deployment.
Each of the 10 AEFs comprises about 12,000 people, or some 120,000 overall. Current Air Force end strength is about 360,000, meaning 240,000 airmen are not included in the AEF structure. Of those, about half are in nondeployable positions such as missile launch and logistics center personnel and some headquarters people. Forces in Korea are also exempt from AEF duty.
That leaves some 120,000 available but not assigned to AEF duty. Soon, all those not specifically exempt from deployment are likely to be absorbed into the AEF structure.
“Within a year, I think, we’ll have most of those people in an AEF,” said Brig. Gen. Dennis R. Larsen, director of the Aerospace Expeditionary Force Center at Langley AFB, Va., where the Air Force plans and assigns AEF deployments.
Larsen said the 120,000 nonexempt personnel who haven’t been tapped so far have been passed up because their jobs had never before had a wartime commitment. That’s changing.
“[They are] in positions now that don’t generally have [Unit Type Codes] assigned to them,” Larsen explained. “We have gone from individual tasking of all of our combat support forces to tasking them as small teams. … Our job over the next year or so is to go out and develop UTCs to be able to task all of the deployable people.” The increase in troops available for deployments will likely result in everyone going on temporary duty abroad less frequently. Deploying individuals not assigned to an aviation unit are called “Expeditionary Combat Support.”
More Warning Time
Warning time of deployments has also risen sharply.
Not long after the conclusion of the 1999 Balkan air operation, USAF undertook its first four AEF deployments under its new Expeditionary Aerospace Force concept. Airmen going to forward locations were assigned individually. For them, said Larsen, “there wasn’t very much notice”–maybe a couple of days. For AEFs 5 and 6, things were only slightly better. The deployment manning requirements document, the blueprint that sets out which specialties are needed to fill overseas needs, was sent out only about 15 days before deployment of the first Air Force troops, Larsen said.
By AEFs 7 and 8, however, the notice time had risen to 40 days. For AEFs 9 and 10, which just left in September, notice had risen to 75 days. For AEFs 1 and 2 in the next cycle, scheduled to start in early 2001, airmen will get about 180 days’ notice.
“We’re very pleased that we were able to reach that goal so soon,” Larsen added. “That was a lot of hard work.”
Most people from now on will have 12 to 15 months’ notice that they are eligible for deployment, said the general. Some AEF rotations will be advertised up to a couple years ahead of time. Individuals will be told 120 days before their 90-day eligibility window whether they will, in fact, be deploying and where.
At that point, Air Force leaders can truly claim they have reached their goal, which was to transform USAF from a Cold War, garrison-based force into a 21st century Expeditionary Aerospace Force.
When the EAF building program was launched last year, Gen. Michael E. Ryan, the Chief of Staff, said it was meant “to give our people some predictability in their lives.” Since the end of the Cold War, USAF had been called out on one contingency after another, demanding that some people deploy almost constantly even as others never seemed to deploy at all.
The service leadership finally realized that the pace of operations was not likely to throttle down anytime soon.
“We had been dealing with these, treating them as unique events,” Ryan told Air Force Magazine at the time. “Except they never seemed to go away.”
The initial response to the heavy operating pace was to set a limit of 120 days annual deployment on each individual. It was a rule that got broken fairly often “because we didn’t have … a mechanism in place to make sure it wouldn’t,” Ryan said. The EAF construct was created to ensure that everyone took a turn on the front lines.
Each AEF goes through a 15-month cycle. It begins with a period of rest from a previous deployment. This is followed by a period of routine training and schooling, upgrade certification, and other professional military education. Then comes a period in which skills are honed through exercises such as Red Flag.
Following that period comes a spin-up phase in which the AEF members are briefed on the place they’re likely to go, as well as what they can expect to encounter there in terms of threats and responsibilities.
Finally, there is the 90-day deployment eligibility window, in which units may actually pick up and move to forward locations for duty. After they return, the cycle starts anew with the rest period.
How far-flung are the AEFs? Larsen said AEF 7 had deployed units to Prince Sultan AB in Saudi Arabia, Al Jaber AB in Kuwait, Al Dhafra AB in the United Arab Emirates, and to Seeb in Oman, plus other areas in the Gulf region. Meanwhile, AEF 8 deployed units to Incirlik AB in Turkey for Operation Northern Watch, to numerous places in the Balkans, to Iceland for air defense operations, and to the Caribbean and South America for counterdrug operations.
