Pacific Strategy XII: The Role of the USAF
10/26/2011: As this rollout of a Pacific strategy for the United States in the Pacific has made clear, air power is not synonymous with the USAF. Airpower is crucial at every level of establishing presence and shaping the building blocks of scalability. Without aviation assets, the USCG cutters have very limited effectiveness. Without air-breathing assets of various sorts, the CVNs have no meaning, and the surface navy significantly limited. Without F-35Bs coming to the amphib, the USN-USMC team becomes a fleet of helo carriers with V-22s and the effectiveness severely curtailed.
And the shaping of a scalability approach involves the use of USAF assets as one rolls out different capabilities over time, whether lift, tanking, ISR services or elements of the combat air force. The USAF is a key element of the entire tissue of scalability and its combat air capabilities are key elements of the capacity to ramp up the scale of a scalable force.
For the USAF to play its proper role it must however be a warfighting force, which can as the opening of Gladiator noted: “At my signal: Unleash Hell.”
Herman Kahn made the point when he visited the Strategic Air Command and noted its Motto: “Peace is our Profession.” As Kahn noted, “That is great but I hope there are many warfighters in the Command as well.” If Herman were around today, I am sure he would have some comments on the situation today.
If the USAF is not built around the Wynne doctrine “I do not want a fair fight. If I have put myself in a fair fight, I have failed as a planner and force builder.”
As the late Jack Wheeler put it: The Mission of the US Military is to dominate the foe, first with deterrence, and then, with the dominant, “unfair” fight. The Wynne Doctrine, after SECAF21 Michael W. Wynne: “If you are ever in a fair fight, senior leaders have failed you.”
Getting on with rebuilding the combat air force quickly is essential if US forces can deter as they deploy.
The Role of the USAF
It is always better to prevail without having to fight. Today, the U.S. military does this by shaping the international environment with the potent tools of assurance, deterrence and dissuasion. The principal role of the U.S. military is to defend the nation and the national interests. A powerful tool in this task is a capability to assure allies that they need not bow to violent threats and the ability to work with them to ensure global security. US armed forces accomplish this role by providing a solid foundation of military strength to complement the tools of peaceful diplomacy. None of these tools alone can sustain the US position of international political and economic influence. Leaders must be prepared to use all the instruments of national and coalition power in proper combination, in as integrated a manner as feasible, in order to address potential threats to national and collective interests.
The evolving strategic environment places a premium on global operations with allies and partners in providing for comprehensive global security. This networking forms a “Global Security Enterprise,” of which Pacific capabilities forms a crucial case study. The USAF has a key role in shaping U.S. options for crafting a Global Security Enterprise. With the reach and persistence of modern air power – space, air-breathing strike, ISR, lift, tanking, cyberwar and related capabilities – the USAF is a key element for U.S. and coalition capabilities in global security operations.
With modern ISR, the USAF provides an important contribution to the persistent awareness to shape a global security monitoring system. Integration of air and ground with maritime forces is increasingly possible given the evolution of technology. And the USAF has a key role in shaping technological options for global reach, persistence and integration. Indeed, USAF innovation to help craft a Global Security Enterprise is a key aspect of USAF Air, Space, and Cyber planning. rade But it is the thoughtful shaping of coalition capabilities that will provide the authority within which power may be exercised in the turbulent years ahead. From the perspective of the USAF, there are several contributions for the operation of a global security enterprise.
Briefing Credit: USAF
First, the USAF contributes several key elements to build global C4ISR capabilities. The new 5th generation aircraft, the evolving capabilities of unmanned systems and the U.S. military space system are becoming increasingly interactive. By moving data among the air-space systems and connecting with the ground forces, the USAF can be at cutting edge of crafting a truly global C4ISR system for joint and coalition operations.
Second, today’s air forces are being reshaped as core participants in interdependent military operations in theater contexts. The USAF is combining close air strike/close air support (CAS) on the same platforms that already have key roles in performing ISR engagement with the ground forces. The battle domains of Ground, Air, and Cyberspace are becoming interconnected within an evolving Global Security Enterprise.
Third, the USAF is evolving its capability to shape a ground-air partnership with joint and coalition forces. Here the US Air Force can play the role either of the supported or supporting command. From the standpoint of the supported command, the USAF can establish air superiority and coordinate kinetic and non-kinetic operations within a theater of operations. At the same time, the USAF can shift seamlessly into the role of supporting command to ground commanders for a variety of mission sets ranging from peacekeeping, to stability operations to maneuver warfare. For example, the USAF is a natural partner of he USMC in shaping new approaches to the ground-air partnership dynamic.
Fourth, the USAF is a core facilitator of global operations. USAF lift, tanking, ISR, and strike forces increasingly operate as a globally interconnected force providing global reach and support to U.S. and coalition forces. The USAF functions as a global central nervous system for the operation of U.S. forces through the mix of its space unmanned and manned assets. Connectively, collaboration and global presence are core elements of the 21st century approach of the US Air Force.
