Learning the Wrong Lessons: Where Does the Air Force Go From Here?

Note: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US government.

The new Defense Strategic guidance clearly shifts the emphasis of military force structure planning from large-scale counter-insurgency operations (COIN) to high-end deterrence.  However, the guidance is also clear about the need to maintain presence and influence, and to do so with smaller footprints.  As the budget pressures on the services escalate, the natural prioritization process will seek to trim what are perceived as less critical capabilities.  Given this guidance, how does the USAF need to configure itself to maximize its value to US national strategy and foreign policy?  Since high-end warfare is the “preferred” kind of warfare for the USAF, there is a danger that the service will hear the former guidance and not the latter.  That would be a mistake, because so much of USAF global posture, deterrence, burden sharing, and cost-imposing strategies are critically dependent upon our ability to develop capabilities, assure access, and build relationships in the partner states--states that lie on the fault lines of global strategic competition and directly affect deterrence and assurance.  Our Defense Strategic Guidance, the Defense Planning Guidance (DPG), and Guidance for the Employment of the Force (GEF), as well as DoD Directives all tell the USAF to maintain hard-won lessons from our “decade of war” and sustain capabilities to conduct Security Force Assistance (SFA) and Build Partner Capacities (BPC) in less capable states. 

But what does that mean?  Does that mean we take all our organizational templates for reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, maintain them in a state of suspended animation behind a glass panel that says “in case of fire break glass” so we have “reversibility” and a faster spin-up time for the next “phoenix cycle” of Irregular Warfare? 

Are the most important lessons learned how to stand-up and run a large Air Advisor capability to re-construct a foreign Air Force from scratch in a war time theater where there are broad authorities and relatively significant freedom of action for the military?  Are we to maintain the substantial organizational tax of large-scale expeditionary training organizations and the force structure to put 65 Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) Combat Air Patrols (CAPS) over the next problem location?  Is the past a foreshadow of the future of warfare and Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW), or are we called upon to do something different?

Right now is a critical period for introspection, as we draw down from a decade of experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.  What have we learned, and what sort of capabilities do we need to maintain?  No doubt we have a lot of “lessons learned” from Iraq and Afghanistan about how we could have better executed those counter-insurgencies and reconstruction efforts.  But it is unlikely we will fight the last war, and the future environment likely offers some different features.    

In assessing our “lessons learned” it is vital that the service look forward and not just retrospectively so it does not learn the wrong lessons.   The scheduled departures from Iraq and Afghanistan and the sharp change in strategic guidance toward Asia-Pacific can certainly mislead and create the probability of an over-correction.   There are important lessons to learn about understanding the environment, crafting a strong narrative, planning for transitions, SOF-GPF integration, Interagency coordination, coalition operations, and host nation partnering.  Certainly it is true that Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us valuable lessons about how to Build Partner Capacity (BPC), conduct Security Force Assistance (SFA), and develop essential competencies, but our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan can easily mislead, creating false unstated assumptions about organization, command relationships, authorities, size and budget.   It is worthwhile to discuss some of the wrong “lessons” our service could learn:

The first wrong lesson is that “COIN and IW are dead” and the USAF can now fully shift its attention exclusively to high end warfare.  Not so.  In fact, for the USAF to equip the nation to defeat anti-access - area denial (A2AD) adversaries, political access and the ability of partner nations to host US air forces for Air Superiority and Strike, and have the Aerial Port of Delivery (APOD) reception capacity for US surface forces via air mobility are the essential components of USAF geopolitical strategy, and it is through low-end engagement that this is secured.

 The fundamental tool set of Security Cooperation (SC), Security Force Assistance (SFA), Building Partnerships (BP), and Building Partnership Capacities (BPC) related to enhancing a partner’s Aviation Enterprise and the associated Air Advising and “Partnering Culture” learned over the last “decade of war” are fundamental to the USAF executing its own and the nation’s strategy.  OSD clearly wants us to maintain and expand both our SOF and GPF capabilities in these associated mission sets. 

