The U.S. Air Force and Operations Other Than War

Reducing Current Stresses and Meeting Future Demand

by Alan J. Vick

Research Brief

Although the Cold War is over, the U.S. military in general and the U.S. Air Force (USAF) in particular find themselves remarkably busy. From enforcing no-fly zones in Iraq to supporting peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia, the USAF is currently maintaining an unprecedented peacetime operations tempo. This optempo is stressing personnel and equipment, and is making it difficult for the USAF to be fully prepared for potential combat operations in major regional conflicts.

A recent RAND study of USAF involvement in military operations other than war (MOOTW) delineates the challenges facing the USAF at this optempo level and offers new approaches aimed not only at minimizing existing problems but also at enhancing USAF MOOTW capabilities. The study begins by analyzing how MOOTW optempo is affecting training, readiness, and morale, and explores ways of minimizing the effects. The authors then discuss the central reasons for the growing importance of MOOTW in the post–Cold War environment and go on to describe additional MOOTW tasks likely to face the USAF in the future. The study concludes by proposing concepts of operation that would enhance USAF capabilities to perform the new tasks.

The High Demands of Peace Operations

The involvement of the USAF and its predecessors in MOOTW goes back over 80 years and more than 800 operations. Besides such well-known events as the Berlin Airlift, MOOTW include many types of small conflicts and noncombat operations. Most recently, the greatest MOOTW demands on the USAF have come from its role in multiple, ongoing peace operations, which account for 90 percent of all MOOTW sorties flown since the end of the Cold War. Unlike temporary disaster relief or humanitarian aid missions that do not significantly increase peacetime optempo, these peace operations have placed unusually high demands on specialized assets (e.g., the Airborne Warning and Control System [AWACS], intelligence platforms, and Special Operations Forces [SOF] aircraft), as well as on the fighter force. The amount of time the USAF devotes to such operations has exploded from almost zero during the last few years of the Cold War to a level that has been consuming almost 10 percent of USAF flight hours in the mid-1990s.

Most major peace operations of recent years have required the USAF to enforce no-fly zones, which accounts for this steep increase in demand. The current concept of operation for such missions requires fighters and AWACS to fly long sorties patrolling the controlled airspace. In turn, these patrolling aircraft must be supported by tankers, electronic warfare, and other assets. Difficult enough to maintain over a short period, this level of commitment has continued for years, with USAF squadrons flying sorties over Iraq since 1991 and over Bosnia since 1993.

The consequences of these continuing sorties are reduced combat readiness and lower morale for the commands—and the particular assets—that bear most of the burden. Many affected units are experiencing annual temporary-duty (TDY) rates that greatly exceed the 120-day goal of the USAF. In the short term, this high level of involvement disrupts the routine training and exercises needed to prepare for major conflicts. In the long term, excessive TDY assignments cause personnel to spend more than half their time away from home stations, thereby undermining morale—a factor that could lead to lower retention rates and less-experienced and less-capable units.

A New Concept of Operations

If the DoD is unwilling to accept a decline in USAF combat readiness, it must find ways of reducing the optempo associated with recent peace operations. One promising approach involves conceiving of at least some peace operations in a new way. Current deployments, plans, and concepts for such operations reflect an orientation more appropriate for high-intensity combat than for peacekeeping. If, for example, the objectives in enforcing a no-fly zone are not to hermetically seal the zone, then combat air patrols need not be flown 24 hours a day. Random patrols, much like a "cop on the beat," combined with good surveillance that makes use of unmanned aerial vehicles and air-implanted ground sensors, should be sufficient to deter most flights. The number of aircraft needed to enforce no-fly zones could therefore be significantly reduced, and optempo for all affected units could be eased. Compared with existing concepts of operation, this new approach would increase short-term combat readiness and decrease longer-term morale issues.

MOOTW Are Here to Stay

Since the end of the Cold War, MOOTW have moved from being a "sideshow" to occupying center stage. To some extent, this development may be explained by the disappearance of the Soviet Union: The absence of superpower rivalry has enabled the United States to play a greater role in dealing with disorder throughout the world. However, the United States would not have embraced such a role if it had not been guided by a national security policy that has a strong internationalist orientation. If the general policy orientation continues along these lines, then the current high tempo of MOOTW is likely to persist in the foreseeable future. Conversely, if the United States turns to a more nationalist or isolationist policy, then involvement in some MOOTW (especially peace and humanitarian aid operations) will likely decrease. Yet even a greatly reduced level of involvement in peace operations does not mean that MOOTW demands will become insignificant. All indicators suggest that MOOTW directed at narrower, national goals (e.g., counterproliferation, counterterrorism, noncombat evacuation operations, and counterdrug operations) are likely to continue under any conceivable national security policy.

New Approaches to Future MOOTW Tasks

Even if the USAF makes no special effort to develop MOOTW capabilities, the inherent characteristics of air and space power—particularly global situational awareness, responsiveness, and long-range, precision-strike capabilities that have the potential to minimize friendly and civilian casualties—will make it the force of choice in many situations. To accomplish such MOOTW tasks effectively, the USAF must consider new concepts of operation that require various new technologies. Most of these technologies are already in development, but few are being funded for MOOTW purposes. While these are difficult times for initiating new programs, the USAF should find that a relatively small investment in some MOOTW-specific technologies will pay large dividends by adding critical MOOTW tasks to the list of USAF competencies and by minimizing the number of general-purpose forces involved in MOOTW.

But the development of such technologies will accomplish little by itself. Air and space power can become the most versatile instrument of the twenty-first century—able to decisively influence the outcome of events spanning the spectrum from peace operations to major conflicts—only if theorists begin to think more expansively and creatively about the application of air and space power in unconventional settings and to develop new doctrine, tactics, organizations, and procedures to meet the complex challenges of the upcoming decades.

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