Failure to score on shifting goalposts

SecDef Robert Gates issued a rare public boot in the pants to the U.S. Air Force two days ago, citing the service’s supposed inability to contribute meaningful results to the Global War on Terror.  Particularly nettlesome is the difficulty in ramping up theatre deployment of UAVs in numbers sufficient to make the DoD brass and unified combatant commanders happy.

WASHINGTON (AP) — In unusually blunt terms, Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday challenged the Air Force, whose leaders are under fire on several fronts, to contribute more to immediate wartime needs and to promote new thinking.

Gates singled out the use of pilotless surveillance planes, in growing demand by commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, as an example of how the Air Force and other services must act more aggressively.

…”In my view we can do and we should do more to meet the needs of men and women fighting in the current conflicts while their outcome may still be in doubt,” he said. “My concern is that our services are still not moving aggressively in wartime to provide resources needed now on the battlefield.”

He cited the example of drone aircraft that can watch, hunt and sometimes kill insurgents without risking the life of a pilot. He said the number of such aircraft has grown 25-fold since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to a total of 5,000.

— Robert Burns, “Pentagon chief urges Air Force to embrace change“.  Associated Press, April 21st, 2008.

The Air Force Association—an independent, nonprofit, civilian aerospace organization that promotes public understanding of aerospace power and national defense—fired back with the following chart and points in its April 22nd Daily Report (whose major points I excerpt in full):

mq1_program_chart (original PDF chart available here )

  • Predator requirements from USAF have been ballooning since early Fiscal 2007, when it readjusted the program of record for the MQ-1 force to reach the Joint Requirements Oversight Council-directed 21 Predator combat air patrols by October 2009. The Air Force programmed equipment and training to meet that mark.
  • In July 2007, at SECDEF’s request, USAF accelerated the drive to reach 21 CAPs by a year, setting its new goal post as October 2008. To meet that requirement, the service delayed upgrades to older equipment and used backup equipment, and it ramped up to train 160 crews per year, holding over current crews to help in that training.
  • In September 2007, SECDEF requested an increase to 18 CAPs by November 2007, which USAF accomplished by cutting ops testing and calling upon reserve personnel and prior Predator crews.
  • In January of this year, SECDEF directed yet another change—bumping up Predator CAPs to 24 by June 1. This latest directive, which the Air Force says it is “on track to meet,” takes the Predator push out of the “acceleration” bracket and into a “surge” because it exceeds the program of record and the JROC-validated requirement for 21 CAPs, states Air Force spokesman Maj. David Small.  The Air Force believes it can sustain this level of effort only through early 2009, when the Air National Guard mobilization must end, because it doesn’t have the end strength to continue. And, the service knows that its increased training pipeline will not be sufficient, so it plans to increase from 160 to 240 crews per year in Fiscal 2009

One of the SecDef’s main beefs is that the Air Force believes only certified pilots should be flying UAVs.  One of the rationales for this requirement is that UAVs share the same airspace and need to abide by certain rules of air safety and conduct that are routinely drilled into civil and military pilots alike.  I happen to think that this is a sensible precaution, given that even a small UAV can ruin a much bigger plane’s day if they both try to occupy the same airspace at the same time.

But I also realise that a UAV pilot is not necessarily going to be concerned about absolutely everything that the pilot of a manned aircraft would be.  There ought to be some room for lesser certification, although the exact line of demarcation is somewhat blurry and indistinct.  It is safe to assume, though, that very few pilots—civil or military—will be comfortable flying in the same airspace as somebody who didn’t have to jump through the same hurdles at the same level of difficulty and complexity.

Here are some other ways the Air Force is contributing to the war effort:

Air Sorties in War on Terrorism, Southwest Asia:
April 20, 2008

Sortie Type
CAS/Armed Recon
Air refueling

(source: AFA Daily Report, April 23rd, 2008)

OIF=Operation Iraqi Freedom
OEF=Operation Enduring Freedom
YTD=Year to Date
Airlift includes Horn of Africa data

Those figures aren’t a week, or a month.  Excepting the YTD column, they are the number of US Air Force missions flown daily in support of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Ninety close air support/armed recce missions a day.  One hundred and forty airlift missions every day.  And it’s worth pointing out that a significant number of those airlift missions have replaced road convoys, to lessen the effectiveness of IEDs.  Three-hundred-odd air missions of every type, every single day.  All week.  All year.

There are also somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 airmen filling ILO (in-lieu-of) taskings for ground forces (i.e. the Army and Marines) within Afghanistan and Iraq.

