Generating Sorties and Sustaining Combat

Nov. 1, 1988

As it updates its plans to counter Soviet power in Europe, the Air Force seems intent on suspending the laws of mathematics. The ser­vice is embarked on a course that calls for Western air forces to “outnumber” the Warsaw Pact air fleet in battle—though these units are to remain inferior to the adver­sary in size.

What is significant for US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) is not only the quantity of warplanes at its disposal. The specific dimension of the USAFE force, which now de­ploys 700 aircraft, is a separate is­sue. At the heart of the emerging plan, say US officers, would be su­periority of a different sort: the abil­ity of USAFE and its allies to fly more actual combat missions, and for longer periods, than the foe.

The upshot is a USAFE warfight­ing program that complements the traditional emphasis on putting fighters on the ramp with steps that will multiply the readiness and per­sistence of today’s force.

USAFE’s aircraft, air bases, maintenance units, logistic sys­tems, supply operations, weapons, and other assets are all being re­shaped in a campaign aimed at forg­ing a readier force that not only can pack a big punch but also deliver it around the clock for long periods.

The most conspicuous advance thus far is a marked rise in the number of sorties that USAFE and the allies can squeeze from their scarce aircraft, compared to the 1960s and 1970s. Today, USAFE’s sortie-generation powers are “at least twice as good, maybe more,” says Maj. Gen. Michael A. Nelson, a top Air Force operations officer at Allied Command Europe in Bel­gium. “[The difference is] big—and significant.”

More modest but still important are improvements in USAFE’s powers to provide munitions, fuel, and parts to sustain operations lon­ger.

Incomplete Solution

The strides may explain, in part, why USAFE seems more upbeat about being able to combat massed Pact air attacks. Of every raiding force sent against NATO, one of­ficer now claims, as much as twenty percent of attackers would be downed by swarming Western de­fenders—in the early going, at least.

“If he comes over on this side of the fence,” says USAFE Com­mander in Chief Gen. William Kirk, “we’ll eat his lunch. He will take massive losses.”

For all its promise, the effort is regarded by US officers as a less than complete solution to problems they face. They would prefer to have a larger fighter force, as well as a ready one, but concede that the Pentagon budget crunch makes the prospect of a buildup remote at best.

The situation is not without its problems, the major one being the force’s lack of sustainability. How far USAFE has come—and has yet to go—in crafting the force that it says it requires is pointed up in talks with officers and troops responsible for USAFE readiness.

Nowhere, these experts say, is the command exerting greater effort, and making more visible progress, than in the areas that con­tribute to USAFE’s capability to generate combat sorties. These vi­tal factors are many and varied. Among them: day-to-day readiness of aircraft, training of aircrews, weapons reliability and effective­ness, and resilience in local base facilities and infrastructure.

Improvement in peacetime air­craft availability rates forms the bedrock of USAFE’s ability to gen­erate sorties. Officers point out that the mission-capable rate of combat squadrons in Europe, up signifi­cantly since 1980, now stands near an all-time high.

The value of having ready fight­ers—finely tuned, well maintained, and fully equipped—is underlined by an F-16 squadron operations of­ficer. “We can be ready with the entire squadron, all twenty-four jets going up, in only half a day,” he asserts. “It wouldn’t take us very long.”

This capability, all agree, marks a reversal of the situation facing USAFE wings early in the decade. What accounts for the turnaround

One key factor is better funding, sustained for several years, of peacetime readiness accounts. This has helped USAFE come up with the spare parts, repair equipment, and other items needed to keep air­craft and other weapons well-sup­plied and in fighting trim. In fact, the index of aircraft out of action for lack of parts has declined precipi­tously since the early 1980s.

Even more impressive than the supply situation has been a dramatic improvement in the quality of work performed by maintenance crews. Not long ago, performance had de­teriorated to a worrisome level. A large number of specialists, officers note, simply didn’t know how to re­pair or maintain their weapons.

Now, officials contend, that prob­lem is largely a thing of the past. The main reason: better training. The command today is taking its best workers off the flight line to become instructors, where they can impart their hard-earned knowledge to many others.

