Driven by the hard lessons of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the U.S. armed services are reforming their doctrine and force structure to better prepare for battling long, complex insurgencies. In April, Defense Secretary Robert Gates promised to accelerate the pace of change, when he announced major shifts in the Pentagon’s weapons-procurement plans. “We must re-balance this department’s programs in order to institutionalize and finance our capabilities to fight the wars we are in today and the scenarios we are most likely to face in the years ahead.”
Of all the U.S. military services, the Air Force has arguably been the most reluctant to evolve. While the Army and Marines have added forces tailored for low-intensity warfare and the mission to advise and train foreign militaries, the Air Force has stuck to its Cold War-style wings and squadrons, predominantly equipped with high-tech fighters. In his budget announcements, Gates promised deep cuts to the fighter fleet. During a visit to an air base in Alaska in April, Gates said U.S. capabilities in tactical aircraft are “far superior to that of any potential competitor for at least the next 15 to 20 years.”
Comfortable with this perceived lead, the Pentagon is planning a major shake-up of Air Force organization, to boost the air service’s counter-insurgency (COIN) ability. The biggest changes are still a closely guarded secret, incorporated in the forthcoming 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. But recent events have offered hints at the shape of the future, COIN Air Force.
In the last six years, the USAF has had a chance to build a new, foreign air force, practically from scratch, tailoring it to fight exactly the kind of war Gates believes will be more common in coming decades. Beginning in 2003, the U.S. Air Force has led efforts to build a new Iraqi air service, after effectively destroying Saddam Hussein’s Soviet-style air force, during the course of two bombing campaigns.
The new Iraqi air force is designed for sustained COIN operations. Its major equipment includes twin-engine King Air turbo-props, equipped with sensors and data-links, and intended to provide intel to ground forces. Looking forward, the USAF is supporting the Iraqi air force’s program to buy armed light-attack aircraft for close air support. These might take the form of single-engine Super Tucanos, a type popular with COIN-focused militaries.
Not coincidentally, the USAF has launched purchases of similar aircraft. Encouraged by the U.S. Army’s successful use of modified, surveillance-optimized King Airs, working in tandem with armed drones, the Air Force is buying an initial batch of 36 MC-12W King Airs, under the so-called Project Liberty program. Each MC-12W costs around $15 million, compared to at least $100 million for an F-22 or F-35 fighter. The MC-12W’s first combat sortie is slated for this month.
Light attack aircraft are also on the horizon. Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz said the air service is considering arming its fleet of T-6 turbo-prop trainers, so that specially-trained instructor pilots can double as light-attack pilots for COIN missions.
The MC-12W and T-6 might represent “interim” platforms for Air Force COIN. Robert Day, the “irregular-warfare” director for the USAF’s Air Staff, said the Air Force is studying up to 60 aircraft types to equip a future COIN wing, that would both train foreign militaries and participate in combat operations. Schwartz compared the wing to the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service. In other words, a deployable force with a broad range of responsibilities, intended to operate behind the scenes, in austere and dangerous environments.
Armed drones will also play a huge role in the COIN Air Force. While spending on manned aircraft has slipped in recent years, investment in unmanned aircraft has grown. In 2010, the Air Force will buy 24 MQ-9 Reaper armed drones, for roughly $20 million apiece. The USAF is on track to have 50 “orbits” of Reapers and smaller Predator drones, pictured, by 2011 — double what the air service thought it would have, just a couple years ago. One orbit represents three or four drones, plus their ground stations. In a dramatic acknowledgment of the increasing importance of drones, in April, Marine Corps General James Cartwright, the vice chairmen of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, said Reapers would now be counted as fighters.
Critics have lamented the slow decline of the USAF’s manned fighter force. In January 2007, defense industry analyst Loren Thompson announced “the death of U.S. air power.” But what Thompson has called a “meltdown” is actually a grudging evolution. The Air Force is finally getting the organizations and aircraft it needs to fight current and future wars.
(Photo: Bryan William Jones)