Thursday, July 3, 2008

The new leadership of the Air Force faces the challenge of redefining the service’s role in what many see as the kind of combat the U.S. military will face in the immediate future, namely counterinsurgency. The problem, critics say, is that the Air Force priorities of establishing air supremacy and perfecting the timely and pinpoint delivery of high explosives tend to be less useful in conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan.

In particular, critics have singled out a reliance on air strikes in Afghanistan as a barrier to the success of a “hearts-and-minds” strategy on the ground, given the inevitability of collateral damage, or the accidental killing of civilians.

“From an Air Force perspective, we were told to plan for a different kind of war,” said Lt. Col. Michael Pietrucha, commenting on the general direction of post-Cold War strategic thinking, which emphasized the potential for conventional conflicts with strategic competitors or regional powers such as China or Iran.

Col. Pietrucha, a specialist in irregular combat who until recently worked at the Air Force Warfare Center, stressed he did not speak for the service.

He said it was appropriate the Air Force had different priorities because of its strategic roles in assuring “force projection” - the ability of the U.S. military to strike anywhere in the world - and in operating the nation’s nuclear-strike capabilities.

“We have a set of global responsibilities that require us to keep a slightly different focus,” he said, adding that while counterinsurgency might be the most common kind of conflict the military would face in the immediate future, “The most common conflicts are not necessarily the most dangerous.”

Observers say the choice of Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, a veteran of special operations who most recently headed the Air Force’s Transport Command - in charge of mobility and lift - as the next Air Force chief of staff is significant, given the service’s culture.

“It’s not something I ever expected to see in my lifetime,” said retired Air Force Col. Chester Richards, a strategist who has studied and written about military power for three decades.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said it was “mobility, jointness, special operations and being very, very smart” that led him to pick Gen. Schwartz.

Mr. Gates also sent former Air Force official Michael B. Donley’s name to the White House to be the next secretary of the beleaguered service.

The recommendations came after Mr. Gates announced on June 5 that he was removing Air Force Gen. T. Michael Moseley as chief and Michael W. Wynne as its top civilian.

Col. Richards said the nominations represented a chance for the service to “reinvent itself” and “shift [the Air Force] away from being a force that just kills people on the ground” to one that brings to the table other capabilities more relevant to the hearts-and-minds mission.

The Air Force says it already provides relevant capabilities, such as surveillance and lift and the ability to move troops and material around the combat theater.

“No one in the world can replicate the speed, volume and flexibility of the United States’ air mobility team,” Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Olivia Nelson said.

She said that on average an Air Force mobility aircraft was launched somewhere every 90 seconds, and that in Iraq, Air Mobility Command was flying more than 200 sorties a day.

Col. Pietrucha agreed that lift, which can move relief supplies or drop packaged humanitarian rations as easily as it can ship troops and weapons, is a key capability in hearts-and-minds missions.

“There are lots of ways air [power] can help from a hearts-and-minds standpoint,” he said. “Jet noise is a great nonlethal effect … an indicator of presence.”

But he added that “kinetics” or “fires” - striking with bombs or other ordnance - is a central part of any combat situation.

“The delivery of weapons in a counterinsurgency environment is still a very useful capacity,” Col. Pietrucha said, “especially if you are on the ground and in contact with the enemy.”

The problem, Col. Richards said, is that “when you fly over and you look down, everyone pretty much looks the same,” which can easily lead to errors, like the friendly fire killing on June 10 of 11 Pakistani troops, reportedly by a U.S. air strike.

In a study last year, Brian Glyn Williams, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, found allied forces in Afghanistan were hampered in their hearts-and-minds mission by a reliance on air power.

The inevitable collateral damage from close-air-support actions was the “main complaint from Pashtuns,” who had been displaced by the fighting, and one of the major factors fueling anger at foreign military forces, thus potentially generating support for the insurgency.

Col. Pietrucha said the propaganda value of reports about civilian casualties probably outweighed their truth.

“Because the adversary is the only presence on the ground, they can get their story out first - whether it is true or not,” he said. “We may know it’s not the case [that an air strike hit a wedding party or a school], but we can’t prove it, or at least not quickly enough.”

He said that to help “other nations threatened by irregular warfare problems,” the Air Force needed to be a “big brother to other, smaller air forces.”

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, military officials say, the U.S. Air Force is working to train and help equip air forces, and is making good progress.

Col. Maryellen Jadick, a spokeswoman for the air component of U.S. Central Command, which is prosecuting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the Iraqi air force’s operational capabilities currently include pilot training, battlefield mobility, surveillance and reconnaissance, and command and control.

Figures from the U.S. military’s Combined Air Forces Training Team show that, in April, the Iraqi air force flew a record 383 sorties in a week and that, during the continuing Iraqi-led operations in Basra that began in March, the force airlifted 287 tons of cargo, transported 3,449 passengers, evacuated 111 patients and flew 76 surveillance missions for a total of 136 hours on-station, all with what the team called “minimal coalition support.”

But the figures also note the force’s 60-odd helicopters and fixed-wing planes include no ground attack or air combat craft.

And Col. Jadick acknowledged the Iraqis’ ability to use their own air power directly to strike insurgent forces was still in the future because they “just began their initial development of … ground attack and counterterrorism capabilities, which will advance over the next two years.”

She gave no dates as to when the Iraqi air force would be able to operate independently, controlling and defending its own airspace.

“The ability to provide airspace control and air defense will follow in subsequent years,” she said.

Similarly, the Afghan army air corps includes just four ground attack helicopters and no air combat planes in its roster of 26 aircraft, according to figures from the U.S. Combined Air Power Transition Force in Kabul.

The transition force said an “ambitious expansion program” by the Afghans will see that number grow to 67 by 2011 - but the 40 or so new aircraft include just six more helicopter [gunships and no combat airplanes.

“We have a set of global responsibilities that require us to keep a slightly different focus.” - Lt. Col. Michael Pietrucha

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