“Part of our old philosophy,” re­calls a senior maintenance man, “was to keep the good people work­ing on airplanes and put the dead, the sick, the lame, and the lazy down in training. So our people knew just enough to get by. Now, they really learn what to do.”

Equally critical to sortie genera­tion in the early days of war, many experts maintain, would be USAFE’s success in its drive to pre­pare the human element of its force for the rigors of nonstop combat. That, USAFE planners make clear, is a priority of high order. The com­mand stresses pilot training, ex­plains one operations officer, be­cause it translates into “no-kidding combat capability.”

Part—but only part—of the effort involves giving pilots an adequate number of flying hours. Time in the cockpit has increased markedly from the 184,892 hours that they flew in 1980. The typical pilot gets to fly three to four sorties every week.

High-Quality Training Time

As important as the quantity, however, is the quality of the train­ing that pilots receive while they are in the air. Here, USAFE is going to great lengths to make sure that the time the individual pilot spends in the air provides training that is as realistic as possible.

With the opening of the Air Com­bat Maneuvering Instrumentation facility on Sardinia, for example, US and other NATO pilots are now able to conduct extremely realistic air-to-air combat training. What’s more, they participate frequently in low-level operations during Red Flag exercises in the US, though not as often as they would like.

There are limits. Despite all its efforts, say officers, USAFE can never recreate the stresses and strains that pilots would face in the melee over Europe in the opening days of conflict.

Sharpening the peacetime read­iness of men and materiel, while im­portant, is but one element in USAF’s drive to prepare its Euro­pean forces to generate enough combat sorties to match an outsized foe. Also getting major attention: pursuit of a more persistent fighter force able to stay in action long after Day One.

Innovative steps are being taken to produce aircraft and weapons that break down less often, can be fixed quicker with less manpower, and are more effective. The aim, officers note, is to keep Air Force F-15, F-16, F-ill, and other war­planes out of the maintenance bays and in the air, where they would help even the odds in the air battle.

Progress on this score, say plan­ners, is nowhere more evident than in the increased reliability of USAFE’s latest aircraft. In simplest terms, fighters are not breaking as often. “I compare the situation with twenty-five years ago, when I was an F-100 pilot in Europe,” says Gen­eral Nelson, “and the difference is just incredible.”

The leading factor: USAFE’s force of 228 General Dynamics F-16C multirole fighters, currently deployed in West Germany and Spain. USAFE officials report that the F-16, with advanced design and components, breaks less than half as frequently as the F4 jets it re­places. As senior maintenance workers tell it, the plane is on the ground far less than its predecessor was.

“What I’ve learned from being around F-16s for three years,” says an F-16 crew chief at Ramstein AB, Germany, “is that the harder you fly ’em, the better they stay fully mis­sion-capable.”

Flight controls are triple-redun­dant, with backup systems to back­up systems, meaning that they sel­dom cause flying downtime for the jet. Officers also point out that air­craft electronics, long a source of reliability problems, are greatly im­proved on the F-16, the F-15, and the other USAFE planes. Explains one: “Printed circuits work a lot bet­ter than vacuum tubes at six Gs and [when] bouncing them on the ground.”

Faster Fixes for Aircraft

The steps go beyond reliability improvements. Because airborne components and combat systems will sometimes break down, the Air Force is working hard to make them increasingly easier to fix.

For USAFE, the wartime advan­tages would be great. Maintenance consumes enormous numbers of man-hours, not to mention the pres­sure it puts on spare-parts supplies, facility space, and support. Making the aircraft easy to maintain thus contributes directly to the com­mand’s ability to put combat power in the air time and again.

In Europe, improvements are strikingly visible. The new fighters, say repair troops, are far easier to maintain and “turn” for combat. The F-16, for example, requires fif­teen hours for a major maintenance job—much less than the thirty to thirty-five hours typically taken for the less-sophisticated F-4. On top of that, the job can be performed by about half the number of personnel.

Result, in the words of an F-16 maintenance chief: “When the flag goes up, you can turn this airplane and get more sorties” than the F-4.

