Washington Watch

Oct. 1, 2008

That Missing Link

The Air Force clashed with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, for many reasons, but one source of difficulty may have been that there weren’t many airmen around to offer USAF’s perspective, reports former Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne.

Wynne, in a wide-ranging interview in the weeks after he resigned under pressure from Gates, said, “We have a serious lack of Air Force influence in the Joint Staff and in the Secretariat.”

“If you go back and look at the people who were in the Joint Staff and the people directly advising the Secretary, you’ll find that it was very heavily Navy with a pretty good dose of Army [and] very heavily marines,” Wynne observed.

The former Air Force leader continued, “Airmen were, I thought, a pretty secondary issue, to the point where I think [DOD leaders] were actually rejecting fighter pilots, out of hand, for any offices.”

Why did he think that was the case? Because, Wynne said, of a perception that airmen weren’t “broad enough” in their military experience and expertise. “It’s just starting to change, and hopefully it will continue to go that way, where people are beginning to ask for airmen in the Joint Staff,” Wynne said.

Sources of Negativity

In the interview, Wynne speculated that Gates may have formed a negative image of the Air Force’s handling of unmanned aerial vehicles earlier in his career, and this may have colored his attitudes toward the service when Gates became Defense Secretary.

When Gates was head of the CIA in the early 1990s, Wynne said, “he was a promoter of the Predator” UAV, but, at that time, “Air Force leadership was not eager to have unmanned vehicles” and some senior officers seemed to be campaigning against them. “He left the government, [and] that was the ‘photograph’ he took with him,” Wynne added.

When Gates became Defense Secretary, he evidently was unaware that the Air Force in the meantime had completely turned around on UAVs and that Wynne, particularly, was actively promoting both the vehicles and broad-based connections that would make their products widely available to US users.

Wynne noted, “When he went over to Iraq, the first thing [ground commanders] said was, ‘We need more Predators.’ He came back and the Air Force said, ‘We don’t have more Predators.’ His ‘photograph’ from [his earlier experience] was instantly confirmed. He decided the Air Force was … not a fan of unmanned vehicles.”

However, it was Wynne himself who had sold the ground commanders on connecting surface troops and UAVs. When the ground force saw what a powerful capability this was, it became “a demanding customer” with an “insatiable” appetite for UAV-based intelligence, and it insisted on “instant satisfaction.” Wynne surmised that this was the genesis of Gates’ comments, offered at Maxwell AFB, Ala., that it had been like “pulling teeth” to get more UAV coverage from the Air Force.

Wynne continued, “One of the interesting things is, he didn’t beat up the Army, which had almost a thousand Shadows [a type of UAV]. He beat up the Air Force, which had about 100 Predators. And the Army didn’t say they had 600 of the Shadows back in the United States” doing essentially nothing.

Wynne said an experiment had proved that the Shadow, like the Predator, could be operated and controlled remotely from the US. The Army, however, believes that UAVs should be tethered to individual units, rather than made available to whomever needs them. This means that, when a ground unit rotates home, the UAVs come with it and are not available generally in the theater.

“The Army said, ‘We don’t want to give those up, because we don’t want these to become theater assets,’ ” and Gates, said Wynne, “didn’t hear any of that.” Wynne said he didn’t know whether or not Gates was aware of the availability and non-use of the Army’s Stateside Shadows. “All I know is, it doesn’t come through in his speeches. There’s no ‘pulling teeth’ to get Shadows to theater.”

Wynne repeatedly asked the Army to provide a for-instance case—that is, a concrete example of its forces requesting Predator coverage and being turned down by the Air Force. He got no response, he said. “I said, ‘All I want to know is, if you had a mission that you wanted to do, and you asked the Air Force for overhead coverage, … where did we fail?’ “

Wynne noted that the Air Force and the Army now have “a very big difference” in how they view UAVs. “We would like to take the battalion assets and turn them into theater assets. They would like to take the theater assets and turn them into battalion assets.”

Laboring in Obscurity

Wynne maintained that the Air Force doesn’t get well-deserved credit for huge advances in close air support response times. The ground forces, he said, can pretty much “point to a building, and it will come down. … We can almost dial destruction.”

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, now US Central Command chief, wrote a new counterinsurgency doctrine a couple of years ago in which “he basically dismissed airpower as a counterinsurgency tool,” Wynne noted.

During the surge in Iraq, however, “the number of air strikes went up 400 percent,” said Wynne. “The amount of ordnance dropped went up 1,000 percent. Now, what happened?”

The answer, said Wynne, was that Petraeus used airpower because of the high level of confidence “in the … precise nature of the air strike, and the calculation of collateral damage that you can now do on your laptop.”

Little note was taken of the big role airpower had in the success of the surge.

“I don’t think the Air Force tells its story as well as it could [or] should,” Wynne asserted.

