Washington Watch

Oct. 1, 2006

RAND’s Advice: Let Airpower Lead

United States military doctrine should assign to the Air Force the lead role for major combat operations and for “shaping the battlespace,” maintains a new Rand study. Meanwhile, it declared, the Army should focus its efforts on delivering on-the-ground victory and postwar stabilization.

Rand’s study, “Learning Large Lessons,” was released in August. In it, analyst David E. Johnson says that the experience of the last five wars shows the Pentagon’s joint doctrine “must be overhauled” relative to the roles of air- and land power.

Johnson referred to operations in the Gulf (1991), Bosnia (1995), Serbia (1999), Afghanistan (2001), and Iraq (2003). Some of these also featured follow-up air and land actions.

The services pay lip service to “interdependence,” argued Johnson. In reality, he added, the American approach tends to be an “amalgamation” of service doctrines that “frequently reflects a consensus view rather than truly integrated joint perspective.”

This won’t work if the US military is to be effective in the 21st century, he said.

“A radical shift has occurred in the relative roles of ground power and airpower in warfighting,” he asserted. Over the last five conflicts, he went on, “airpower showed growing levels of effectiveness and robustness and played commensurately growing roles. … The cases illustrate a gradual acceptance by Army officers of this reality.”

Johnson quoted senior Army commanders in Operation Iraqi Freedom—Gen. Tommy R. Franks, head of US Central Command, and Gen. William S. Wallace, head of V Corps—as saying that airpower proved “decisive,” not only in achieving victory, but in preventing defeat in certain situations.

The Army’s doctrinal desire to control the entire battlespace actually gets in the way of effective use of fixed-wing airpower, limiting its ability to strike where needed in a timely manner, Johnson said. He suggested that the US make the Air Force the “supported” service in the initial phase of a war—defeating or neutralizing an enemy’s major combat forces—and then allow the Army to deliver the coup de grace.

The Army should get out of the business of deep attack, declared the Rand study, because it does a bad job of it. Rather, it should shift resources spent on deep attack missiles and helicopters to the task of improving its capabilities in so-called military operations other than war, or MOOTW.

Johnson asserted that airpower has made the biggest contribution in major combat operations from the 1991 Gulf War onward. There’s no question, Johnson said, that “the strategic and operational levels of warfighting against large conventional enemy forces were dominated by flexible, all-weather, precision-strike airpower, enabled by intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.”

Johnson quoted official Army histories of Operation Iraqi Freedom and other conflicts, in which senior Army commanders praised the decisiveness of airpower.

“It is difficult to overstate the importance of air operations in the context of OIF,” the Army’s history states. “By dominating the air over Iraq, coalition air forces shaped the fight to allow for rapid dominance on the ground.” Integration of air-delivered precision weapons with ground operations, backed up by “a largely space-based command and control network, enabled combat operations to occur in ways only imagined a decade ago.”

Johnson said the Army’s attack helicopters, although doctrinally charged with “shaping” the battle space, proved to be highly vulnerable to an ad-hoc Iraqi air defense “system” based on cellular phones and small arms. The Army’s official war history said Army aviation found it “virtually impossible to detect and suppress such defenses.”

In one early Apache engagement, all 30 choppers were hit, one was shot down, and a crew was captured, yet the attack caused only minor damage to the enemy. The Apaches fared somewhat better when engaging in close air support operations. Still, they were increasingly used for scouting rather than deep attack or for efforts to shape the battlespace.

The Army canceled its Apache successor, the stealthy RAH-66 Comanche, after the end of major combat operations in Iraq. That was the decision of Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army Chief of Staff. He based it on the Army’s realization that stealth was not all that important for helicopters, that helicopters tend to be vulnerable to small-arms fire, and that the Army needed to focus its resources on its ground capabilities.

Sharpening the Army’s Approach

Speedy American success in large conventional conflicts—made possible mainly by airpower—typically doesn’t bring about a “strategic political end state or conflict resolution,” the Rand study concluded. That, said Johnson, requires a land force well-practiced in nation-building and certain other functions.

At present, the US Army does not emphasize these aspects in its training and equipment programs, but it should, he added.

