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Document created: 1 December 2007
Air & Space Power Journal - Winter 2007

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Editorís Note: PIREP is aviation shorthand for pilot report. Itís a means for one pilot to pass on current, potentially useful information to other pilots. In the same fashion, we use this department to let readers know about items of interest.

Irregular Warfare and the US Air Force

The Way Ahead

Col Robyn Read, USAF, Retired*

Irregular warfare (IW) in general and counterinsurgency (COIN) more specifically require a particular mind-set and specific talents not entirely applicable or common to more traditional styles of warfare. That does not suggest that COIN represents either a new or separate form of war. As Colin Gray stated during the Air Force Symposium on Counterinsurgency held at Air University, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, in April 2007, “War is war,” and COIN is part of that equation. Further, COIN is not new at all. However, the relative lack of predictability in COIN and its indifferent boundaries regarding what each fight constitutes in terms of objectives and resources are troublesome characteristics well beyond the numbers involved. By definition, insurgency offers a weaker opponent an option against a stronger one. Similarly, it is not, by design, a war wherein the stronger opponent can easily bring his major strengths to bear against the weaker enemy—a condition deserving even more emphasis if the stronger opponent is an outside power such as the United States.

Discussion published in a variety of media sufficiently establishes the history of IW as well as the successes and failures of COIN.1 Pertinent literature has similarly dissected the distance between the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and today. Therefore, using the 2007 Air Force Symposium on Counterinsurgency as a primary source, this article looks to the future and attempts to outline an airpower profile for combating terrorism and insurgency in the continuing long war.

Two fundamental observations drove much of the discussion at the conference. First, the USAF has operated with some success in COIN environments before but has lost the peculiar capacities associated with COIN following drawdowns or conversions after each conflict. This is an unsurprising result, given the fact that budgets for unused tools are a luxury not easily afforded in any era. But the extended lead times required to essentially relearn COIN each time it becomes necessary have significantly affected the USAF’s ability to effectively contribute early in the fight. Second, we need to change the USAF’s mind-set from fighting COIN to enabling a partner to fight COIN. In the absence of every other alternative, the USAF may actually become the fighter in COIN, but even at that point, the service should adopt the mind-set that it will conduct a holding action while the supported partner spins up its own capacity. As a practical note, the USAF simply does not have the size to function as the air service for every nation it fights alongside, even if it sounds like a good idea (it is not). Winning strategies are conducted by, with, and through the supported partner. Furthermore, barring annihilation options, no substantial history exists to support the idea that any outside power can win an inside war. The Quadrennial Defense Review Report of 2006 provides an important framework for this discussion:

Long-duration, complex operations involving the U.S. military, other government agencies and international partners will be waged simultaneously in multiple countries around the world, relying on a combination of direct (visible) and indirect (clandestine) approaches. . . . Maintaining a long-term, low-visibility presence in many areas of the world where U.S. forces do not traditionally operate will be required. Building and leveraging partner capacity will also be an absolutely essential part of this approach, and the employment of surrogates will be a necessary method for achieving many goals.2

The use of indigenous forces in COIN does more than build stakeholders in the outcome. As noted, local knowledge translates into very practical intelligence in ways that a satellite image does not convey. Additionally, in terms of understanding the mechanisms for victory, COIN emphasizes the human dynamic to a far greater extent than do traditional conflicts. Differences between COIN and other styles of warfare (e.g., attrition-based depletion of enemy resources in large-scale, state-on-state conflict) accrue largely from differences in the center of gravity and the means necessary to move or control it. Historically, in state-on-state warfare, a fielded army could serve as both a principal threat and the principal shield that allowed the enemy state its freedom of action. Taking away the shield simultaneously removes the threat and exposes the enemy state. However, in COIN, enemy leadership derives its freedom of action not from its “fielded army” per se but from a permissive environment often enabled by the ruling establishment’s lack of credibility, legitimacy, and support from its own “governed” population. Ultimately, in COIN, one must win over the population, thereby eliminating the sanctuary and the enemy’s freedom to choose where and when to fight.

The 2007 Air Force Symposium
on Counterinsurgency

Held at the Air War College and sponsored by Headquarters Air Force, Air Combat Command (ACC), and Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), this venue provided a forum for discussing the use of airpower in COIN; it included 11 workshops, eight speakers in plenary sessions, and over 170 participants.3 Joint, interagency, international, and civilian participants added substantial value with their insights and perspectives. However, the conference focused not on interaction or interdependence at these higher levels but on what the USAF needed to do to improve its understanding of the fight and its contributions to winning that fight. Seeking to answer these questions, the 11 workshops generated over 220 suggestions.

