War on Terror Testing, Reinforcing Air Force Concepts
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 16, 2004 The war on terror is teaching the Air Force important lessons and validating others as the service prepares to celebrate its 57th birthday Sept. 18, according to Air Force Secretary James G. Roche.
It's emphasizing the success of the Air Expeditionary Force, the importance of joint operations and the critical contribution of the Guard and Reserve in the total force, he said.
Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan underscore the value of the Air Expeditionary Force, a highly specialized force Roche said is "able to respond in an instant's notice to be able to go great distances."
"We used to think that the most important thing was our base back home in the United States," the secretary said. "But increasingly, it is our performance in an expeditionary setting that is the most important thing that we do. And what we do back in the United States is prepare to go and deploy."
Roche said frequent operational deployments keep the Air Expeditionary Force trained for whatever missions come their way. When the Air Force flew into Afghanistan during the first night of Operation Enduring Freedom, for example, he said, 70 to 75 percent of the Air Force pilots involved had already been combat tested thanks to 12 years of patrolling northern and southern Iraqi skies during operations Northern Watch and Southern Watch using the Air Expeditionary Force concept.
"We were able to raise the pond of competence across our whole Air Force," Roche said. "So when we were called on to go to war, we didn't have to train anybody up."
Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom are also helping speed up what Roche called "a natural evolution" toward joint operations between the military services.
"We make a point that the Air Force will never fight alone. And the Army has the same position. They are never going to fight alone," the secretary said. "Therefore, it is natural that we do things in a joint way."
Roche said the war on terror has caused the services to focus closely on who was doing what and who could do it most efficiently, a process he said helped eliminate duplication. "You differentiate by the competence of a particular service," he said. "We're continuing to work that through. We're learning from each other and working very well together."
Airmen are already playing key roles in support of land forces, Roche said, not only in terms of getting the troops to the battlefield, but also in supporting their combat missions.
In addition to providing precise, close-air support for ground troops, Roche said the Air Force works through its air commandos to provide direct, on-the- ground support to Navy SEALS and Army Special Forces troops. Airmen are also providing combat support to the Army.
"We even had special-operations aircraft that, when they were not engaged in special operations, were then free for the air-component commander to assign to other missions," Roche said. Roche said the Air Force has learned the value of working closely with ground troops. "Our relationship to land forces is a key to our future," he said. "So we are not just space. We have to think and work closely with land forces, special operations forces, Marine Corps, Army, so that they recognize that we are there for them."
Roche said the war on terror is also proving out the value of Air Force technology, including unmanned vehicles and remotely piloted aircraft. "These things bring something to the battle that manned aircraft cannot," he said. They're able to operate at long ranges and demonstrate "digital acuity," which Roche said means they don't tire as a human would. "They're as sharp in the last hour of the mission as they are in the first hour of the mission," he said. "You can send them at very, very long ranges and keep them there."
But one of the most valuable features of unmanned vehicles and remotely piloted aircraft, Roche said, is that they never come home draped in an American flag. "You can send them into dicey areas where, if they are shot down, you don't have to write a letter to the mother of a computer chip," he said.
Roche said close-air support delivered by precision weapons from very high altitudes is another critical asset the Air Force is delivering to the war on terror. "The integration of space as well as air-breathing assets and the information that they all combine to give to the air-component commander was just remarkably better than it had been done before," Roche said. "The air- component commander, land-forces commander and maritime commander all benefited from that."
To keep up with the operational tempo, Roche said, the Air Force is relying heavily on the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve.
"We have the advantage that over the years, this relationship called the total force has worked so well because we have trained to the same standards," Roche said. Once Guard and Reserve members come on active duty, he said they quickly integrate alongside their active-duty counterparts.
"They learn the call signs, that have one familiarity flight and boom, they're off to war," he said. "They can do that."