The Air Force Sharpens Its Edge

Nov. 1, 2005

Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the Air Force’s new Chief of Staff, delivered a blunt and basic message to all USAF airmen and anyone who might get in their way. “Let me be clear,” he declared. “We cannot now, nor ever, lose sight of the fact that the mission of the United States Air Force is to fly and fight.”

Moseley, speaking at the Air Force Association’s 2005 Air & Space Conference in Washington, D.C., used his first major speech as Chief to declare a no-frills approach to airpower. The work of the Air Force includes flying fighters and unmanned air vehicles over Baghdad, satellites in orbit, an A-10 into Afghanistan, a command and control aircraft over US territory, or an HH-60 helicopter over storm-ravaged Biloxi, Miss.

In short, said Moseley, “This is what we do.”

The top priority must be maintaining focus on the dangers and demands of the Global War on Terrorism, Moseley went on in his Sept. 14 address. All of the missions that airmen have flown in recent years have allowed the Air Force to fine-tune its expeditionary processes. Today, “we have the most combat-experienced Air Force in our history,” said Moseley.

The new Chief pointed out that the Air Force has been fighting the war on terror “for 1,438 days straight.” He worried that, with the global terror campaign already more than four years old, attention might begin to wander. A lackadaisical attitude could prove to be deadly.

Taking up the theme was Acting Air Force Secretary Pete Geren. There is a widespread perception, said Geren, that the war in Iraq is a land-force affair, and this is not helpful. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the application of US airpower has been so effective that it is largely unseen. Most observers erroneously view the wars as Army and Marine Corps operations.

“Our support for the global war on terror has been so dependable and successful,” Geren said, “that to the general public it is almost invisible.” USAF continues to play a “vital role,” he noted.

The Air Force’s continuing commitment to prosecuting the war on terrorists does not end in Iraq and Afghanistan but extends around the globe. That should come as no surprise to USAF airmen.

Fifteen Years of War

While the struggle with al Qaeda may have begun on Sept. 11, 2001, the Air Force itself has been in nonstop combat for the last 15 years, beginning with Desert Shield, then the never-ending no-fly zone enforcement over Iraq, with an air war in the Balkans mixed in for good measure. Today, Operations Noble Eagle, Iraqi Freedom, and Enduring Freedom also are added to the equation.

The Air Force is contending with a broad range of other difficulties, including natural disasters and internal problems. Yet such challenges are not new, and the Air Force will come through, said Moseley. Though airmen “live in difficult times and face difficult challenges,” Moseley said, they have a long list of airpower heroes they can look to for inspiration.

Given the demands of the war in Southwest Asia, worldwide counterterrorism operations, response to hurricanes and tsunamis, and enduring missions such as homeland air defense, the Air Force has been undeniably busy. However, officials said at the Sept. 12-14 conference that they are committed to meeting the challenges and building an Air Force that meets US needs for the future.

American airpower pioneers since World War I “overcame countless obstacles and some skeptics to achieve their vision,” Moseley said. In September 1918, Col. Billy Mitchell planned an air campaign that “looks familiar even today,” the Chief said.

Mitchell built a series of expeditionary airfields, “stocked them with fuel and munitions,” and sent US fighters “deep into German airspace to chiefly attack the German Air Force.” This, Moseley said, cleared the way for “bombardment squadrons to directly attack German headquarters, troop concentrations, staging areas, transportation infrastructure, and airfields.”

Eighty-seven years later, the Air Force must “continue to look for better ways to operationally exploit the air and space domain,” Moseley said. Efficiency is needed, whether it’s looking for ways to build and operate 50 expeditionary airfields in Southwest Asia or provide keystone capabilities such as mobility, intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance, and strike.

Overcoming current problems may take an intensity of effort reminiscent of that expended by airpower’s great pioneers—Mitchell, Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, and Bernard A. Schriever, to name a few. Each one of these pioneers, said the new Air Force Chief, has “given us a proud heritage, and they have shown us an unlimited horizon.”

Evolving Tactics

The duration of the war means that combat tactics continue to evolve—as both the US and its enemies adapt. Insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan keep changing their tactics to try and stay one step ahead of US forces. US forces adapt, too, as the case of targeting pods makes clear. The Litening II targeting pods carried by many Air National Guard F-16s were not designed to be surveillance tools. Yet, the same sensor used to aim weapons can track insurgents as they attempt to evade ground forces, and that is exactly how some Guard pilots have been using them.