The Army believes that well-trained soldiers able to fight the big wars can handle the perceived lesser mission of military operations other than war. (The acronym MOOTW is generally pronounced “moot-wah.”) However, Johnson argued that more specific preparation and equippage is needed.

In his study, Johnson noted that, in Bosnia, Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the end state was not a classic victory but persistent, low-grade MOOTW.

The Army and Marine Corps, Johnson argued, should focus their “overwhelming tactical dominance” on several key missions. They are to:

  • Compel the enemy to move or concentrate his forces such that they become vulnerable to attack from the air.
  • Close with and destroy enemy tactical remnants, exploit success, and seize and hold ground.
  • Deal with the post-conflict security environment “until the desired end state is reached.”

The Army should ditch its own deep attack capabilities and rely on those of the Air Force, a move that would allow it to focus more intently on the close battle. Johnson acknowledged such a change will be “particularly difficult” for the American land force, given its focus on “operational-level warfighting.”

In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, Johnson pointed out, senior Army leaders stubbornly insisted that the brief, 100-hour land campaign (launched after a devastating 38-day air war) had been decisive and that airpower had merely softened up Iraqi forces. Airpower advocates argued that airpower had all but won the war by setting the conditions for victory.

In Bosnia four years later, the Army once again asserted that victory was achieved not by airpower—the only force used by NATO—but rather by a Croatian-led ground offensive that led to Bosnian Serb concessions.

In Kosovo in 1999, the story was much the same. The NATO alliance used only airpower. Still, the Army asserted that it was the “threat” of a ground invasion that caused Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic to yield and that his “center of gravity” was his forces in Kosovo.

Army views began to change somewhat after the Afghanistan campaign in 2001. Army leaders concluded that anti-Taliban Afghan militias, aided by airpower, defeated the Taliban and al Qaeda.

In Iraq in 2003, the Army went further. It found that, though ground troops were needed to finish off Saddam’s regime and occupy the capital, airpower was a key enabler in achieving these objectives. The Air Force view was that, again, airpower set the conditions for quick victory on the ground.

Johnson concluded that, in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the employment of airpower prevented Iraqi forces from positioning themselves properly. Even in bad weather or darkness, he went on, airpower often shattered Iraqi units before they could close with coalition ground forces. The air element “not only reduced the costs, risks and duration of the coalition campaign … but largely left coalition ground units to mop up the remnants of shattered enemy formations in close battle.”

C-17: The End of the Line

Congress, Boeing, and airlift advocates mounted a late summer effort to stop the planned shutdown of the C-17 production line, but it appears that the effort came too late to bring about an extension of Globemaster III production.

Boeing announced on Aug. 18 that it was sending out word to suppliers to stop work on C-17 parts and subassemblies and was planning to close the Long Beach, Calif., production line in 2009, after all outstanding orders are filled.

The company said it would desist, though, if it received a “statement of intent” from the Air Force that it would seek more aircraft beyond the 180 the service has on order.

Company officials indicated that they didn’t need a written contract but merely a verbal pledge that USAF intended to seek more in years to come. By early September, the Air Force had made no such commitment, and the Defense Department indicated no such reversal would be forthcoming.

On Aug. 15, a Pentagon spokesman told Aerospace Daily and Defense Report, a defense trade publication, “We have the C-17s we need.” He strongly discouraged anyone from thinking that there would be a last-minute reprieve.

Ronald C. Marcotte, Boeing vice president of global mobility systems, said there would be relatively small impact on the program for about a month, but after that, “things start to drop off fast” and it would become steadily harder—and more expensive—to restart production.

To restart production, any vendor that had stopped making a certain kind of part would have to be recertified. Laid-off workers would have to be recalled, retrained, and recertified. Some vendors would no longer be available, leading to delays and greater expense. “It’s not like a tap you can turn off and then turn on again,” an industry official said.

By late August, Boeing had delivered 154 C-17s to the Air Force and another four, which are leased, to Britain. Britain has said it will convert the lease to a purchase and wants to buy one more.