The messages and emphasis from OSD suggest that it does not lack confidence in the USAF’s ability to conduct kinetic operations, conduct ISR, mobility and precision strike.  Instead, they want to ensure we build, as championed by our Secretary of Defense in his Dean Acheson lecture at the US Institute for Peace (USIP), a “partnering culture.”  This means building our ability to field Air Advisors: those airmen who can Assess, Train, Advise, Assist, Equip (ATAAE) partner Air Forces and higher Ministries supported by the Language Regional Experience and Culture (LREC) capabilities as tasked in multiple Department of Defense Instructions on SFA (5000.68), IW (3000.07), STABOPS (3000.05). 

The emphasis on peacetime engagement as a key component of strategy reflects a fundamental sea-change in Joint Planning guidance from OSD and the Joint Staff.  The entire planning system has been turned on its head.  Before the principal focus was on contingency planning, but no more:  according to JP 5.0 and the GEF, peacetime campaign planning—phase 0 peacetime operations to assure, dissuade, deter and shape -- is now the primary plan, and contingency plans are branches…of failure.  It is no longer enough that we win our nation’s wars, we must win our nation’s strategy.

The second wrong lesson would be to organize, train, and equip (OTE) for another Iraq-Afghanistan style conflict.  That is also not what is being asked of us by the POTUS or OSD.  The effort has shifted to prevention.  It is quite likely that for the foreseeable future—likely the span of an airman’s career--the nation will not engage in a large-scale COIN fight.  Not because such wars are a thing of the past, but purely because the experience in Afghanistan and Iraq has dampened the nation’s appetite.  Certainly there certainly is a need for thinking how to capture expertise and maintain enough of a pipeline to give the nation a graceful capability of “reversibility”--just in case-- but our OTE efforts need to look forward to the emerging environment.  With that in mind, the important lessons to capture are not likely to be how to re-create the large-scale unit capabilities seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead the future is going to require smaller footprint, tailored capabilities presented directly to COCOMs and component Air Forces and executed under direct supervision of Chiefs of Mission (Ambassadors). 

How we organize, train, equip, present force, and acquiring the requisite funding authorities matter.  Some trends are readily apparent.  Overseas contingency funding (OCO) is going away.  The broad latitude in authorities to conduct Security Force Assistance (SFA) given by Congress to the DoD in the context of war are not likely to persist in the form we see in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Those authorities are already significantly more limited in Iraq since the 12 December transition.  Therefore the more important question is how the USAF needs to adapt the skill sets it has developed in Air Advising and Aviation Enterprise Development (AED) to the contest for influence in the decades ahead.   Essentially, the answer is that the USAF needs to be able to make available small teams of tailored capabilities (which may include a mix of both SOF & GPF airmen) that can operate in peacetime to advance the articulated GEF end states and the subordinate regional combatant command theater strategies, C-NAF country and regional goals, and the goals expressed by  individual Chiefs of Mission (ambassadors) in their Integrated Country Strategies, to develop enduring capabilities, influence and relationships with our partners that advance US foreign policy. This is much more than just traditionally executed Title 22 Foreign Military Sales (FMS) cases. 

Those tailored units are unlikely to be large deployed school house training units.  For this class of engagement—underdeveloped air forces in developing countries—the teams are likely to be more institutional: how to run an air force, no matter whether you are flying a single-engine light aircraft or F-22’s.  We are more likely to be exporting how to do A1 through A9 functions—from how to manage a force and its personnel to how to do strategic planning--and “agile combat support” (ACS) functions and competencies than we are to set up undergraduate or graduate pilot training. 

The units of execution are likely to be some mix of dedicated expeditionary units like the 6 SOS and new Mobility Support Advisory Squadrons (MSAS) and specially constituted Mobile Training Teams (MTTs) augmented by particular individual augmentees that round out the necessary competencies for engaging that particular nation.  The need to be able to field ad hoc teams with LREC expertise points also for a need to evolve our current personnel and LREC development away from pure steady-state assignment-based-slots to be able to anticipate Air Advisor and contingency surge requirements.  That system also needs to make that expertise visible beyond just career managers to individuals across the USAF trying to form problem solving teams, and to allow individuals to self-identify and volunteer for partnering activities.  The need to be able to draw upon individuals from the broader Air Force to supplement these teams points to the need to further develop our “Partnering Culture” and establish as part of the identity of our airmen that “advising partner air forces is one of the things airmen do.”

