The Blended Wing Goes to War

Oct. 1, 2003

Iraqi soldiers, interviewed by US troops during and just after Gulf War II, commonly reported that their morale collapsed when, in the midst of a raging sandstorm, armored vehicles began exploding all around them. They knew then that the blowing, obscuring sand was no refuge from American sensors and bombs. There was no place to hide.

Watching the Iraqis from high above the billowing clouds of sand were E-8C Joint STARS surveillance airplanes, whose ground moving target indicator radars could clearly see convoys of vehicles inching along a major highway. Battle managers aboard the Joint STARS were able to cue other aircraft, as well as special units on the ground, to confirm the locations and types of the vehicles and execute their wholesale destruction.

To the terrified Iraqis, it made little difference that the crews of those radar aircraft, as well as the maintenance people supporting them at forward locations, were part of a unique USAF experiment in managing its force. The Joint STARS systems belong to the 116th Air Control Wing—the first and, so far, only “blended wing” comprising active duty and Air National Guard personnel.

The unit had been in existence only three months when it went off to take part in Operation Iraqi Freedom. By the end of major combat operations, it had logged more than 300 sorties and 3,000 hours of flying time, said Col. Tom Lynn, commander of the 116th. And, while Lynn would not say so, others have described the Joint STARS operation in the sandstorm as a key event—maybe the key event—in the brief but intense drive on Baghdad.

This marked not only the first combat deployment of a blended wing but also the first time that Joint STARS had gone to war as a mature system. In the 1991 Gulf War, two developmental A models went to the Gulf, providing limited but valuable information to war commanders. Developmental E-8C models were used in Operation Allied Force in 1999 and early production models in Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. This time, the full E-8C version went in nearly full wing strength.

Nine of the 15 Joint STARS aircraft that were in the USAF inventory deployed forward to bases on the Arabian peninsula. The 116th set up shop for about 600 airmen in two locations, the largest E-8 deployment ever. The Air National Guard provided about a tenth of the air crew members and about one-fourth of the support team members. More Guardsmen would have deployed had there been enough time to train them. As it was, many were new to the Joint STARS mission.

The E-8 has the capacity to observe the terrain and spot moving objects. Though it cannot yet distinguish between civilian and military vehicles, it can distinguish between tracked and wheeled vehicles. By coordinating information with satellite data and with intelligence from Predator and Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance platforms, Joint STARS battle managers put symbology on particular targets, identifying them for attack aircraft and Army ground and helicopter units. This was done via use of both voice and digital means. The information was also forwarded to the combined air operations center, where commanders can use Joint STARS data to get a feel for the “big picture” of the unfolding battle.

Such was the demand for Joint STARS information that some missions lasted 23 hours. At times, two or more E-8s (the precise number is classified) were in the air simultaneously, to provide both an overall battle picture and a tightly focused one on certain areas of interest, such as Baghdad.

The mission shifted rapidly from “intelligence preparation of the battlefield” to command and control of strike assets, according to the wing vice commander, Col. Mark Hall.

“ Baptism by Fire”

Lynn, himself a Guard member, said OIF proved to be a “baptism by fire” for the unit, a “steep learning curve, instant maturation for a lot of these guys. They acquitted themselves incredibly well.”

Joint STARS performance during the dust storms proved to be “a major turning point” in the war, according to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper.

At that point in late March, Jumper told Defense Daily, “The Iraqis, who thought we couldn’t see them any better than they could see us, boldly struck out on roads, to try to reinforce [their units], especially the Medina Division” of the Republican Guard. He said, the Iraqis “essentially got torn apart, and, as a result, walked away from their equipment.”

The E-8Cs were able to directly cue both Army AH-64 Apache helicopters and USAF F-15Es through data links, and—through data-sharing systems with the combined air operations center—with virtually all of the strike aircraft involved in the war.

On one mission, an E-8 lost one of its four engines but stayed on station for three hours to provide intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance and command and control support to US Marines advancing on Tikrit. After the war, a Marine report singled out Joint STARS: “No other collection asset provided the wide area, all-weather coverage of the battle- space that the JSTARS did.” The report went on to relate that the combination of the airborne E-8 and its Army ground communications crews ensured the Marines “were not blind on the battlefield.”

