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Constant Responsibilities, Shifting Demands

According to its basic doctrine, "The Air Force is responsible for the preparation of the air forces necessary for the effective prosecution of war and military operations short of war . . . and . . . for the expansion of the peacetime components of the Air Force to meet the needs of war." Preparation of the necessary air forces means to "organize, train, equip, and provide forces" to carry out all the operations required to fulfill the Air Force's primary and collateral functions (now, more commonly called "missions").

Throughout the Cold War, the forces "necessary for the effective prosecution of war" clearly dominated over the other two responsibilities. The Cold War threats required ready forces that were capable, if necessary, of prosecuting a war to termination in hours or days. The immediacy and high stakes of those threats made mobilization for war and operations short of war lesser considerations. So, for more than 40 years, the efforts to "organize, train, equip, and provide forces" focused on "the effective prosecution of war," while operations and mobilization short of war were handled as issues on the margins of Air Force priorities. That Cold War focus may be contrasted to the peacetime, pre-World War II era when the emphasis was on mobilization and operations short of war.

With the end of the Cold War, the threat has changed dramatically, but the focus has not. The prospect of war has changed from an imminent collision of nuclear superpowers to what are currently called major regional contingencies (MRCs). In U.S. defense planning, it is argued that the United States must be prepared for two such MRCs at any one time. Accordingly, two simultaneous MRCs have replaced the superpower conflict of the Cold War as the kind of war the Air Force prepares to prosecute when it organizes, trains, equips, and provides its forces—and, once again, operations and mobilization short of war are being handled as issues on the margins, as they were during the Cold War.

Unfortunately, other changes besides the threat of war have accompanied the end of the Cold War: Defense spending has declined steadily as a portion of federal expenditures; and operations short of war have created rising demands for using the U.S. military to solve problems of ethnic conflict, humanitarian and disaster assistance, and civil unrest. The prospect for the remainder of this decade is a continuation of both these trends—fewer resources for the military and more demands for their use in operations short of war—even as the mainstream of U.S. defense planning tries to focus on preparedness for two MRCs.

Stressing Operations

Signs of stress are already in evidence on the U.S. military forces being employed for operations short of war:

  • Forces and headquarters staffs are stretched thin as they try to handle concurrent or successive commitments to operations short of war.
  • Certain critical units are faced with long overseas deployments.
  • Units needed for MRCs are committed to operations short of war where they can not be extracted or recovered quickly.
  • Training time is being lost, and equipment needed for MRCs is being worn out prematurely.
  • Forces are being used in operations for which they were not specifically organized, trained, or equipped.
  • Many capabilities most needed for operations short of war are located in the Reserves or National Guards where they may not be available unless a national emergency is declared.
  • Clear-cut, fixed military objectives that are both needed and expected for the effective prosecution of war are often absent.

A public debate has been joined over the increasing assignment of the military to these operations short of war. One side argues that the primary purpose of the military is (or should be) to fight and win the nation's wars, while the other side argues that these operations seem to be the wave of the future and the military is the best national resource to address them.

Operations short of war cover a broad spectrum of activities, from domestic calls for disaster assistance and restoration of civil order to international calls for humanitarian aid and military intervention. Some events are relatively short-term, such as relief operations in Bangladesh, relief and evacuation during the Mount Pinatubo disaster, or the evacuations of endangered U.S. citizens. Others are planned as relatively long-term operations, such as the congressionally mandated surveillance of maritime and aerial drug smuggling and the United Nations mandated peacekeeping operations in the Sinai. Still others are of indeterminate length, such as the protection of ethnic minorities in Iraq and Bosnia, awaiting the resolution of political issues.

The particular operations short of war that are now stressing the U.S. military forces are not the domestic or routine operations; they are the international and nonroutine operations short of war, particularly those that could lead to combat operations that do not develop into MRCs. To distinguish this stressing subset from all other operations short of war and to give these nonroutine, international operations a more precise name, we have chosen to call them crises and lesser conflicts (CALCs). Although crises and lesser conflicts are quite different things, together they make up the entire category of international, nonroutine operations short of war. Just as MRCs have become the dominant form of war for defense planning purposes, CALCs may become the dominant form of operations short of war for defense planning.