Today’s AEFs are different from the original versions. At first, the term AEF narrowly applied to a quick-reaction force of a couple dozen fighters, bombers, and tankers, plus their support gear, deploying to a bare-bones airstrip for a no-notice contingency or show of force. Such packages now go by the name Aerospace Expeditionary Wings or Aerospace Expeditionary Task Forces. The AEWs–at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, and Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C.–are USAF’s designated hitters when no-notice contingencies flare up. The AETFs are provisional wings formed from units within the AEFs to respond to other demands for airpower.
The Air Force describes the 10 basic AEFs as “buckets of capability.” Each contains a mix of aircraft and people deemed to be comparable in combat power. They are drawn from almost all the active, Guard, and Reserve units in the force, by wing or squadron. They trade off the recurring jobs of enforcing no-fly zones, monitoring drug traffic, and flying air patrols overseas. These missions, once thought to be temporary, are now planned and executed as ongoing operations.
In addition, most AEF people and aircraft do not go to bare-bones locations but to quasi-permanent sites with more and more elaborate facilities.
Larsen noted that the Air Force’s assets “didn’t divide up perfectly equal in 10 pieces.” As a result, each AEF differs slightly from the others but can do the same jobs.
For example, Larsen noted, one AEF may deploy 18 F-15Cs to perform an air superiority mission. Its replacement may consist of 12 F-15s and six F-16s. Because the F-16 is a credible air superiority airplane–especially newer versions with the advanced medium-range air-to-air missile–such capabilities are considered comparable in certain locations. Likewise, an F-16 with the new joint standoff weapon can be considered comparable to an F-15E carrying the AGM-130. Both can deliver about the same precision punch at a distance of dozens of miles.
The Air Force last year began the procurement of 30 new F-16CJ aircraft to ensure each AEF would have potent Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses capability.
All AEFs have fighters-for air-to-air, precision-strike, and SEAD capabilities-as well as bombers and tankers. Specialized sensor aircraft such as E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System and RC-135 Rivet Joint intelligence airplanes are still assigned as needed.
The latter airplanes fall into what the Joint Chiefs have labeled Low-Density, High-Demand assets, which every regional commander wants but which are too few to be everywhere at once.
“All the aviation units … are assigned to an AEF,” Larsen said. However, the LD/HDs “are not assigned that way, yet.” AWACS aircraft will be assigned to “one or two AEFs” within a year.
The final decision as to the division of assets among the 10 AEFs was made by Ryan.
“We’ve maximized our Low-Density, High-Demand assets to their fullest extent, yet we are still short of these critical systems and people,” Ryan said. “We have defined our AEF ’round-out’ requirements, and we know where we need to go from here.”
The round out is the completion of the AEF structure. Senior USAF officials said Ryan will be pushing to gain approval and funding for greater crew ratios on some systems, particularly AWACS, Joint STARS radar aircraft, and tankers, to improve their availability and bring them more in line with the EAF construct.
Air Mobility Command also contributes to the EAF structure, both with airplanes and people. Each AEF has assigned to it C-130 units for tactical airlift, as well as tankers. Support units within AMC, such as security forces, civil engineers, and air traffic controllers, are also assigned to AEFs.
The largest supplier of people to AEFs is Air Combat Command, which contributes about 27 percent of the total. Next in line is Air Mobility Command, with about 16 percent. US Air Forces in Europe, Pacific Air Forces, Air Force Special Operations Command, Air Force Space Command, Air Education and Training Command, and Air Force Materiel Command all contribute at or below 10 percent to the total.
A full, 10-AEF cycle of deployments takes 450 days, or roughly 15 months. This way, the same AEFs won’t be deploying at the same time of year every time, meaning service members should no longer have to miss consecutive summer vacations, football seasons, or winter holidays.