The USAF is very good at what it does, and decades of service and excellence have made efficiency a highly prized, highly regarded hallmark of US airpower. But assumptions that automatically tie efficiency to effectiveness can be in stark contrast with the realities of IW and COIN. The kinetic, tactical efficiencies for which the USAF has deservedly become well known—one target, one bomb, one kill—may, in this environment, have to yield to decidedly less efficient means that are ultimately more effective at operational and strategic levels. Balancing effectiveness and efficiency is not a novel concept; USAF planners do it every day.4 The difference lies in a broader understanding (and acceptance) of the idea that efficiency as a principal driver at the tactical level may not support (or may even prove counter­productive to) desired effects at higher levels.

The COIN conference participants noted that the solution for this “two kinds of forces” was not in choosing one over the other but in finding an appropriate balance between the two. The USAF should preserve its current capabilities (if not the same capacity or mass) while creating the same degrees of excellence for actions characteristic of IW and COIN that reside today in its areas of air superiority, global strike, global lift, global connectivity, and global vision.

USAF excellence, really dominance, in these areas has ensured that enemies will seek other venues to achieve their strategic objectives.5 By maintaining these significant advantages, critical to our nation’s security, the service has, in effect, chosen where it will not fight. But a fight does exist, and will exist, in areas peripheral to the USAF’s fundamental strengths. USAF leaders need to consider multiple options for engaging the force in these IW arenas. The symposium participants’ suggestions for meeting the IW/COIN challenge fell generally into four principal fields for consideration: policy-strategy-doctrine, force development, strategic communication, and building partnership capacity (BPC).


Despite the recent publication of Air Force Doctrine Document (AFDD) 2-3, Irregular Warfare, and AFDD 2-3.1, Foreign Internal Defense (FID), the USAF has not yet established the institutional and systemic changes necessary to implement these visions for operational art in the long war. Pending such change, the USAF continues to view IW as a lesser included case of peer or near-peer conflicts—a fundamentally flawed concept.6 Solutions in IW/COIN will be based on unique local circumstances of each conflict and result largely from political rather than military initiatives. Overemphasizing attrition warfare “risks diverting us unduly into a military box canyon, at the expense of short changing the implications of the eternal truth that there is more to war than warfare.”7 In short, no history—barring total annihilation of the enemy—supports the notion that external powers can win intrastate wars. Today’s Iraq is neither an anomaly nor an exception to this generalized rule; rather, the situation there confirms it. Victory in Iraq will come when the Iraqis win it. Thus, the major role for external powers entails not winning but enabling one side to gain the wherewithal and capacity to win.

But “doing” and “teaching” have different objectives and require different talent sets, each engendering different, at times incompatible, mind-sets and tactics (not to mention inventories of people and equipment). In constructing these mission sets, however, the USAF should keep in mind that legitimacy for the partner government serves as the overarching filter or backdrop for great-power mentoring. Legitimacy is the precursor for victory. Any action perceived as undermining the credibility of the host government can feed the perception of its incompetence and thus encourage hostile groups to make demands on or attack the central government.8 As a general principle, we should set as a goal working by, with, or through a partner nation rather than for that nation—or on behalf of or in lieu of that nation. We should conduct good works—even those uncontested by hostile groups—in the framework of an effective communications plan in order to maximize the potential for establishing, sustaining, or enhancing the authenticity of the central government.

If the USAF wishes to become effective in this “standing-in-the-back-row” style of engagement, it should acknowledge the necessity of fulfilling two (sometimes competing) mission sets. One, and in the absence of alternatives, the service should have full capability to directly engage the enemy—to fight COIN or COIN-like engagements as a key component of the national effort. This will inevitably occur in a joint, interagency, and coalition-based context. Two, the USAF should have the capacity to create within the partner nation the requisite skill sets and disciplines in air, space, and cyberspace which enable that partner to realize its national goals without the large footprints or heavy hand of America’s airpower.