Where in these contributions is the Air Force failing to pull its weight, Mr. Secretary?

It would be nice if you and the Pentagon brass (not to mention the national media) articulated a more nuanced picture of events, and appreciated just how much the men and women in blue contribute to our ongoing war efforts.

RELATED: The AFA issues a pretty tart statement.

The Air Force is at the leading edge of innovation in the deployment of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), with 85 percent of Air Force’s Predators deployed to the Area of Responsibility (AOR). The remaining 15 percent are in depot, used for training or are in for maintenance. The reason the Air Force achieves this high rate of deployment is because so many of these UAVs are centrally controlled from Nevada. The Department of Defense requires 21 orbits flying 24/7 by 2010, but the Air Force already maintains 23 orbits today, 24/7 – two years ahead of pace. It is also worth noting that in the next budget the Air Force is purchasing 93 aircraft of which 52 are unmanned vehicles. To say the Air Force is not giving enough forces to support operations is mistaken.

All of this is juxtaposed with the U.S. Army Concept of Operations for its unmanned vehicles, organically assigned with only one-third in theater at any time. The Air Force is assisting the Army with its concept of operations to improve this performance.

In December of 2007, the Air Force offered to shut down training to send nearly 100 percent of its Predators to the AOR and the Defense Secretary rightly turned down this offer.

We can only conclude that the Secretary of Defense was referring to the Army in his remarks at Maxwell or he does not have enough air advice in key positions. We note that of the top 11 positions at Joint Staff, none of them are filled by Airmen.

[emphasis mine]

281639Z APR 2008 UPDATE: SecAF Michael W. Wynne and AF Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley issue a joint statement to correct the news media’s mischaracterisation of SecDef Gates’ largely positive remarks.

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4 Responses
  1. Damian says:

    We note that of the top 11 positions at Joint Staff, none of them are filled by Airmen.
    Too true. But I’d hope that the fact that the SecDef himself was commissioned as an Air Force officer would carry some weight there. And it’s instructive to note that while the media focused in on the UAV remarks made by Gates, they missed a couple of points of context which become more clear with a complete reading of the text of his speech.
    One is that his speech is filled mostly with praise for the Air Force, including the degree to which they have adapted to a new role, and the difficulty of that adaptation, given how dominant they were at the old role. I find it interesting that you chastise the Secretary using both airlift-replacing-convoys stats and ILO taskings, when Gates specifically mentioned both of those examples in a positive light in his speech that day:
    In the invitation to speak here, General Lorenz asked me to talk about challenges that you, as Air Force officers, will face as you become senior leaders. The Air Force has been in the process of constant change for decades, with a steady drumbeat of expeditionary air operations. Perhaps uniquely among the services, the Air Force has been at war more or less constantly for 17 years, since the launch of Desert Storm.
    Since September 11th, the Air Force has flown nearly a million missions in the war on terror, with an average of 300 sorties per day, ranging from lift to medevac to close air support.
    The contributions of airmen have made a real difference for those fighting on the ground. Survival rates for those injured are up to 90 percent, in part due to aeromedical evacuation. During Desert Storm, it took about 10 days to medevac wounded to the United States. Now it takes about 3 days.
    As Secretary Rice mentioned from this podium a week ago, the Air Force is doing some missions it would never have imagined in 2001, such as Air Force officers leading provincial reconstruction teams. In addition, there are about 14,200 airmen performing “in lieu of” tasks on the ground, where an Air Force civil engineer might replace an Army heavy construction engineer.
    And then there’s the example of Air Force Tech Sergeant Jeremy Sudlow of Pandora, Ohio, who logged more than 430,000 miles on Iraq’s roads as the convoy commander of a medium truck detachment. And in one month alone, C-17s helped take nearly 5,000 trucks off dangerous roads in Iraq.
    The other point that the media seems to have missed is that Gates’ task force to look into UAV issues is actually very similar to an earlier task force that dug into issues surrounding the MRAP – a ground force problem. So Gates is hardly singling out the USAF here.
    So when you say “Where in these contributions is the Air Force failing to pull its weight, Mr. Secretary?” I’d answer that it doesn’t seem to me like he does feel the Air Force isn’t pulling its weight. His concerns seem broader than that: “My concern is that our services are still not moving aggressively in wartime to provide resources needed now on the battlefield.” And because he was speaking to an Air Force audience, he used an Air Force example.
    Later that day, speaking to an Army audience at West Point, Gates admonished the cadets to always provide blunt, frank advice to their superiors, regardless of what the superiors want to hear. Reading both together, especially given his widely ignored remarks about USAF innovator Colonel John Boyd, it’s clear to me that the over-arching theme for the day was about speaking truth to power, and not letting bureaucratic concerns get in the way of results.
    I think those who see this as a directed slight on the USAF are mistaken.