To further vary the duty, odd-numbered AEFs are posted to units in Southwest Asia conducting Operation Southern Watch in Iraq, while even-numbered AEFs go to Operation Northern Watch, Iceland, the Caribbean, and the Balkans. In the next AEF cycle, set to begin in March 2001, AEF assignments will reverse. This is also intended to ensure fairness in distributing workload. Larsen noted that commitments in Southwest Asia command 6,000 people per rotation period, while all the other operations combined only consume about 3,000.
Spread the Wealth
Larsen said it’s up to unit commanders to keep track of who in their unit has gone on deployments and to “spread the wealth” by rotating the assignments so that people do not go more frequently than they have to.
Moreover, not all AEF members deploy. Larsen noted that, of the 24,000 people included in the two AEFs in deployment at any time, only about 9,000 of them are actually sent overseas. That figure is based on the current level of overseas commitments, Larsen said.
“If something happens where we didn’t have the no-fly zones to enforce in Iraq, that would dramatically change the number of folks that have to deploy forward,” he said.
On the other hand, he noted, each AEF is designed to have more capability than is needed for today’s level of “steady-state commitments.” In the event of a pop-up contingency, there are more assets available in each AEF to draw on.
“We have to have the capability to get bigger or smaller as necessary,” he asserted.
Besides serving as a more rational and orderly way of assigning people to overseas temporary assignments, an advisor to Ryan also noted that the AEFs serve to “constrain the appetite” of regional Commanders in Chief, who “always want more” capability. With AEFs, the official said, CINCs know that all the capability they are likely to need is on tap, and they also know they are not allowed to dip into the other AEFs without permission from the Joint Chiefs. In this way, the AEFs restrain deployments that had hitherto been demanded simply to reassure regional CINCs.
Ryan has also pledged not to break the EAF construct without a compelling reason, such as a Major Theater War.
“If a small contingency breaks out, we know what units are available within the current AEF” to respond, Larsen said. “If at all possible, we’re going to take units and people or UTCs out of the current AEFs that are in the bucket [and] … use them, so we don’t break other units in the AEF construct.”
If the crisis were to widen, the AEF Center would decide which AEF pair to call on next, “to minimize how much it’s going to hurt the AEF construct when the crisis is over,” Larsen added. In a Major Theater War, “we know the AEF construct is going to get broken fairly hard,” he said, but all efforts will be made to choose forces in such a way to “make it as simple as possible to get back into the construct when the crisis is over.”
Ryan has said the AEF construct makes it possible to put five AEFs into a battle theater within 15 days, assuming that all airlift is available to it.
The two AEWs are the 911 forces, according to the Air Force’s recent vision statement, “Global Vigilance, Reach, and Power.” If they are both engaged, lead wings from the on-call AEFs can dispatch to a bare-bones facility and set it up to begin combat operations within 48 hours, “fast enough to curb many crises before they escalate,” the Vision document asserts.
A single AEF has the combat power to hit some 200 targets per day. Adding more AEFs like building blocks can aggregate a force capable of conducting a Major Theater War.
A big benefit of the AEF is that aviation units assigned to an AEF together will remain together from rest through training and deployment.
“The same units are always assigned” to an AEF, Larsen noted. “They will always deploy together, and then they are always back in their training cycle together, too. … All of them in the same AEF will go to a Flag exercise together, … so they get to train together within three months before they deploy.”
Air Mobility Command is seeing some tangible benefits from the EAF structure, according to Col. Steve Hellwege, chief of operations plans at AMC.
Although the routine “business of moving things back and forth” hasn’t changed much since EAF went into force, Hellwege said, the changeover period–when one AEF comes in for another going out–makes for more efficient movement of people and gear.
Big movements have been “compressed … into condensed rotational windows between 20 and 30 days, vs. having it staggered throughout the entire year,” he noted. As a result, AMC can build “air bridges” of relay flights back and forth to move gear and people. This saves on crews and marshaling personnel by moving equipment in large volume.
Also, if two squadrons in the same wing belong to consecutive AEFs, sometimes “the jets are left in place and are not rotated,” and the incoming squadron-mates take over the airplanes. This saves tanker missions, not to mention wear and tear on the airframes themselves.
The EAF construct has also saved on commercial airlift requirements, Hellwege said. Previously, individuals booked their own way to their deployment locations. The “hard” schedule of AEFs has made it possible to funnel teams to Baltimore IAP, where commercial charters will take whole airplane loads of troops to a single destination.
