The United States no longer has boots on the ground in Afghanistan and has significantly drawn down its presence in Iraq. While demand for airpower continues, the Air Force is realigning how it responds to those demands.
“What’s been successful in the Middle East for 20 years, is not the recipe for success against a peer competitor like China,” said Lt. Gen. Joseph T. Guastella, deputy chief of staff for operations. “We have to adapt how we think, and how we present [forces], and train.”
Ever since the first Iraq War, the Air Force generated airpower from well-established bases throughout the Middle East—including bases in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Many, including Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, grew to resemble a small city, supporting tens of thousands of troops, shops, cafes, and restaurants. Bagram had two runways, multiple hangars, a control tower, and more than 30 acres of ramp space to support USAF F-15E Strike Eagles, A-10 Warthogs, F-16 Fighting Falcons, unmanned drones, and U.S. Army helicopters staged for air operations during the war.
Under that construct, the Air Force deployed just the right number of Airmen needed to do a certain job, often in small groups, and sometimes just individuals. Units were broken up. Airmen fell in with others downrange, often meeting for the first time only after they arrived at their forward operating location.
“We kind of crowdsourced from the whole Air Force … and we sent them to the Middle East,” Guastella said. “Maybe they would do just-in-time training, but if you think about it, that kind of model is very, very efficient for a situation where you’re not fighting a peer competitor … where the base isn’t truly threatened and the demands of generating airpower aren’t threatened by a peer competitor.”
But in an era of strategic competition and potential conflict with China, combatant commanders will need a different model.
Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., unveiled the new Air Force Force Generation (AFFORGEN) model in an August interview with Air Force Magazine, saying his goal is to standardize deployment cycles throughout the service in a way that is “better aligned with how we present Airmen and airpower to support the joint operations.” At the same time, he said, “it actually preserves some of that readiness, not only for today, but for the future.”
AFFORGEN breaks down into four six-month phases:
- Commit. During this phase Airmen are either deployed, or immediately deployable. Airmen can be deployed for six months to an established base or for one or more short-term rotations, such as a Bomber Task Force mission. Airmen in this phase are “the tip of the spear for the Air Force,” Guastella said.
- Reset. After returning from deployment, Airmen get six months to get reacquainted with their families, update PT testing and other basic training qualifications, or make a permanent change of station move. Guastella said the reset phase “hasn’t really changed much, but it’s focused on individual readiness.”
- Prepare. Instead of deploying immediately after reset, like before, Brown wants units to get time to focus on advanced and full-spectrum training needed to compete against a peer competitor. Early in the cycle, exercises likely will be local and confined to a specific squadron or area of their home base. The objective is to keep units together, so Airmen know the people they’re deploying with before they get to their destination and have already built established relationships with them.
- Ready. Training now becomes more complex, scaling up to large force exercises such as Red Flag and Silver Flag, and demonstrating the ability to conduct Agile Combat Employment, where groups of multi-capable Airmen operate from remote and austere locations. “The goal is to build on the great training opportunities that we have already, but adjust them more and more to a high-end fight and accommodate more Airmen in this construct, so it’s not just those that fly and fix aircraft,” Guastella said.
The Air Force started deploying forces using this model late last year during increased Bomber Task Force deployments, but it won’t reach initial operational capability until 2023. The goal is to start with the combat elements, such as fighters, tankers, bombers, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and command and control, and then finally bring the rest of the deployable force under the new model by 2024, Guastella said.
“This is a big deal,” he said. “It’s one of the biggest changes we’ve made to our Air Force in a long time in how we organize, train, and equip and offer forces to be consumed and employed for the defense of our nation.”
Breaking the Meat Grinder
The Air Force developed its Air Expeditionary Force (AEF) concept in the mid-1990s during the Balkan conflicts, with the goal of giving units a clear chain of command and a predictable deployment pattern. The service was divided into 10 AEFs that could deploy nose-to-tail in 90-day increments. It never really worked.
The relentless operating tempo driven by continuous operations enforcing two no-fly zones over Iraq, combat operations in the Balkans, and later wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were too great. The 90-day deployment cycle stretched to 120 days in 2004 and then to six months in 2010. Next, the Air Force adopted the tempo banding system, with unique deploy-to-dwell ratios for the Active-duty and reserve components and built-in variances for different career fields. The complex system was difficult to understand and failed to give Airmen any extra time for training between deployments.