Future gains might be equally large. Current plans call for the Ad­vanced Tactical Fighter, the even­tual replacement for today’s F-15s, to require half the maintenance time and support to fly twice as many sorties as the Eagle it replaces.

One source of improved main­tainability, USAFE officers say, is incorporation of diagnostic elec­tronics that tell the repair troops what is wrong with the airplane. “The big advantage of the F-16,” says one, “is that it tells you what’s wrong with it. With the F-4, you break wire bundles open for days before you find the problem.”

In addition, the aircraft benefits from smarter design, including more accessible placement and greater simplicity of components. For example, engine crewmen find it easier to remove the nozzles on the Fl 10-GE-i00 engine.

Complementing the advantages of more reliable and maintainable weapon systems, Air Force officers maintain, is the greater effective­ness of the arms now coming into USAFE. As one puts it, “These weapons will keep our own attrition down, which is a big factor in the business of generating sorties.”

Air Force officers, for example, point with satisfaction to the recent gains in USAFE’s ability to sup­press enemy air defenses that pose a mortal threat to its pilots. The situa­tion is said to be much improved as a result of the deployment of such electronic-warfare assets as EC-130 Compass Call, EF-Ill Raven air­craft, and teams of F-4G Wild Weasel and F-16 aircraft.

This is not all. One officer main­tains, “I can think of four or five classified programs, off the top of my head, that will help us under­stand the threat and help us get the sortie through safely.”

The planned introduction of the AIM-l20 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM) will help USAFE pilots take on the foe at a greater and therefore safer range. What’s more, USAFE’s ca­pability to generate sorties around the clock, with great effectiveness, will grow with the soon-to-be-real­ized deployment of the LANTIRN (Low-Altitude Navigation and Tar­geting Infrared for Night) pod sys­tem.

Turning Night into Day

The LANTIRN dual-pod system, which effectively turns night into day for the pilot in the cockpit, is scheduled to be deployed on select USAFE F- 15 and F- 16 fighters, giv­ing them a poor-weather, night-at­tack capability. This, explains an of­ficer, “is something that we really haven’t had in this theater. That’s a major advance.”

When it comes to improving its powers to generate more sorties, USAFE’s most significant new “weapon” may not be an aircraft or missile at all. The weapon, rather, will be more prosaic—the base structure from which American forces would fly and fight.

All signs are that USAFE’s crit­ical network of runways, taxi areas, maintenance shops, weapons stock­piles, and support infrastructure is being updated and modified in ways that make it more likely that the sys­tem can continue to function even after heavy Soviet attack.

The effort is assigned high pri­ority within USAFE and in the en­tire Air Force. The objective: Pre­pare the system to be able to stand up to Warsaw Pact air strikes aimed at putting it out of action, then re­cover sufficiently to be able to launch aircraft.

USAFE, officers concede, has a long way to go. They note that the present vulnerabilities of the base system, illustrated in the 1985 Salty Demo exercise at Spangdahlem AB, Germany, range from ground attack to disruption of communications and fuel supplies (see “Fighting Un­der Attack,” October ’88 issue, p. 50). Efforts are under way to allevi­ate the worst problems.

Most visible is the push in USAFE, and in NATO generally, to shelter its aircraft from attack. The NATO goal is to provide shelters for 100 percent of its fighter force. While Alliance funds are sufficient to cover only seventy percent of the cost, CINCUSAFE has set down a policy of sheltering all in-place and reinforcing aircraft at US main op­erating bases. Seventy percent of reinforcing planes deployed to col­located bases are to be sheltered. Funds are already programmed for this task. Radar-operations and avionics-repair units also are due to get shelters at selected bases.

More important, the Air Force is pursuing its Air Base Operability program, designed to enhance the protection, survivability, recovery, and regenerative powers of the base infrastructure.

Initiatives to this end are numer­ous. The most important features of this program include: plans to con­struct an Alternate Launch and Re­covery Surface (ALARS) at each USAFE base, provision of Emer­gency Landing Strips (ELS) at se­lected sites, dispersal of facilities, camouflage and deception, installa­tion of Survivable Collective Pro­tection Shelters (SCPS) for better chemical warfare protection of base personnel, improved damage-as­sessment capability, better means for explosive-ordnance removal, equipment for rapid runway repair, mobile aircraft arresting gear, re­dundant base communications, and better backup power systems.

