Research Brief

The U.S. armed forces of the post–Cold War era are sized and structured principally to fight and win two nearly simultaneous major regional conflicts (MRCs). Since Operation Desert Storm, the armed forces have been committed to more than 20 nonroutine operations outside the borders of the United States. Although it has been preparing for MRCs, the military has found itself instead dispensing humanitarian aid, conducting peace operations, enforcing sanctions, and in other ways intervening in response to numerous crises and lesser conflicts (CALCs).

These operations have placed substantial burdens on some force elements. The Air Force has been particularly affected, as CALCs have stressed capabilities for theater airlift, airborne warning and control, reconnaissance, and suppression of air defenses (if an embargo needs to be enforced). This raises the possibility that the MRC-driven force structure is not sufficient in some respects for CALCs. In a recent Project AIR FORCE study, a team of RAND researchers sought to identify directions the Air Force might take in responding to growing CALC demands.

The researchers began with the recognition that the increasing importance of CALCs poses a dilemma for an Air Force oriented toward MRCs. Senior military officials have already expressed concern that CALC demands might be eroding their ability to respond to MRCs. Furthermore, enhancing capabilities to respond to CALCs could make demands on funds already stretched thin by budget reductions and by the need for forces large enough to meet the two-MRC requirement. Nonetheless, the RAND researchers thought it instructive to consider just what changes would be appropriate, at the limit, if the Air Force were to be organized, trained, and equipped for CALCs.

Organizing. Organizational changes offer the Air Force a low-cost, high-payoff way to increase CALC responsiveness, although institutional reaction could make such changes among the most difficult to effect. The most important change would be to create a headquarters point of advocacy for CALC capabilities. Currently, no Air Force office speaks for opportunities to improve those capabilities—and without such a voice, other measures to improve CALC responsiveness are unlikely to be implemented. A more CALC-driven Air Force might also require these actions:

  • Reversing the current active/reserve allocation of responsibilities so that more of the support forces needed for CALCs are retained in the active component
  • Configuring active units for deployment in smaller force elements or units to meet the needs of multiple geographically dispersed CALCs
  • Configuring certain units specifically for CALCs, possibly including units providing security from the air or delivering supplies into unsecured bases
  • Forging more intimate, sustained ties with humanitarian organizations, such as the International Red Cross, that have skills valuable in CALCs.

Training. Most of the skills required for CALCs are already found in an Air Force designed for MRCs, but they might be needed in different proportions. For example, CALCs might require more air base security than air superiority skills when compared to the balance needed for MRCs. Although flying and fighting skills are useful in CALCs, their usefulness there is mostly to protect those engaged in medical care, communications, and logistics. Also, more emphasis may be placed on language skills, cultural awareness, and ground security. But CALC orientation and acquisition of special skills need not displace much of the flying and combat training airmen now receive. Many skills useful in CALCs require education, not continual training, and such education could be provided in one-time courses, followed by occasional refreshers or exercises.

Equipping. An Air Force equipped for CALCs would have more transport, surveillance, and warning-and-control aircraft, more gunships and defensive assets, and fewer fighters and bombers than there are in the current force structure. Beyond proportional changes, CALC operations could also benefit from some special capabilities that are within the current state of the art but which the Air Force now lacks. These include the ability to do the following from the air:

  • Detect, locate, and immediately suppress heavy-weapon fire
  • Suppress urban disorders, without resort to lethal means
  • Drop supplies with pinpoint accuracy
  • Unload and pick up a small detachment quickly in any cleared area anywhere, anytime, in any weather
  • Deliver large quantities of inexpensive, lightweight, largely self-erectable disposable housing and medical structures
  • Locate nuclear materials on the ground, at least to the extent now possible with civilian aircraft.

Some of these proposals would effectively shift capabilities that now reside in ground forces and put them into the air. The point is not that the Air Force is a better place for them but that the peculiar risks of some CALCs place a premium on minimizing or avoiding the ground presence of U.S. troops. Although MRCs call for close cooperation between air and ground forces, air power in some CALCs may be less effective if it must rely on ground forces.

Practical considerations, of course, restrict what the Air Force can actually begin doing now. The most urgent need is to relieve some of the stresses falling on certain kinds of units. If people in these units leave the force, they will not be available for either MRCs or CALCs. One way to relieve CALC-derived stresses is to reallocate resources to the extent now possible between fighting and support units or between active and reserve units.

Beyond that, funding shortages will limit action. But thought is cheap, and budgetary pressures 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.

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