John Noonan makes some very interesting and important points in his recent piece, "An Irregular Challenge." The Air Force does need to evaluate its role in low intensity conflict and must make the necessary investments to support that mission. John is also right in stating that the Air Force has yet to do that in a meaningful way:
"This is the accepted doctrine in Air Force circles. If you want to fight small, you've got to go big. Bulk up the force so that it can dominate peer/near-peer, and *poof* through the magic of air supremacy, we'll automatically be postured to effectively prosecute irregular wars. The problem, however, is that F-22 Raptors are not optimal IW platforms. Nor are Joint Strike Fighters, or B-1 bombers, or even older F-15s and F-16s"
And:
"I think what freaks Air Force types out about small wars talk (and equipping the force with short range slow-movers) is that they fear they'll go back to the days of subservience to the Army (shoot here, fly here). Zoomies are a proud bunch, and they take a certain satisfaction in the fact that they're our first line of defense against heavy hitters like Russia and China."
The problem for the Air Force, however, is that beyond some very secondary support function, it doesn't have much of a legitimate role in low intensity conflict (LIC). Airpower is about firepower. Firepower is almost irrelevant to low intensity conflict. Go to the AFA Daily Update, and look at the little box at the bottom, where it gives the daily number of sorties in Iraq by type. The vast majority are transport or tanker, with ISR and CAS/Armed Recon way back in the pack (and overall, the sortie rate is insignificant). When it comes to wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, the main role of the Air Force is trucking company, moving men and materiel from place to place. It can help, to a limited extent, by providing persistent surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, but systems like J-STARS, the U-2, or tactical reconnaissance aircraft can't really contribute much when the targets blend so well into the background. As I wrote in an earlier article, the main role of the Air Force is, and must remain, deterring and if necessary, defeating any emergent peer competitor (read China). That's going to require significant numbers of the most advanced fighter, attack and sensor aircraft, complete with the most sophisticated air-launched weapons. The qualitative margin of the U.S. over the PLAAF is constantly diminishing as the Chinese acquire more top-of-the-line Russian aircraft and missiles, link them with state-of-the-art command and control systems, and begin learning how to use them. Yes, the U.S. will retain the edge in pilot quality for the foreseeable future, but the Chinese are constantly learning and improving, and there is only so much that pilot skill can do to redress numerical and performance inferiority. So, from my perspective, the Air Force does need its full complement of F-22s (particularly if we're not going to be able to bring back all the F-15s); on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, I'm not so sure--with the cost differential less than 33 percent between the "high end" F-22 and the "low end" F-35, I think I would prefer to have more F-22s and provide them with air-to-ground capability (it is always easier to transition from air-to-air to air-to-ground than vice versa).



How can the Air Force do this while simultaneously remaining relevant in the low intensity arena? I think the first step is to accept how limited a role air power has in LIC, and then to find the right mix of platforms and capabilities to fulfill that role. Specifically, that would mean more emphasis on strategic and tactical airlift, and an increased reliance on unmanned air vehicles for both CAS and ISR in the relatively benign threat environment we see in both Iraq and Afghanistan. A single MQ-9 Predator can remain aloft with a useful sensor and weapons payload for more than a day at a time, as compared to typical mission times of 4-6 hours for an F-16 or an A-10 (aerial refueling can extend time on station, but then the limiting factor becomes pilot endurance). Therefore it takes about 3-4 F-16s to provide the same degree of coverage as a single Predator. But the F-16 costs about $40 million, and the Predator something on the order of $8 million, so in terms of cost, the difference is $120-160 million for the manned aircraft, vs. $8-10 million for the UAV. And that's without counting the operation and maintenance (O&M) costs such as fuel, spares, maintenance, etc. Moreover, being slow and capable of loitering at high altitude, the UAV can provide its own ISR capability, for which the manned aircraft must rely on other platforms (ironically, mostly UAVs). As the U.S. develops a wider range of effective lightweight munitions intended to reduce collateral damage, the number of targets that can be engaged by a single Predator UAV also increase, making them as competitive in that area as any manned aircraft. UAVs can therefore be a force and budget multiplier for the Air Force's LIC mission. For the cost of a single F-22 (perhaps $115 million), the Air Force could buy fourteen Predators (or up to five full Predator systems, consisting of four UAVs and a ground control station). With the latter option, the USAF could provide continuous air coverage over five different areas, whereas a manned aircraft could only cover one for a limited period of time. So, a small shift of resources from manned to unmanned platforms can yield a large dividend in low intensity warfare capabilities. This in turn would allow the Air Force to retain its main focus on deterring and winning high-intensity wars by fielding adequate numbers of high performance combat aircraft, sensor platforms, and support aircraft (noting that the latter, particularly tankers, are necessary for both low and high-intensity conflict). The problem for the Air Force is this is a difficult concept to absorb and even more difficult to sell politically, since politicians have a very short-term perspective, focused on whatever war or crisis is at hand, and not so much on the bigger threat down the road. Thus, the Air Force, like all the services, tends to get reactive in the pursuit of funding, chasing after fads and buzzwords, and not on the development of a coherent warfighting strategy backed up by sound doctrine and acquisition priorities. The challenge for Air Force leadership is to do just that, and not merely to slice the budget salami in a different way, or to give lip service to low intensity conflict in the hopes of shoehorning its existing priorities into brogans that don't fit. It means accepting that the Army will probably get more attention than the Air Force (though not necessarily more money) in the fight against terrorism and insurgency, and that the Air Force has the equally important but (in the short term) less glamorous job of preparing for a war that their preparations make make unnecessary. The U.S. is presently in a difficult strategic position where it must be able to fight several ongoing low intensity conflicts simultaneously, while not losing the ability to defeat emergent high-intensity threats. This means more of a division of labor among the services, with some playing the dominant role in one but not the other. The Air Force must make the right choices in the next few years to ensure that, in its pursuit of near-term "relevancy," it does not sacrifice its long-term primary mission; and conversely, in attempting to protect the long-term mission, does not leave itself utterly irrelevant in the low intensity conflicts that will be our main concern in coming decades.
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