The Air Force also pushed for a capability called Angel Fire, in which C-12 aircraft could use radar to locate improvised explosive devices buried in the ground. At first, Wynne said, the Army refused to mark the detected objects because “they were terrified of [a] false alarm rate.” But eventually, they became enamored of the program, and when USAF couldn’t supply the capability fast enough, the Army was allowed to take it over.

Dearth of Sparring Partners

According to Wynne, the Air Force is experiencing an odd problem. He noted that, in Stateside joint force exercises, USAF’s capabilities are deliberately blunted because, otherwise, there wouldn’t be much for ground forces to do. Soldiers in such training exercises “don’t get to fight to the last man.”

The airpower difference is replicated in real operations. “We reduced seven divisions of the Revolutionary Guard in a sandstorm,” Wynne said, referring to the massive destruction of Iraqi armor by air in 2003 while US ground forces were halted by the weather. Global Hawk UAVs targeted the vehicles through and provided strike coordinates to aircraft flying above the billowing sand.

Wynne said the Air Force is having a hard time showing what its F-22 can do in realistic combat exercises. The problem has nothing to do with the fighter’s capabilities. The problem is that no other fighter force wants to participate.

“People don’t want to fly against it,” he said. Scarcely a moment after the radio call comes that the fight is on, the adversary aircraft get another message: “You’re dead.” As Wynne wryly noted, “What fun is that?”

As a result, USAF has had to argue for the F-22 using “virtual” experience, which is less compelling than real force-on-force experience.

Wynne said he sees the F-22 as “the ISR platform on the battlefield,” able to designate targets for Army, Navy, or Marine Corps airplanes. “I see the F-22 as being able to provide them the sweeping look at the terrain that you can’t get [from other types of platforms] because it’s going to be a lot closer,” said Wynne.

Wynne believes the Raptor will be used for other unique purposes. He sees the F-22 in the role of managing wolf packs of unmanned fighters, which could multiply the weapons at the disposal of a single F-22.

“Two F-22s and four high-speed UAVs. The high-speed UAVs, by the way, could actually be modified F-16s … [acting as] weapons carriers for the F-22.” The F-16s could be made more cheaply because they would not need individual radars capable of seeing “deep.”

Operating in the Black

The Air Force’s considerable investment in classified technologies doesn’t undercut its case to modernize its combat aircraft fleet, Wynne said. His remarks also suggest that more than just a new secret bomber is in the works.

“In the world where that [classified] budget lives, there is a very good, solid set of people that are knowledgeable about what we’re doing to minimize the risk and what we’re doing in the world of pushing stealth, … technologies, and … the future.”

He noted the general surprise on Capitol Hill and in aviation circles when the service said it was reasonable to commit to fielding a new bomber by 2018. Given the long development times for most systems, the target date seemed wildly optimistic.

Wynne explained that “we were saying, quite openly, that we are in fact maturing technologies that will allow us to minimize the risk” and have the new bomber ready to go in 2018. The strategy was an effort to “synergize” the secret and open budgets “to make sure that the technologies that we were developing there were, in fact, available.”

He noted that it is taking “a lot of trips for people to go up range” to the Air Force’s remote classified testing area to show that such technologies “are actually coming along and … real.”

Air Force officials have suggested that the service is working on classified, small-scale demonstrators or operational prototypes of extremely stealthy air vehicles, and Wynne seemed to confirm this when asked if the service should be pursuing a sixth generation fighter follow-on to the F-22. He also suggested that hypersonics, long deferred for combat aircraft because the technology is not yet ready, needs to be a consideration in the next generation of aircraft.

“I would say what we need to do now is to take the concepts that we are doing in the [black] world to develop a next generation recce and strike [aircraft] and see if there’s any chance that we can scale it up. Right now … probably, because of the nature of the beast and the nature of the concepts of stealth, multiple mach is probably not an issue.”

He continued, however, “if it’s true that we have some maturity in the stealth curve, … we probably need to go back and examine the speed element. We need to think about multiple mach. … Is it truly controllable

“People tell me, well, just develop a Mach 7 missile; don’t worry about the Mach 7 airplane. … No, you’ve got to do both.”

He said a high-speed reconnaissance aircraft is necessary because of uncertainty about whether satellites will be available when needed.

“You’ve got to allow for failure up there and get somebody in the cockpit.”

Wynne declined to more narrowly characterize the nature of USAF’s portfolio of classified aircraft. However, he suggested that strides are being made in three areas of high interest.

“I can only tell you that … post Vietnam … in the ’80s, when we found ourselves faced with integrated air defenses, … people came up with the concepts of stealth, speed, and precision, to try to minimize the time on target, maximize the survivability, and minimize the duration” of acquiring the target.

“We are still nurturing those three aspects. I don’t think it’s time to stop.”