Small Wars Journal

Strategic Planning in Aviation Foreign Internal Defense

Sat, 10/24/2020 - 7:02pm

Strategic Planning in Aviation Foreign Internal Defense


By Riley Murray

Helping a foreign country improve the effectiveness of their military aviation capabilities is an incredibly difficult task, made even more difficult when partner nations are facing ongoing irregular conflicts. Despite this difficulty, recent efforts to develop allied air forces through Aviation Foreign Internal Defense (AvFID) have not seen coherent strategic planning. US forces often do not develop an effective conceptual end state, long term plans do not guide operational decisions, and cognitive dissonance exists between nearly all actors.


Afghanistan Case Study  

            The desired end state for the Afghan Air Force (AAF) has been defined as “professional, capable, and sustainable” by several iterations of American advisors, but this guidance has not translated into an actionable plan for developing the Afghan Air Force.[1] Limited resources, theoretical disagreements on the utility of airpower and ongoing combat operations have led to varying concepts for the Afghan Air Force in the minds of Afghan leadership, advisors, and American policy makers, which resulted in a mosaic approach.[2] 


The clearest example of the mosaic was the creation of the Special Mission Wing (SMW) to directly support Afghan special operations forces. The SMW received dedicated Combat Aviation Advisors (CAAs) from the 6th Special Operations Squadron, who are specially selected, trained, and organized to help operationalize partner air capabilities.[3] This dedicated support paid off, as the SMW, and specifically the PC-12s are widely regarded as one of the most effective components within the Afghan Air Force. In addition to the focus of the CAAs on the SMW, focused approaches for the AAF A-29s by the 81st Fighter Squadron and SMW Mi-17s utilizing US Army contractors were able to generate impressive results.[4]


            These advising efforts took place alongside a massive employment of American and NATO airpower, which provided valuable combat capabilities, but also complicated efforts to develop operational experience among the AAF. Air support allows ground forces to be increasingly aggressive and offers far greater operational flexibility. Unfortunately, as a downside of this competence, US advisors and Afghan commanders almost exclusively utilized American airpower, preventing the AAF from acquiring combat experience and working with the ANA to develop a sustainable joint operations concept.[5]


            Multiple inspector general reports have confirmed the impression among American personnel that there is not a clear aviation advising plan at Train Advise Assist Command-Air. Not only are the existing plans tied in with other advising efforts even the key terminology of “professional, capable, and sustainable” was ill defined and understood by personnel performing the advising mission.[6] Tactical advisors highlight a serious lack of communication and guidance from planners, with implied orders for lower level units to simply attempt to “do well”.[7]


Colombia Case Study

            Plan Colombia was primarily developed by the Colombian government as a result of the failure of the contemporary peace agreement with the FARC and with the insights provided by decades of fighting against the group. In addition to addressing many of the root causes of the political instability through nonmilitary means, the FARC’s increasing use of maneuver warfare gave the Colombian military the opportunity to go on the offensive against FARC base areas and support infrastructure.[8]


            After a realization by the American government that the drug trafficking and insurgency activities of the FARC could not be easily separated, aid increased to support the entire effort.[9] In the meantime, Colombian leadership became extremely proficient at employing their existing airpower capabilities against the FARC, particularly when the group attempted to fight conventionally.[10] Established infrastructure was increasingly easy to locate and additional military aid gave Colombia the ability to prosecute these targets. With new platforms, increased funding and training, helicopters became essential to inserting elite ground forces for raids and strike aircraft became the preferred tool for launching preparatory strikes against FARC camps and leadership.[11]


            Colombia differs from most contemporary case studies in that partner government and military leaders had a clear strategy and roles and mission’s analysis. Improvements in military effectiveness were only part of a much broader strategy, and the Colombian armed forces were already innovating and identifying capability gaps before the expansion of US support.[12] American support benefitted from culturally attuned personnel with years of experience working with the Colombian military, who were also heavily utilized on SOUTHCOM and SOCSOUTH planning staffs. The clear planning that had been done on both sides allowed for continuity.[13]


Trend Analysis

            In both of these cases, the United States lacked a comprehensive plan to assist partners in developing their aviation capabilities. Only in the Colombia case was there a useful degree of strategic consistency, but this was mostly the result of the Colombian government and military’s own long-term planning.


            American advisors and planners lacked a shared understanding of the problems their partner faced and were ineffective at communicating gaps and opportunities to utilize airpower. US personnel on the ground frequently took note of issues and highlighted key areas for future development, but this feedback was seldom noted at planning levels or translated into formats that could be easily understood throughout the entire Aviation Foreign Internal Defense enterprise. Advisors and planners also lacked the opportunity to highlight unrealistic objectives and recommend adjustments.[14] The result was frequently unmet expectations and frustration.


