Keep an eye on Alaska. It is where the Soviets have been
flaunting their air threat to North America in apparent contradiction of
General Secretary Gorbachev's goodwill overtures and force-cutting plans.
Alaska is also where the US Air Force is frequently called
on to fly into the teeth of that threat, represented by Soviet armed bombers
aloft, just in case it ever suddenly becomes the real thing.
Important as it is now, the vast northernmost state of the
US will probably be even more prominent in USAF's future scheme of things. Its
strategic location and sparsely populated, wide-open spaces make it attractive
for the basing and training of some USAF units now tenuously situated overseas.
These points were made by Lt. Gen. Thomas G. McInerney, Commander
of Alaskan Air Command, at the Air Force Association symposium on the topic,
"The US Air Force—Today and Tomorrow," late last year in Los Angeles,
There is ample evidence around Alaskan airspace that
"Soviet long-range aviation hasn't got the word yet" about
Gorbachev's seemingly peaceful intentions and major moves to rein in the Soviet
military, General McInerney said.
The symposium took place prior to Gorbachev's visit to the
US last December, when the General Secretary said he would sharply cut Soviet
troop strength and draw down numbers of tanks and other equipment.
Gorbachev did not project the Soviet Air Force as figuring
in his cuts, however, and its presence across the way from Alaska is expected
to remain ominous.
Alaska, said General McInerney, is "where more than
fifty percent of Soviet long-range aviation would penetrate in a global war"
with the US.
"Over the past few years," he continued,
"we've seen an increase in the number of Soviet strategic aircraft near
Alaska. The majority of flights we now intercept are long-range nuclear-strike
training missions, not the reconnaissance missions that we intercepted in the
He noted that Alaskan Air Command fighters intercepted only
ten to fifteen Soviet aircraft each year through the early 1980s and that most
were benign electronic-intelligence and ice-reconnaissance aircraft. From
1980 through 1984, only ten strike aircraft, all Bear bombers, were headed
Then the activity began picking up. It jumped sharply in
1987 when fifty-six Soviet aircraft were intercepted. Fifty were Bears, and
twenty-six of them were H models capable of carrying strategic-range cruise
Before 1988 was three-fourths over, AAC fighters had already
intercepted forty-five Soviet aircraft, thirty-six of which were Bear G or H
"The threat is real, and it's close," General
McInerney told the symposium audience.
Severe Threats to the
He described the Soviet AS-IS subsonic cruise missile and
newer AS-19 supersonic cruise missile as standard weapons in the Soviet strategic
air arm. Both pose severe threats to the US.
As to Soviet flight plans for putting such missiles into
play, if it comes to that, General McInerney told his audience:
"Draw an arc around the Arctic basin, and that's where
they would drop them off—and that's where they come out and train on a monthly
The AAC Commander expressed confidence in the systems at his
disposal for detecting and confronting the threat in both the strategic and
tactical arenas. These systems include various land-based and airborne
radars, KC-135 tankers, F-15C fighters with conformal fuel tanks, and A- 10
aircraft for the close support of US Army units in Alaska should an invasion
In that connection, General McInerney noted that AAC and
North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) "did not have to think
much about Soviet conventional fighter forces in the past," but certainly
The reason, he said, is that the Soviets "could do a
fighter sweep over Anchorage" with modern Su-27 and MiG-31 fighters from
their mainland and that such fighters "could easily reach" Aleutian
islands on which the US military operates missile-monitoring, space-watching,
and other equipment.
If such pressures build to the point that USAF must renounce
low-level fighter training in Europe or must pull out of bases there and
elsewhere, Alaska may save the day, the General said.
Alaska offers the Air Force "a most strategic location
nearly equidistant from Japan, Europe, and the west coast of the US." Air
Force units stationed there on force-projection missions "would be much
closer to the Orient and Europe" than they would be in the CONUS, he said.
General McInerney also serves as Commander of the Alaskan
NOR-AD region and Commander of Joint Task Force Alaska, a combination of USAF
fighter and close-air-support units and US Army infantry and light-armor units
responsible for defending mainland Alaska.
At the AFA symposium, he took note of a plan then afoot
within the Joint Chiefs of Staff to establish what he called "a
sub-unified command in Alaska under CINCPAC [Commander in Chief,
JCS approval of this plan, which was proposed by CINCPAC,
would make the AAC Commander responsible for the Aleutians, which now fall
under CINCPAC, and would make Alaska more readily available to CINCPAC for
basing air units and others.
Such basing may become necessary if the US is ever pushed
out of places like the Philippines and Korea.
