The US Air Force aims to make itself light, lean and, most importantly, lethal

DeeDee Doke/LONDON


The impending transmutation of the US Air Force into a light, lean and lethal expeditionary aerospace force is akin to US-style football, says Maj Gen William Hinton (left).

"We haven't changed what we do," says Hinton, who is the director of implementation for the USAF's expeditionary aerospace force (EAF) concept. "We still block and tackle. It's the way we take the field. It's the plays we make."

On 1 October, the USAF will formally launch its 21st century vision of tailoring its forces to fit specific contingencies while giving airmen greater predictability in their service lives in the face of continuing instability in south-west Asia and the Balkans. Work in progress

Its planners admit the EAF concept is "a work in progress", but it will nevertheless first be applied to distributing the USAF's standing deployment workload throughout 15-month cycles in which most flying units and airmen will be "on call" for a 90-day period as part of one of 10 aerospace expeditionary forces (AEF). Comprising a cross-section of USAF weapon systems, equipment and specialists, the AEFs represent aerospace capability in "predetermined, scheduled sets of forces", the USAF says. At locations where an in-place command-and-control (C2) structure does not exist, the lead wing in a given AEF will assume those responsibilities.

Almost all USAF wings will provide aviation or combat support forces or both to the AEFs, but USAF Special Operations units will not be incorporated. Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) units based on the Korean peninsula have also been exempted because of the continuing North Korean threat.

Five mobility lead wings will be paired to the AEFs to respond to non-combat operations such as disaster relief, humanitarian aid and evacuations, while two crisis response aerospace expeditionary wings will be on call to back up the AEFs as a rapid response force for an unanticipated crisis.

Not every element assigned to each AEF will be deployed each time it or he or she comes up on the 15-month cycle. "We as the aerospace experts will determine what system needs to be applied," says Lt Col Jeff Cohen, deputy chief of plans at US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), Ramstein AB, Germany. This will depend on the deployment's needs.

The expeditionary concept has been tested several times from the USAF's European bases over the past year in a diverse range of operations including the Kosovo air campaign and humanitarian missions. In the prescribed 15-month cycle, however, AEF No1 will tap the 388th Fighter Wing from Hill AFB, Utah, for duty in south-west Asia, an all-too familiar region for the wing's three Lockheed Martin F-16 squadrons. Col Mike Hostage, the 388th's commander, does not expect "a big change", for at least the first AEF deployment.

While Hostage applauds the USAF's effort to introduce greater predictability to his operation, any deployment that borrows jets from squadrons of 18 aircraft each leaves the 388th without "a viable flying operation" on the home front. A USAF goal is to bolster its fighter squadrons to 24 aircraft each, but political opposition has slowed the process at Hill AFB and elsewhere.

"When it comes time to deploy, if you take a useable package of aircraft out of an 18-aircraft squadron, there's really nothing left you can do with it," says USAFE commander Gen John Jumper. "If you take six or 12 aircraft out of a 24-squadron, you can still do something else. You can still train adequately back home. It gives you much more flexibility."

The EAF refines and adds flexibility to a concept the USAF embraced after the Gulf War to tailor air power packages to a given contingency. In a "composite wing", different types of aircraft were permanently assigned to a specific base and were intended to deploy together in a crisis response. Hinton, the EAF's implementation chief, commanded one such unit himself - the 366th Air Intervention Composite Wing, at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho.

More depth

Both concepts were designed to provide "a relatively broad spectrum of air power", but the composite wings had no depth, Hinton says. The new operational model adds depth and gives more capabilities, he says.

The EAF concept continues to evolve. Should USAF's standing commitments to Operations Northern Watch and Southern Watch evaporate, it would evolve even further. "There are wrinkles that need to be worked out," Hinton says. "Some processes slowed because of the Kosovo experience."

The 388th's Hostage is telling his airmen to wait and see what benefits the EAF will bring, but he acknowledges that "we [the USAF] are our own worst enemies. We will not say 'no' to national and world commitments".

Source: Flight International