The Horns of a Dilemma

CALCs and MRCs are emerging as two horns of a dilemma for the U.S. military. If the future is dominated by MRCs—actual or threatened—the military will generally have the right kinds of forces, but probably not enough of them. This outcome would not be surprising, because the forces emerging from the Cold War were designed for war; however, as those forces are reduced through budget contractions, the concerns about their adequacy for war are quantitative more than qualitative. On the other hand, if the future is dominated by CALCs, the U.S. military may have enough resources in the aggregate, but not necessarily the right kinds of forces. Thus, the CALC horn presents problems mostly for the qualities designed into the U.S. forces, whereas the MRC horn poses problems mostly for retaining sufficient quantities. With declining or even constant budgets, efforts to avoid one horn will only increase the problems associated with the other.

Until recently, this dilemma has been masked: During the Cold War, with larger forces and fewer CALCs, the capacities built into the supporting forces were generally adequate to meet the needs. Defense planning proceeded on the assumption that CALCs could be treated as "lesser included cases" for forces designed to handle one or more wars that might emerge if the Cold War turned hot. Some doubted the validity of that assumption for certain kinds of CALCs, even during the Cold War; but the drawdown of the forces—both combat and support—and the increasing numbers of CALCs have laid the horns bare and challenged the assumption that CALCs can continue to be treated as lesser included cases for MRC-designed forces.

Air Force at the Cutting Edge

Among the U.S. military services, the Air Force is encountering the dilemma sooner and more severely than the other services because many of its unique capabilities are in demand and are already stretched thin by simultaneous CALCs. These stressed capabilities include

  • airlift, both global and theater, but especially theater, for the delivery of relief supplies and for the deployment and support of forces;
  • surveillance, from air and space, especially airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) for the enforcement of air security;
  • reconnaissance and intelligence, from air and space, for situation and risk assessments; and
  • ground-to-air threat suppression, such as Wild Weasels, for the enforcement of air security.

At the same time, the bulk of the Air Force's MRC fighting forces—the generic (unspecialized) fighters and bombers—are not particularly stressed, for although they are often required for CALCs, they are not required in the depth or numbers needed for MRCs. Thus, while some of the Air Force assets are being stressed by CALCs, others are not, because the forces have been designed and balanced for MRCs.

An Air Force Designed for CALCS

How much different would the forces be if they had, instead, been designed and balanced for CALCs rather than MRCs? The question is both academic and hypothetical, but that does not mean the answer is without utility as a planning reference point. We know how the Air Force should organize, train, and equip its forces if MRCs are the basis for planning; we do not know, if CALCs were the basis. What we are interested in determining are the differences that would result from the two focal points.

Organizing for CALCs: Compared with changes in training or equipment, organizational changes could offer the Air Force some of the least-cost, highest-payoff responses to the problems posed by CALCs. But organizational changes are likely to be the most disturbing to the Air Force as an institution and, therefore, the most difficult to effect.

If CALCs were the principal basis for designing the forces, the biggest organizational change could be in the division of the basic Air Force responsibilities between the active and the Reserve/Guard forces: The prosecution of war could become, as it has before in peacetime, the principal responsibility of the Reserve and Guard units; and thus their mobilization, plus operations short of war, could once again dominate the design of the active force. The active units could be configured for deployments in smaller groupings to meet the needs of multiple, geographically dispersed CALCs, as opposed to being concentrated for MRCs. Crew ratios could be increased where necessary to rotate deployed crews.

A few units might be configured specifically for frequent CALC operations, such as those required for providing security from the air (e.g., Operations Deny Flight and Southern Watch) or air deliveries into unsecured bases (as in the first flights into Somalia). An Air Force designed for CALCs could probably forge more intimate and sustained ties with other organizations—not only with relief and humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (e.g., the International Red Cross), but also with pertinent governmental organizations (e.g., the Nuclear Emergency Search Teams)—whose specialized knowledge or skills may be essential for CALCs.