In one case, said Geren, tracking by a Litening II helped an Army patrol nab four wanted men hidden in deep reeds. The targeting pods and their laser designators tracked and “painted” the insurgents. The targeting is “invisible to the insurgents, [but] clear as day” to soldiers equipped with night vision goggles, said Geren.

He added, “Without the Air Force’s help, it would have taken a battalion to hunt them down. Instead, it took two soldiers and two airmen—one battlefield airman and one fighter pilot equipped with the latest technology.”

In another case of technology being put to new use, an Air Force E-8 Joint STARS aircraft (designed to track and target large armored formations) followed a single vehicle as it left a residence, drove to an oil pipeline, then drove off. The pipeline was then rocked by an explosion. Armed with that surveillance information, Iraqi and US security forces swooped in—within hours—to a remote farmhouse. They then “arrested an insurgent who is still wondering how we knew,” said Geren.

Air Force adaptability also has been a key factor in keeping supplies moving, in the face of continued insurgent activity. As bomb attacks on coalition truck convoys in Iraq increased, the Air Force ramped up its C-130 and C-17 sorties into isolated compounds to take trucks off the roads and reduce ground force vulnerability.

In addition, more than 1,000 airmen have been trained to provide convoy support. Overall, 2,500 airmen deployed to US Central Command’s area of responsibility are filling Army slots, working at everything from intelligence, to civil engineering, to base operating support.

“Each of those airmen frees up a soldier to fill Army-specific billets,” said Geren. Both the Acting Secretary and new Chief said the Air Force is currently fighting three battles, though the exact way they defined the campaigns differed.

Both top officials called attention to the global war on terror and the need to “continue our culture of excellence,” in Moseley’s words. He added that USAF “must recapitalize and modernize almost everything in our inventory.”

Enduring Missions

Geren, meanwhile, highlighted the perpetual and enduring missions—home­land air defense and the recent battles with Mother Nature. Extreme weather over the past year has wreaked havoc from Indonesia to the US Gulf Coast, and the Air Force has responded in force.

When a tsunami overwhelmed Southeast Asian nations at the beginning of the year, Air Force aircraft were a key cog in the overall US response. Over a span of six weeks, USAF pilots flew 1,300 sorties, brought in 8,000 rescue workers, and delivered 18 million pounds of desperately needed supplies to Thailand, Indonesia, and other hard-hit nations.

When Hurricane Katrina swamped Louisiana and Mississippi this August and September, all components of the service—active duty, Guard, and Reserve—raced to respond. Air Force Special Operations Command teams were heavily involved, called in for their search and rescue expertise. Pave Hawk HH-60 helicopters swung into action, even as their crews were being evacuated from Hurlburt Field, Fla., said Lt. Gen. Michael W. Wooley, AFSOC commander.

The Air Force, said Wooley, “took every flyable helicopter” belonging to the active duty, Guard, and Reserve, and deployed them to Jackson, Miss. Thirty-five combat search and rescue helicopters pulled survivors from flooded New Orleans immediately following the disaster. They were later joined by helicopters from as far away as the Arizona desert and Wyoming’s missile fields.

The rescue helicopters were joined by HC-130 and MC-130P refueling tankers, Wooley said.

The rapid response helicopters and on-call refueling capability allowed Air Force rescue teams to perform extensive searches for those trapped by New Orleans’ floodwaters. The very first day, three Air Force Reserve Command HH-60 helicopters “flew 17 hours each,” noted Lt. Gen. John A. Bradley, AFRC chief.

“Bottom line,” said Wooley, “about 5,500 folks” were plucked off rooftops, dragged into Zodiac boats, or otherwise brought to safety.

Contingency response teams also reopened New Orleans Airport while Air Force medical personnel set up field hospitals along the Gulf Coast.

AFRC had another concern, however: An A-10 fighter wing is based in New Orleans. As Katrina approached, the wing relocated to nearby Barksdale AFB, La., but Bradley reported that as of mid-September he was “very concerned about it, because we’ve only found about 65 percent of our people from that wing.”

Many of these airmen could be dealing with other concerns. “Jobs are gone, homes are gone, and we don’t know if our people are gone or not,” Bradley said. Fortunately, there were no casualties among those members of the wing who had been located.