This role is threatened by the actual state of the tanker fleet. However, in the Pacific region, Japan has new 767 tankers and the Aussies have new A330 tankers which can be brought to the fight. And tanking in the air is supplemented by tanking at sea for the presence force.
Key Tool Sets
The USAF provides a key element of tanking and lift to the security and military enterprise and is a key element of supporting, sustaining and linking the elements of the honeycomb. The tanker and lift fleet are crucial to sustain forward deployment and to move force over the checkerboard. We have written earlier about key commands which embody the ability to perform such key functions at the command level. Notably TRANSCOM and the TACC are key tissues enabling the military body to operate worldwide.Transcom provides the overall planning and organizational center to provide for lift and support. As General McNabb put it:
We manage the operation of those assets to deliver capability to the warfighter. As such, we use the military airlift and sealift available to us as well as work with our commercial air and sea transportation partners. We are looking for cost effective ways to deliver capability. Obviously, the priority is important as well. If it is time urgent, we will use air. If it is less time urgent, we rely on other assets. But in general we deliver about 90% of our equipment by surface modes and 10% by air. In Afghanistan, based on the threat, we deliver approximately 80% by surface and 20% by air.
The TACC or the Tanker Airlift Control Center is a unique asset for managing from one operations floor US airlift, both commercial and military, as well as tanking and inter-theater medevac assets. As General Allardice put it:
What we do and the “why” of our existence at the 18th Air Force level is to set the global mobility enterprise up for success. In simple terms we are the warfighting headquarters for AMC. What that means is that we support General Johns’ AFTRANS role by providing a robust mobility capability to the combatant commanders through U.S. Transportation Command. In practical terms, the first component of the enterprise is our active, reserve and guard air mobility wings in the continental United States. They generate the airplanes, the crews to fly them, and then of course, they generate airmen that deploy out into the world to support a variety of Air Force missions, many of which directly support our global mobility enterprise.
Another key piece of the global enterprise is our two air mobility operations wings. They support the enroute structure, 16 main enroute locations and numerous other bases operating worldwide in the Pacific, throughout Europe, and in the Mideast. It’s a fairly lean organization, ranging from small, two-person detachments all the way up to robust squadrons. They’re the ones that catch the airplanes, refuel the airplanes, and fix the airplanes. If a crew needs rest, they’ll make sure there’s billeting for them, and they’ll run a crew stage. Simplistically, what I say is they accelerate the flow of iron throughout the world. The third major piece is our contingency response wings, CRWs, and that’s the expeditionary part. They’re not fixed. The CRWs are made up of a variety of small teams, but in many ways the crown jewel is the contingency response group. These are the expeditionary groups that can go out and open up a bare base anywhere in the world. They are self-contained organizations, about 110 people. Their whole purpose is to act as a forward hub so that our airplanes can flow in, perform their mobility mission and flow back out again.
Simplistically, what I say is they accelerate the flow of iron throughout the world.
An illustration of two ways beyond the obvious ability to support aircraft operating throughout the Pacific, that the TACC and related capabilities shape scalability in the Pacific are the following: the airdropping revolution and the ability to move troops rapidly through the AOR.
First, the airdropping revolution means that the USAF can supply honeycombed deployed forces throughout the AOR. This capability was discussed in the interview with General Allardice.
SLD: Could you talk about the whole revolution in airdropping?
General Allardice: Absolutely. Right now, I would say we are in the longest sustained airdrop in history. Since 2005, we’ve been airdropping virtually every day. We’ve doubled or tripled our load every year since then. Last year we dropped about 60 million pounds of supplies. This year we’ll exceed 100 million. The interesting thing is the revolution or leaps in the technology of not just the delivery but the rigging, as well as our understanding of collateral damage, et cetera. We understand that when you’re dropping a pallet if it goes off the drop zone or even if it’s on the drop zone, if it kills somebody that’s no different than if a bomb killed somebody, so we really focus on that. I think there’s been a tremendous revolution and improvement in our airdrop rigging, and accuracy; and when you get into the Joint Precision Airdrop System, the JPAS, that’s even higher.
SLD: When you put that data out there about air dropping trends, it’s impressive in and of itself, but when you think of the CONOPS implications they are significant as well. I don’t even need to use roads to actually start inserting a force. Interestingly for the Marines when they’re looking at the amphibious ready group (ARG) and what they could do with the future ARG, with their MC-130Js that can land in 3,000 feet or less, the Ospreys and the B’s that they could put basically on almost any paved highway worldwide. They could be anywhere in the world, and then people say, “Well how would you supply them,” and I would say, “Well what do you think we’ve been doing in the last ten years?” So if we marry up this revolutionary air dropping capability with projection of force from the sea, we could have a much more flexible and powerful insertion force if we wanted to.