One of the most important changes in organization for the Air Force to consider is the creation of a headquarters point of advocacy for CALC capabilities. Currently, there are no eyes, ears, or voice within the Air Force to watch, to listen, or to speak for opportunities to improve USAF CALC capabilities, even where those improvements could be achieved at modest costs or with modest changes on the margins—not just through changes in organization, but also in training and equipment. Without a point of advocacy to take the lead in exploring, evaluating, and promoting opportunities to improve USAF CALC capabilities, few of the other suggestions or proposals offered in this report could be expected to find fertile ground or a chance to grow.

Training for CALCs: CALCs may demand education more than training. The difference is more than semantic. Training tends to evaporate and needs frequent refreshing, but education is generally more durable. Most flight and fighting skills are gained and maintained through practice; but CALC duties are more likely to alter how these military skills are to be applied than to introduce entirely new skills. Fliers and warriors believe that they must train continually if they are to keep their flying and fighting skills honed to a sharp edge. By contrast, policemen, once trained at their academies, are likely to limit their training to physical fitness and occasional sessions at the pistol range. Much of their time spent at the police academies is in education—the law, human relations, etc.—subjects that, once learned, will be slowly mastered in the field through long experience rather than by continual training. When fliers or warriors must perform policelike (constabulary) functions in CALCs, their need, like that of the policeman, is more for education than for training.

Most of the skills required for CALCs are already found in the Air Force , but they might be needed in different proportions. Flying and fighting skills are needed for CALCs, but in less depth or numbers than for MRCs. Other skills, such as languages, cultural understanding, and ground security could be needed in greater numbers or depth. It seems likely that many of the skills now found in Special Operations Forces and in the Air Police could be needed in greater numbers for CALCs. The emphasis in some training and exercises could probably shift: Operational training for air security operations might, for example, emphasize rules of engagement and international interoperability that may be more critical for success in CALCs than are sortie generation or air campaign planning. In general, however, many CALC skills could take the form of one-time education or training with occasional refreshers or exercises rather than the steady regimen of training now associated with flying and combat. Like first aid or CPR, simply knowing how to do (or not do) certain things may be sufficient for many CALCs.

Equipping for CALCs: Quantitatively, the equipment of an Air Force designed for CALCs could differ from that of an Air Force designed for MRCs, mostly in its proportions. The numbers of transports, surveillance units, C3I, gunships, and defensive assets in the active force could all increase at the expense of reductions in the numbers of fighters and bombers. The appropriate proportions of equipment could be revealed by the evolution of CALCs, but an examination of recent CALC operations over Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia, and Rwanda should provide a reasonable starting point.

Beyond proportional changes in current Air Force assets, CALC operations could also benefit from some special equipment that will not otherwise be found in an Air Force for MRCs: This is an area in which USAF CALC capabilities might be considerably expanded, albeit at considerable cost. The major options for qualitatively improving Air Force equipment for CALCs include abilities to do the following from the air:

  • Detect, locate, and immediately suppress heavy weapons fire
  • Suppress open urban disorders, without resort to lethal means
  • Drop or deliver supplies with PGM (precision guided munitions) accuracy, without landing
  • Unload and pick up on short notice a small team of people in any cleared area anywhere in the world, at any time, in any weather
  • Deliver large quantities of inexpensive, lightweight, self-erectable, disposable housing and medical structures
  • Locate nuclear materials on the ground, at least to the extent now possible with civilian aircraft.

New Priorities

Thinking about an Air Force designed for CALCs is only a hypothetical reference point for thinking about what, if anything, should be done now. The most urgent aspect of CALCs in the real world is relieving some of the stresses now falling on certain people, units, and equipment. Unrelieved, these stresses are causing critical people (along with their skills) to leave the Air Force, causing premature wear on critical equipment needed to prosecute both MRCs and CALCs, and setting up the Air Force for failure one way or another. Resources need to be redistributed insofar as possible between fighting and supporting units and between active and Reserve units to relieve these stresses.