The total Air Force response to Hurricane Katrina included the participation of at least 8,000 airmen. Overall, these airmen evacuated more than 27,000 citizens.

Air Guardsmen, who initially served as first responders, went on to create an air bridge used for bringing in supplies and taking out evacuees.

The first Air National Guard aircraft to arrive in the hurricane zone was a C-130 from the 137th Airlift Wing, based in Oklahoma City. The Hercules evacuated patients from the New Orleans Veterans Hospital as the Gulf disaster was unfolding.

During the next critical days, the Air National Guard flew more than 300 sorties a day, said Lt. Gen. Daniel James III, ANG director. Guard forces formed the backbone of the mobility response: On Sept. 3, for instance, Air Mobility Command flew fewer than a dozen sorties while the Air National Guard flew 153.

The Lion’s Share

“When the story is told, it will be told as a Total Force story, and it should be,” James declared to the AFA audience. “However, if you break the numbers out, you’ll see that the bulk of the airlift that was flown was in fact flown by the Air National Guard.”

Added Geren, “These are our finest, … using skills they learned for the battlefield to help their fellow Americans at home.”

Operations today exemplify the strength of the Air Force’s Total Force. Both the short-term hurricane response and the long-term Global War on Terrorism rely on USAF’s Guard and Reserve airmen and equipment.

As of August, Air National Guard aircraft had flown almost 200,000 sorties in support of antiterrorism efforts. Those sorties comprise 83 percent of all fighter sorties flown for Operation Noble Eagle, the campaign to enforce US air sovereignty. ANG is also providing 25 percent of the tanker sorties and 23 percent of the airlift sorties. Guard fighters provide 70 percent of the fighter sorties over Iraq.

The Air Guard has been flying at an increasing rate since 1991, said James. The percentage of Guard aircraft operating as part of the Total Force has more than tripled.

“We’re currently providing over 35 percent of operational aircraft in support of current contingencies,” said James.

As it has with the active force, increased tempo has put heavy stress on Guard and Reserve families. Retention rates remain good, but recruitment is a challenge. For 2005, the Guard will fall about 400 people short of its recruiting goal, after missing its goal in 2004 by 200 people.

One solution to this problem may be to increase the number of Guard recruiters. By way of comparison, the Army National Guard is three times larger than the Air Guard. Yet the Army Guard has 10 times as many recruiters—4,000, compared to the Air Guard’s 400 recruiters.

The ANG will have to boost its recruitment budget and increase its recruiter force to meet the challenges of recruiting ahead, said James, who added that he has asked Congress to “add an additional 100 authorizations for our recruiters.”

Flexibility Needed

More flexibility in deployment schedules might help as well. Increasing the duration of an Air and Space Expeditionary Force (AEF) rotation from 90 to 120 days has had a disproportionate impact on Guard pilots. Many are airline pilots, and after 60 to 90 days away, the airlines must retrain them, at considerable expense.

“So it’s very important that we’re allowed to do change outs within our rotation period after 60 to 90 days so that we can maintain our presence in the AEF but yet not cost our employers a great price,” said James.

Reservists are also running into schedule problems overseas, Bradley observed. “I don’t have as many people who can go for 120 days,” he said—but four-month assignments are increasingly becoming a requirement on deployments.

It is easy to get a pilot to volunteer to deploy to Southwest Asia and fly F-16 or A-10 combat missions for 40 days, he said. “They like going where the action is.”

The problem is that inflexible schedules have “crept over” into other areas of responsibility, he continued. AFRC, for example, has been told by US European Command that “we can’t send somebody for less than 120 days” to Moron AB, Spain. “This one doesn’t make sense to me,” Bradley said. “That’s not a combat zone.”

The Guard and Reserve leaders, looking ahead, said that those components need to move into new and emerging missions such as space and cyber-warfare because its fighters and other types of aircraft are old and will fade out. Plans call for the reserve components to have approximately one-third fewer manned aircraft in the future.

“We have embarked on a very aggressive program with the Air Force to identify and to start a transformation into these new emerging missions,” said James. This should prevent the Guard from falling into the “trap” of focusing “so strongly on the Global War on Terrorism that we don’t recapitalize and acquire the right capabilities” needed to counter threats 20 years out, he said.

Moseley agreed with this view. “Our future Total Force must be … adaptable to this afternoon’s fight—but also tomorrow’s fight,” the Chief said.

