World Gathering of Air Chiefs

Nov. 1, 2007

More than 80 top leaders from air forces around the world attended the Global Air Chiefs Conference, held in conjunction with the Air Force Association’s 2007 Air & Space Conference on Sept. 24-26 in Washington, D.C.

The meeting gave the air chiefs a chance to strengthen ties with the US Air Force—and among themselves—while discussing such mutual concerns as training, resources, and communications interoperability.

“We aimed this conference at establishing and reinforcing air force-to-air force relationships, increasing our understanding of the operational dynamics faced by airmen around the globe, and working toward interoperable solutions for our common challenges,” said USAF Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley. “I’m confident we achieved those objectives.”

Retired Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, led off the public portion of the conference by addressing air forces’ lack of influence in shaping defense policy.

“Why is it that airmen do not have a voice in the national security debate equivalent to the impact of airpower on the battlefield?” Ralston asked.

At the national level, airmen are too often simply viewed as technicians, said Ralston. Land- and sea-power advocates have more authority because of their warrior image.

Ralston urged the assembled air chiefs to push majors and lieutenant colonels to take on broader command responsibilities.

Air Vice Marshal Julius O. Boateng, air chief for Ghana, then talked about airpower in Western Africa and the development of partnerships with other nations.

Most of the countries in his region have few resources to spend on air capabilities, said Boateng. In addition, West Africa faces a daunting array of security challenges, including porous borders, social and political unrest, and armed conflict.

“The impact of these challenges is far-reaching” and negatively affects development, said Boateng. The weaknesses of the regional air forces include marginal offensive capability, limited airlift, and a lack of skilled manpower, he said.

The way forward includes strengthening partnerships now, rather than in the future, said Boateng, who also called for additional US foreign military sales to African nations.

The commander of the United Arab Emirates Air Force, Maj. Gen. Staff Pilot Mohammed bin Swaidan Al Qamzi picked up on the theme of partnerships. “We have to understand,” he noted, “that interoperability is political” before it is technical.

One prerequisite is mutual willingness on the part of the national leaders, said the UAE air chief. A second is a deliberate program to build trust and confidence between national partners. A third is continuing doctrinal debate between nations.

Al Qamzi also emphasized the importance of what he termed “cultural interoperability”—personal knowledge of each others’ nations by the major players in the relationship.

The UAE has been a steadfast player in the Global War on Terror. Among the lessons it has learned from the campaign is the need for greater connectivity between national and coalition systems. The country has also experienced difficulty in obtaining timely intelligence and battle damage assessment from partner nations.

Air Chief Marshal Glenn Torpy, of Britain, spoke of the need to communicate the importance of airpower to “key stakeholders” such as top government officials, academics, the other armed services, and the media.

Real Integration

“We have difficulty getting the message across,” he said, indicating that the RAF faces some of the same frustrations as USAF.

Because the world is so unpredictable, Torpy said, airpower has a vital role in maintaining global stability, and Britain and other developed nations will need a balanced and flexible air force structure in the years ahead.

Air forces need to be ready for anything, said the UK air chief, declaring, “I don’t agree that what we’re doing in Iraq and Afghanistan is what we’re going to be doing in 10 years’ time.”

Maj. Gen. Chee Khern L. Ng, air chief of Singapore, emphasized that interoperability is developed by deeds as well as words.

Singapore’s KC-135s have deployed to the Persian Gulf region four times in recent years, he noted. Interoperability is also built through the approximately 500 US transit flights that touch down at Singapore air fields each year.

The city-state of Singapore is a small nation that has had to lift its air force up by the bootstraps, partnering with other nations for training, Ng said. Yet today it flies refueling tankers, modern fighters, long-range search and rescue helicopters, and other top-line aircraft.

Gen. of the Air Ricardo Ortega Perrier of Chile, on the other hand, emphasized his nation’s niche roles supporting combined operations between different air forces.

Real integration depends on the adoption of interoperable planning systems, said the Chilean air chief, as well as common language and a standardized vocabulary.

Ortega gave an example from his own experience: As a young airman, he had been confused when a British airman referred to his aircraft’s “undercarriage” while a US counterpart talked about his airplane’s “landing gear.” He said, “Both were supposed to be speaking in plain English.”

Lt. Gen. Prince Faisal bin Al Hussein, of Jordan, fielded a query about how the Arab nations of the Gulf region are working together, politically and militarily.

There is a lot of cooperation today, both within the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) and among other neighbors, he said.

“There is a greater degree of interoperability now. … It is far different than it was five or 10 years ago,” said Prince Faisal. The regional air forces are not only “more capable,” he said, “we are more adaptive.”

During the question-and-answer session which concluded the GACC, one query fielded by Moseley dealt with the problem of sharing sensitive intelligence among coalition partners.

“The challenge is normally back in the capital city,” said Moseley.

In other words, intelligence officials and air leaders working on operations at the front lines are prone to trust colleagues and share when they can.

The hang-ups occur when officials who have not dealt with allies close up, or who insist on holding information closely or who are habitually following strict sharing rules and regulations, are allowed to gum up the process.

“The benefits [of sharing] are real, but you have to fight your own system,” said Moseley.

Peter Grier, a Washington editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and a contributing editor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “Names for Our Unknowns,” appeared in the July issue.