            US forces were most effective when dedicated units and organizations were able to “own” particular missions. Regional specialization, manifested in language skills and cultural acumen, paid off within special operations forces in particular, who were able to use more productive relationships with partners to further their mission. This expertise was supported by deployment systems that sent units and personnel to work with the same partners time and time again, providing useful local knowledge as well as buy in to long term approaches. In the aviation domain though, these “pockets of excellence” were isolated. Units were able to generate tactical successes and improvements, but these efforts were not tied into overall campaigns.[15]


            Contractors were used in both cases but were not inherently a positive or negative factor. When given clear tasks as part of an overall plan, contractors were able to contribute greatly to the development of partner aviation capabilities. However, in many cases requirements were poorly understood and left open ended, preventing military personnel from effectively assessing contractor actions or forcing behavioral changes.[16]



Planning for Aviation Foreign Internal Defense is also a fundamentally joint venture between the sponsor and partner. Aviation capabilities must fit into the overall defense structure, therefore local actors must possess a clear picture of their desired structure. Advisors can help partners develop their own structure, but capability development and maintenance in aviation is a long-term endeavor. Here the United States can be helpful by providing expertise built from global operations and experience as well as frameworks to develop and track capabilities.


            The following problem analysis framework was developed by Dr. Wray Johnson and provides a valuable methodology for assessing a loosely structured problem.


            Johnson Framework:[17]

            What is the National Strategy?

            How will the State Integrate the Instruments of National Power?

            What is the Military Role in the National Strategy?

            What is the Airpower Role? (Do not need to be solely military)

            What are the Airpower Tasks (Missions)?

            What are the Available Resources and Capabilities? (Human and Material)

            What are the Remaining Requirements? (A follow up to the 6th question)

            What is the best Method to meet the Requirements?

            The strategic question approach also requires avoiding a means driven strategy. Partner effectiveness in aviation cannot be solved simply with specialized units or particular airframes. Airframes and units are best used to meet the requirements of a larger strategy and should not be confused with a strategy or plan themselves.



            Aviation Foreign Internal Defense is a complicated enterprise that requires different skills than conventional USAF operations from the tactical to the strategic level. This does not mean that it is impossible for the USAF to be successful though. Well thought out strategic level decision making can have outsized effects throughout AvFID operations, resulting in more effective engagements and efficient use of limited USAF resources.


[1] Marion, Forrest L. Flight Risk: The Coalition’s Air Advisory Mission in Afghanistan, 2005–2015. Naval Institute Press, 2018. pp. 185-188

[2] Ibid.

[3] Switzer, Tobias, Justin Williams, and Derek Ebeling. Air Advising in Afghanistan, November 14, 2019.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Swigonski, Scott. “Unmasking the Demand for Airpower.” Unpublished, January 2017.

[6] DoD Inspector General. Progress of U.S. and Coalition Efforts to Train, Advise, and Assist the Afghan Air Force, Progress of U.S. and Coalition Efforts to Train, Advise, and Assist the Afghan Air Force § (2018).

[7] Switzer, Tobias, Justin Williams, and Derek Ebeling. Air Advising in Afghanistan, November 14, 2019.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Moyar, Mark, Hector Pagan, and Griego Wil. Persistent Engagement in Colombia. Vol. 14–3. Joint Special Operations University, 2014.

[10] Interview with former active duty security cooperation officer.

[11] Visbal, Janiel David Melamed. “The Strengthening of the Colombian Air Force: An Effective Strategy on the Road to Negotiation.” Ciencia y Poder Aéreo 10, no. 1 (2015): 85–90.

[12] Marks, Thomas. “A Model Counterinsurgency: Uribe’s Colombia (2002-2006) vs FARC.” Military Review, April 2007.

[13] Moyar, Mark, Hector Pagan, and Griego Wil. Persistent Engagement in Colombia. Vol. 14–3. Joint Special Operations University, 2014.

[14] Switzer, Tobias, Justin Williams, and Derek Ebeling. Air Advising in Afghanistan, November 14, 2019.

[15] Switzer, Tobias, Justin Williams, and Derek Ebeling. Air Advising in Afghanistan, November 14, 2019.

[16] Inspector General. Progress of U.S. and Coalition Efforts to Train, Advise, and Assist the Afghan Air Force, Progress of U.S. and Coalition Efforts to Train, Advise, and Assist the Afghan Air Force (2018).

[17] Johnson, Wray. “The Republic of Korea Air Force in the Next Century: Thinking Strategically.” presented at the 50th Anniversary International Airpower Strategy Symposium, The Republic of Korea Air Force Air University, September 16, 1999.

About the Author(s)

Riley Murray is a First Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. He holds a B.S. in Military and Security Studies from the United States Air Force Academy and a M.A. in Security from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. He can be found on Twitter @rileycmurray. 




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