Creating and maintaining such capabilities are challenges for the USAF for three significant reasons. 

First, to do it well requires a system where we deliberately plan how to advance a partner’s aviation enterprise along the same sorts of time scales we plan for weapons systems.  This is not something the USAF strategic planning system has ever done, and is only attempting to learn to do now through the AF Campaign Support Plan (AF CSP), Building Partnership Core Function Master Plan (BP CFMP), and Global Partnership Strategy (GPS). 

Successful employment of these capabilities requires a different flavor of effects based planning.  A key change in mindset is to realize that the effect airmen are trying to accomplish with airpower is not destruction, but the enhancement of legitimacy and influence of the United States in the international system.  That different mind-set must also be reflected in planning, where instead of a short 24-hr ATO cycle applied against destroying an enemy’s industrial base, it is a multi-decade plan to create lasting, self-sustaining constructive effects.  In some ways a better analogy is how airmen create training plans and syllabi to develop internal capabilities.  Success critically depends on proper vision and assessment.  The success of such plans and operational efforts also depends on regional, cultural and language sensitivity that the USAF is only starting to develop now but still has limited vision of how to employ beyond Attaché and dedicated security cooperation officer (SCO) slots, and there is no vision how to purposefully use them in a contingency surge.  Such planning is also critically dependent on proper assessment, and despite important capabilities resident in the 6 SOS, Mobility Support Advisory Squadrons (MSAS), and CRG Airfield Survey Teams, the USAF has yet to create a standardized methodology to bring together cross-functional / cross-MAJCOM capabilities to assess a nation’s Aviation Enterprise Development needs, nor a standardized format for country planning.  In theory, as we begin to plan better, there should be a less dysfunctional cycle, with base-line assessments resulting in better country plans, resulting in a clearer signal of required capabilities into the POM process.  But this virtuous cycle has yet to be created.

The second problem is a bit counter-intuitive.  The capabilities are just too cheap.  USAF budget drills are focused on big numbers.  Small capabilities that provide significant leverage are just too small to register or command a seat at the table, and reinforce the incorrect presumption that such functions are merely lesser included cases of major combat capabilities.  The entire Building Partnership portfolio is just 0.2% of the Air Force budget, and yet to pay larger bills, we face a situation where the institution “robs the paper boy to pay the mortgage.”  The principle capabilities required to advantage US foreign policy in developing nations are not the high-end, high-visibility expertise the USAF is used to supplying through its Foreign Military Sales (FMS) and high end training like RED FLAG.  Instead, they are quiet competencies which contribute to Aviation Enterprise Development (AED) - competencies that every Air Force needs in order to operate successfully: Airfield Operations, Logistics, Maintenance, Communications, Safety, Training, Security, a suite of capabilities often referred to as “Agile Combat Support” and competencies needed to build institutions (PME and staff training).  These competencies span a breadth of USAF career fields and USAF Major Commands and authorities, and must be tailored for every individual nation. 

Maintaining such capabilities has another problem: the money to use them is not likely to be Title 10 dollars, the “color of money” under control of the service and for which it feels responsible.   Because of its sensitivity (and past abuses during the Cold War), our government deliberately puts most control of dollars for Security Assistance (SA) in the hands of the State Department and keeps a tight leash both in oversight and short windows in which such Title 22 dollars can be spent.  That tight reign serves its purpose, but the lack of broad authority for multi-year spending creates a patchwork mess of authorities that has discouraged longer-term planning. 

It likely is possible for the USAF to execute what is being asked of it under existing authorities, but it may wish to articulate exactly the sort of authority it would find most enabling to meet the nation’s needs in the new context.  What is needed are multi-year authorities or savings accounts that directly allow Air Advising and Aviation Enterprise Development activity where it serves US strategic interests, and allow rational multi-year planning to take place that sends a necessary demand signal for capabilities to be set up and sustained.  Multi-year funding authority would enable and encourage better long-term planning.  Likewise, better planning makes clear the need for appropriate authorities and funding. 

