US Air Forces in Europe, the service’s most active overseas command, has been kept on its toes throughout the 1990s. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, eruption of the Gulf War, collapse of the Soviet Union, ethnic war in Bosnia, and expansion of NATO all taking place on its doorstep, USAFE has, in only seven years, participated in some of the postwar era’s most critical events.
For three years of those years, Gen. Michael E. Ryan played a key role in the European airpower equation. First, as a three-star general, he commanded NATO Southern Air Forces in Operations Deny Flight and Deliberate Force, the latter of which is viewed as the main factor leading to the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the violence in Bosnia. Promoted to general in April 1996, Ryan assumed command of USAFE, with responsibility for US and NATO air forces in Europe’s central region. President Clinton in August nominated Ryan to succeed Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman to be the 17th Chief of Staff of the Air Force.
On the eve of his Senate confirmation hearings, Ryan spoke with Air Force Magazine to discuss his perceptions of how today’s optempo [operations tempo], pilot retention, air expeditionary forces, troop morale, the integration of new technologies, and the addition of new Alliance members are affecting USAFE.
Ryan understands that the operating pace for his European troops-and Air Force-wide–is certainly high, but he claims that gloom-and-doom press reports have not kept pace with reality and that the optempo has settled in at an acceptable level.
“I think the management of the optempo doesn’t get much publicity, and it should,” Ryan said. “The amount of attention that we put in to make sure that we don’t overload any particular unit or any particular individual is something that doesn’t seem to come out in the press at all.”
Sharing the Burden
Ryan maintained that great strides have been made in “sharing the burden” of operations around the Air Force, drawing on Air Force Reserve Command and the Air National Guard to fill in behind active-duty units that have been tapped too long. He recalled a visit to Incirlik AB, Turkey, where, upon disembarking from his airplane, someone put a lei around his neck. It was a member of the Hawaii Air National Guard unit, which was deployed there for combat air patrol operations in northern Iraq. He also cited a deployment of the New Mexico Air Guard to Aviano AB, Italy. Both examples show how USAF is gaining maximum benefit from the forces it has, said Ryan.
“This is a total force effort and we’re trying to spread this commitment we have over all of the Air Force,” he said.
In addition, he claimed, the Air Force has enjoyed much success in meeting the goal of not deploying individuals for more than 120 days in a year, and a push is on to limit any one deployment to 45 days or less to minimize training and personal difficulties created by being away from home base and family for such a long stretch.
Progress is being made even in “specialties”–that is, units with unique capabilities which are typically small in number but in high demand. Examples include the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft and special operations forces, Ryan said.
In addition, USAFE has labored to “reduce the level of our commitments” to ongoing operations in the Middle East and Bosnia in order to eliminate “excessive redundancies” in deployments. By cutting back on deployments that fall in the “nice to have” but not critical category, USAFE has been able to take a bite out of the optempo level.
“We’re trying to … make sure that we aren’t sending these crews on missions that are ‘no-value-added,’ ” Ryan said.
The general doesn’t believe that open-ended American commitments such as current ones in the Balkans and Middle East spell big troubles down the road. Rather, he said, they have largely been incorporated into the routine.
“It’s fairly stable,” he said. “We have downsized those commitments in both of those areas,” and USAF’s Air Expeditionary Force concept is “a way to rapidly reinforce as we need to.”
The Air Expeditionary Force is an on-call package of airpower drawn from numerous units that are on standby to rapidly deploy to a forward area on 48 hours’ notice.
“We tailor the [AEF] with the kinds of capabilities we need,” Ryan said. “For Bosnia, [it’s] fairly obvious: close air support kind of capabilities, precision strike, Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses.” The AEF drawn from USAFE would have “pieces of almost all the wings” in the theater, including aerial refueling.
Ryan feels USAFE has enough manpower and hardware to participate in the AEF concept and that putting one together and deploying it wouldn’t dangerously thin out his forces.
“Quite honestly, for the Bosnia package, that’s our AOR [area of responsibility],” he said. “That’s where we would help SFOR [the UN-NATO stabilization force of peacekeeping troops]. We know what the size of the package is that we think we need, [and] we have sufficient reserves,” he said.
He added, however, “If we had to stay there for a long time, in that configuration, we would then, as soon as we launch this thing, go back and see how to rotate the forces out to keep them fresh.”