The Army changed its tactics to include use of Joint STARS with its Apache helicopters when the Apaches ran into trouble with sand and enemy tactics. Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the Army’s 101st Airborne Division commander, said, “When we could not get the target definition that we needed, we went to daylight, deep armed reconnaissance operations [that had] JSTARS supporting them, to direct them.” This combination, he said, enabled the Apaches to destroy “very significant targets on a number of occasions.”

The OIF air boss, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, credited Joint STARS in combination with other airborne sensors, strike aircraft, and special operations forces with preventing Saddam Hussein from unleashing Scud missiles, as Saddam had done during Gulf War I. “I believe he has not shot one because we’ve been out there,” he told reporters on April 5. “We rehearsed the command and control of this. We rehearsed all of the orchestration and lash-up of supporting and complementing assets.”

Despite its high profile as an enabler of the fast-paced attack on Iraqi forces, much of the detailed experience of the Joint STARS unit in OIF will, at least for the moment, remain hidden.

“I think you’ll find that, with any ISR system, they tend to hold those cards pretty close to the vest,” said Lt. Col. John LaBuda of the 116th.

A senior Air Combat Command official put it more bluntly: “As long as things are still pretty warm in SWA [Southwest Asia] and in Korea, I don’t think anybody’s going to be telling ISR war stories. It’s … a good idea to keep your tricks to yourself.”

Seeking a Mission

The blended wing came into being as a political expedient. Robins AFB, Ga., home of the 116th, had been host to a Guard unit—the 116th Bomb Wing—that was flying B-1B bombers. The Air Force in 2001 decided to retire 33 B-1Bs assigned to Guard units at Robins and McConnell AFB, Kan., and an active unit at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. The move came as a shock to ANG and state officials, who did not want state ANG members (some 1,150 at Robins) left without a mission.

Maj. Gen. Paul A. Weaver (now retired) was the director of the Air National Guard at the time. He was determined to get “the best possible outcome for Georgia and Kansas.”

Air Force Secretary James G. Roche came up with the idea of the blended wing, Weaver said. It was a notion that would “benefit the Air Force” and make good use of the leverage provided by the Air National Guard.

The adjutant general of the Kansas ANG did not want a blended wing, so the focus fell on Robins. Joint STARS aircraft already were based there with the 93rd Air Control Wing. Could the Air Force actually conduct such an experiment with one of the service’s most heavily tasked aircraft

“ We never, quite frankly, considered JSTARS,” Lynn recalled. “It was a mission still in growth,” meaning it had not yet received all its personnel or aircraft. Moreover, Joint STARS was a so-called low-density, high-demand system.

Roche, however, believed that Joint STARS was an excellent platform on which to try out the blended wing concept because, if it worked, it could usher in even tighter coordination between active and Guard forces. Success could conceivably spell an end to the Guard operating “hand me down” aircraft from the regular Air Force.

In February 2002, Roche told Congress that blended units “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, he said, would become so integrated between the force components “as to be invisible to outside observers.”

Roche subsequently suggested that blended wings could work even with a brand-new system such as the F/A-22 fighter. Service officials see such possibilities as a potential consolation prize to constituencies that take hits in the next round of base closures, slated to be announced in 2005.

Both the 93rd Air Control Wing and the 116th Bomb Wing officially stood down in October 2002. The new organization, the 116th Air Control Wing, was the immediate successor. Lynn, who had commanded the old ANG bomb wing, became commander of the new blended wing.

Melding Two Perspectives

Hall said that he, like many in the active force, had only a vague understanding of the Guard and had some serious concerns about how such an organization could work.

“ We always looked at the Guard as ‘weekend warriors,’ ” Hall noted. “We thought, ‘Here we are, an LD/HD, and we’re going to deploy all the time, and what is the Guard going to do?’ … We really didn’t understand all the differences in the Air National Guard, or the Reserves, for that matter.”