Such an authority might be similar to the Title 22 Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for Military Construction account set up regionally, or like the DoD-State joint Global Security Contingency Fund (GSCF), and create a kind of multi-year flexible working-capital fund for partner Aviation Enterprise Development (AED) where Embassies or COCOMs were distributed dollars to use standing or custom-constituted USAF capabilities to shape strategic conditions.  The mechanics of this might look very similar to existing “Working Capital Funds” such as the Transportation Working Capital Fund (TWCF), the mechanism by which OSD allocates dollars to units across DoD to use Air Mobility Services.

Tremendous flexibility could be gained if such a fund could be made and managed multi-year, as is the case with Title 22 FMF dollars that are allowed to reside for multiple years in an interest-bearing trust fund.  Such a fund and authority might be the “Global Shaping Fund” designed to fund operations and joint training that advance US foreign policy goals to set strategic conditions, build access, build relationships and influence, and create capabilities in a host nation that advantage the US in the long term.   Like the GSCF it might include money from both State and DoD, and could be jointly managed, leading to better overall synergy and unity of effort.  Such a fund and broad authority might recognize that to properly shape the environment, authority is needed to take advantage of opportunities that advance multiple objectives simultaneously, such as exercises and joint training which are never really solely about a 51% of training benefit accruing to US forces, but also to use US training to actually create strategic constructive effects in the host nation.  A significant innovation would be an authority that allowed the DoD to conduct activities if “deputized” under DOS Title 22 authorities where there is no billable cost to the government—for instance the salaries and TDY had already been paid and it was just best use of free time.

The third challenge is that the fundamental capability is airmen / Air Advisor-centric, and therefore not a weapons system that we can buy and manage in the way we are accustomed to creating and managing a capability.   The USAF is culturally a platform-centric service, organizing and thinking about force presentation with respect to core weapons systems.  Because these advisors don’t present themselves as a platform or weapons system, the USAF is culturally disadvantaged and challenged to think about presentation and sustaining capabilities that can’t be bought and counted and labeled like F-16, F-22, B-2.  Such air advising teams are not presently captured in the nomenclature of even the current Air Expeditionary Force (AEF) or AEF Next Concept.  Nor has the USAF considered organizing the capability as a weapons system similar to how it has done with the Distributed Ground Control Station (DGCS) or “Falconer” Air Operations Center.  It will be a challenge to the USAF to understand, present, and manage an airman-centric capability.

If the USAF is to learn the right lessons from its recent COIN experience, it needs to look forward.  The USAF needs to understand that its ability to partner is a key element of global posture and shaping, and deliberately develop its “partnering culture” and the specific capability by which it executes air advising in the context of the new Defense Strategic Guidance.  It needs to realize that it has created an inherent Air Advisor capability that can and should enable USAF global strategy, and maximize US influence and access on the chess-board of the future.  (In fact, Airmen would be better served to think about posture, access and building partnerships not in the context of Chess with its maneuver and decisive battle bias, but rather in the Chinese game of Go, which better reflects a campaign mentality of securing and consolidating strategic positions.) 

Proper configuration of that capability likely requires some sort of roles and missions review of who should be responsible for what in the BP/BPC/SC/SFA area across active, reserve and guard, both SOF and GPF.  It then needs to rationally design tailorable Air Advisory & Aviation Enterprise Development units (“Air Advisory Flights”/”Air Advisory Teams”), and both give them a formal place in the AEF structure and treat and resource them as a weapons system.  It needs to decide on a presentation strategy of such forces to the Embassies, COCOMS, other services and Congress.  The USAF needs to articulate and advocate exactly the sort of budget authority it would like to have to employ these Air Advisory Flights.  The AF needs to complete the process already underway of creating a standard Aviation Enterprise Development assessment methodology, and standardized, longer-term country planning process, and associated training pipeline for security cooperation planning.  Then, it must inculcate knowledge and appreciation of these skills broadly in the development and experience of Air Planners at all theater COCOM, C-NAF and AOC levels.

Lastly, USAF Airmen are the stewards of the global air domain, and the natural leaders in the international community of airmen.  To lead where we are expected to lead, the USAF needs a concept for how it wants to shape the global air domain.  It needs to take that vision into its discussions on “3D” (Diplomacy, Development and Defense) planning with State and USAID, leading the discussion on how deliberate partnership can shape the global air domain and advance US foreign (and domestic industrial) policy goals.  If the USAF focuses on adapting its Aviation Enterprise Development and air advisor capabilities for shaping the new environment, it will have learned the right lessons.

