On Christmas Eve, Operation Enduring Freedom became the longest sustained US military action since Vietnam. The nation's leaders warned from the start that this would be a different kind of war, not at all like the swiftly won conflicts of the 1990s. Victory, they said, might take years.
To ensure that the Air Force would not be ravaged by the stress and strain of a no-notice but long-duration conflict, USAF leaders quickly set up what they called the Long-Haul Task Force. They charged its members with anticipating problems that might flow from an extended operation. They were to come up with answers before they were needed.
Those problems are formidable. Sustained high operating tempo, both in overseas theaters and at home, has generated clear needs for more Air Force people, greater numbers of aircraft, more spare parts and maintenance capability, and a bigger supply of munitions. Because of long lead times, it's not possible to solve these problems instantly.
The LHTF comprises experts from the Air Staff, Secretariat, and principal Air Force organizations. The initial intent was to prepare for further attacks and try to prevent them or find ways to limit damage. The task force has evolved into a mechanism for smoothing the transition from a peacetime posture with forward presence missions to one able to sustain a wartime pace for years.
"There are all kinds of important issues you have to think about when you've just had your building run into by an airliner," said Maj. Gen. John R. Baker, assistant deputy chief of staff for air and space operations, an organization functionally referred to as XO.
In an interview with Air Force Magazine, Baker said the effort began on Sept. 12, the day after the terror attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. Lt. Gen. Robert H. Foglesong, who was then the deputy chief of staff for air and space operations, ordered the XO staff to "sit down and think about the long-term impact of this thing."
Foglesong has since received his fourth star and now serves as USAF vice chief of staff.
No Short War
"We had already gotten indications from remarks made by the President and Secretary of Defense" that the global war on terrorism would not end swiftly, Baker said.
In short order, big questions emerged. For example, USAF's 150-person Crisis Action Team, which hastened to put up Combat Air Patrols over the US and batten down the hatches at overseas locations, was composed of regular staff officers. These officers were working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As a result, regular staff work was going to be left undone.
"So we went right away [to] Total Force," Baker said, calling in Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command officers to augment and supplement the CAT and regular staffs.
Decisions had to be made about whether to relocate personnel, many of whom were in private office buildings nearby due to the ongoing Pentagon renovation. They stayed put, but security considerations had to be worked out with the owners of those buildings.
The LHTF was at first made up of departmental deputies from the Secretariat and Air Staff. Its meetings soon became a form of "rumor control," Baker noted. It began attracting representatives from more and more staff offices. No department or agency was excluded from LHTF meetings.
The group started out by deciding which events-promotion boards, inspector general visits, readiness inspections, exercises, and things like Red Flag-should be canceled or postponed. Many were, but Bright Star, a major US and coalition exercise conducted in Egypt by Central Command, went forward.
The next main item on the LHTF's agenda was how to sustain Operation Noble Eagle, which entailed establishment of fighter Combat Air Patrols over major American cities. It was obvious such an operation would not be easy to keep going indefinitely.
Baker said 24-hour CAP was ordered over New York City and Washington, D.C., the focus of the Sept. 11 attacks and the centers of American political, governmental, and economic activity. Over other cities, random CAPs were ordered, sustained by fighters at 24 bases.
"We have had anywhere from eight to 12 CAPs airborne over the United States every day since the eleventh of September," Baker noted. That translates into "120 to 130 fighters [that are] dedicated" to the mission, each flying four-to-six-hour sorties and with support from 50 to 75 tankers, he added.
Moreover, CAP missions are supported by 10 E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft from the Air Force and five more AWACS supplied by NATO.
"A lot of people have forgotten NATO has five E-3s over here, with crews, and they've been flying ever since they got here" in October, Baker pointed out. (In mid--January, NATO agreed to a US request for two additional AWACS aircraft.)
Sorties at Home
By late December, the flights run for Noble Eagle had far eclipsed the number of USAF combat missions flown in Central and South Asia for Operation Enduring Freedom, in itself a major commitment of pilots, maintainers, machines, engines, and spare parts. The Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command have shouldered 85 percent of the Noble Eagle effort, Baker pointed out.