"Alaska's strategic location for force bed-down will
play an extremely important role in CINCPAC's strategies as we go into the
1990s, and that's the primary reason why we're becoming a sub-unified
command," General McInerney declared.
He claimed that the Air Force and Army units in Joint Task
Force Alaska exemplify the "near-perfect positioning" that all
American units would enjoy in taking advantage of Alaska as a strategic staging
For example, he said, AAC's A-10s at Eielson AFB are 3,000
miles closer to Korea than are the A-10s at England AFB, La., the westernmost
CONUS base of such aircraft, and 800 miles closer to Norway than are the A-10s
at Myrtle Beach, S. C., the easternmost A-10 base in CONUS.
Alaska is alluring to USAF in other ways as well, General
McInerney claimed. It could accommodate many additional military people, and
its existing facilities could easily be upgraded to that end.
Moreover, said the AAC Commander, Alaska offers
"unmatched, outstanding" attributes for training and "has some
of the best and most unrestricted airspace available in the US for training in
air-combat operations. Just ask the units that have visited us to fly against
our F- 15s. Our air-to-air ranges equal in size the entire state of Nevada.
They're vast areas in which to train and try out new tactics."
He also recommended AAC 's air-to-ground, gunnery, and
electronic-warfare ranges for their modernity and scope.
Alaska, he said, would be "ideal" for training
attack-fighter crews to use the LANTIRN (Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting
Infrared for Night) system. He noted that Strategic Air Command turned to
Alaska for the "rapid-reaction training" of its B-52 crews in
Alaska's availability as a USAF training arena will be
exploited rather soon, General McInerney predicted: "With the pressures
that are on us in Europe and that we're now seeing in Japan and Korea, it is
probable that, within the next six months to a year, we'll be seeing our forces
coming out of central Europe to train in Alaska—and potentially out of Korea
Isn't Alaska's weather detrimental to air training much of
the time? Asked this question at the symposium, General McInerney replied:
"That's one of the big myths. We fly up there
year-round and at the same rates as the rest of the TAF [tactical air forces].
Eielson gets only about twenty inches of snow a year, or somewhat less than
Ram-stein [AB, Germany]. It's a little colder in Alaska, but we've shown that
that can be handled quite easily."
At the symposium, Lt. Gen. Jimmie V. Adams, Vice Commander
of Tactical Air Command, joined General McInerney and Gen. John L. Piotrowski,
Commander in Chief of US Space Command and NORAD, in emphasizing the need of
the US for better air defenses against the increasingly menacing Soviet threat.
General Adams noted that the Soviet Union has deployed more
than sixty Bear H cruise-missile bombers and that the Blackjack bomber, which
resembles the B-IB but is somewhat larger, has reached operational capability.
"We expect to see the cruise-missile threat grow to
1,000 missiles and 150 bombers by 1995," General Adams declared. The
Soviets, he added, are rapidly building up the capability to "stand
outside the range of our current surveillance systems and launch these
missiles. Their training programs emphasize this capability."
Around North America, US and Canadian air defense forces
intercepted Soviet bombers on more than 250 occasions in 1987 and had carried
out nearly 200 such interceptions in 1988 by the time of the AFA symposium in
late October, General Adams said.
"We observed that some of their mission profiles were
typical ALCM [air-launched cruise missile] profiles," the TAC Vice Commander
added, "and we have several pro grams to improve our capability against
General Adams reminded the audience that strategic air defense
of the CONUS is one of TAC's three main missions, the others being air
superiority and attack of surface targets in support of the Army.
The key to air defense, he said, is "to be able to see
the aircraft before they launch the cruise missiles" and intercept them
before they do. This is why the Air Force in recent years has upgraded its
Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line radars and North Warning System radars and is
developing 0TH-B radars for long-range circumferential coverage of the North
TAC operates those radars and is also in charge of air
defense interceptors everywhere but in Alaska. Its air defense fighter force
is steadily being filled out with F-16As, which will have replaced all F4s in
the force by 1991, General Adams said.
Modernizing the Force
The F-16As "will carry us for a while, but we see
continued emphasis on that part of the air defense mission, modernizing the
force," the TAC Vice Commander said.
"Our primary job in air defense is to provide
integrated warning and attack assessment, but we also want to limit the damage
as much as possible," he declared.
General Adams noted that the Soviet cruise-missile threat
extends to submarines. Those boats "off our coasts in a rather stealthy
mode" would team with Bears and Blackjacks as part of an integrated
attack, described in three possible forms by General Adams as follows:
"The Soviets would lead with a ballistic missile
laydown and follow with cruise missiles, or use cruise missiles as the leading
edge of the attack to decapitate our National Command Authorities, or carry out
a joint cruise- and ballistic-missile attack."