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Comments

Interesting article but the most significant area the Air Force should address is its culture in its role in COIN.

After almost a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force has only been able to establish a rudimentary rotary capability in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why?

Maybe a "cheap" aircraft approach might help? Something like Tucanos and simple prop driven logistic aircraft vs. adopting what's in use by our Air Force?

The Air Force's contribution to the non kinetic side of COIN has primarily been augmentees to the Army effort of engaging the populace/gov't. The lesson there might be that the Army isn't big enough unless the Air Force can change the attitude in airmen that has produced numerous complaints about having to "help the Army do their job".

The point I'm trying to make (and not doing very well) is maybe some emphasis on changing the USAF's culture might be in order if it really wants to be a bigger player in COIN and not relearn leassons it hasn't really learned that well?

From a Navy prospective, I have never understood why the Army has not campaigned to have its own Close Air Support forces (squadrons and pilots) in the same manner as does the Marine Corps. All Marine pilots and ground crew members are trained at Navy schools (to which Marines provide instructors), but Marine aircraft types and numbers and Air Wing formations are of their choosing and totally under their command.

Both the USN and USMC realize that if the Marines had to depend on the Navy for air support they would not receive the same level of air support they currently possess. It is axiomatic that each branch of the military gives first (and maybe second) organizational and budget priority to achieving its own strategic objectives.

Further, experience providing support to the mission of another military organization will never provide the same level of career benefit as being an officer in a squadron whose mission is one of core strategic purpose to a branch of the military. Flying the A-10 and providing Close Air Support will never provide an Air Force pilot the career benefit and advancement potential as being an F-15 / F-16 pilot, for example. As good a plane as the A-10 may be for its mission, it is from a budget prospective amazing that it has lasted as long as it has in the Air Force inventory.

One would think (perhaps incorrectly) that the Air Force would be happy to be relieved of the Close Air Support mission and its accompanying drain on its budget -- and enabled to concentrate strictly on its core missions.

I don't think you can learn the wrong lessons from the past. It is whether those lessons will re-apply in the next conflict or the future that should be looked at. We are very good at having to relearn what we already once knew.

Next item: How big a part of COIN (or similier) is the AF reallly going to have? Yes, they can train and equip a foreign AF, but I just don't see a large role for them in that particlar area.

Remarkably, I had a similar conversation with a retired CIA agent. How do we assist friendly nations with "ungoverned" areas extend responsible government to these areas. A low end light mobility aircraft would allow them to reach these areas and provide some assistance. Mail delivery, humanitarian assistance, and troop movements would be easier if partner nations had these capabilities. We cannot expect all our partners to field C-130s and keep them flying.
Many of these same countries would benefit from some form of Aviation Enterprise Development. Air Traffic Control in Africa is scary in many areas, requiring pilots to broadcast on a common frequency future crossing times and altitudes for other pilots to plot against their own. Without a stronger civil air transport system, economic development will not follow. This will leave these nations further behind and allow trans-national criminal/terrorist elements the furtile ground to establish bases of operation. Low-cost engagement on the part of the USAF with both agile combat support (ATC, Cargo loading, air handling services etc) as well as right tech aircraft (twin otters or Quest Kodiaks) would help these countries help themselves and may even prevent future conflicts which is the ultimate victory for any strategy.

Interestingly, this author notes “It is quite likely that for the foreseeable future—likely the span of an airman’s career--the nation will not engage in a large-scale COIN fight. Not because such wars are a thing of the past, but purely because the experience in Afghanistan and Iraq has dampened the nation’s appetite. Certainly there certainly is a need for thinking how to capture expertise and maintain enough of a pipeline to give the nation a graceful capability of “reversibility”--just in case ….” To adopt that position would once again show that members of the US military have learned nothing either from our experience in Vietnam or in the recent Iran / Afghanistan efforts.

