Though late to the irregular warfare game, after considerable cajoling from Defense Secretary Robert Gates and now with an air chief with a real interest in the subject, Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force has begun, albeit slowly, embracing elements of the irregular warfare mission.
So far, the service has made an admirable effort, according to a new report from RAND’s Project Air Force, but it has a long way to go to adjust to the future irregular warfare world. To get there more quickly and more effectively, RAND proposes a wide menu of options to better institutionalize the irregular warfare (IW) mindset, boost partnering with foreign air forces and provide more forward air controllers to work with small, widely distributed ground units.
One of the authors of the new report, “Courses of Action for Enhancing U.S. Air Force “Irregular Warfare” Capabilities,” is David Ochmanek, former RAND researcher and now Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Development.
The Air Force is going to be in both Iraq and Afghanistan for the long haul, so they might as well settle in and prepare for heavy involvement in flying close air support, ISR and training both the Iraqi and Afghan air corps, RAND says. The Iraqi military lacks a functional air arm, which means the U.S. Air Force will be Iraq’s Air Force for many years.
To help build out the Iraqi and Afghan air forces will demand a lot more airmen serving as advisors, RAND says. The advisor training pipeline should be expanded to support around 800 advisors in Iraq and Afghanistan along with another 400 with Air Force Special Operations Command. The latter initiative includes adding another combat aviation squadron in AFSOC. Ultimately, advisory training should be expanded to train 1,500 advisors for both the general purpose and special operations wings in the USAF.
The Air Force needs a new COIN plane, RAND says. It should stand up a dedicated COIN air wing equipped with about 100 of the currently undefined “OA-X” light attack aircraft. Such an aircraft would greatly facilitate partnering with Iraqi and Afghan aviators, while lowering the costs and reducing excessive flying hour demands for high-performance aircraft such as the F-16.
Additionally, as “partners are more likely to want aircraft that U.S. forces are flying to great effect,” building and operating a COIN aircraft would simultaneously boost support for ground troops while “whetting the appetite of partners who are prematurely looking to acquire high-performance jet aircraft such as the F-16.”
RAND suggest adding 30 more manned MC-12 ISR aircraft to the service’s “Project Liberty,” which is fielding 37 of the new aircraft to increase coverage and responsiveness to ground commanders. The Air Force should also develop and deploy a next-generation, low observable gun ship to support special operators. It could be either manned or unmanned and should have a large magazine and long loiter time. A new "low observable mobility platform" is also needed for insertion, extraction and resupply of SOF. The new AFSOC gunship and mobility platform would be small buys, around 24 aircraft for each.
One of the more promising initiatives RAND proposes is to add Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is one area where the Air Force can really make a difference in distributed operations. The air controller training pipeline must be expanded. Interestingly, RAND says building a new COIN aircraft may help. “Equipping some units with a dedicated CAS platform for COIN would support the increased requirements for live CAS training of Air Force JTACs and their Army counterparts.”
To increase the effectiveness and efficiency of air support to distributed and decentralize ground troops the Air Force must “embed air expertise forward” among the Army’s small units, RAND says. This would require the creation of IW “air effects” cells, led by a colonel with staff, at corps, division and joint task force levels to facilitate air support planning and coordination (the Air Force loves to talk about “effects”). Also, “air planning” cells should be beefed up at the brigade level and potentially the battalion level as well.
One of the biggest challenges the Air Force faces is the service’s “institutional mindset,” RAND says; in other words, the powerful “fighter mafia” that favors spending on air superiority fighters rather than a “low-and-slow” IW aircraft. If the Air Force is serious about embracing IW as a core competency, it must bump IW way up in priority by ensuring becoming an IW specialist isn’t a “kiss of death” for a USAF career. Selecting top officers for advisory missions would be a big step in the right direction (the Army hasn’t even gotten this one right, so I wouldn’t expect the Air Force to anytime soon).
Through speeches, policy guidance and weapons programs, the Air Force leadership must convince airmen that IW will remain a core mission even after the Iraq drawdown. And, as with any large bureaucratic organization, changing the mindset requires an additional layer of management, to “monitor and direct IW activities in the Air Force with unity of purpose.”
RAND proposes three alternatives: create a new directorate in the Air Force A-staffs (e.g., A3/5); or, create a new deputy chief of staff organization for IW headed by a two or three star; or, stand up a new division-plus sized IW organization by expanding the IW Task Force and putting it under a two star.