Brown’s predecessor as Chief, Gen. David L. Goldfein, followed with AEF Next, again aiming to reset the force and ensure USAF could maintain its operational tempo while simultaneously improving the training mission at home.
In August 2016, shortly after becoming Chief, Goldfein wrote: “Squadrons have been asked to bear the brunt of an incredible deployment tempo and manpower shortages, which have had a direct impact on readiness and our warfighting mission.” Meanwhile, manning fell to 60 to 70 percent of requirements at Stateside bases, usually “with many key supervisors and leaders deployed or dual-hatted.” The result, he said: “We have degraded the core fighting unit of our Air Force.”
But AEF Next never fully developed over the course of Goldfein’s tenure and Brown arrived promising to again address the issue.
Under AFFORGEN, deployment cycles are supposed to standardize on a one-to-three deploy-to-dwell ratio for Active-duty forces, and a one-to-five mobilize-to-dwell ratio for the Guard and Reserve.
Guastella acknowledges, however, that airpower is still in high demand and some high-demand, low-density (HD/LD) career fields will continue to be called on more than others.
To protect those Airmen, the new system establishes a “redline” deploy-to-dwell of one-to-two, meaning six months deployed followed by one year home for Active-duty members, and one-to-four, or six months deployed for every 24-months home for reserve members. Anything more affects overall force readiness.
“What the model does is offer a degree of protection for the over utilization of those assets,” Guastella said. “It allows us to explain the risk of consuming our force at an excessive rate, because if you chew up the force that we have, if you use all those HD/LD assets, and you keep sending them back over and over again, they never have the opportunities for that high-end training. Then you’re actually buying risk in a number of years. It’s not … the meat grinder, if you will, where we have to send them back. It allows us to better articulate the … long-term risk.”
Success could hinge on reducing the Air Force’s footprint in the Middle East.
“I think a reduced posture in the Middle East will also reduce some of the demand on us,” Guastella said. “So, the combination of the imperative to be ready to fight in a high-end fight, and reduced appetite, if you will, for us in some of the lower-end theaters that we’ve been in—those two combine to enforce it and also then enable” the AFFORGEN system.
Accelerate Change or Lose
When Brown became Chief, his first action was to release “Accelerate Change or Lose,” encouraging new approaches to how Airmen train and operate. Brown argued that requirements had stood still while threats and reality shifted.
“The processes with which we build capabilities for our Airmen have not adapted to these changes; the ways in which we test, evaluate, and train with them do not meet our current or future demands,” Brown wrote. “While we have made progress, our Airmen need us to integrate and accelerate the changes necessary to explore new operational concepts and bring more rapidly the capabilities that will help them in the future fights.”
AFFORGEN is designed to provide time between deployments to train for such future fights, such as incorporating Agile Combat Employment concepts into nearly every exercise.
Instead of lining up row upon row of expensive aircraft on the ramp at a main operating base in the combat theater, ACE envisions main hubs like Ramstein Air Base in Germany or Yokota Air Base in Japan supporting dispersed units spread out across a region, operating largely independently and without the usual on-site support.
The result is a new “hub and spokes” system, Guastella said, with “warm bases” established in forward locations. These bases may be kept “warm by a host nation,” Amari Air Base in Estonia, for example. It also could include something much more primitive, like an airstrip on a Pacific island, that could be kept warm by contractors or a small number of agile Airmen rotating through periodically to get the airstrip up and running.
“That is resilience,” Guastella said. “That is deterrence. And that’s kind of a different way of thinking about the posture piece of it.”
Guastella said every element of training “needs to adjust to the new reality.” That means changes to big exercises like Red Flag and more frequent exercises like Silver Flag, where civil engineers practice rapidly building and repairing runways. For example, Security Forces Airmen might practice securing an airfield perimeter at a remote location.
Some exercises, like deployments, will get smaller, Guastella said. “We just can’t add more to a very busy schedule, necessarily, but we have to figure out what exercises create the most value.”
New technology can help, enabling more to be done remotely, a lesson proven during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Not only has the technology revolution dramatically changed the ways in which humans and economies interact in the world, it has changed the way militaries can develop and project power,” Brown wrote last year.
Likewise, Guastella says technology empowers Airmen to do more from wherever they are.
“Airmen equipped with the right technology can remotely do things that weren’t even conceivable in the past,” he said. “You can get more out of what you have. We’re exploring this. It’s in its infancy, I would say right now, but I think we can all recognize the potential based on the talent that we have.”