Beyond these measures, the Air Force needs to determine how it should respond in the future as the planning world evolves into one dominated by either MRCs or CALCs. That difference in direction now lies on a knife-edge: A single MRC could strongly reinforce the current planning paradigm that focuses on MRCs. But a reunification of the Korean Peninsula and a dramatic change in Persian Gulf regimes could make MRCs seem much more remote if the United States is heavily committed in CALCs. What the Air Force needs right now in CALC planning is not more money but more thought. A starting point would be to recognize that currently there are

  • no institutional or bureaucratic pressures on the Air Force to realign its capabilities toward CALCs at the expense of those for MRCs, and
  • no points of advocacy within the Air Force for CALC planning concepts—perhaps because such advocacy could be perceived as having the potential to create additional pressures on scarce resources.

Fears of budget pressures, however, should not prevent the Air Force from thinking now about what kinds of actions would be prudent if CALCs should continue to grow in number and scope and then dominate the Air Force operations of the future.

A Compass for the Future

The concerns that now impede thinking about CALCs as an important aspect of the Air Force's future include limited resources and problems related to the Air Force's current organization and established traditions. If these considerable concerns can somehow be overcome, what then? What concepts, strategies or doctrines should guide the Air Force as it proceeds to organize, train, and equip forces for CALCs as well as for MRCs? One principle stands out from this research: CALCs can be quagmires. If air power is to offer a significant military alternative for the nation's leadership, it must be allowed to independently carry out activities required in CALCs without committing people to the ground, even in supporting roles. This is not the traditional call for the independence of air power from ground commanders; it is a call for air power to give the nation's leadership an alternative that does not make the nation a hostage in someone else's conflict. Air power must be able to feed, supply, rescue, police, and punish from the air, without resort to air bases within the afflicted area.

This challenge for air power is less technical than financial, and it is less financial than institutional: If the institutional Air Force makes up its mind to pursue such independent capabilities for air power in CALCs, the resources will be found. And if the resources are found, even in an era of sharply constrained budgets, the technical problems can be solved.

This challenge for air power should not be unfamiliar. It is closely related to the challenges for air power that arose in the aftermaths of the two world wars. After World War I, the challenge for air power was to offer the nation's leadership a military alternative to the stalemated carnage of trench warfare on the ground. Air power offered the promise of leaping over those trenches and striking at the heart of the enemy—and avoiding the bloody ground warfare that had cost the Europeans a generation of young men.

After World War II, the challenge for air power was to offer the nation's leadership a military alternative to ground warfare against hordes of soldiers that the United States could not hope to match in numbers. Air power, then pumped up with nuclear weapons, again offered the promise of leaping over the masses of soldiers and striking at the heart of the enemy—and avoiding the kind of attrition warfare on the ground that the nation could not hope to win.

The pattern is evident: After each world war, air power developed by responding to the challenge posed not so much by the next war as by the nation's nightmare evoked by the last war. Today, the nation's nightmare does not seem to be an MRC, which may be the U.S. military's standard for a "proper" war that can be fought and won. Rather, the nation's nightmare seems to be about finding itself held hostage—as it was in Vietnam, as the Soviets were in Afghanistan—in an endless, unwinnable conflict.

Now, after the Cold War, the challenge for air power could very well be to offer the nation's leadership military alternatives to crises and lesser conflicts that the nation wants neither to ignore nor to be held hostage by. Air power—with independent capabilities to feed, supply, rescue, police, and punish from the air—could be fashioned to address urgent problems without being held hostage.

The challenge is there. So are the means, both technical and financial. But the challenge may not seem worthy of the costs—costs now measured mostly in what the institution has come to value—in traditional forces. The future development and evolution of air power could be in the balance. It has been before, in the 1930s, when the Army leadership thought that air power should be a service rather than a force. It was once again, in the late 1940s, when the Army and Navy leaderships thought that air power should not be independent from their surface forces. And it may be now, over the relevance of air power to a world in which regular warfare seems less likely than the disorders and human tragedies that are increasingly emerging everywhere.

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Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    The CALC Dilemma

  • Chapter Three

    Organizing for CALCS

  • Chapter Four

    Training for CALCS

  • Chapter Five

    Equipping for CALCS

  • Chapter Six

    Concluding Observations

Research conducted by

The research supporting this report was conducted as part of the Crises and Lesser Conflicts (CALCs) project under the Strategy, Doctrine, and Force Structure Program of RAND's Project AIR FORCE.

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