The Fighting Force Struggles Forward

Nov. 1, 2006

The operational Air Force is starting to get some payoff from its long-delayed and greatly reduced modernization efforts. New aircraft, weapons, and other systems acquired in recent years now are coming into use around the world.

In the past year, the F-22 stealth fighter became operational at Langley AFB, Va., the GPS guided Small Diameter Bomb was fielded in Southwest Asia, and C-17 strategic airlifters were delivered to operational units outside the continental United States, to cite three prominent examples.

Top leaders at the Air Force Association’s 2006 Air & Space Conference in Washington, D.C., said they will continue to push for such new capabilities.

Given USAF’s looming fiscal problems, acquiring new systems won’t be easy. The service plans to shed the equivalent of 40,000 full-time airmen positions and many of its oldest aircraft. Even so, the savings from such moves probably won’t be sufficient, given the scope and magnitude of the service’s modernization needs.

The Air Force has sped up deliveries of the MQ-1 Predator, the most heavily demanded system in US Central Command’s theater of operations. And the changes don’t end there. Also recently accelerated are an unmanned aerial vehicle known as the MQ-9 Reaper (formerly Predator B); the RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance drone; and the near-precision, 250-pound warhead Small Diameter Bomb.

“We’ve changed the sensors about three times on our Predators, and we’ve upgraded the Hellfire warhead” fired by the unmanned aircraft, said Gen. Ronald E. Keys, chief of Air Combat Command. The service is profiting from these course adjustments, sparked by the lessons of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Air Force has changed several features of its sensors to make them more responsive to actual needs, Keys added. They now are better able to get real-time intelligence information to forces on the ground.

Deploying ROVER

These are multicommand solutions. Example: the Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver, better known as ROVER.

ROVER makes possible direct video feeds, from airborne Predators or E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft, which can be seen on equipped laptops used by special operations forces and other ground troops.

“We’ve been able to get ROVER out in mass quantity,” said Gen. Bruce Carlson, head of Air Force Materiel Command, in remarks to conference attendees.

AFMC has a large team dedicated to developing counters to improvised explosive device (IED) technologies. This counter-IED work is “providing options and, in fact, solutions” to the theater, said Carlson. The command has also sped up the acquisition of the Litening and other targeting pods used by fighters for precision attack and nontraditional ISR missions, he said.

While the overall Air Force will be shrinking by about 10 percent to accommodate the coming loss of 40,000 personnel, Air Force Special Operations Command’s unique role in the War on Terror means AFSOC is actually expanding. The Air Force is “increasing the special operations capability in our command,” said Lt. Gen. Michael W. Wooley, commander of AFSOC.

The command will soon establish a new wing at Cannon AFB, N.M., where USAF will duplicate the capabilities of the existing air commando wing at Hurlburt Field, Fla.,Wooley said, “We will have equal capability east and west,” which will allow air commandos at Hurlburt and Cannon to focus on missions specific to different parts of the world.

Wooley described New Mexico’s Melrose Air Force Range, which AFSOC will inherit in the Cannon move, as “probably the best aspect of building the second wing.”

At Melrose, said Wooley, the command will be able to “practice with our gunships, hone the skills there, work with ground teams,” and increase the time spent training with special operations forces based in the western United States. There are “a lot of exciting possibilities” at the Melrose Range, he added.

The Big Ocean

Air Force units in the Pacific are also absorbing new capabilities to deal with the region’s ever-increasing strategic importance. Pacific Air Forces is not radically changing its force structure, noted Gen. Paul V. Hester, PACAF commander, but the command is “starting the modernization program [and] modestly increasing the number and the quality of airplanes and equipment” in-theater.

PACAF’s initial capability growth comes from arrival of the first C-17s to be permanently based outside the continental US. Eight are stationed at Hickam AFB, Hawaii, and another eight will go to Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, over the next year.

