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Document created: 1 March 05
Air & Space Power Journal - Spring 2005

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Gold Star Memorial

It is with profound sadness that the editors of the Air & Space Power Journal have learned that the author of this article, Maj William Brian Downs, has died.  He, with three other Americans and the Iraqi pilot he was instructing, perished in the crash of a Comp Air 7SL approximately 80 miles northeast of Baghdad on 30 May 2005.

Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.

—Pres. John F. Kennedy

Unconventional Airpower

Maj William Brian Downs, USAF*

*The author is a member of the 6th Special Operations Squadron,
Air Force Special Operations Command, Hurlburt Field, Florida.

Despite almost a century of air combat experience, the Air Force today confronts a form of warfare it is ill prepared to wage. In previous wars, we found a way to win by correctly adapting to each particular conflict. Once again we must adjust if we are to bring airpower more effectively to bear in counterterrorism (CT) and counterinsurgency (COIN). This article broadly outlines a doctrine of unconventional airpower for these missions and recommends modifications in force structure and tactics that will help execute that doctrine successfully on the battlefield. Specifically, the recommendations include development of a new aircraft for CT and COIN.

Although the Air Force should maintain a regional focus in its thinking about these two missions, we must remain globally aware. That is, we need intimate knowledge of the people, languages, and cultures of the countries in which we operate; at the same time, we must understand how our actions in a particular area will affect others on the planet. These facts are as true for the Air Force as they are for surface combatants. In fact, because the speed and lethality of air operations magnify the potential for doing good or inflicting harm, we must clearly comprehend all of their effects. Further-more, despite the deep regional roots of terrorists, they have global operational reach. In some cases—Indonesia, for example—terrorists who plan operations against the United States elude us because of their location in areas politically closed to US forces. In others (e.g., Iraq and Afghanistan), the political environment allows insurgents to operate despite a sizable US military presence. To bring airpower against enemies in this global operational environment, Air Force combat operations should become as personal and selective as they are swift and precise—and include alternatives for striking targets in areas politically difficult to reach. Covert operations offer one way to attack these types of targets, but we should consider other methods as well.


In unconventional warfare, the principles of war remain valid, but they apply in different ways and in a different context than during a conventional conflict. Similarly, the Air Force’s distinctive capabilities apply to CT and COIN but need adjustments to make them effective. To allow for personal and selective air operations for these missions, the doctrine of unconventional airpower adapts the Air Force’s distinctive capabilities of air and space superiority, information superiority, global attack, precision engagement, rapid global mobility, and agile combat support to our current global battlefield by considering their impact from diverse cultural perspectives.1 For example, after we achieve air superiority, if continued air operations create unnecessary hostility in the population over which our aircraft are flying, we only hinder our larger, global mission. Thus, on today’s battlefield, we must employ Air Force assets selectively to avoid creating more enemies. In some cases, rather than employ our own air assets, we should assist indigenous air forces so they can conduct operations against our mutual enemies. If a capable indigenous air force does not exist, the US Air Force should take the lead in developing one.

Similarly, information superiority in unconventional airpower goes beyond technical-collection platforms, shrewd analysts, or rapid-dissemination systems; it also includes an awareness of what people think and even feel about air operations conducted by US or local forces. For the most part, we gain this understanding by working closely with indigenous forces at the tactical level. In addition to learning how our operations influence a population, we must become adept at predicting that influence. Such awareness could then inform our planning.

In the same way, global attack and precision engagement are critical to unconventional airpower. However, not only must we attack globally and precisely, but we must also consider who executes the attack. We need not employ US aircraft or crews on every mission; indeed, combined crews of US and foreign Airmen could fly them just as easily. We must consider that the same attack, on the same target, with the same military effect, may produce a different political impact, depending on who flies the aircraft. We should use this fact to our advantage rather than allow it to surprise us.

Finally, in unconventional-airpower doctrine, rapid global mobility and agile combat support should be available to sustain military operations con-ducted by other than US forces—or even the activities of nongovernmental organizations when they support our objectives. Like the ramifications of an attack mission, the political impact of logistical support depends upon who carries it out. The doctrine of unconventional airpower, then, is effects-based, employing indigenous air forces to achieve political and military outcomes locally, regionally, and globally.

