Changing Missions Influence Air Force Concept Planning

June 2005
By Robert K. Ackerman
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The U.S. Air Force is counting on the F/A-22 Raptor to perform many of the vital new missions that are emerging from the force transformation that is changing the U.S. military.
Technology and joint interoperation are influencing future capabilities.

The ongoing defense transformation is making the U.S. Air Force a much more expeditionary force than it was during the Cold War. Increasingly, interoperation with the other services is having a greater effect on defining Air Force missions than on its traditional personnel roles.

Much of the Air Force transformation is aimed at addressing a broader spectrum of threats, many of which cannot be addressed today. This transformation will comprise new technologies such as directed energy and will feature greater emphasis on some existing capabilities such as information operations.

Future expeditionary Air Force activities may involve scenarios such as controlling elements communicating with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that in turn is controlling a loitering munition that features a nonlethal agent. Hypersonic craft based in the United States may strike targets on the other side of the Earth and return to base before the day is over. Space might be an arena both for support and for active operations.

Not all changes are technological. The future total force will integrate active duty, Reserve, Guard and civilian forces to a greater degree, including blended wings. Learning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force is placing greater emphasis on the concept of battlefield airmen. The Battlefield Airmen project is consolidating combat controllers, pararescue personnel, combat weather and tactical air control parties into warfare specializations under a common structure.

While roles within the Air Force may not have changed as much as in the other services, the Air Force has seen a shift in its priorities. “We have to be able to do a lot of things across the entire spectrum with a limited budget,” says Mort Rolleston, a defense policy analyst with SAIC who works on the Air Force Transformation Flight Plan in the Future Concepts and Transformation Division. The ongoing quadrennial defense review underway may change roles and missions far more, he offers.

Within the Air Force, the greatest transformation-inspired shift is toward joint operations. Col. Gail Wojtowicz, USAF, director of the Air Force’s Future Concepts and Transformation Division, notes that about half of the Air Force budget goes to support joint warfighting. This includes airlift and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Rolleston adds that budget trends continue to point toward this focus, as less emphasis is applied to mass fires against traditional military forces.

Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan highlighted some of the changes in Air Force operations. Ground controllers deep in Afghanistan were able to direct precision-guided munitions against enemy targets very effectively. This capability helped rally anti-Taliban forces into action on the U.S. side. “You build credibility very quickly when you walk up to the mayor and say, ‘What can I solve for you?’ and he says, ‘I’ve got a hundred enemy soldiers up on that ridge. Can you take care of them?,’ and within 30 minutes the ridge disappears,” Col. Wojtowicz relates. “Your credibility [then] is pretty high.”

As a result, the Air Force has found itself assuming some roles that previously were the purview of the U.S. Army. Tactical air support, for example, has replaced traditional ground artillery fire in many cases. The introduction of large numbers of precision-guided munitions has increased the effectiveness of air support to the point where the Army is cross-training many of its artillery personnel as infantry, Col. Wojtowicz points out. The result is a shift of missions that increases the interdependency of the services in the joint arena.

Early in the Iraq War, roughly half of the Air Force’s long-range bombers would return to their home base fully loaded. The Army was moving so quickly across the country that the bombers could not determine which targets needed bombing. In many cases, the bombers would wait until the Army simply designated a kill box into which they could pour their munitions. Instead of wasting those aircraft’s capability, the two services can work to understand both the fluid battlefield and the available U.S. assets.

But, this interdependency brings up a potential problem. U.S. ground forces largely have not been fired on by an enemy aircraft since the Korean War, and now they are reducing their air defense capabilities. While most ground forces maintain shoulder-fired missiles to deal with helicopter threats, they tend to assume that the United States will continue to maintain total air supremacy. If the Air Force is challenged seriously over the battlefield, that assumption could prove damaging to the ground forces that plan around it.

Air Force personnel on the ground—the battlefield airmen—have run into challenges of their own. Rolleston relates that they have not been organized in the same manner as have other specialties in the Air Force, and their specialties require special organization, training and support. The Air Force’s Battlefield Airmen project is giving them more tools and more knowledge, Col. Wojtowicz allows. “If you train them to understand where they fit in with the fight—and all the airpower that is available to them that might be on call—now you give them the tools to have that situational awareness to be able to call into a command post for instantaneous strike,” she says.

These and other experiences in the war on terrorism, coming after the end of the Cold War, have turned the Air Force into a more expeditionary force. During the Cold War, the Air Force was forward-based and deployed where it was likely to fight. Now, with threats proliferating around the globe, the service must be able to respond virtually everywhere. And, it must fly more sorties than before, with resultant wear and tear on assets and people.

The Air Force will take smaller forces into theater than currently employed. These smaller forces would be enhanced by network centricity to have the same effect as massed forces, especially in joint fires operations.

UAVs will play a greater role in Air Force operations. The challenge facing the Air Force is to employ them wisely, the colonel offers. The Army currently has more UAVs than does the Air Force, and the numbers used by both services are likely to grow. This brings up issues of UAV air traffic control, beginning with who flies which UAVs at what altitudes.