Weaponry in the theater is also increasing. PACAF will soon possess three of the Air Force’s seven F-22 squadrons. Two squadrons will bed down at Elmendorf by 2008, and a third will be put in place at Hickam around 2011. Each of those Raptor units will be a Total Force operation, officials said. The Hawaii-based F-22s will be led by the Air National Guard, while those in Alaska will have an Air Force Reserve associate unit.

Hester told reporters that he will try to get Raptors into the Pacific even sooner, through an Air and Space Expeditionary Force rotation. F-22 units out of Langley should be ready for AEF rotations next summer, he noted. “If the Pacific is the right place” for the first operational Raptor deployment, Hester said, Andersen AFB, Guam, would be an excellent staging location. Regular deployments to Guam of other Air Force assets, including heavy bombers, will continue.

While most of these Air Force assets only visit Guam, the RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV will find a permanent home on the US territory in the Western Pacific. Seven Global Hawks will be stationed at Andersen by 2009, where their wide-area intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance capabilities are eagerly awaited.

In fact, Hester said, Australia, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea all have expressed interest in the Global Hawk, although certain US legal restrictions probably will bar sales to the latter two nations.

PACAF has had some early discussions with other Pacific nations about setting up “gas station”-like arrangements for Global Hawk, Hester said. The UAV could land and refuel at these forward locations. Humanitarian relief missions, combat search and rescue training, and ISR operations are mission areas that show potential for expanded international cooperation in the region, he added.

Hester noted that, because there is no multinational treaty organization such as NATO in the Pacific, PACAF is constantly looking for “nonthreatening” ways for “nations to do business together.”

Airpower assets are “providing the stability for our command and also providing the right face to those who would cause harm in the Pacific to peace and stability,” Hester said.

Gen. William T. Hobbins, US Air Forces in Europe commander, said successful USAF peace and stability efforts are often overlooked in his area of responsibility which includes Africa. He cited two examples:

First was the Med Flag 06 operation in Ghana, where airmen from Germany’s Ramstein Air Base and Spangdahlem Air Base deployed to work with Ghanaian doctors. The airmen drove north to “the heart of Muslim territory” and began seeing patients in a remote community. Hobbins called this some of the most rewarding work available to the airmen, as they saw 3,200 patients, fed starving children, gave out 2,400 pairs of eyeglasses, and, in general, “stopped the dying.”

African Badlands

More traditionally military work is being done in the Trans-Sahel area of Africa—the area between the Sahara in the north and the rest of the continent.

“A lot of terrorism routes exist along this line between Northern Africa and Southern Africa,” Hobbins said. USAFE is “engaged there with our C-130s, doing air-drop missions with the special operations forces on a routine basis”—providing presence and “credibility” to the indigenous military forces in the region.

Precise navigation, provided by Air Force Space Command’s GPS system, is critical in this section of the world, noted Gen. Kevin P. Chilton. “There are no landmarks out there,” said the head of Space Command. “You can’t say, ‘Go over that hill,’ because it’s a sand hill—it’ll blow away the next day. You need GPS to find your way around out there and to conduct the operations.”

New GPS-based capabilities are continuously coming on-line. Combat forces now have the Small Diameter Bomb, and mobility forces have recently begun using the Joint Precision Air-Drop System, or JPADS, in Afghanistan. JPADS is like the Join Direct Attack Munition except that the “payload” is cargo. (See “Aerospace World: Now, Air-Dropped Cargo Pallets Steer Themselves,” p. 18.)

Without a precision air-drop system, mobility aircraft come in at an altitude of 1,000 feet to deliver supplies with high accuracy. Until now, many drops would go into valleys in Afghanistan where enemy fighters are encamped in the mountains on each side, explained Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, head of Air Mobility Command. The mobility aircraft “basically are getting shot at from the mountains next door to them.”

McNabb said airlifters were being hit about five times per week, “so we said, ‘How do we get above the threat?'” JPADS, which allows pallets to be delivered from 20,000 feet, was the answer.

