The Heritage of Airpower—and Some Recent Achievements

Nov. 1, 1999

Wald: Airpower and Future War

At the beginning of the 20th century, the idea that man could fly-much less use air and space as a medium for projecting military might-was a crazy notion. Yet, at its close, aerospace power has become the key to the future of warfare, said keynote speaker Maj. Gen. Charles F. Wald, vice director for strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at AFA’s 1999 National Convention.

Teaching the accumulated knowledge of generations of aerospace pioneers to the next generation of dreamers and thinkers is “a sacred trust,” Wald told the Sept. 13 opening session. Wars are won by preparation, not by chance, he added.

“Yet I feel we have a long way to go before we can as airmen say we thoroughly understand war,” said Wald. Coming after what may be the most successful use of airpower ever, Operation Allied Force in Kosovo, such sentiments might seem to be heresy.

However, the advent of aerospace power has greatly accelerated the pace of military operations, Wald said. The air war of the near future will be different from that of today, as that of today is very different from those of the recent past.

Soon, Wald will again have direct contact with such operations. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen on Sept. 28 announced Wald’s nomination for promotion to lieutenant general and assignment to be commander of 9th Air Force (Air Combat Command) and commander, US Central Command Air Forces, Shaw AFB, S.C. In the latter post, he will be in charge of air operations in Southwest Asia.

Joint US military doctrine holds that, in a few years, a fusion of sensor information will allow US forces to sense danger far more rapidly. Airmen will have an increased awareness of the overall operational environment. New weapons will give them new power.

“They will have enhanced ability to produce a range of desired effects, bringing together a mix of assets, at the place and time most favorable to success,” said Wald.

Yet Air Force education might not keep pace. Pilots and planners need to be trained to think beyond a two-aircraft formation or a single line on an Air Tasking Order if they are to succeed in this brave new environment.

“I’m convinced the aerospace culture we have so carefully cultivated has not adequately prepared our airmen to conduct our wars in the future,” said Wald.

Wald invited his listeners to consider a possible scene from a conflict of the not-too-distant future. An air commander has three B-2s at his disposal, each carrying 200 small smart bombs and therefore capable of attacking 200 different targets with one sortie. Suddenly the situation on the ground changes. The commander has to rethink 600 targets-in less than two minutes.

“When we need it most, we may lack the airmen who have the training and experience to operate in such an intense, dynamic environment,” said Wald.

This future brand of warfare is not emerging by happenstance, said the AFA keynoter. It evolved quickly after the introduction of Precision Guided Munitions in the Vietnam War.

PGMs came of age in Desert Storm. Even then, however, the Air Force was dogged by a narrow “one line” mentality, said Wald. Technical and doctrinal shortcomings marred the effort. Most disconcerting, perhaps, was the way information was stovepiped, or hoarded, within organizational boundaries.

“Many airmen could not gain comprehensive [intelligence],” said Wald.

Operation Allied Force witnessed another revolutionary advance in aerospace power. The use of the Joint Direct Attack Munition introduced the next PGM generation. Air Force leaders introduced combined air operations centers that featured information-fusing integrated warfighting capability.

There were still opportunities for error. Planning reaction times just weren’t always quick enough, said Wald.

“On at least one occasion, JDAMs had to be withheld because there was insufficient time for planners to react to a sudden shift in defense on the ground,” said Wald.

In wars of the next century planners must be prepared for the inevitable immediate change, Wald emphasized. Airmen who embody flexibility will become the key to airpower.

Wald concluded, “These must be airmen who have mastered the art of campaign planning-airmen who not only think beyond the one line of the Air Tasking Order but who live the ATO and can transfer a 24-hour time capsule into a living, breathing aerospace process.”

Ryan: Expeditionary All Along

To worry about the future is not to belittle recent Air Force accomplishments. During the past 12 months, USAF hasn’t missed many opportunities to respond to crises in a significant way, said Gen. Michael E. Ryan, Chief of Staff.

“These successes have much, much more to do with people than equipment-our Air Force members have literally and figuratively served above and beyond,” Ryan told the gathering at a luncheon speech on Sept. 14.

On the part of USAF, Operation Allied Force involved the deployment of more than 17,000 people and more than 500 aircraft, the Chief noted. Before it began, USAF was operating out of five fixed and four expeditionary bases in support of Bosnia. When [Allied Force] was over, the service had moved into 20 more, from RAF Brize Norton, UK, to Souda Bay on Crete and Bandirma in Turkey.

Ryan said that when he visited Aviano AB, Italy, during the conflict, several sergeants told him that bedding down in the hastily constructed tent city there was no big deal.

“They laughed and said they were pros at it; they had done it in Saudi Arabia, in Kuwait, in Turkey,” said Ryan.

Almost 60 percent of the force has joined up in the past 10 years, the Chief noted. Like the sergeants at Aviano, they have known little but high operations tempo, austere fields, and remote locations.

“They’ve been expeditionary all along. We just hadn’t provided the label,” he said.