General Allardice: I agree. Our new air dropping capabilities can be used to support our global operations in new and innovative ways…
A second example is the ability to move troops from CONUS to Pacific areas of operations. We recently published an interview with Master Sgt. Adam Smith, U.S. Army. In the video, we showed footage of 501st Parachute dropping in support of Talisman Sabre, Shoalwater Bay Training Area.U.S. soldiers with 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, Fort Richardson, Alaska, were seen parachuting from a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft into the Shoalwater Bay Training Area during Talisman Saber 2011.
TS11 is an exercise designed to train U.S. and Australian forces to plan and conduct Combined Task Force operations to improve combat readiness and interoperability on a variety of missions from conventional conflict to peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance efforts.
Of course, none of this is possible if the air environment is not permissive or protected. A key role to provide for that protection and to ensure a capability to ramp up the scale to ensure strategic dominance is provided by the combat air force.
The USAF operating off of land bases in CONUS and forward deployed in the Pacific provides a key essential element in ensuring strategic dominance throughout the scale of capability. The dwindling numbers of combat air are clearly threatening the ability of the USAF to play this role, and the very slow roll out of 5th generation aircraft integrated with the fleet is threatening as well.
As General Corley underscored in an interview on the website:
The enduring goals, ends, or objectives of the combat Air Force (CAF) are underpinned by a set of concepts of operations. For the air domain, air superiority is a service core competency of the Air Force, bolstered by collaborative competencies from other services that also contribute to air superiority. This is a constant of operations that underpins operational freedom of action. If you don’t underpin operational freedom of action, then again, your freedom from attack, freedom to attack, freedom to maneuver vanishes. If that vanishes for the joint force, then I don’t think you have an effective fighting joint force. I also think your ability to dissuade/deter comes called into question.
Frankly, the unraveling of the CAF is already significantly underway. The USAF is becoming like the USCG, able to surge to an operation, with very little staying power beyond that surge. This is not a situation in which the United States would wish to find itself.
General Corley then discussed how to best proceed in an era of constrained financial resources to empower such a concept of operations supporting the global ends of the U.S. military and the CAF. Throughout the interview, General Corley highlighted that to achieve core strategic objectives in a constrained environment, it was crucial to build upon the new air combat capabilities provided by the F-22/F-35 force. The capabilities of a deployed “stealth sensor integrated force” to operate as the tip of the spear and to enable the rest of the air and joint force to operate globally was highlighted.
Leveraging the legacy fleet with selective modernization to work more effectively with the “re-normed” air arm based on the F-22/F-35 was significant, but he warned against buying new “legacy” aircraft because of their inherent limitations. The approach is to leverage extant legacy assets through building the foundation provided by F-22s and F-35s.
“For example, if I’ve got a fleet of F-15s, how can I leverage those F15s in a potential future environment at the challenging end of the scale with the range of military operations? F-15s today, or F-18s, or F-16s, do not possess the needed survivability inside an anti-access environment. One can say what you will, argue what you won’t, they will not be survivable. And from con-ops point of view, they’re being pushed further and further out due to terminal defenses or country wide or regional defenses that exist. And this diminishes their utility, but they can still be effectively utilized. For example you may take an existing platform, like an F-15 from the Air Force and begin to apply a pod to provide for infrared search tracking, so that it could basically begin to detect assets and then feed that information back to other assets. Or, by providing for connectivity with some advanced tactical data link, that platform, in turn, could be directed to launch weapons from it.”
(And for a complete look at the Corley presentation on re-shaping the CAF see
The growing challenges to the USAF to be able to play the role essential in the Pacific is real. Questions of ethos and capabilities are central to the challenge. As Lt. General (Retired) Deptula has warned:
It’s in the Nation’s interest to secure national objectives through deterrence, dissuasion, and regional shaping—in other word’s peace through strength. To do so requires sufficient numbers of capable systems to win 99 to 1, vice 51 to 49. When combat operations are necessary, we must employ forces capable of securing our country’s objectives in an efficient and effective manner—projecting focused and intelligent power, and minimizing liabilities and vulnerabilities….
One should understand that the only thing more expensive than a first rate Air Force is a second rate Air Force.
Secretary Wynne will provide in a later piece in this series how this can be done in South Korea by rolling in three F-35A squadrons and re-setting the entire combat air force as combat role of aircraft in support of joint and allied operations in the Korean peninsula.
(A first piece in this effort can be seen here
In short, the USAF is a key element for Pacific operations and a key element in shaping global operations in a global security enterprise. It does so by providing lift and tanking as well as selective elements of the Combat Air Force (CAF) throughout various segments of the honeycomb as presence is established and enhanced. And with a large enough CAF can ensure strategic dominance in a scalable approach. This dominance is clearly threatened today by the slow roll out of 5th generation aircraft and a recapitalization rate which will replace legacy aircraft in a hundred years.
This is a contribution to the strategic whiteboard.