Fewer Convoys

With IED attacks against convoys still posing the deadliest problem for US troops in Iraq, mobility forces are also working to keep as many vehicles as possible off the roads. McNabb said Army Gen. John Abizaid, the theater commander, asked AMC and US Transportation Command, “What can you do to help us?”

The answer was, quite a bit. The 64 C-130s in-theater began making deliveries along many of the routes previously serviced by trucks and buses. Larger C-17 and C-5 aircraft began “theater direct delivery,” McNabb said, which is “taking an airplane directly into its final destination,” instead of just to a central airlift hub.

Armored vehicles that previously would have been trucked from the hubs to forward locations now are being airlifted directly to their destinations. Approximately 9,000 passengers per month have been taken off the roads in Iraq because of these airlift substitutes for convoys, McNabb noted. That total does not include military “passengers”—all of whom are now moved around the theater by C-130.

Two C-17 squadrons have been forward deployed to help with these missions. Their crews now stay in-theater for 120 days rather than shuttling back and forth between the United States and the Middle East.

The cost is additional wear and tear on the C-17. Takeoffs, landings, and engine cycles are up dramatically—accumulating at almost three times normal rates. For that reason, McNabb said, Congress’ recent decision to fund 10 new C-17s as wartime replacements is “huge for us.”

The Air Force had requested seven additional C-17s as its top unfunded priority for 2007. The purchase of 10 new airlifters will raise the total inventory to 191.

Mobility acquisition personnel are now ready to turn their attention away from airlifters and toward a new tanker. A draft request for proposal, requesting industry ideas about a new air refueling tanker, was released Sept. 25, during the AFA conference. Officials expect to award a contract for a new tanker in July.

New tankers with “doors, floors, and defensive systems” will allow the Air Force to retire problem-prone KC-135Es and more efficiently transport passengers and cargo pallets. However, it may take decades to fully recapitalize the fleet.

The Air Force clearly will not get everything it needs to fully recapitalize its aircraft fleets. For example, the Air Force has an ongoing need for 381 F-22s, but only 183 are funded.

Three for One

New equipment actually helps the Air Force meet its required manpower reductions, Keys noted. ACC is starting to see increases in maintenance man-hours, in unscheduled maintenance actions, and in the cost of parts for its old aircraft, many of which are older than the pilots who fly them.

“For every Raptor I’m buying, I’m probably going to get rid of at least three F-15s,” he said, which leads to savings. In a head-to-head comparison, an F-22 requires fewer maintainers than does an F-15.

Keys expects similar savings as Global Hawk UAVs begin to replace U-2 spyplanes and as unmanned Predator aircraft take on additional missions. “As you get new equipment, you’re not replacing it on a one-to-one basis, which means you need fewer people,” Keys noted.

Coming reductions will not be easy. Keys said his command will shed roughly 12,600 spaces, or about one-third of the Air Force’s overall reduction of 40,000 full-time-equivalent airmen. “That’s a lot of people, … about 10 percent of my force,” he said.

War expenses create short-term budgetary problems. Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom “are costing me about $200 million a month,” Keys told reporters. “That money’s not in my budget,” so until supplemental appropriations come in to pay for those expenses, the command must “carefully refrain from breaking programs.”

Keys cited the A-10 as an example of modernization trade-offs which the service must make. USAF would like to equip the entire A-10 fleet with precision engagement capabilities, but the money probably isn’t there.

When A-10 pilots today talk to joint tactical air controllers, they sometimes write down their targeting instructions on the A-10’s canopy with a grease pencil. “I would like to be able to bring all of my A-10s into a precision engagement upgrade,” Keys said. “If I can’t do that, some of them are going to be out there writing with a grease pencil on their canopy. That’s just a choice we have to make.”

Grease pencil notations are “not very sophisticated for the greatest air force in the world, but we’re better [at] close air support than anybody in the world.” Keys said. This is because technological shortcomings are overcome through training.

Sensor integration is often “done by the [pilot] that’s flying the airplane,” he said. “That’s why training is so important.”