However it might happen, TAC "has to be sure that we
would have air sovereignty against the air-breathing threat," General
He noted that USAF's Air Defense Initiative (AD!) program
to develop future systems for that mission has settled into a "modest research
and development" mode at a funding level of about $50 million a year. ADI
should be considered "evolutionary" in its approach to bringing on
new air defense systems, General Adams said, because TAC has no intention of
"throwing away what we have now" in such systems.
He included space-based radars among ADI systems under study
but was noncommittal about them. The SBRs were heartily endorsed at the
symposium, however, by Generals McInerney and Piotrowski and then-Secretary of
the Air Force Edward C. "Pete" Aldridge, Jr., who has since left the
Pentagon to return to private industry.
The caveat with SBRs, as the speakers noted, is that the Air
Force may not be able to afford their cost in the current budget crunch. For
example, General McInerney said: "How we'd pay for them is the big
question, but there's no doubt that space-based radar would be a very valuable
addition to our capability to see what the Soviets are going to do with their
General Piotrowski, who has led the fight for SBRs, told the
symposium audience that SBRs "should clearly be part of tomorrow's Air
For one thing, said the CINC of US Space Command and NORAD,
"space-based radar offsets billions of dollars invested by the Soviet
Union and other countries on offensive systems that could threaten US
For the US warfighting CINCs, SBRs "would essentially
remove the horizon," General Piotrowski declared. "They would expand
a commander's vision beyond the horizon to include his entire theater and more.
His perspective could become global."
The General took note of the Navy's interest in SBRs.
"Fleet operations would be more efficiently conducted if aggressor
aircraft or vessels could be exactly located—within a mile or less—and
tracked," he said. Keeping tabs on hostile aircraft from their points of
origin "would greatly improve the survivability of Allied forces in the Norwegian
Sea," for example.
General Piotrowski continued: "Imagine the impact of
being able to track a small aircraft flying an unscheduled flight plan from
northern Colombia to southern Texas. Drug interdiction could be done more effectively
and with fewer resources by using space-based radars."
SBR's Role in Airlift
Among his other proposals for SBRs, the General cited
airlift: "With space-based radar it would be possible to send images of
all air traffic in a contested area to the lead aircraft of an air-cargo or
transport fleet flying into that area. The crew could see where the air threat
was—and also see the locations of ships with surface-to-air missiles that might
shoot at them [the airlifters] en route. They would be given tremendous
capability to avoid those threats.
In the past, General Piotrowski has often expressed
confidence that SBR technology was sufficiently mature to justify an Air Force
decision to package it into systems and put it into space in the form of a
cost-effective constellation of radars. He has acknowledged, however, that
confirmation of his confidence would have to come from the Air
Force/Navy/industry study of SBR then being undertaken.
At the AFA symposium, he indicated that the study had borne
him out. He said it had concluded that "the technology is available for radar
based in space to provide near-real-time, all-weather global coverage."
Such radar would be capable of "detecting and tracking fighter-size
aircraft and detecting, tracking, and classifying ships," he declared.
The SBR satellites could also come equipped with infrared
sensors to give them additional prowess, the General said.
Addressing the symposium, Mr. Aldridge seemed more upbeat
about the possibility of deploying space-based radars than in the past.
Such deployment is "a matter of 'when' not 'if,"
he declared. "I believe the Air Force and the country need space-based
radar. There is no doubt that it would provide us with a significant
improvement in our capabilities. We love AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control
System], and space-based radar is just AWACS at an orbital altitude."
Noting that "enthusiasm for space-based radar is
growing by leaps and bounds," Mr. Aldridge told the audience that the
problem remains one of finding funds for it amid austerity.
"It is clear," he said, "that the budgets
we're currently facing will not permit us to make a serious start on
space-based radar for the next year or so."
The Defense Acquisition Board was expected to decide near
the end of 1988 or early this year whether to take the first steps toward
committing the Department of Defense to a space-based radar program. Officials
believed that such a program could become part of a space-based surveillance
system emerging from Strategic Defense Initiative (SD!) research.
Much of the emphasis at the AFA symposium was on the Air
Force's role in space. Mr. Aldridge predicted that "in the Air Force,
space power will become just as important as airpower" in years to come.
General Piotrowski declared: "We need many things in
the way of space capabilities for tomorrow. Among the most important are an
antisatellite capability to counter the ASAT capability that the Soviets
already have, a ballistic missile defense, and a space-based radar.
"Space power will become as critical to future
military operations as sea power and airpower are today."
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