A Force in Perpetual Motion

Nov. 1, 2000

Gen. Michael E. Ryan

As Gen. Michael E. Ryan sees it, the people of the US Air Force have much in common with pro golfer Tiger Woods. They are busy, they are winners, and they make that winning look easy.

“But it’s not easy, not by a long shot,” USAF’s Chief of Staff told attendees at AFA’s National Convention. “That’s what professionals do.”

Where Woods has US, British, and Canadian Open crowns, USAF has to win each day in what Ryan calls the “World Open.”

In Southwest Asia, Air Force professionals are fired on virtually every day as they patrol no-fly zones over Iraq. Many are back for their fourth or fifth rotation, living in austere conditions.

More than 2,000 US airmen continue to support air operations in the Balkans, where they have flown more than 31,000 sorties over the last two years.

In Central America, US Air Force airfield experts, air traffic controllers, and security forces support counterdrug and other operations of Joint Task Force–Bravo at Soto Cano AB in Honduras.

In the US, hundreds of active and reserve Air Force personnel helped dispense nearly two million gallons of fire retardant to fight this year’s western forest fires. Air Force people conducted numerous launches to support space missions. Air Force members continue to train thousands of new personnel, as well as units from air forces around the world.

Despite these intensely demanding missions, the Air Force is on the verge of setting a new record low for numbers of aircraft accidents. The service is on track for its best year ever in ground safety, as well.

“These records are all the more impressive when you consider the conditions under which they are performed and the scope of our worldwide operations,” Ryan told AFA.

The scope of Air Force operations also makes the service’s readiness challenges easier to understand.

Ryan said he and the rest of the Air Force leadership have worked for three years to reverse declining readiness trends. With the help of the Administration and Congress they have obtained billions of new dollars for parts and maintenance.

“That is having an effect as we see the empty bins refilling and cannibalization rates level off,” said Ryan. “But we have not turned readiness around. At best, we’ve leveled off.”

Furthermore, those efforts have come somewhat at the expense of modernization programs. And recapitalization of the force, not readiness, is the service’s real long-term challenge, said Ryan.

Recruitment has been another troubling area. Last year, the Air Force missed its recruiting goal by 1,700 personnel.

“This year I’m happy to report we will make our overall recruiting goal,” said Ryan. “We are doing it while maintaining our high standards.”

Retention, on the other hand, still has some way to go. Today, USAF has only three-fourths of the mid-level aircraft mechanics it needs. The service remains more than 1,000 pilots short of its requirement. Keeping computer and information professionals on board remains a challenge.

One bright spot here is a new program aimed at luring former Air Force members back to active duty.

“We have nearly 800 takers so far,” said Ryan.

And the Expeditionary Aerospace Force schedule, with its predictability, has proved another retention booster.

Everyone in the service—active, Guard, Reserve, and civilian—has helped turn the EAF into a reality during the last year, said Ryan. The Air Reserve Components now make up more than 20 percent of Aerospace Expeditionary Force packages. They provide 10 percent of expeditionary combat support requirements.

Service leaders continue to hone the EAF effort to make it more efficient. Some 2,600 billets have been added to wings to ease the burden on bases. More will be added next year. Air Mobility Command has been able to reduce the number of airlift sorties required to deploy forces by 22 percent.

“We will iron out the wrinkles and round out the size and capability of our 10 AEFs,” said Ryan. “But if there’s one thing I know for certain it’s that Air Force people will make it work, will stand proud of their accomplishments, and from the outside, make it look easy.”

Ryan himself will be one of the people working hardest to make the AEFs successful. Proposed changes in AEF structure or operation land on the Chief’s desk, not that of a subordinate, said another speaker at the AFA convention.

Lt. Gen. Robert H. Foglesong

“If we want to move one squadron out of one bucket and put it into another bucket because we think we have a capabilities issue or an operational issue, … that goes all the way to the big guy,” said Lt. Gen. Robert H. Foglesong, the deputy chief of staff for air and space operations.

Not that Foglesong foresees a string of such requests. He said the AEFs are working well, to the point where worldwide Commanders in Chief do not complain about the capabilities provided.

“That may be the best measure of success,” said Foglesong.

Everywhere you look, aerospace power has become essential to the projection of force, Foglesong told AFA attendees. And it is the US Air Force that has become the all-purpose air force of the world.

It is the only one with breadth and depth of capabilities necessary for many of the world’s aerospace tasks.

In recent years Foglesong has flown through or visited dozens of countries and met hundreds of offi-cers from other air forces. To them, the US is the equivalent of basketball great Michael Jordan. Everybody wants to be like the US.

“They all want to train like us, they all want to sound like us, they all want to use our tactics,” said Foglesong.