ACC is “committed to making sure that when we send folks down range in harm’s way, … they’re going to be the best trained, the best equipped, and the best led force that we possibly can send,” Keys asserted.

New Green Flag

To that end, ACC is restoring the Green Flag name with a new focus on Air Force ground-support missions. Green Flag, once USAF’s realistic electronic warfare training exercise, was absorbed into Red Flag. The new Green Flag will build upon the Air Warrior exercises at the Army’s National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, Calif., and at Ft. Polk, La.

Green Flag exercises will hone skills for close air support, urban operations, counterinsurgency, and irregular warfare, Keys said, in close cooperation with ground forces.

“You develop a little bit of that personal recognition” through events like Green Flag, he said, so that when it comes time to conduct operations in a war zone, “you know those guys, you’ve talked to them, and you know they know what you’re doing.”

The air-ground team needs realistic training for complex operations featuring terminal attack or urban close air support, Keys said. “That requires a lot of high-end practice,” he said.

The training payoff is obvious in the war zone. Lt. Gen. John A. Bradley, chief of Air Force Reserve Command, noted that A-10 operations were totally integrated in Afghanistan. That was because active duty and Reserve airmen got together and worked out procedures before they deployed to Bagram Air Base.

Air National Guard Settles in After a Tumultuous Year

“I don’t have a good answer” to why Air National Guard flying units were hit so hard in the latest Base Realignment and Closure round, said Lt. Gen. Craig R. McKinley, the new Air National Guard chief, at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference.

The loss of flying units and some base closures will test the Guard’s “citizen first” philosophy. Many Guardsmen may decide to leave military service rather than move or retrain for new systems.

McKinley said that when an Illinois Air Guard unit relocated from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to Scott Air Force Base, nearly 300 miles away, it lost about half its personnel.

A similar loss occurred when a Georgia ANG unit moved from Dobbins Air Reserve Base to Robins Air Force Base, even though the distance involved was much less.

The Air Guard will try to hold onto its personnel, and in some cases new missions will keep airmen in place. McKinley noted that it is likely that the Netherlands Air Force will come to Springfield-Beckley Arpt., Ohio, to set up an F-16 foreign military sales flying training unit. This would protect the 178th Fighter Wing’s flying mission, which otherwise will go away when its existing F-16s are redistributed, per BRAC commission orders.

For the time being, the Air Guard is doing well in both recruiting and retention. CMSgt. Richard Smith, command chief for the Air National Guard, said another Guard unit in Mansfield, Ohio, that is slated to lose its aircraft just had a record recruiting year and is currently manned at 107 percent authorized levels. “The emphasis is on service, not what airplane they fly,” Smith said of the Guardsmen.

McKinley added that the Air Guard will not be losing personnel as part of the Air Force’s coming reduction of 40,000 airmen. This concession came at a price, however.

To offset the cost of the airmen, the Air Guard agreed to slash its spending by $1.8 billion, through reductions in flying hour, maintenance, and military construction accounts.

The active duty A-10 wing commander from Spangdahlem and the Reserve A-10 wing commander from Whiteman AFB, Mo., “got together and decided how they wanted to do this,” Bradley explained. “Spangdahlem provided a squadron commander and I provided an ops group commander there, and we sort of split the airplanes.”

Before heading to Afghanistan, “Spangdahlem sent some folks over to Whiteman to get some training on the Litening AT targeting pod.” The result, Bradley said, was that the active and Reserve airmen were “totally integrated when they went to Bagram.” Whiteman Reservists were working on Spangdahlem jets and vice versa, and individual combat flights were integrated.

All of this took place at a time when the expeditionary A-10 squadron was regularly performing close air support and “dropping more bombs than they’ve dropped in Afghanistan since [A-10s] went there in October 2001,” Bradley noted.

Total Force operations are not just for combat zones, he added. “We are going to continue to do more and more of these Total Force integration efforts,” such as for the F-22 basing in Alaska.