The military space arena is one area where the Air Force clearly is looking at tomorrow’s fight. In fact, Gen. Lance W. Lord, commander of Air Force Space Command, described space operations as being at the “end of the beginning.” By that, he means that military space is “at a similar point to where we were in aircraft at the dawn of the jet age.”

Space has already transformed the modern battlefield. Overhead imagery, advanced communications, remotely piloted aircraft, and satellite guided weapons have revolutionized combat, making it less deadly for both friendly forces and noncombatants. American forces deployed around the world can work together on a single real-time mission, such as tracking a suspected insurgent vehicle in a remote area.

Complacency in Space

Yet this is no time to sit back and admire the view, Lord and other space leaders remarked. They expressed concern that complacency could set in. “I also see a bit of a loss of excitement about space,” said Lt. Gen. Michael A. Hamel, commander of AFSPC’s Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles AFB, Calif.

Officials say it is not a matter of if, but when, US superiority in space is challenged. China has had 45 successful space launches, noted Lord, and that huge nation is only one of America’s potential competitors.

In addition, the Air Force still needs to take better advantage of technical advances. Payloads still must be matched up with rockets two years before launch—an eternity in today’s fast-paced high-tech world.

“Complacency or lack of imagination in space is something we simply cannot afford,” said Lord.

What’s needed is a new generation of space pioneers. “Exploration has always been a part of our DNA in this country,” said Hamel. Pioneers need vision, extraordinary technical capability, and a sense of mission and urgency, said space officials.

Space is a medium that is likely to remain firmly embedded in the traditional Air Force. Lord said he did not think the US was anywhere close to developing a separate national space force, nor is an independent space corps necessary.

Such a force wouldn’t increase efficiency, since “we’d still have to integrate the output” with the Air Force, noted Lord.

In the future, efficiency will be critical. The Air Force has an internal war to fight, said Geren. It is the war to pull together and hone to a sharp edge the most capable air and space force the world has ever seen. This includes the push to improve procurement processes and Moseley’s concern about recapitalizing the Air Force’s increasingly elderly aircraft fleet.

To keep personnel ready and effective in war, the Air Force will expand its training exercises. Major force exercises such as Red Flag, Cope Thunder, Air Warrior, Green Flag, and Eagle Flag will all involve additional joint forces. These training events also will become more dynamic and complex, Moseley said. This accomplishes two things.

First, it gives airmen the opportunity to innovate. “Why not force that on ourselves when lives aren’t actually at stake?” Moseley asked. The Air Force is looking at a “complete rebuild of the [Red Flag] aggressor program,” he said. “We owe it to this Air Force and these airmen to develop these skills, to capture these lessons learned, and to be much more effective.”

Second, “this recommitment to composite force training will allow us to eke out every last ounce of capability [that is] left in our legacy platforms,” said Moseley. The Air Force does not know when many of its legacy systems—in particular its aerial refueling tankers—will be replaced, so airmen must “maximize everything that we have.”

Previous modernization efforts have been undermined by missteps. “Shortcomings in the way we define and execute our acquisition programs,” said Geren, “have left us more determined than ever to reform our acquisition processes.” This was made even more urgent by the “shameful actions” of a former USAF acquisition official, Darleen A. Druyun, who was prosecuted and jailed for improper dealings with an official of Boeing.

The need is obvious. Decades ago, the Air Force “took the F-15 from first operational requirements to initial operational capability in just seven years,” said Geren. “Today we project that the F/A-22 will take 14 years to make the same trip.”

The acquisition slowdown is partly responsible for the service’s slow pace of recapitalization. “We are operating the oldest fleet of aircraft in our history,” said Moseley. “We’ve gone from an average age of 8.5 years when I put on a uniform at Texas A&M in 1967-68 to an average of 23.5 years today, and it’s getting older.”

“All too often the Air Force has suffered from development costs and schedule overruns which have in turn led to fielding delays, lower production quantities, and even reduced capability,” said Geren.

The acquisition system problems are widespread. Fixing them requires an attack on the root causes, he said. Poor program execution, unstable requirements, inadequate system engineering, and unpredictable funding must all be addressed.

“By getting a handle on each of these challenges and improving discipline throughout the process, we will restore stability and credibility to our acquisitions,” said Geren.

“This force must be affordable,” Moseley observed.