Force Structure

As might be expected, the force-structure changes that we must make in order to execute unconventional airpower doctrine focus on training and personnel. At every level, the Air Force should teach its members to think globally and to develop an understanding and appreciation of the specific cultures in which they will operate. This training should go far beyond our current briefings and pamphlets. Our military equal-opportunity program provides a good model for such an effort. Ironically, the Air Force currently expends more energy instructing its Airmen about their own culture than it does teaching them about the cultures of our enemies and allies!

Until now, in-depth training in cultural awareness has primarily been reserved for special operations forces. As Lt Gen Norton Schwartz has said, those forces must enhance their own cultural perception, but this acuity belongs in our expeditionary air and space forces as well.2 Air Force officers should set the example by learning at least one foreign language fluently. But we also need more forces that specialize in bridging cultural divides. In the US Air Force, one finds these individuals predominantly in three specialties: embassy team members, foreign area officers, and combat-aviation advisors. The number of Air Force members assigned to embassies is limited, but members of the other two specialties should form a corps to develop cultural awareness in the Air Force.

We should increase the number of combat-aviation advisors so that every geographic combatant commander and combined forces commander has the benefit of their skills. These advisors, part of Air Force Special Operations Command, perform their missions in operational aviation detachments of various Air Force specialties that assess, train, advise, and assist foreign air forces and integrate them into combined operations. They represent the Air Force’s link between foreign cultural awareness and operational capability. In addition to bolstering coalitions, advisors can help bring foreign airpower to bear unilaterally in areas politically closed to conventional US forces. If terrorists or insurgents are operating in a nation with extremely limited air capability, advisors can train with indigenous air force units and then assist them in combat. Although the US Air Force employs combat aviation advisors, it has not yet fully exploited their distinctive abilities. In general, the Air Force has left the training, advising, and assisting of foreign forces to the Army or civilian contractors; for example, the Army recently assumed the responsibility of obtaining a new surveillance aircraft for the Iraqi air force. Our service’s combat aviation advisors have played no part in building the Iraqi air force.3

Clearly, the Air Force should improve the cultural awareness of all its Airmen. But it should also cultivate special units that employ airpower professionals to assist indigenous air forces with CT and COIN around the world, including building air forces where none exist.

Air Tactics for Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency

After it has developed the doctrine and established the force structure, the Air Force should employ tactics specifically oriented toward CT and COIN. These should include training, advising, and assisting foreign air forces in their CT and COIN missions and integrating them into ours. We should also help them develop aircraft designed specifically to conduct these missions within the limits of their budgets. The United States possesses air assets that it utilizes for such operations, but most of them are inappropriate for nations with limited resources. Aircraft such as the AH-64, AC-130, A-10, and Predator unmanned aerial vehicle lie beyond the budgets of many nations with genuine CT and COIN requirements; furthermore, the AH-64 and A-10 were designed for antiarmor operations rather than CT and COIN. Even in those regions suitable for the employment of US air assets, building an indigenous CT or COIN air capability would provide a force multiplier, allow the United States to disengage, and foster confidence and political strength in the host-nation government.

Nations with limited resources should develop capabilities fundamental to successful CT and COIN. Air forces that conduct these operations must be able to locate, identify, and strike terrorist and insurgent targets anytime and anywhere, but they also must have the means to sustain these capabilities over the long term. Although these nations are forming CT and COIN ground units, air forces capable of complementing their army counterparts are either withering or nonexistent. In some cases, they will have to build such an air capability from scratch; in others, they should redirect funding from costly aircraft to less expensive, simple, yet effective CT/COIN platforms.

Thrush Vigilante Aircraft

Thrush Vigilante

The ideal CT/COIN aircraft for nations with limited resources should be inexpensive as well as simple to maintain and operate yet have a robust intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability and the ability to strike targets immediately. It should also have long endurance for extended loiters, the ability to operate in rugged terrain, and low detectability. Although these countries should consider developing a completely new aircraft that meets these requirements, in the interim, they should explore the possibility of using the Thrush Vigilante. Created in 1989, the Vigilante is a low-cost surveillance and close air support platform based on the proven Thrush agricultural aircraft. The two-pilot Vigilante can locate and engage small units and individuals in austere environments. With its remote operating capability, seven-hour endurance, 25,000-foot ceiling, infrared sensors, defensive systems, and hardpoints, the Vigilante lends itself to employment in isolated areas by indigenous air forces to find and attack concealed terrorists and insurgents. The reliable and ubiquitous PT-6 engine powers this simple aircraft, whose basic systems are easy to maintain. The US Air Force should develop the Vigilante for the war on terror and especially to assist foreign indigenous air forces in conducting their own CT and COIN air operations.