Ryan reflected on the long-term US armed presence in Europe and Korea following major wars in those places. “I think that the United States has always had some residual forces left behind after operations [and] that we ought to bring [them] down to the lowest possible level” that the regional commander in chief “feels comfortable with, for the mission he’s given.” He quickly added, though, that “we should never under-resource the mission.”
Ryan said, “We’re pretty good at this residual business,” but that, because of military and political considerations, the US sometimes finds it difficult to disengage from an operation. “It will be a decision at … the national security level, to determine the amount of force that we need to retain,” he said.
Ryan emphasized that optempo is an issue that the Air Force works on constantly and that “we’ve done such a good job of getting that under control, but we continue to get these residual reports that [it] is too high.” He went on, “If you look at it on an individual basis, you may find one or two folks” who are still being overworked, “but as a force, I think we are at the right place and a very reasonable pace. We continue to work it every day.”
Ryan does not believe that high optempo alone is driving the current problem in pilot retention.
“We’ve gone through this before in the Air Force,” he said. What aircrews–pilots, navigators, and enlisted troops together–expect from USAF is “a sense of mission accomplishment” and “fulfillment in the job they do,” said Ryan. “They also expect a wage that … keeps them out of the breadlines.” While he doesn’t think aircrews expect a princely salary, “money … could be a disincentive if they are not paid properly for the sacrifice that we expect of them.”
He also noted that commercial airlines will be hiring “for the next 10 years, as best we can tell,” so USAF has to concentrate on factors other than pay to keep pilots motivated. “We will be in competition … a long time,” Ryan said.
Ryan said he believes that USAF pilots “realize … that we’re doing what we can” to keep optempo at manageable levels, but, “from a pilot retention standpoint, I think that there are a lot of factors, mostly a sense of mission accomplishment,” that keeps the fliers interested and willing to re-up.
He again noted that the picture isn’t totally negative. “We have pilot retention figures saying that we have lots of folks that are staying,” noted Ryan.
What are aircrews really after? Said Ryan: “They want us to … take very, very good care of their families when they are deployed. … Take care of the families, and the members will take care of the mission.”
That’s getting easier, according to Ryan, because the uncertainty of the long drawdown is over, and long-frozen funds are again becoming available to update and improve facilities for Air Force personnel and their families overseas.
“We’ve been able to get started … in Europe on catching up after the drawdown,” he noted. “We had very little funds expended on family housing or dormitories” in the past few years, because it was not certain which facilities, or even which bases, would stay open.
“Congress, I think, has recognized that where we are in Europe is where we’re going to stay and that the [US military] people in Europe deserve to have a lifestyle and quality of life on our bases … commensurate with [that of] the American public that they’ve sworn to defend,” said the general.
Congress, he added, has “funded–to a greater extent than before–our requests for those kinds of … things that were in play over here.” He feels, though, that the task “could be done better with more money.”
Ryan believes that rank-and-file troop morale remains upbeat in USAFE.
“I think the troops are in very good shape. Our … numbers are good [for] first term/second term retention for airmen, and I think we are working very hard on the quality of life aspect for those folks.”
He added that “quality of life, readiness, optempo, all play into each of the individual crews’ calculus [of] whether they’re going to stay with us” when their contracts are up. He believes the troops will see the attention being paid to keep those elements attractive, and “they’ll respond in a positive way to those changes.”
The NATO Allies were greatly relieved when they saw the results of the Quadrennial Defense Review, Ryan said, because its underlying strategy suggests that there will be no fundamental change in the USEuropean security relationship.
“I think they were … heartened by the fact that our force structure, in the QDR, for the United States Air Forces in Europe, was not degraded at all,” Ryan asserted. The report was interpreted by the Europeans as a sign that ” ‘we’re going to stay … at the size we are now,’ ” which Ryan feels was “a wise decision.”
Indeed, Ryan sees the QDR as offering the Allies “a reaffirmation” of the US strategy of remaining forward deployed and engaged, “and I think that gave them some solace.”
Meanwhile, however, “each of those nations is continuing to go through their own internal looks” at the size and capabilities of their forces, and on individual national levels, reductions are being made across the board.
Haves and Have Nots
Some senior Alliance officials, such as German Gen. Klaus Naumann, chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, warn that the US is getting too far ahead of its Allies in airpower technologies such as stealth and precision weapons. Naumann warns that Allied interoperability will suffer in the long run or, worse, NATO will have two tiers of combat aircraft capabilities.
