The Airman’s Lessons

Oct. 1, 2004

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld came to the Pentagon with a broad mandate to “transform” the armed forces. When he and others looked at the four services, what they saw was a glacially slow pace of military change.

Rumsfeld’s view was only partly correct. He seemed unaware that one service—the US Air Force—had been transforming for years. This fact first came into view in the 1991 Gulf War, when USAF’s laser guided weapons, stealth aircraft, and space power smashed Iraq’s forces and shocked the world.

Next came an even more dramatic push for innovation. In the 1990s, USAF acquired all-weather precision arms and spread these systems across the combat fleet. On top of that, the force became lean and expeditionary, with superb battlespace awareness.

The nation’s recent lopsided victories in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq can be ascribed, in large part, to the combat prowess of this force. It was not radically new or “revolutionary,” but it had been continuously modernized and reshaped.

That, in itself, is a form of transformation, and, if the past is any guide, we will see more of it soon.

Hints can be found in “The First 600 Days of Combat,” an unclassified Air Force look back at what could be called The War of 9/11—Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan 2001-02), Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq, 2003), and Operation Noble Eagle (US airspace, 2001-today).

This report cannot be called a standard Air Force white paper on the war, but it comes as close as we are likely to get. At a minimum, it reveals what the Air Force is saying to itself, about itself.

The author of the 160-page study, Rebecca Grant, served as a member of a special Air Force review group—Task Force Enduring Look—and conducted many of its key interviews. According to Grant, “This war has set the Air Force on a new course.”

Grant (also an Air Force Magazine contributing editor) wrote that the review of recent combat operations has produced what she called “The Airman’s Lessons.” She suggested the future Air Force, whatever its specific form, will be shaped by six principles.

  • Joint Force Integration. Gen. John P. Jumper, Air Force Chief of Staff, contends that “joint warfare is the imperative.” He puts improvement in this category at the top of the list of critical factors. In Grant’s view, teamwork between service components was “a driving force” in recent US successes, especially in Gulf War II. A continuing theme will be deeper and deeper integration.
  • Superiority in Air and Space. This, according to Grant, will continue to be “a top priority” for the Air Force. Indeed, the book called for maintaining “absolute” air superiority. It pointed out that, in Gulf War II, air dominance was achieved early, which permitted the coalition to bring some 700 fighter and attack aircraft to bear at will. Air and space capabilities were integrated more than in any earlier conflict.
  • Expeditionary Organization. In the recent wars, said Grant, the Air Expeditionary Force concept gave the Air Force a strong baseline of deployed capability and a reserve for wartime surges. (For example, one senior airman has noted, USAF forces that deployed in September 2001 were ready within a few days for war in Afghanistan.) However, Gulf War II exposed the fact that USAF needs to work hard at mastering the “art of expeditionary warfare”—from deployment to operations to support.
  • Persistent Precision. Precision weapons “dominated attack profiles,” wrote Grant. They made air strikes more efficient and reduced collateral damage. “Just as important as precision,” said Grant, “was its partner—persistence.” By that, she meant the presence of on-call aircraft loitering over a battle area, poised to react to a commander’s needs. Prime examples were munitions-laden B-1B and B-52 bombers that were tasked en route to strike emerging targets.
  • Mobility on Demand. As Grant put it, “There would have been no precision or persistence in the battlespace without the mobility supplied by airlift and air refueling.” The ability to supply air mobility for a large theater campaign was the Air Force’s alone. Every combat sortie depended on tankers for refueling. Every aircraft transiting to the Middle East did so with refueling.
  • High-Quality Airmen. Because of their quality and competence, said the book, America’s airmen time and again served as great force multipliers. Those who shape the future force should note that it was the airmen who brought air and space power to life, said Grant. Of all the truths about the war, this was “the most important.” Of special note in this regard were the so-called “battlefield airmen,” those who traveled with

    As Grant pointed out, the War of 9/11 was not the end of, but merely the first campaign in, a protracted global struggle with terrorists. She quoted Jumper as saying, “What we have to do is configure ourselves to be able to go wherever it [the war] is.”

    The Air Force does not have the final say about its own destiny. USAF’s future size, shape, and capabilities will be debated in the next Quadrennial Defense Review, scheduled to get under way in 2005.

    The QDR reviewers and others should take account of at least two key facts. First, USAF’s record of successful innovation is long. Second, our current pre-eminence in military power stems mainly from our overwhelming lead in air and space power.

    Those factors surely should weigh heavily in any deliberations about just how the Air Force should be compelled to transform in years ahead.