Such air forces could use the Vigilante to great effect in executing the aerial CT and COIN tactics outlined by Maj Gen Richard Secord, USAF, retired, who advocates using airborne forward air controllers to call for air strikes or mechanized infantry assaults against located insurgents or terrorists.4 One could also employ helicopter assaults in this manner, or, in the case of a positively identified target, the Vigilante could strike the target itself. A foreign air force could develop all of these capabilities for unilateral employment or in combined operations with our Air Force’s combat aviation advisors. This type of combined operation, employing an aircraft able to operate in exceptionally close coordination with US and indigenous ground units, should also reduce friendly-fire incidents. Again, this approach would permit operations in politically closed areas, expand indigenous CT and COIN capabilities, and minimize risk to US forces.

General Secord is not the only advocate of this approach. In his single-integrated-attack team concept, Lt Col Jerome W. Klingaman, USAF, retired, describes a complete joint/combined CT and COIN tactic that includes the US Air Force’s role.5 He advocates employing light, armed surveillance aircraft, such as the Vigilante, to find and kill targets if possible. A US, foreign, or combined crew could perform this unconventional-airpower mission. If necessary, attack helicopters or fixed-wing strike aircraft could provide additional firepower. But we are currently missing the key to this tactic—specifically, initial contact with fleeting enemy targets is the result of persistent operations by inexpensive, light, armed surveillance aircraft.

Other authors and theorists have called for a similar use of airpower in CT and COIN. As early as 1965, Maj John S. Pustay, USAF, wrote that the ideal COIN aircraft should be easy to maintain and capable of reconnaissance and precise close air support.6 In The Air Force Role in Low-Intensity Conflict, Lt Col David J. Dean emphasized that “the US Air Force, to be effective in such situations [low intensity conflict], must have very detailed knowledge about the recipient of US assistance and the capabilities and limitations of that nation’s military forces.”7

In 1993 Maj Michael C. Koster specifically mentioned the Vigilante as an “alternative aircraft for Air Force special operations.”8 More recently, Dr. James S. Corum and Col Wray R. Johnson, USAF, retired, professors at the US Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies and Marine Corps University, respectively, said that “small wars” are long wars and that

long wars are especially frustrating for airmen. Because of the highly complex and technical nature of an air force and the technical expertise required to manage even routine air operations, it takes many years for a country to develop an effective air force. Even a modern and capable air force can require a period of months or years to adapt its training, equipment, and doctrine to effectively fight insurgents and terrorists. Despite considerable outside aid and support, the air forces of many developing nations still require years of training and infrastructure development before they can be truly effective in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism.9

They are undoubtedly correct. The war on terror and our efforts against insurgents will take a long time. The US Air Force must adapt itself for the fight.

Hurlburt Field, Florida

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1. Air Force Doctrine Document (AFDD) 1, Air Force Basic Doctrine, 17 November 2003, 76, https:// www.doctrine.af.mil/Main.asp?.

2. Roxana Tiron, “Special Operators Must Change to Win War,” National Defense, April 2004, http:// www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/article.cfm?Id=1382.

3. The author is a member of the 6th Special Operations Squadron, the Air Force’s only combat-aviation advisory unit. The squadron’s advisors have not been tasked to assist in building the fledgling Iraqi air force.

4. Mladen Rudman, “It Was Chaotic Then and It’s Chaotic Now,” Northwest Florida [Fort Walton Beach] Daily News, 2 May 2004, A1.

5. Lt Col David J. Dean, ed., Low-Intensity Conflict and Modern Technology (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1986), 129.

6. John S. Pustay, Counterinsurgency Warfare (New York: Free Press, 1965), 118–19.

7. Lt Col David J. Dean, The Air Force Role in Low-Intensity Conflict (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1986), 105.

8. Maj Michael C. Koster, Foreign Internal Defense: Does Air Force Special Operations Have What It Takes? Research Report no. AU-ARI-93-2 (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1993), 56–58.

9. James S. Corum and Wray R. Johnson, Airpower in Small Wars: Fighting Insurgents and Terrorists (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2003), 436.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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