The US Air Force is shifting priorities and working on a major facelift of its force structure

Graham Warwick/WASHINGTON DC

Air power is on the verge of major changes, but it will take time to reshape today's force structure for the realities of expeditionary operations and coalition warfare, say senior US Air Force officials.

"The ship doesn't turn 90° overnight," says Gen Gregory Martin, the USAF's acquisition executive. "It takes us a while to troubleshoot what the new EAF [expeditionary aerospace force] construct will require. We have thought very carefully about what the EAF will require to deploy an AEF [air expeditionary force] forward quickly and have it sustainable, protected, connected and ready to engage. It turns out we weren't necessarily doing anything wrong, but we now have to shift some priorities," he says.

According to Gen Bruce Carlson, deputy chief of staff for requirements, "we are on the edge of some big changes in air power, much like we were in the early 1980s, when we saw stealth technology emerge and change the whole concept of how to deal with an integrated air defence system".

For Carlson, the first big change will be the ability to operate effectively in bad weather. "We have figured out how to fly routinely at night. The next step is through the weather at night. We've started that with the [Northrop Grumman] B-2 - for the first time, we have the capability to deliver precision weapons through the weather at night or during the day," he says.

The next big challenge is what Carlson calls rapid targeting. "We used to be satisfied with the idea that you could suppress enemy air defences. It would be much more effective if we could kill them," he says. "If you can figure out a way to target them rapidly, you can kill them, even if they shut off. If we can solve this rapid targeting problem, through the weather at night, we will able to take out weapons of mass destruction before they are launched."

It can typically be hours between a sensor platform detecting a radar emitter or missile launcher and a strike aircraft attacking the target. "If we can reduce that timeline to minutes, or even seconds, it will become too dangerous to move," says Carlson. Citing new precision weapons such as the Joint Direct Attack Munitions and Joint Stand-off Weapon, he says: "The tools of destructive power are coming of age. Now we've just got to figure out a way to reduce the timeline.

System of systems

"We haven't got the answer yet," he says, "but we don't think it's a single system-it's a system of systems." While the USAF is likely to develop new sensors such as hyperspectral imagers and low-frequency radars, Carlson says the focus will be on tying together intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets with datalinks. "It boils down to better command and control of ISR assets, and getting that information to the decision makers quickly so that we can do rapid targeting," he says.

Martin concurs, saying: "We need to do a better job of gathering data from our sensor systems, synchronising it, correlating it, using it and presenting a coherent picture of what's happening." The next step, he says, "is an analysis tool that will help us roll the clock forward faster than real time to give us an idea of what the likely outcomes are."

Better use of ISR assets has become important, Martin says, "because an air expeditionary force, to be effective as fast as possible, and low footprint, will need to reach back [to the USA] and gather the data that is coming from many disparate sources". Reach-back, as it is called, is key to reducing the amount of ground equipment that has to be deployed forward to support an expeditionary operation.

"This is becoming much more important to us because our platforms and weapon systems have reached a level of sophistication where they are perhaps able to operate at a greater rate than we can provide them with appropriate dynamic tasking for targets of importance," Martin admits.

"Before, we didn't have to worry because our weapons weren't as accurate. It took a lot more aircraft to strike a target set - an entire force package would be oriented towards one target set area, and our information management systems kept up with that. Now, they might be able to hit anywhere between 16 and 40 target sets per day with the same basic force structure, yet our [tasking] systems may not be able to give them [targets]," he says. How quickly a war can be won, Martin says, "is now a function of how fast we can process the information".

Maintaining the USAF's mobility is also crucial, says Martin. "We are fortunate that we saw this in the 1980s when we designed the C-17 and that we hung with it through some pretty dark days," he says. Of 6,000 airlift sorties completed during the Kosovo conflict, he points out, over 3,000 were accomplished by the 40 C-17s available, compared to 1,000 by the USAF's 126 C-5s and 700 by its 154-strong C-141 force.