"The number of sorties the Air Force has flown for Noble Eagle is several thousand more than what we've flown in support of the war in Afghanistan," he said. By mid--December the Air Force had flown more than 10,000 sorties in the domestic operation; a month later the figure had risen to more than 13,000. The cost has now topped $400 million.
"If you are flying CAPs at 10 to 12 locations every day, and you are doing it for 12 hours and in some cases 24 hours, that takes a lot of airplanes to do that," said Baker. "It will take a lot of tankers to do that. It takes AWACS in several locations."
Still, the domestic effort, said Baker, is "invisible to most people," including senior civilian and military leaders who are responsible for homeland defense. USAF has since made a point of sending a "weekly report" to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, spelling out USAF's support for homeland security.
The fast pace of the flying has proved a "real challenge," Baker said. The flying hour budget originally envisioned for the whole of the 2002 budget year will be consumed "some time in March," which is the mid-point of the fiscal year.
"We budget to be prepared to go to war," said Baker. "It requires a supplemental [funding bill] to fight it."
Air Force logistics experts are closely watching the hours being accumulated by F-15s and F-16s, Baker said. Without question, there will have to be a major infusion of money for spare parts and engine maintenance, he noted.
"They are eating up spare parts at a greater rate than you might imagine," Baker reported. "Using supplemental funds to increase the production of spare parts for both those airplanes is going to have to happen."
Last year, KC-135 aerial refuelers were stacked up in depot maintenance because inspections and overhauls planned to take 200 days were taking twice that long. Aging airframes and unexpected corrosion were typically blamed. Baker said that, in early 2000, "we started a concerted effort to try to reduce the [KC-135] backlog at the depot, and in fact [Air Force Materiel Command] cut into it before [the current operations] started. And we are on a path to get it down to a targeted level ... like 25 percent less than it was a couple years ago."
Now that the tanker overhaul issue is thought to be in hand, attention is shifting to the fighters. "We are now having to look at that for F-16s, F-15s, and particularly engines because that is the most stressed area right now," Baker said.
No New Airplanes
Increased work on aircraft in depot can be achieved only by going to "longer shifts, hiring more people, and buying more spare parts," said Baker. "That is the only solution. I don't see buying new airplanes any sooner as feasible."
Over the last decade, the Air Force has declined to buy new fighters in quantity, preferring to wait for the F-22 Raptor and Joint Strike Fighter. The F-22 will not start entering squadron service until 2005, and the JSF, 2010.
Not only is USAF "burning up" fighters and engines, claimed Baker, but fighter pilot proficiency is beginning to sag.
"We train very carefully against a set standard," Baker explained. "Certain events have to be accomplished every 30 days and every six months. If all you are doing is flying CAP missions, and all the AWACS guys are doing is supporting them, and you are doing tanker rendezvous, there are a lot of required continuation training tasks that are not being accomplished."
For example, said Baker, a fighter pilot on a CAP mission gets to practice the tasks of managing his fuel and doing tanking procedures but not much else. He certainly does not use those hours honing combat skills. "For the guys in the States that are doing Noble Eagle," said Baker, "their combat skills are atrophying." For AWACS operators supporting the operation, they "aren't running combat intercepts."
Air Force officials have sought relief from CAP missions over the US, wanting to reduce their scope, duration, or coverage, but a Pentagon spokeswoman said in mid--January that the flights "have been and will continue to be a very important part of protecting the American people." Noble Eagle aircraft had, by January, responded to more than 200 incidents involving unidentified aircraft or aircraft on which there were disturbances.
A senior Air Force official said he worries that when the Noble Eagle pilots come up for their turn in an overseas deployment, their skills "won't be up to our normal standards."
Personnel is another looming problem identified by the Long-Haul Task Force. Air Force Secretary James G. Roche said in January that USAF is probably undermanned to the tune of 10,000 people, a figure he considers a minimum estimate.
The high pace of operations is fast outstripping the capability of USAF's Aerospace Expeditionary Forces to provide sufficient people to do the mission, since they were designed for peacetime coverage that would claim only two AEFs at once.
However, said Baker, acquiring another 10,000 personnel within a short period of time is not as simple as it might sound. The LHTF is trying to "figure out if we could absorb them," he said, noting, "This is pretty complicated."