ANG personnel fall into two basic categories: part-time and full-time personnel. The first, or “traditional,” group comprises those who drill one weekend a month and two weeks a year, the so-called weekend warriors. These can be mobilized at the state or federal level. The second category—full time—includes two subgroups: Active Guard Reserve (AGR) and military technicians. AGRs serve in uniform in the same federal pay status as active duty personnel, but, under Title 32, they report to the state. If AGRs are mobilized at the federal level, they serve under Title 10. Military technicians are federal civilian employees who must, by statute (Title 32), serve as weekend-warrior drilling members of their Guard unit. Title 32 also requires the technicians to wear their military uniforms on the job. They can be mobilized with their unit at the federal level.

“ About 25 percent of my folks are full time,” said Col. Lois Schmidt, commander of the 116th Mission Support Group. “The rest are what we call traditional Guard members. We don’t like the term ‘part time.’ ”

While Title 10 federalized Guard officers can write performance reports, recommend promotions, and exercise the Uniform Code of Military Justice over all airmen—active and mobilized personnel—under their command, Title 32 officers cannot.

Normally, Lynn serves under Title 32. For this reason, Hall, the active duty vice commander, holds a unique, second, and simultaneous office. He is the “116th Air Control Wing active duty element commander.” He handles all UCMJ actions. He is the senior rater for promotion board endorsements. “I do all that stuff for the active duty side, because I’m a Title 10 person,” said Hall.

However, after Hall has “racked and stacked” airmen for promotions, for example, he gives all of the packages to Lynn. If there is a disagreement, Hall said, he defers to Lynn’s judgment. Under the law, however, he does not have to defer.

Lynn likewise confers with Hall on the Guard personnel issues. “It’s a leadership thing based on mutual trust,” Lynn observed. “There are no problems.”

Changing the Law

Nevertheless, the situation is an unwieldy one, and the Air Staff has proposed some legal changes that could smooth the way.

Weaver said that, after retirement, he consulted for the Air Force to work the blended wing legislative issue, among others.

“ We had to change the language of the law,” Weaver asserted.

One solution was to get the states to offer active duty officers assigned to Guard units a temporary Title 32 commission, which they would hold simultaneously with their Title 10 commission. This would give them temporary authority over Guardsmen in their units. However, the law specifically forbade the reverse, of Guardsmen being given temporary Title 10 commissions within the boundaries of the US.

Weaver reworked the language allowing such a dual commission—which would be limited only to the commander of a dual or blended organization—and the Office of the Secretary of Defense took an interest.

“ They asked me to pull it back, run it past [OSD] general counsel, run it past the Justice Department. … It passed everybody’s test,” Weaver said.

The proposed law would put such commanders in two reporting chains—one to a state governor, one to the President.

By late summer, the legislation was included in the Senate Armed Services Committee defense authorization bill for Fiscal 2004, and Weaver said he’d received assurances that the House Armed Services Committee would defer to the SASC language in conference.

“ So Tom Lynn will have both a Title 10 and a Title 32” commission, Weaver said.

After Lynn leaves as wing commander, his successor will be decided jointly by the adjutant general of the Georgia ANG and the commander of Air Combat Command. If an active duty commander is selected, the vice commander will be from the Guard, to preserve the dual nature of the organization’s leadership.

When USAF announced the blending, there was some concern that the cultures of the Guard and active force might clash, said CMSgt. Donald Cays, Lynn’s command chief master sergeant.

Clashing Cultures

“ Yes, there are cultural differences,” Cays said. Most of these have to do with the way that Guardsmen and active duty personnel are evaluated, paid, and promoted. There are two systems, and they are not easily meshed. This can cause friction.

Enlisted people in the Guard are hired directly into a “slot” and don’t compete for jobs as their active counterparts do. To be promoted, Guardsmen must hire into a slot that carries a higher rank. Moreover, not all Guard slots are considered supervisory, whereas all active duty noncommissioned officers are trained to be leaders, Cays noted.

A senior technician with 25 years of service may well bridle at “working side by side with active duty people of lesser military rank,” or working for a younger person or one with fewer stripes, Cays said. This was a problem that was anticipated before the blend but for which there is no easy solution. “Most people just suck it up,” Cays said.

The Guard also has a reputation for informality, he said.