The goal is to send the charters directly to bases deploying people and equipment and have them picked up and flown directly to the deployment location, Hellwege said. This has already been done on some occasions.
“There’s been about a 22 percent reduction in the requirement for T-tails [airlifters] over the annual cycle of rotations,” Hellwege reported.
Enter the Reserve Components
Hellwege also said AEF is proving very valuable for Reserve Component forces.
Guard and Reserve units, for example, supply about 44 percent of tactical airlift AMC sends to AEF deployments and about 30 percent of the tankers. With as much as 15 months’ lead time, the reservists are better able to plan with their employers when they can deploy as part of an AEF. That tends to keep reservists in the force, since they can accommodate their employers and vice versa.
Hellwege said there are some lessons learned bubbling up out of the EAF experience so far. He noted that the AEF deployments have shown up some specialty categories that are “woefully undermanned,” such as air traffic controllers. Moreover, the AEF can sometimes hurt the home base because of experience requirements.
He observed that “the theaters typically need a more mature, experienced individual in that high-intensity environment.” If the most experienced people deploy more frequently, it begins to play hob with training of less experienced troops back home.
The changeover from one AEF to another at forward locations is also being streamlined every day. Larsen reported that, rather than an individual arriving by himself and learning his task while on the job, troops deploy as teams. Moreover, once notified of their deployment, troops can go into a Web site describing exactly the tasks they will perform at their deployment location, the equipment they’ll be working on, and any special training they’ll need before arriving.
The people already in the field are the ones who write these online training templates, Larsen said, so the information in them is always fresh and up-to-date. Templates for all deploying persons were to be in place by Oct. 1.
While there is a handover period where an incoming person’s deployment overlaps with his predecessor–typically with leadership jobs or sensitive intelligence positions–for “a majority of people, when they show up, the person they’re replacing will get on that same airplane and head for home,” said Larsen. This, too, adds to greater efficiency and economy of effort. Once they arrive, they will also find continuity books describing ongoing situations, threats, equipment upgrades, or other issues spanning more than one AEF deployment.
Not everyone in the AEF changes out in a single day. Larsen said it takes about 24 days for a thorough changeover at a location like Prince Sultan AB, so continuity is never lost. Force protection units change over 45 days to ensure no gaps in knowledge or procedures.
To avoid the possibility of a vulnerability gap between incoming and outgoing units, aviation units typically overlap at the site for a couple of days, Larsen reported.
Likewise, the lessons learned process is becoming more automated. To prevent lessons from being forgotten, they can be immediately and simply entered into a Web-based computer program. The lessons are then forwarded up the chain of command in a rapid fashion for validation as legitimate lessons.
“My feeling is, if there’s a problem for AEF 5, I ought to be able to fix it for AEF 7,” Larsen asserted. Lessons learned are added to the training templates, and incoming replacements will have to look them over before arrival.
“Even if they don’t come and search our database, their going to get their lessons learned; they’ll know what to fix before they go over,” Larsen noted.
One lesson that landed right in Larsen’s lap was the basic structure of the AEF Center. The center had been divided into two teams-Silver and Blue-to manage the deployments of alternating AEFs. However, “we found out it’s a lot easier having everybody working all of them at the same time.”
The two teams have now been consolidated with the departure of Blue Team leader Brig. Gen. Edward L. LaFountaine to a new assignment. The merged organization means “we saved a general officer billet,” Larsen noted.
Larsen said his organization has not tried to collect any metrics on whether the AEF is directly improving Air Force life. He said his group is concentrating on getting the AEF “institutionalized.”
It will be hard to determine the specific impact of AEFs on troop morale because, although retention is up, there’s little visibility into how much of the improvement is being driven by increased bonuses and “changes in the retirement system,” Larsen noted.
However, the anecdotal feedback has been encouraging.
“My gut feeling is that it’s really going in the right direction,” he said. Troops initially took a skeptical view of the idea. “Show me,” was the typical comment, he said. Now, though, more and more are telling him that they are, in fact, getting more notice of deployments “and the attitude has changed dramatically.”