Boeing said it had not developed any numbers on what it would cost to restart the C-17 line, should the Air Force wish to do so. However, retired Air Force Gen. John W. Handy, the former head of Air Mobility Command and US Transportation Command, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that restarting production after the line goes cold would cost upward of $4 billion.

A Boeing spokesperson said, “We believe our customers would rather spend their acquisition dollars on aircraft purchases, not line restarts.”

The shutdown had been long telegraphed, and, indeed, Boeing warnings earlier this year that it was planning to stop work encouraged Britain, Canada, and Australia each to make some last-chance orders for the airplane. Sweden has also expressed interest in buying two aircraft.

However, those orders were not sufficient to stave off closure, Boeing officials said. In fact, an announcement on Aug. 17 by Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, that NATO would seek to buy up to eight C-17s to help the Alliance with deployments to Afghanistan and elsewhere wasn’t enough for Boeing to pull back.

Dan Page, Boeing’s director of airlift business development, said in August that the company had committed $100 million of its own money since the summer of 2005 to keep production going, even though the Air Force still had not placed any orders beyond the 180 on contract under a multiyear deal.

At that time, Page said, the Air Force was indicating that a number closer to 222 C-17s was about right.

“We had good reason to believe” the Air Force would keep ordering C-17s and that other countries would, as well, Page said.

However, the Quadrennial Defense Review, released earlier this year, said 180 C-17s would be sufficient, as long as other elements of the airlift inventory held up. Notably, the 180 figure is dependent on Lockheed Martin’s success in upgrading the C-5 Galaxy, but flight testing of those updates won’t be done for several years.

The C-17 line would have shut down in 2008 if it had not received the additional orders, but those will only carry the production line into early 2009. In August, the company deemed it too risky to shareholders to keep spending money in hopes of sales that might not materialize, he said.

Boeing said it will, of course, consider any further orders from USAF that are short of that needed to meet the economical 15-per-year pace at which the company has been building Globemaster IIIs. “It will depend on how many the Air Force wants to buy and at what rate,” a company spokesperson said.

The C-17 Impact on Congress

The shutdown, if it happens, would adversely affect states with large pieces of C-17 production—mainly Missouri, California, and Connecticut—and their representatives in Congress said they would appeal directly to the White House.

They touted the fact that the C-17 is being delivered ahead of schedule, at the agreed cost, and is proving indisputably useful in ongoing, far-flung military operations worldwide.

The C-17 issue thus has been a contentious one for Congress, and it seemed in late summer that it would be a ripe issue for debate in the House-Senate budget conference on Capitol Hill.

Three aircraft were added to USAF authorization bills, versus the seven the Air Force carried as an “unfunded priority” for Fiscal 2007. If signed into law, this action would raise the total USAF C-17 purchase to 183 aircraft. The service has been using the C-17 heavily in the Southwest Asia theater and in disaster relief and needs more aircraft to replace service life that has already been consumed in the C-17 fleet.

Stopping production “would be a loss for the nation,” Handy wrote in the Times editorial.

“Dismantling the C-17 line now means that the US will be limited in its ability to adequately support the war against terrorists, as well as the loss of the most capable aircraft ever used in support of humanitarian crises at home and abroad,” Handy wrote, adding rhetorically, “How will we respond to hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis?”

He noted that the figure of 180 C-17s was the conclusion of mobility studies largely concluded before the 9/11 attacks and developed without the expeditionary war against terror in mind. Last year’s QDR conducted a mobility study, but it was a “capabilities” review and not a requirements analysis.

Handy also held out the B-2 as an analogy that shows how premature termination can be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

“The B-2 bomber is a cautionary tale,” Handy wrote. “Considered the most expensive plane in history, the original B-2 procurement was cut from 132 aircraft to 20, exponentially increasing the cost per plane and leaving our military with an aging bomber fleet that we are now seeking to replace.”

He concluded that “it would be unwise to do the same with the C-17.”

Boeing said it is studying future airlift requirements for tactical transports and thinks a modified version of the C-17 could fill the bill. However, those aircraft will not be needed for some years, yet, and by the time they are, the company’s Long Beach facility could be shut down for good.