Air Force Shifting Focus to Future Wars
“We were doing so much that our readiness rates were decreasing,” said Air Force Gen. William M. Fraser III, chief of Air Combat Command, based at Langley, Va.
A drop in preparedness for a major air war does not pose any immediate dangers — the enemies the United States is fighting today do not have air forces that can compete with the USAF. But U.S. senior commanders from regions of the world other than Iraq or Afghanistan have cautioned that the Air Force cannot risk losing “air superiority” in potential conflicts against still-unknown future enemies, Fraser said at a Nov. 9 Air Force Association conference in Arlington, Va.
After a series of discussions with combatant commanders, Fraser said, “We are going through a deliberate process of categorizing the missions they expect us to be able to do.” The feedback from commanders will shape training priorities for Air Force units, Fraser said. A top concern is the Air Force’s ability to dominate the airspace in areas where enemies may deploy surface-to-air missiles or other defenses. “As I listen to the combatant commanders, as I listen to the other services, they expect us to own the air,” Fraser said. “We owe that to them.”
The plan is to reorganize units’ schedules so they can bolster their skills in conventional air-warfare disciplines such as “suppression of enemy air defenses,” or “destruction of enemy air defenses,” said Fraser. The ability to support current wars with spy aircraft and other ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) assets will not be affected, he said.
“We’ll prioritize the training and be more efficient with the resources that I have,” said Fraser. Some missions will have to take a back seat, depending on what combatant commanders see as the more pressing needs, he said. “We’ll have to draw a line” because there are not enough resources to do everything, he added.
“Some units are so heavily tasked that they can’t accomplish all the tasks we’ve asked them to do,” Fraser told National Defense following his speech. “So we’re going to prioritize those tasks.”
Airmen will be assigned to train more intensively for certain combat missions that are deemed essential. For less compelling missions, airmen will only be required to be “familiarized” with some skills, as opposed to being “ready,” Fraser said.
“That will offload some of the training requirements to simulators” instead of live flying, he said. “Some things we’ll train to a higher readiness level, others only to familiarization level.”
An added bonus of doing more training in simulators is that it saves money and fuel, Fraser said. “We don’t have the ability to do it all in the air.”
The readiness review initiative has yet to be approved by the Air Force top leadership. The secretary and the chief of staff will be briefed in February at one of the Air Force’s high-level Corona meetings, where major command commanders, Air Staff civilian leaders, Air Force combatant commanders and the chief master sergeant of the Air Force debate challenges facing the service.
“I look forward to getting it approved so we align our capabilities and our training,” Fraser said.
Air Combat Command also will be studying how unmanned aircraft might be employed in future wars. The command is rapidly building up a fleet of remotely piloted aircraft to meet the Pentagon’s goal of deploying 65 combat air patrols in U.S. Central Command by 2012.
Remotely piloted surveillance aircraft will still be needed long after current wars are over, said Fraser. Combatant commanders have asked ACC to draft a “concept of operations” for how unmanned warplanes will be employed in the future, particularly in areas where control of the airspace may be challenged by an adversary. This topic also will be part of the discussion at the upcoming Corona meeting, said Fraser. “We want to understand the needs and requirements in the future. We’ve been focusing on CENTCOM. But we know there are other requests from other commands,” he said. “I foresee in the future a continued use of these systems. What that number is I don’t know.”
One issue that would have to be worked out is what communications and navigation networks might have to be deployed to operate unmanned aircraft in certain areas of the globe. To support the CENTCOM area, the Air Force is able to launch drones from U.S. bases and then hand them off to local commanders. In other parts of the world, however, there may not be an “overhead architecture” to do that, said Fraser. “We’ll have to have an understanding of the coverage and the communications architecture needed in various theaters.”