Bringing in substantially more recruits would require more facilities to house them, more instructors to train them, and more equipment to train on. Instructors, for example, are already in short supply. Baker noted that such a move has implications for bonuses, housing, retention, and many other issues.
The LHTF is watching to see what effect the ongoing operations will have on retention throughout the force-active, Guard, and Reserve. He noted that, even as reservists come and go, since Sept. 11, "probably 20 to 25 percent, in any given period that we've looked at, have been volunteers." The rest have been involuntary call-ups. In December, the Air Force was still capped at 40,000 activated reservists, and about 10,000 of those were volunteers. When one volunteer leaves, said Baker, another appears to take his place.
Baker is anxious to see more data because Stop-Loss-the policy by which personnel in needed specialties are prevented from separating from the service-"can only go on for so long," he said. When it does stop, he said, he expects it will be done in a phased way. "In other words, we won't just cut it off for everybody." Watching how many choose to stay when they can leave will provide insight as to how to work the increase in end strength, Baker said.
A large number of pilots volunteered to return to active duty, said Baker-not so many that it "overwhelmed the system" but a very "encouraging" number.
The training issue is perhaps most acute for careers known to be at below minimums before the conflict began. These are the so-called low-density, high-demand systems such as AWACS, Joint STARS, Rivet Joint, and combat search-and-rescue forces. Baker warned that the pace could not be sustained without having a severe impact on future training.
"We are going to eat their seed corn" without a letup, Baker said. While the units are getting plenty of real-world operating time, in many cases, they do not operate as vigorously as they would in a training situation, and they, too, are missing important proficiency upgrades.
He noted that, after the 78-day Balkans operation in 1999, it took the Air Force 18 months to recover because of the missed training, absence of instructors for new recruits, and missed rest and recuperation for the troops.
"Entry-level and continuation training is suffering," Baker noted. "The time to allow low-density, high-demand [assets] to recover and get new entry-level people trained could exceed that following Allied Force."
There will be money in the Fiscal 2003 budget for additional systems in short supply, but again, the spigot cannot be turned full on because of structural limitations.
The worst personnel situation, Baker noted, was in the area of security forces. In previous conflicts of the last decade or so, security forces would deploy forward, since the home base was considered secure. Now, the home base also needs protection, and there simply aren't enough troops to go around.
Reducing the threat condition at many domestic bases from "Charlie" to "Bravo" helped alleviate the problem somewhat, but that does not provide anything close to a final solution, Baker noted. Many facilities, like the Pentagon, are still at Charlie, the highest level of alert. "Delta" means there is an active assault.
Few Predator Operators
Baker said there are adequate numbers of Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle operators, but like AWACS crews, there are not enough Predator instructors available to keep the pipeline of new operators moving.
Airlift has worked well and shows no signs of breaking down, Baker said. However, the call on airlift is greater than it seems. He noted that many C-130s are away from their home bases but not overseas. They are standing by, ready to airlift soldiers to the scene of some domestic "major catastrophe."
Given the breakneck pace at which the Air Force was consuming precision weapons early in the Afghanistan operation, concerns were voiced as to whether USAF would have enough to sustain operations, particularly if there was a shift to another campaign.
The LHTF spun off a splinter group known as the Forward Look Task Force, which is focused on aircraft, munitions, and training, Baker said, and it will address the issues of using up airplanes, bombs, and their operators.
It's clear "the Air Force needs to manage [munitions] better," Baker acknowledged. "We've given a lot of them to the Navy. ... The Navy practically ran out, so we gave a lot of JDAMs to the Navy." Because the pace of bombing began slowing in December, "we are OK right now," Baker observed. If usage had continued at the previous rates, though, and no steps had been taken to increase production, USAF would have run through its stocks early this year.
Supplemental funding was used to "expedite the ramp-up in production," Baker said. By July, he continued, "production numbers will double." That will be the maximum rate of production unless more production facilities are built-something not yet decided. However, the Pentagon is "looking favorably" at expanding production facilities, he said. The Navy has said "me, too" in the push for greater production levels.
Daily Report: The day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
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