USAF flew more than 11,000 airlift sorties during Operation Allied Force. The C-17 hauled more than a third of the cargo, even though Globemasters account for only 13 percent of the airlift force. Air refuelers flew 7,000 sorties and pumped more than 300 million pounds of fuel. The service used “every acronym we had,” noted Ryan, from AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft] to JSTARS [Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System] and ABCCC [Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center].

The Air Force called on nearly 5,000 reservists, who provided 40 percent of the deployed KC-135 force and a quarter of the A-10 force, among other things. By any measure the size of the effort was impressive.

“For the US Air Force this was a Major Theater War-by percentage of force in tankers, bombers, fighters, and ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance] assets, Operation Allied Force, combined with our other contingency deployments, was bigger than our efforts during Desert Storm or for that matter Vietnam,” said the Chief.

At a tactical level the force performed superbly. It quickly closed Serbian airfields and destroyed much of the country’s air defense infrastructure. Interdiction forces pounded the Serbian military­industrial complex. Oil refinement was halted and electricity shut down. Transportation routes were cut throughout the country.

In Kosovo itself F-16s and A-10s hit tanks, personnel carriers, and artillery pieces wherever they could be found.

No Air Force top commanders thought that this effort would stop the Serbs’ “door-to-door infantry thuggery,” said Ryan.

“What they successfully argued was that to stop the carnage in Kosovo, you must go to the root cause and that was in and around Belgrade-where the strategic center of gravity lay,” said Ryan.

The Chief said that commanders kept the faith, knowing they would be successful-and in the end, they were.

Today the beat goes on. USAF is patrolling the skies over Bosnia, Kosovo, Korea, Iraq. It has responded to humanitarian crises in Latin America and Turkey, among other places, and even airlifted specially trained mine-sniffing dolphins to Lithuania.

This workload is likely to only expand in the future. The service is likely to be called upon to protect national interests in space, as well as the air.

“We must continue to meld our capabilities into a seamless integrated force,” said Ryan. “It is not air and space segregation that’s important; what’s important is aerospace integration for combat capability where it counts.”

Peters: Power of Integration

Integration was also a key theme for F. Whitten Peters, Secretary of the Air Force. For one thing, the war in Serbia showed that many of the concepts which will be central to the Air Force of the 21st century have already been integrated into the force and will work, Peters told the convention Sept. 15.

New weapons like JDAM and the Joint Standoff Weapon worked. Communications networks were able to reach back to intelligence and logistics support in the United States. For the first time ever, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles generated targets for manned aircraft.

“We showed that the B-2 could not only fly in the rain but that it could drop bombs through the rain, through the clouds, and in darkness with tremendous precision,” said Peters.

But today’s Air Force leaders face a simple question, said Peters. Can this superb force be sustained in the face of the highest peacetime optempo in its history and the strongest US economy in generations

“I think we can, but if we are to do so we must continue to work the fundamentals,” said Peters.

On people, the service has begun to fix pay and retirement benefits. But Tricare must still be made more user friendly, the service’s top civilian official said.

On equipment, officials have worked to fix the spare parts problem. They still must make progress on modernization.

“Could we use more money? Sure. Who couldn’t?” said Peters. “But can we work with what we’ve got? Absolutely.”

Even in normal circumstances Air Force personnel are stretched thin, the Secretary admitted. Ninety days overseas in a year is considered a routine load, yet it translates into being away from home one day in four for contingency operations-not to mention travel for training.

Surveys do show that many in the service relish the chance to be part of real-world operations. Peters said he was surprised by the reaction to the Stop-Loss order he signed at the beginning of Allied Force. He thought that after it was lifted there would be a stampede out of the service. Instead the opposite occurred.

Maybe half of the people who could pull their retirement papers have pulled their papers, said the Secretary. “That is quite a remarkable event.”

That does not mean the answer to the retention problem is to deploy everyone all the time. Until the service can guarantee all its members that they can have a family life during peacetime it will still struggle to retain all the skills it needs.

That is what splitting up the workload via Air Expeditionary Forces is supposed to accomplish.

“It is a major journey for the Air Force. It is a completely different way of looking at how we do our business,” said Peters.

If AEFs can prove to US national command authorities that the Air Force can get to fights quickly, it will lessen pressure to keep units deployed overseas against the possibility of a conflict arising.

“If we cannot keep the CINCs and our national command authorities happy with us and happy with our ability to get out of town fast, we are never going to solve the optempo problem,” said Peters.

Re-engineering can help. The service has found 2,700 active duty slots it can move from support “tail” positions to warfighting “tooth” units. In 1999, recruiters will have brought 700 prior-service people back into the Air Force, most of whom already have critical skills and don’t need years of training before filling critical jobs.

Pilot retention is looking better, said Peters, with pilots opting to re-enlist at a 43 percent rate.

“That sounds like a low number, but … around 50 percent has been viewed as a stable force,” he said. “A year ago that number was in the high 20 percents.”

The recruitment force is being brought back up to strength, with the addition of 200 recruiters in 1999 and 300 in 2001.

“Every recruiter we can get on the street, once they get a chance to get their feet on the ground, brings in about 30 recruits,” said Peters.