Airmen Need “Expeditionary Mind-Set,” Right From the Start

The Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force wants the American people to know a remarkable statistic. Today, said CMSAF Gerald R. Murray, 64 percent of the force is engaged in operations to project US airpower.

Given that a certain number of airmen are in training and others are in transit from one assignment to another, not much of the force is on the sidelines these days. “It’s truly a historic time that we serve in,” observed Murray.

In this situation, he said, it is vital that USAF’s senior leaders communicate with their airmen. Murray himself got a chance to do just that at the Air Force Association’s 2005 Air & Space Conference, as he moderated a panel of command chiefs that fielded questions from the audience and engaged in frank discussion about issues affecting the enlisted force.

“We sit behind closed doors a lot, and sometimes we agree to disagree on things, and we work a lot of hard issues,” said CMSgt. Ronald G. Kriete of Air Force Space Command, referring to the command chief master sergeants of the Air Force’s nine major commands and the Air National Guard, “but I guarantee you, one thing that we do not disagree on is taking care of our most precious asset, and that’s our airmen.”

Training Is Big

Training is a big issue for the enlisted force, if the questions are any guide. With so many airmen rotating through Iraq and Afghanistan, some may be thrust into jobs they did not envision when they enlisted. Example: manning a machine gun to protect a convoy of trucks traveling through bad-guy territory in Iraq.

Air Combat Command has an Expeditionary Combat Airman’s Course that teaches basic lifesaving skills before deployment, noted CMSgt. David W. Popp, the command chief of Air Combat Command. In addition, the command is running courses in convoy operations at bases. ACC personnel have traveled to Southwest Asia in an attempt to ensure that this training at home matches up with real-world operations.

The Air National Guard is supplementing majcom training with its own combat skill and survival training, said ANG CMSgt. Richard Smith. It is also looking at supplemental training for Guard personnel. “It’s very important that we train our airmen properly before we … deploy them,” said Smith.

Kriete said basic training includes a Warrior Week that introduces recruits to the basics of ground combat and promotes a warrior ethos. Now the service is looking at how that approach might be expanded.

“Maybe it’s time now that we take a hard look and enter the expeditionary mind-set right from the day they put that uniform on until the day they leave our Air Force,” said Kriete.

Questioners also wondered whether fitness scores are going to become a factor in determining promotions. The short answer is “maybe,” though nothing is yet set in stone.

Ten to 15 years ago, commanders were not that concerned about the physical fitness of the force, said some of the command chiefs, but the increase in deployments has changed that, as the Air Force wants to ensure that its personnel are ready to meet the physical demands of service in austere locations around the world.

Differences in fitness scores at the top end of the scale are unlikely to make a corresponding difference in an individual’s chances for advancement, said Murray, but low scores may matter.

“It’s a readiness issue for us,” said Murray. “We’re not going to back away from that.”

Professional Education

Asked whether the Air Force intends to start some type of professional military education for newly promoted chief master sergeants, the chiefs responded in the affirmative.

“There is a new Chief Leadership Course, … an eight-day course that’s held at the Senior [NCO] Academy on Gunter [Annex] in Alabama,” said CMSgt. Jackson A. Winsett of Air Force Reserve Command.

The chiefs noted that there are a lot of questions out in the field about uniform standards, ranging from the proper use of headphones while working out to the length of the physical training shorts.

An October uniform board should answer many of these questions, said the chiefs.

“Most things about the wear of the uniform can fall into the common sense category, and master sergeants can make the decision on it,” said Murray.

The chiefs as a group declared they had never in their careers seen a force of higher quality. They said that, in their travels, they had seen firsthand that in all current Air Force missions, from hurricane response to the war on terrorism, airmen are well-trained and doing the job.

“I’ve never been more proud to be called an airman,” said CMSgt. Rodney J. McKinley of Pacific Air Forces.

Because of ICBM upgrades and retirements, Air Force Space Command is experiencing its highest operations tempo ever. The Air National Guard has deployed more than 5,000 airmen to the Gulf Coast to support relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Air Force Reserve Command has deployed more than 3,000 personnel in support of the war on terrorism. Many are volunteers.

The Air Force is taking care of business with fewer enlisted troops than it had last year. “We’re still doing the same amount of work, maybe even more, but we’re doing it in an outstanding manner,” said McKinley.

—Peter Grier