Each, in its own format was / will be a failed experiment in COIN / nation building efforts of the US military, none of which would provide this country with a measure of strategic success worth their cost, or with any tactical level tactical successes that could not have been obtained at a much lower operational cost. LBJ forced Vietnam upon the JCS and the military against their opposition. There was absolutely no strategic benefit that would have accrued to the US even if it had been possible for LBJ’s anti-communist crusade to have succeeded. Which dictator ruled South Vietnam was not a matter of strategic concern for this country, nor was the economic system that they would have put into place.

Presuming Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons, perhaps one could have made the case that the initial 2003 invasion was a strategically worthwhile endeavor. Once it was determined the Iraqis’ were not so proceeding, the US should have immediately reconstituted the Iraqi Army and government, made an arrangement with those generals and Baathists to run their government unhindered and with minimal arms and other support in exchange for their disposing of Saddam Hussein and continuing to not allow Al Qaeda operative into their country – and we should have quickly departed. The amount of ruthlessness they used in quelling uprisings in their country is their business, not ours. It does not further our strategic interests to have spent approximately $1 trillion building a pro-Iranian Shiite government in that country. It matters not whether the COIN / nation building effort in Iraq achieved some or any level of tactical success; the result was a total lack of strategic gain for this nation and did not further in the least the US war against Al Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates.

The initial US efforts in Afghanistan achieved the result of punishing the Taliban for providing refuge to Osama Bin Laden and company and either drove Al Qaeda (AQ) from that country to another land or killed some number of their operatives. Our initial interest in sending military forces to that part of the world was to hunt down and destroy as many AQ operatives in the most cost-effective manner. Spending what will be hundreds of billions of dollars attempting to modernize Afghanistan did not further our strategic objective in any cost effective manner. Instead it redirected American focus away from AQ to fighting against the Taliban and centered the US military (Army’s) focus on a strategy of occupation. As Abraham Lincoln once tried to explain to General McClellan and other misguided US Army generals, their goal was to destroy the Confederate Army, not to occupy their land. The same holds true in Afghanistan. Small US forces such as Ranger Battalions, SOG and Special Forces Units, a small number of aircraft and drone units, intelligence operatives, etc. located in the Northern Alliance territories could have accomplished the same results vis-à-vis the killing of Osama Bin Laden and other AQ operatives. It wasn’t necessary to spend $600 billion and more building a country and military from scratch in Afghanistan to achieve that result. That $600+ billion government and military will collapse shortly after the US pulls its forces out of that nation – just as happened in South Vietnam.

There is no strategic reason for the US to return to either Iraq or Afghanistan, and for those who believe a (potential) Republican President will return US forces to those COIN / nation building efforts post-withdrawal, remember it was a Republican President who decided to withdraw from Vietnam and another who made the correct strategic choice to allow South Vietnam to stand or fall on its own.

LARGE SCALE COIN / nation building efforts never produce strategic success and we should have learned after Vietnam that they are not worth the cost. Let us hope that those in the military and government who falsely believe they are the wars of the future realize they were never the proper strategic approach to military operations and doomed to failure. A failure compounded by the even more important fact that those extremely costly types of military operations never rest on a measure of strategic success worth achieving or they are a substitute for a far more effective tactical approach to achieving the strategic objectives that brought our military units into that area of the world.

This is not to say that small scale anti-terrorist or advisory efforts relying on SOG or Special Forces, Ranger Battalions, or drone attacks against terrorists should not be staffed for and that the necessary air power elements maintained to support them. In this environment, at the smaller sized level, the US Army has been eminently successful in numerous countries since the end of WWII until today – even if not recognized by most Americans. That is where so called COIN efforts should be focused.

The US military does not need to add any more failed large scale COIN / nation building efforts to its record and our Generals and Admirals one would hope would have the future courage to simply say “no” to those politicians who attempt to force such disastrous type campaigns on our military. This is the lesson every branch of the military should take away from Iraq and Afghanistan – just as we did after Vietnam. In addition, personally I find it puzzling why those squadrons and aircraft (regardless of type or engine) assigned to Close Air Support as their primary objective (such as the A-10) are not part of the US Army in the same manner that the Marines have their own Close Air Support squadrons and pilots. Close Air Support will never be a primary mission for the Air Force and one think they would like to have that problem removed from their concerns so they can concentrate their efforts and budgets on their strategic mission.