“ First name, that type of stuff,” he explained. “It’s not anything other than, you work with somebody for 20 or 30 years, you tend to lose that formality. The active duty’s not like that.” Regulations call for greater formality, which is rapidly sinking in, Cays added.

While Guardsmen are evaluated strictly on performance of their stated duties, active duty people must also score points for “above and beyond stuff,” Cays said, as well as time on station, awards, schools, etc.

Finally, Guardsmen compete differently for recognition, such as in Airman of the Quarter awards. While active duty personnel compete within the wing, then the base, and then their major command, Guardsmen go through a different process, focused on the state. Even physical training tests are different.

There are some “tribal” tendencies between the two groups, possibly because nearly all Guard enlisted people live off base while many enlisted active airmen live in the dorms, and the Guard people stay put while the active duty rotate out after two or three years.

Still, “we let them in our club, they let us in their club,” said SSgt. Joseph Stuart, an active duty NCO.

“ There is a sense of family and belonging in the Guard” which is appealing, Stuart said. “In the Guard, you really get to know people, and there is a tremendous esprit de corps.”

However, there remain vexing, Catch-22 problems regarding things such as travel vouchers. People sometimes “bounce” between the wing, base headquarters, and ops group because clear lines have not been completely established about financial responsibilities, Stuart said.

The unit is working through most issues. “I think the blending is going well,” said Cays. “We’ve come a long way in a short period of time.”

There are solid benefits to the blending. Because the Guard typically has veterans with long experience, while the active element has many junior airmen, the result is an in-house mentoring system, Lynn said. The junior members have the benefit of watching and learning from old hands, most of whom have at least some active duty experience.

Operational benefits accrue, too, from the experience of flight crews. When the B-1Bs departed, many of the wing’s offensive and defensive weapons systems officers cross-trained to be air battle managers in the E-8C, Hall reported. The ABM specialty is one in which there is a chronic shortfall in the Air Force.

“ The thing that’s exciting to me,” Hall said, is that individuals who were on the tip of the spear as strike aircrew members in the B-1B will now be “in the back of our jet talking to someone who is now tip of the spear. … They will bring some insight” to that conversation. Likewise, bomb loaders and people in other specialties that didn’t have an exact analogy with an intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance unit have had a “great opportunity” to cross-train into flight operations, such as becoming flight engineers.

“ The differences … are slowly dissolving away,” Lynn said, “and I think that just comes from working together and building relationships.”

For the most part, the functioning of the wing is “transparent,” Hall said, and there are no discernible differences between active and Guard personnel. The wing leadership was not told how to manage the blend, but was left to figure out the details on its own.

Cays said there is little trouble getting volunteers to go on deployments, some of which are open-ended in length. Why do the Guardsmen raise their hands to go

“ Patriotism,” Cays offered, “or they just want to do it. I’ve found out from my career in the Guard that the people are there because they want to be there, not because they have to be there. Some people do it for educational benefits [or] extra income, but the majority of our people do it because they like it.”

While the wing is not writing a how-to book on building a blended wing per se, Lynn said it is capturing all the “lessons learned.” Should there be another blended wing, it would be easy for that wing to review the 116th’s experience. However, so much of the 116th’s experience is necessarily unique that “we’re not naive enough to think that is the end solution” to all future blending initiatives.

Lynn said the 116th has entertained a steady stream of visitors, not only from the media but from other Guard units.

Lt. Gen. Joseph H. Wehrle Jr., then USAF’s assistant vice chief of staff, said the senior leadership has kept a close eye on Robins but maintained a hands-off approach.

“ They are smart people, and we know they will figure these things out,” Wehrle said. “They have pride of ownership of this concept.”

The senior USAF leadership was very pleased with the wing’s performance in Gulf War II, Wehrle said, and hopes the success of the unit in combat will make it easier to develop similar units in other systems.

“ They did very well,” Wehrle said. “We would hope people don’t forget just how well they did.”

Weaver said he has participated in a number of what-if drills, scrutinizing other missions and other bases where blended wings might be employed.

“ There are a multitude of scenarios where this might work very well,” he said. “Blending is one of the smart things we might do to ease the opstempo and perstempo in our force.”

What Robins has done, he added, “is give us a roadmap for how we might do this elsewhere.”