Readiness funding is going back up, too. That may not seem like a quality-of-life issue, said Peters, but it is-nobody is happy cannibalizing aircraft to keep forces in the air.

The parts holiday of the mid-1990s is over. Spares funding has risen from a low of 80 percent of the requirement in 1996 to almost 130 percent of the estimated requirement for 1999.

Depot maintenance funding has gone from a low of 80 to 85 percent in the mid-1990s back up to 95 percent, said Peters.

Some members of Congress, and even some Air Force officials, are impatient that this new money has yet to put new parts on the flight line. But the booming civilian economy had slowed military production down.

“It’s hard to turn dollars into parts at the moment. It can take up to 24 months to do that,” said Peters.

On modernization, the Air Force leadership is working many issues besides continuation of F-22 funding, said the Secretary. The service’s largest procurement program, at the moment, is in fact the C-17, which is proceeding well. The Air Force has put a billion dollars into the evolved expendable launch vehicle, and the CV-22 tilt-rotor is just around the corner.

“We are funding replacements and upgrades for every one of our satellite systems. We are fixing the cockpits of every one of our ‘heritage’ aircraft. We are bringing a whole new generation of [smart] weapons to bear,” said Peters.

On infrastructure, the conversion from a five-depot to a three-depot Air Force has cut capacity from 41.6 million hours to 25.4 million hours. That has resulted in the remaining depots running at full capacity-“for the first time in human memory,” joked Peters.

But integration remains key. It is a crosscutting issue of great importance for the Air Force of the 21st century.

“We need to do integration of all of our systems and people,” said Peters.

In Operation Allied Force, for instance, USAF got a big bang for the buck out of Predator targeting. Operators took video from the UAV, shot it through the sky to satellites, beamed it down to forward-based computer analysts who fused it with 3-D terrain data from spy satellites, and sent the whole thing back to pilots in the cockpit-all in less than a minute.

“It shows the power of putting air and space and manned and unmanned together,” said Peters. “That’s what I think is the future.”

Another example of integration was the U-2 effort over Serbia. U-2s sent their electronic “take” back to California, where it was examined by linguists and photointerpreters at Beale AFB, and to Maryland, where it was sifted by signals analysts at National Security Agency headquarters, Ft. Meade.

“Our vision for the future is one of integration,” concluded Peters. “We need to make sure that we use the best components that we have available, that we put them together using the information systems that we now have, and that we build those systems carefully and smartly to support the future.”

Weinberger, Ralston, and “Gradualism”

Though Operation Allied Force was ultimately successful, many analysts have criticized the air campaign’s design. It began as a collection of limited airstrikes mostly against air defense targets and escalated into a widespread strategic effort only in its latter stages.

To many, that smacked of the approach which failed in Vietnam-“gradualism,” slow escalation, fighting with a hand tied beyond one’s back. At an AFA symposium on the use of force, former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger made such a comparison.

“What we did was do pretty much what we had done in Vietnam,” said Weinberger, a key architect of the Reagan Administration’s US military buildup of the 1980s. “We did not go into [the Balkan War] to win. We did not go in to take [out] the leadership of the country, Serbia, that had caused all of this.”

Weinberger in 1984 made a classic declaration on the question of military power. It was a declaration based on six criteria for the use of force, and he reviewed them at the forum:

  • Intervention must be in the nation’s vital interest.
  • Wars must be prosecuted with the intent to win.
  • Wars must have clearly defined political and military objectives.
  • The US should employ force sufficient to win.
  • There should be a reasonable expectation that the public and Congress will support the use of force.
  • Sending US troops into combat should be a tool of last resort.

The Clinton Administration’s Kosovo operation met the first of those six conditions, according to Weinberger.

“I don’t think any of the others were fulfilled, and I have to say that … it is a source of great disappointment to me,” he said.

In the end, an escalated campaign caused Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic to capitulate, but he was allowed to remain in power, Weinberger noted. He was allowed to take his troops and equipment out of Kosovo unhindered, and Kosovo was not granted independence.

“You had a number of failures which in effect tarnished to a very considerable extent and reduced the value of the enormous contribution by the Air Force,” said Weinberger.

In his appearance at the policy forum, USAF Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed that the air campaign against Serbia resembled Vietnam more than it did the Gulf War.

However, he noted, Belgrade was not Hanoi. As a developed country, Yugoslavia had industrial targets which it did not want to lose-unlike the more agrarian North Vietnam. World opinion was much more firmly against it.

“Finally, the weapons we went to war with in 1964 were far inferior to those we used just this year,” said Ralston. “The air war for Kosovo introduced a new and unique twist to the concept of gradualism.”

The military will be called upon to undertake such gradual fights in the future, said Ralston. That is just political reality.

Precision Guided Munitions, stealth capability, space communications, and advanced intelligence capabilities “may have added sufficiently strong teeth to make a strategy of gradualism work,” said Ralston.

–Peter Grier

Peter Grier, the Washington editor of the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “Up in the Air About Anthrax,” appeared in the October 1999 issue.