Fame is fleeting. The US Air Force will have to continue to strive for constant improvement if it is to remain the first among unequals.

For one thing, the importance of space operations must be driven home throughout the service. US dependence on space today is overwhelming, according to Foglesong.

For another, the US military cannot forget that the tanker fleet is crucial to almost everything it wants to do.

“We never want to get to the point where we undersell the importance of the air bridge,” said Foglesong.

The ability to reach out and strike someone, of course, remains crucial, but modernization, manpower, readiness, and budget must be brought in line with the demands placed on today’s Air Force.

Brig. Gen. David A. Deptula

The upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review might be one opportunity to plan such improvement.

Congress has been specific about what it wants the Air Force to address in the QDR planning exercise, the service’s director of the effort told AFA.

Legislators have handed Air Force leaders 13 questions, which range from how today’s strategy and force structure interact to what the breakthrough technologies of the next 20 years might be and how they could affect the strategy the US should pursue and the force structure it might develop.

The QDR will kick off with the inauguration of the next President, who has 150 days to establish his own national security strategy.

“One thing I might like to point out is the importance of making this a strategy-driven exercise as opposed to a budget exercise,” said Brig. Gen. David A. Deptula, director, Air Force Quadrennial Defense Review.

The Air Force would like to view the QDR as akin to an operational readiness inspection, Deptula told AFA. It is something that is forced upon the service, yet it is also an opportunity for the Air Force to show its capabilities.

“The bottom line is, we want to do the right thing for the nation,” said Deptula.

One thing the Air Force wants to do with the review is to make sure the nation’s leaders are aware that what Deptula referred to as “our legacy warfighting constructs” have changed. Airpower, he said, can do things never imagined even a decade ago, such as operating with impunity in exclusion zones.

This means that as planners work through the resource allocation process, they should not automatically default to operational concepts of the past.

“You will see us articulate the fact that the US Air Force is leading what has become known as the Revolution in Military Affairs,” said Dep-tula.

Service leaders hope the QDR leads national command authorities to a real understanding of the need to recapitalize the air-breathing combat force.

“I don’t think there is … much realization of the degree of the problem that exists out there,” said Dep-tula.

During one of his last sorties as Operation Northern Watch commander, a post he filled from April 1998 to October 1999, Deptula happened to fly an F-15C that he had also flown when it was new and he was a captain, 20 years ago.

When he first saw it, the aircraft had 20 hours on it. Today, it has more than 5,500.

Nosing up to a tanker, Deptula was suddenly facing a cockpit panel flashing with warning lights—all kinds of warning lights. Back at the base, he discovered that 20-year-old insulation on a wiring bundle had just crumbled away, and the wires leading to the lights had fused together.

So recapitalization “is not just about modernizing the fleet,” said Deptula. “It’s about the impact of what happens when the fleet ages.”

The average age of the tanker fleet is 38 years. Some B-52s are planned to fly until they are 75 years old.

Base infrastructure is in even worse shape. Right now, the Air Force has a 250-year infrastructure recapitalization schedule. Industry standard is 50 years.

Unless more money is directed into recapitalization of the force, the service is going to fall off a cliff, said the Air Force QDR director.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to make the case so we can reprioritize our current baseline budgets to put the resources into the POM [Program Objective Memorandum],” said Dep-tula. “Even if decisions are made not to fully budget this vision force, we’ll have a construct established.”

The Air Force is not the only service that sees the advantage in aerospace power. To varying degrees the Army, Navy, and Marines are also investing in aerospace capabilities—investments that the Air Force agrees with.

“The bottom line is you hear lots and lots of folks talk about the asymmetric advantage that our adversaries are going to use against us. Well, guess what, folks? America has got an asymmetric advantage, too. It’s our aerospace power,” said Deptula.

Gen. Richard B. Myers

In the old days, the aerospace capabilities of the different services were often separate stovepipes. But ahead is an era of fully integrated interoperable joint warfighting systems and operations, Gen. Richard B. Myers, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Air Force Association convention.

“The need to adapt certain functions to a new reality of a constantly changing defense environment remains pressing for all of us,” said Myers.

The good news is that the US military is structurally evolving to make such cooperation easier. At the purple-suit level of joint service leaders, the Joint Requirements Oversight Council now seeks to more efficiently use service resources by putting together the right capabilities for warfighting Commanders in Chief. At the blue-suit level, AEFs provide forces to CINCs and theater commanders who count on them as key parts of their joint warfighting teams.

“Evolving structures go hand in hand with changing functions,” said Myers. “I applaud the Air Force for setting the right course.”

Peter Grier, a Washington editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “The Pharmacy Benefit,” appeared in the September 2000 issue.