Ryan doesn’t agree with that assessment. “I see it as kind of a spread … of technology” among the Allies, “but not two different levels,” he said. He noted that, even two years ago in Deliberate Force, several participating nations had precision guided weapons to contribute, and most that didn’t have them then “are acquiring them now.”
He added, “All the nations that are here have upgraded their forces while downsizing, … and many of them are committed to procurement of better weapon systems in the future.”
Ryan pointed to the US-led Joint Strike Fighter program as a case in point. A half-dozen NATO Allies have signed up to participate in the JSF program–intended as a replacement for the F-16 in USAF–and as many as eight more may yet join in.
“We’ve always had that spread in NATO,” Ryan noted. “I don’t see it stretching way out” to a point where the NATO air forces won’t be able to work together.
He said that NATO does discuss the relative levels of member technologies, but “we talk about it from the point of how do we integrate, as we change our weapon systems.” He pointed out that such integration was accomplished in the Gulf War and Bosnia.
“We work together all the time, we train together all the time, with the capabilities that we have. Each knows its potential and its strengths. It’s up to whomever we appoint as the air commander in those operations, to use all the assets available as best they can. And NATO does, I think.”
While the JSF develops, NATO partners who fly the F-16 are participating in the Mid Life Update, which gives the airplane precision munition capability and, among other things, improved communications.
Ryan said the problems of integrating new member air forces into NATO have been contemplated for some time, and most have been identified through joint exercises conducted under the Partnership for Peace program.
“The principal challenge” for the NATO air arms and those of prospective new members “is to be able to do the most fundamental thing … and that is to make sure we do air sovereignty and air defense in an integrated way,” Ryan said.
Air sovereignty is “the very first mission area” and the one most prone to trouble without careful coordination, he noted. Secondary considerations will include “how we do air surveillance, … command and control, … radar hookup,” and finally “interoperability decisions” to make the prospective new members’ air branches compatible with current members. Other “challenges” will include distribution of responsibility “in peace support operations, which is part of the mandate.”
To work through the problems, NATO has been engaging the “partner” countries in a variety of exercises designed to identify potential problems in coordination and at the same time build confidence in joint operations.
“It’s the building-block approach,” Ryan said, and it includes joint efforts in “search and rescue, airlift, air defense, [and] the fundamentals of close air support with respect to peace operations.”
The goal is to have the partner nations either familiar with or common in “our systems, our procedures, our tactics and techniques,” so that they could participate in a Bosnia-like operation at need.
Another large problem is money: The prospective new NATO members are largely equipped with antiquated Soviet-style hardware, much of which has suffered from shortages of spare parts and which generally does not meet NATO standards.
“The new nations that are joining NATO … cannot immediately modernize themselves due to economic constraints,” Ryan said. “The equipment they currently have has got to be made in some way compatible.”
Electronically–in terms of aerial surveillance and traffic control–“we think we have the capability to do that, using their old systems, [by] digitizing them,” Ryan said. This is being done under the “regional airspace initiative” which provides an analysis of existing equipment and suggestions on the most expeditious ways to make it compatible with the NATO Air-to-Ground Environment, or NAGE.
“We can help … [with] digitization of the air control,” Ryan said.
He also noted that aircraft are costly and that new member nations may not be able to afford new ones for some time. However, “most of the countries are upgrading that equipment so that it has IFF (identification friend or foe)” and modern communication systems “to the extent that they can.”
More fundamental a necessity than anything else, however, is knowledge of the English language, Ryan said.
“The nations are working very, very hard on that, because we could get our procedures right, and get the electrons going in the right direction, but … air safety [depends] … on integration all the way down to the cockpit level.”
He noted that the problem is more acute than in ground forces, “where you only have to do it down to the battalion commander level. But here we have to go all the way down to the pilot and the crew. So that is an area that those nations are working very hard on. Getting their folks to language schools [and] operational language courses offered here in NATO.” Ryan reported “big progress there.”
Asked if the partner pilots are learning American or British English, Ryan said he didn’t know for sure, but “their program … is probably spelled with an ‘-me’ on the end.”
In Deliberate Force, there were “eight nations actively participating with fighter and reconnaissance aircraft” and doing so with “huge success,” Ryan said. “I think operations … in the future will build on the experiences that we had in Deliberate Force” and that it demonstrated the value of “40 years of working together … and getting it right.”