Pilot training for UAVs is a priority. As more vehicles enter the airspace, control rests in the hands of remote pilots and sensor operators. Separating those disciplines will help fill the training pipeline with badly needed operators.

Col. Wojtowicz points out that the Air Force performs three activities well: precise targeting; airlift and transport; and command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The colonel offers that the Air Force is getting better at sharing knowledge and performing its operations faster. Several activities are contributing to improvements in those two disciplines.

In-transit visibility of cargo is providing faster transport of supplies to users, and the just-in-time approach is removing the need for stockpiling vast amounts of equipment.

Better adaptive planning also provides faster operation, and it is being realized through the establishment of a warfighting headquarters. This ensures that the necessary expertise is in place when the expeditionary force is called to operation. Information assurance allows improved information sharing. And, the colonel adds, the Air Force is doing a better job of linking with the other services, which will provide vital synergy in joint operations.

Information technology (IT) tools have permeated into every aspect of Air Force operations, the colonel observes. The service is seeing a shift from airmen as data users to airmen as data analyzers. Virtually all Air Force personnel must be “IT savvy” in the same way the nation is being IT-driven, she offers.

A civilian engineer checks a prototype of Boeing’s small diameter bomb installed in a B-2 bomber. The small diameter bomb will benefit from advanced sensor systems as it becomes a key element in the Air Force’s future arsenal.
Countering these strengths are five areas where the Air Force needs improvement: nonkinetic kills; hitting mobile targets such as surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and urban targets; responsive space launch; information operations (IO); and missile defense.

To develop nonkinetic kill capabilities, the Air Force is looking at directed energy weapons. One capability already demonstrated is an active defense system that would burn the skin of an enemy soldier. Electromagnetic pulse is another growth area where the Air Force needs further development.

To solve the problem of hitting mobile targets, the Air Force is counting on its new platforms coming online that will have their own sensors and datalinks. Having their data networked into other systems will allow the force to take advantage of the synergies arising from this widespread data sharing. This in turn will empower the small diameter bombs that are slated for deployment in the 2009 time frame. The F/A-22 Raptor should help take out advanced SAMs because its stealth capabilities and speed will help it operate inside a threat area. The SAM cannot attack it quickly enough. Improvements in time-sensitive targeting also are helping to address the challenge of mobile targets.

All of these mobile targeting advances can apply to urban targets, Col. Wojtowicz adds. “Urban [targeting] is really just time-sensitive targeting on steroids,” she says. “The issue is whether you can affect something very small, minimize your collateral damage and still do it in a time-sensitive manner.”

The Air Force is hard at work developing a responsive space launch capability that could put a payload into space with two hours notice. This payload should have an operational lifetime of at least 30 days at a cost of less than $10 million. The technology is not there yet, the colonel admits, but achieving this goal is a high priority.

Information operations should be a normal part of Air Force doctrine, Rolleston states. The Air Force is working to operationalize IO, but a significant part of this effort involves cultural change. Col. Wojtowicz offers, “It’s more about getting our minds around how to use it and the policy limitations or implications of using it.”

For missile defense, the Air Force is striving to combat both theater and cruise missiles. The airborne laser currently under development has demonstrated some capabilities, the colonel reports. Defense against cruise missiles will be aided again by the F/A-22 and its advanced radar suite.

For both challenges and opportunities, new technologies loom on the horizon. Directed energy will play a significant role in future Air Force operations, Rolleston predicts. This technology will pave the way for the service to become more involved in nontraditional operations that do not benefit from traditional weapons such as high explosives, for example, in urban environments.

But it is not limited to niche applications. Col. Wojtowicz relates that Lt. Gen. Ronald E. Keyes, USAF, deputy chief of staff for air and space operations, stated at a war game last year that directed energy is the next weapons race. Adversaries could employ the technology against U.S. sensors. “The threat is very real out there,” the colonel attests. “If nothing else, we have to develop our defensive capabilities against it, not just develop the next-generation gunship.” She adds that the Air Force is working on that gunship.

Loitering munitions are another future technology. These small devices or systems would loiter over urban areas waiting until a target rears its head—a terrorist or a known enemy vehicle—and then attack with precision. “We see a real thin line between UAVs and these loitering munitions,” Col. Wojtowicz says. “UAVs are recoverable, not expendable. You can reduce the cost by making something that is expendable.” Loitering munitions might include submunitions or nonkinetic effects.

Researchers are working on advanced energetics for improvements in both explosives and propulsion. This may lead to safer munitions that pack greater power as well as to new liquid and solid rocket propellants for air and space vehicles.

Some of these air and space vehicles may be hypersonic. The ability to strike at a target halfway around the world and return to base the same day will require advances in this technology, and it also may be the key to rapid space access.

And, as IO grows in importance, both electronic warfare and psychological operations are increasing as weapons in the Air Force arsenal for joint operations.


Web Resources
U.S. Air Force Transformation Flight Plan:
Defense Department Office of Force Transformation:


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