  2. Chris Taylor says:

    His comments on the sacrifices of men and women in blue are encouraging. Otherwise I find his remarks disingenuous in light of the fact that the Air Force is presently making a supreme effort to meet UAV CAP requirements from the unified combatant commanders. There is no failure to move aggressively.
    The unwritten subtext is that he is pissed the Air Force brass don’t want to give up chunks of F-22 or F-35 program funding to cough up more UAVs, and this, in his mind, necessitates the “speaking truth to power”.
    Entirely absent is the concept of the Pentagon’s civilian leadership lobbying aggressively for all USAF’s unfunded requirements (for they are well beyond the point of being mere “priorities” now) when funding is allocated by Congress.

  3. Damian says:

    While your interpretation may be correct, I’m not sure this SecDef’s history supports that conclusion.
    Look at what happened with the MRAP task force. Gates threw a pile of high-level attention behind what he perceived to be a problem, he got inter-service cooperation and sacrifice to push a solution, he got authorization for administrative short-cuts to streamline the process, and he got more funding from Congress for his solution.
    In the case of UAV’s the bottleneck isn’t production, as it was with the MRAP. According to this article, it’s actually training Predator crews. We won’t know what solution the UAV task force will come up with until it’s proposed, and it’s tough to speculate on what that solution might be. But if we look at the MRAP task force, which Gates himself said was the template, I’d guess it will involve finding out the true obstacles to this mission imperative and removing them one by one within the constraints placed upon his department by his superiors. I suspect he’ll ask for (or likely demand) sacrifices from across all services if need be for this Air Force project, and that he’ll lobby for additional funding from Congress, as he did with the MRAP. I suspect he’ll also take a scythe to any administrative obstacles or fiefdom-building that he finds going on – an inevitability in any large bureaucracy, including the U.S. military.
    I’m actually a little surprised Gates is getting so much push-back on this from the Air Force community. This is an opportunity to push an Air Force program to the front of the line, get the resources and attention needed to make the required contribution to the missions, and come out on the right end of a can-do initiative.
    I still believe this is an over-reaction to perceived criticism by the Air Force partisans, and that with the right attitude it could be a huge opportunity instead.

  4. Chris Taylor says:

    The Air Force is pushing back because it has (in my opinion) well-founded concerns about the integration of UAVs flown by non-certified pilots and manned aircraft flown by certified pilots in the same airspace. Which I also mentioned in my post.
    That, combined with the SecDef’s tone-deafness to other AF concerns has not made him particularly popular in that community.
    If he were to get behind some of the recapitalisation efforts with gusto, that would probably go a long way to allaying the concerns of the average man or woman in blue. The fact is that the AF is receiving fewer new airframes now than it ever has in almost the entire the post-WW2 period. Those new airframes take 20-30 years to design, develop and deploy. And instead of developing 4-5 at a shot it is down to 1-2 every 20-30 years, which means there is zero margin for error. Those airframes have to work because there is no fallback. You well know where that kind of thinking got the CF a decade ago. And we are still not out of the woods yet. USAF started down that long, dark road in the 90s as well, but they had many more assets and could manage to retire the older, creakier ones without having a huge impact in mission capability. Now, that is no longer true.
    Then there are silly things like the Pentagon authorising massive increases in end-strength for all services (particularly the combatant ground forces), while insisting that no additional air mobility capability is required to move those new ground troops around. The Pentagon has only recently changed their thinking on that. Examples like that just don’t add up and, combined with the recap shortfalls, it causes a certain level of concern when the answer is inevitably more micromanagement from the top.
    In that respect Gates is not terribly different from his much-maligned predecessor.
    EDIT: To be blunt I think he owes the AF some assurances on the recapitalisation issues. The Air Force has been forced to do more combat with less inventory for the past 17 years. At a certain fast-approaching point it may be fine for asymmetric warfare, but will lose all deterrent capability. And then your problems become much, much worse.
    We have the luxury of fighting non-existential threats overseas in OIF/OEF because we are not presently weak enough to pose an attractive target to those who might wish to pose an existential threat. That won’t always be the case, and we hasten that day by letting air forces rust out. Particularly when that force is the security guarantor for quite a few others.