"That operation showed that the aircraft that could haul large amounts of cargo, land on tactical strips and have mobility on the ground has became hugely importance to us," Martin says. "As we get into the aerospace expeditionary force mindset, having agile and very rapid global mobility is going to be critical," he adds.

The third area of change identified by Martin is driven by the demand to minimise friendly losses and civilian casualties. "The conflicts that we find ourselves supporting are more and more demanding of robust protection on the ground and in the air, so that we don't lose people, but they are also demanding very high precision for minimum collateral damage," he says. "If I can make a precision weapon that is just as precise, but smaller, the chance of collateral damage is less." As a result, the USAF is taking a "hard look" at small smart munitions.

Martin also emphasises the increasing importance of space to the USAF's operations. "A large part of our ISR is heavily dependent on space or is cued from space," he says. The service maintains five satellite constellations for communications, navigation, weather forecasting and early warning. While it continues to launch satellites to sustain those constellation, the USAF is also modernising all five systems, Martin emphasises.

How to defend those space assets is a looming question. "We are somewhat constrained by what we can do when it comes to using weapons in space," he says, "but the fact is that the more we become dependent on space, the more it becomes an area of advantage and disadvantage, and something we cannot ignore that an adversary might use against us." The USA will have to find ways to protect its space systems, he says. "Ultimately-the military forces will be asked to figure out ways to protect the commercial systems," he believes.

In the nearer term, the focus is on filling those gaps in capability that have been highlighted by the EAF concept. "The purpose of the EAF was to get rid of this very chaotic and turbulent scheduling process that our people were coping with," says Martin. "We want to have a series of AEFs that are roughly equivalent, so that they can do the rotation as a unit, instead of picking and packing units at a helter-skelter schedule.

"The EAF was set up to try to put together equal capability forces. At that point, we begin to find the shortfalls," he says. Acknowledging that the USAF may be short of "low density/ high demand" assets, such as the AWACS airborne warning and control system, battlefield surveillance Joint-STARS and electronic intelligence Rivet Joint, that need to be deployed with the AEF, Martin admits: "We may have to go 'light'." The Global Hawk unmanned air vehicle (UAV) could be a "light U-2", he points out, and asks: "If the [Lockheed] U-2 can give the CINC [theatre commander-in-chief] 90% of what he asks for, but the limited number of them only allows him to have them 30-40% of the time, would the CINC like to have something that would give him 60% of the capability 90-100% of the time?"

Global Hawk hopes

As the USAF forms its AEFs, Martin says, "there are things that the Global Hawk will be able to do that will reduce the U-2 [operational] tempo". Similarly, if the Discoverer II space-based radar works as planned, he says, then its 24h-a-day moving target indication capability could reduce demand for the Joint-STARS.

Carlson is cautiously optimistic about the prospects for UAVs, but stresses that they "are not for everything. Their utility varies with the level of technology that is on place at the time." The USAF used UAVs extensively in the 1960s, but for "very limited missions" because they could not be recovered reliably.

"The indications are that we have made a jump in technology, and can now get the reliability required and the precision necessary to consistently land these vehicles without crashing them," Carlson says. "If true-it appears that UAVs have a new set of utilities." He cites ISR and communications relay roles as likely near-term candidates. "But it will take some more leaps in technology before we are ready to start doing close air support with these things," he says. While unmanned combat air vehicles "are not there yet", Carlson says, "the air force thinks we're there with the GlobalHawk - it's time to begin a serious programme."

While acknowledging that the USAF is looking closely at the requirements for systems and weapons that have emerged from recent operations, Carlson cautions against channelling too much of the service's resources towards fighting low-intensity conflicts. "The recent operation in Serbia, although it used the materiel and the [operational] tempo of a major theatre war, was not in reality a war," he says. "It's important that we don't lose focus on what it is that we really have to do because there will come a time when the situation will not be antiseptic, when the victory will not be bloodless and the war will not be brief. We need to be prepared for that."

Source: Flight International