Added to these passive measures are efforts to enhance active de­fense of USAFE bases. Officers foresee major gains flowing from the US-German program to deploy Roland and Patriot air defense mis­sile units around bases in the Feder­al Republic. In addition, the United States has procured and the British are now operating thirty-two Rapier short-range air defense batteries around seven US bases in Britain.

Overall progress has created con­fidence among officers based at Ramstein AB, headquarters of USAFE, about sortie generation in wartime. Higher readiness, more persistent and effective weapons, and more resilient fighter bases, they say, already are paying divi­dends, and the picture for the future looks brighter.

The Sustainability Gap

That, however, is not the entire picture. Equally important to the Air Force, but far more worrisome to these officers, is another issue: how long U SAFE would be able to sustain this stronger force in com­bat. Senior officers contend that, despite improvements, the force would not have enough replenish­ment parts, munitions, fuel, and other consumable items at its dis­posal.

The situation is far from desperate. Higher defense budgets throughout the 1980s have enabled the command to alleviate some of the worst shortages and bottlenecks that characterized the Air Force’s stockpiles of war-reserve materiel in the 1970s. Spare parts hoarded for wartime use, for example, are at nearly twice their former low level. More munitions are available.

Even so, officers continue to identify the inadequacy of stock­piles as a significant constraint on their combat capabilities. These are well below requirements. Worse, today’s levels seem certain to de­cline.

One senior leader who worries greatly about this problem is USAFE’s Commander in Chief, General Kirk. “We’re not back down to where we were in the late 1970s, but we’re starting that way,” he warns. “If there isn’t adequate funding to replace [those items being consumed by the operating force], we will eventually go back down to that ‘hollow force’ “of the 1970s.

One area of major concern is war-reserve spare parts and other re­plenishment items. USAFE docu­ments show that funding for these, after big rises early in the decade, has fallen far short of one-for-one replacement levels for the last four years. As a result, parts to keep air­planes flying and missiles working today are being taken from stock­piles that had been built up for war­time use.

Today, one officer reports, up to sixty percent of the parts required to keep USAFE’s aircraft mission-capable come directly from the command’s War Readiness Spares Kits (WRSK) or Base Level Self-Sufficiency Spares (BLSS) kits in­ventory. “We know that we’re not going to buy any—zero–WRSK and BLSS this year or next year,” he adds. “So we’re just maintaining and praying for tomorrow. There’s no stockpiling.”

Scarce Smart Munitions

Nearly as troubling, in a different way, is the situation with respect to USAFE’s stockpile of wartime mu­nitions. The inventory of air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons would permit the fighter force to fly 100 percent of wartime missions. But most of those missions would be flown with relatively unsophisti­cated general-purpose bombs, clus­ter-type weapons, and older-genera­tion guided missiles.

What is missing, in the view of USAFE officers, is an adequate supply of modern, highly accurate “smart” or precision munitions such as the AGM-88 HARM radar-killer and AGM-65 IIR Maverick tank-killer missiles. These officers would also like to see improvements to the Gator air-delivered mine weapon.

Apart from inadequate numbers, the munitions are said to be mal­positioned. Most are stored in a handful of depots in Europe and would have to be transported, under attack, to various air bases.

Overarching these local sus­tainability problems is the larger dif­ficulty of reinforcing USAFE’s in-place aircraft with US fighters based in the United States. Insuffi­ciency of intertheater airlift remains one of USAF’s principal concerns. Though major gains have been achieved in the past decade, the 1989 funded airlift force will provide no more than 47,000,000 ton-miles per day of strategic cargo airlift, well below the current goal, which is 66,000,000 a day.

Thus, USAFE has a ways to go before it can be confident about overcoming the Warsaw Pact’s nu­merical superiority. Still, the force appears to have little option but to continue trying to rewrite the laws of mathematics.