RAND Report Says Increasing Emphasis on Counterinsurgency Missions May Require Adjusting Airlift Fleets

For Release

July 31, 2007

The U.S. military's current general airlift forces are suitable for the majority of counterinsurgency missions, but need substantial reinvestment and some realignment in order to be most effective, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

Although the strategies and tactics of conventional warfare and fighting insurgencies are markedly different, most airlift missions in support of counterinsurgency operations —including the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan — resemble those in other types of conflicts.

In both kinds of conflicts, most airlift missions move people and supplies between established airfields. Sometimes small or medium transport aircraft also must fly into short and less-developed fields to deliver needed loads to frontline units. These kinds of missions are common in counterinsurgencies, where small ground units often maneuver beyond surface lines of supply.

“Our work focused on this question: For counterinsurgencies, does the U.S. need a specialized airlift fleet, or can it make do with the existing fleet, perhaps with some specialized aircraft added at the margins?” said Karl Mueller, co-author of the report and a political scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “The answer to that question has obvious budgetary implications for the Defense Department and war-fighting importance for military commanders.”

“We found conventional and unconventional conflicts involve the same types of airlift missions, but the balance of missions usually is different,” said Robert Owen, the report's lead author and a RAND consultant. “Counterinsurgencies generally involve a lot of small loads going into rough fields, while big wars involve big aircraft going to big airfields in big numbers.”

Owen is a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He was formerly dean of the Air Force's School of Advanced Airpower Studies and chief of the Air Mobility Command's Policy and Doctrine Division.

The report, “Airlift Capabilities for Future U.S. Counterinsurgency Operations,” was produced by RAND Project AIR FORCE, a federally funded research and development center for studies and analysis aimed at providing independent policy alternatives for the U.S. Air Force.

Effective airlift gives commanders of counterinsurgencies greater control of the pace, strategies and operations of such conflicts. Airlift makes it possible to strike directly at insurgent strongholds and to disperse other forces to provide security across an embattled region without being overly dependent on ground lines of communications. It also reduces vulnerability to guerilla attacks.

The report highlights several important challenges that are posed by counterinsurgency missions: the need for assault airlift, counterinsurgency aircraft fleet modernization, urban warfare tactics and the Foreign Internal Defense program.

Experience in past counterinsurgencies suggests that the United States needs to reestablish a capability to move modest loads within a combat area into short and undeveloped airfields reliably and cost effectively, the study says. This may call for acquisition of an “assault airlifter” with true short-takeoff-and-landing, rough-field capability.

Such an aircraft might replicate the characteristics of the Vietnam-era C-7 Caribou, which could carry three-ton loads into fields less than 1,000 feet long. However, the availability of new technologies, such as unmanned aircraft and satellite-guided cargo parachutes, should be taken into account in deciding whether purchasing a new transport aircraft is necessary for such missions, according to the RAND report.

In terms of modernizing the U.S. airlift fleet, Owen and Mueller recommend that investment focus on acquiring aircraft and support systems that will be useful in a wide range of conflicts, not just insurgencies. In addition, they caution that any new aircraft designs brought into the fleet should enhance flexibility, not merely duplicate the capabilities of existing aircraft.

The increasing threat levels facing rotary-wing and tilt-rotor aircraft flying into urban battlefields is a growing problem in counterinsurgency operations. Even in the most built-up environment, helicopters can find suitable landing areas on streets, rooftops, parks and vacant lots, making them invaluable for assault airlift, resupply, medical evacuation and reinforcement.

“However,” the report notes, “helicopters are slower and more vulnerable than fixed-wing aircraft, problems of increasing concern. At cruise speeds of 110 to 160 knots, helicopters may take several minutes to traverse the threat ‘bubbles' of shoulder-fired missiles and up to a minute to fly into and then out of the range of heavy machine guns.” The report does not suggest that helicopters will lose their usefulness in future urban conflict. However, it recommends a broad reassessment of the manner in which ground and air/aviation forces are teamed and employed to fight in cities.

The United States provides counterinsurgency assistance to friendly nations through its Foreign Internal Defense program, but the core airlifters used by the U.S., including the C-17 Globemaster III and the C-130 Hercules, are too complex and expensive to meet the needs of many smaller or less-wealthy countries. The report recommends that the U.S. Air Force consider acquiring some substantially smaller and less technologically sophisticated transports that can be more easily used by such nations.

Having such aircraft in its own inventory would enhance the Air Force's counterinsurgency and conventional conflict capabilities while also improving its ongoing efforts to help allies develop useful and sustainable airlift forces, the study says. According to the report, such local airlift forces would make their owners more capable of defending themselves against insurgent threats and of providing limited support to coalition operations.

The report is available on the RAND Web site, www.rand.org.

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