This principle—to seek common objectives and enable partners—devolves not only from the separate discussions above concerning internal wars and the legitimacy of central government, but also from the very practical realization that the USAF is not (and will not become) large enough to fight as the principal air service for every nation affected by the long war. USAF policy should emphasize early engagement (i.e., during phase zero—shaping) for the purpose of building sufficient partner capacity to mitigate or even eliminate the need for a USAF presence in large numbers later on. The goal is to teach, guide, and advise a host air service without (and without the perception of) usurping the host government’s prerogatives.9

End-state planning (the aggregate of effects at a strategic level) requires the development of connected efforts to produce a desired political outcome. Further, it envisions the enemy as an interactive and adaptive system that includes both friendly and hostile elements.10 By focusing on the problem sets in these ways, ­effects-based approaches provide the necessary framework to ensure that military operations stay attuned to the nation’s strategic goals rather than drift to tactical, close-in targets. Tactical efficiencies should not establish the governing metrics for overall strategy.11 Similarly, in COIN or COIN-like conflicts, techniques peculiar to an effects-based approach to operations should ensure that military solutions will not become the focus of a fundamentally political problem.12 To do otherwise would concentrate efforts on a relatively small part of the problem, address no causal factors, and, ultimately, resolve nothing. Operational design in support of a set of defined end-state conditions yields an additional pressure for effectiveness over efficiency and minimizes emphasis on peripheral operations not tied to the effects necessary for the strategic end state. Recent coalition experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan exemplify the futility of military operations adrift from the complementary political, communication, economic, and sociocultural initiatives needed to seal the victory.

AFDD 2-3 and AFDD 2-3.1 have added momentum and visibility to the rise of COIN and COIN-like activities for the USAF, but, as noted by symposium speakers and participants, COIN is not a new phenomenon. Historically, USAF competencies in COIN have simply atrophied as soon as circumstances permitted. Outside of AFSOC, no systemic protection of these capabilities has saved the critical core elements from extinction, and it is a difficult and time-consuming task to resurrect the professional competencies that once existed. AFDD 2-3 and 2-3.1 are a good start to that resurrection but, perhaps, insufficient to genuinely affect the full spectrum of Air Force activities necessary in the long war. A stronger statement might be made if the USAF’s topline doctrine document, AFDD 1, Air Force Basic Doctrine, also reflected the seriousness of this irregular engagement and the dual-mission nature of the fight (to do and to enable).13 Like strategy, doctrine should assume a top-down direction and permeate the entire pyramid so that the USAF can routinely prepare and engage with other than special operations forces.

Force Development

As it transforms, the USAF can be justifiably proud of its close management of skills and personnel requirements. There is a dilemma in personnel management, however, when a particular skill set loses its contribution to the fight. The loss of relevance may occur due to advances in technology that have simply obviated an older methodology and, with it, the requisite skill sets. More problematically, the loss of relevance may stem from a change in circumstance which potentially makes such loss more temporal in nature. In the short term, it would seem reasonable to delete this requirement and use fungible resources in another (previously lower-priority) area. The problem then transitions to one of lead time to recover those skills if the need should rise again. The USAF’s (and other services’) COIN skills have seen this phoenix cycle repeatedly, and today’s strong efforts by US Central Command Air Forces (CENTAF) are leading the rebuilding of this expertise within the USAF’s general-purpose forces.

We incur incalculable costs by repeatedly learning, forgetting, and relearning IW/COIN skills. One wonders how much further along the Iraqis might be today if we could have made use of current CENTAF skill sets in 2003. Given the nature of the long war, IW force development in the USAF should assume a long-term posture. Although writing doctrine represents a critical step in creating a durable capacity for winning this war, the synthesis of training, education, and experience will create the necessary mind-set for this fight—and that will serve as the critical enabler, not just for CENTAF, but for all Airmen, who will need the tools to take on a highly adaptive enemy in a constantly changing environment.

Force development is a balance of three core efforts—education, training, and experience—designed to ensure that the USAF has qualified people in place at the right time to fulfill the missions set forth. As stated above, the long war presents a different set of needs and competencies than peer or conventional warfare. Thus, if the USAF desires capability in this sense, its force-development system should produce people qualified for IW as well as more traditional styles of conflict. The USAF cannot confine IW to a single specialty or set of specialties. A winning strategy in COIN demands transferability of virtually every skill necessary to the USAF in fighting COIN to a partner nation. In short, IW will affect every specialty.

Sanctuaries, for example, provide a degree of safety or anonymity to a weak opponent. For any of a variety of political, physical, cultural, or information reasons, the enemy can stay beyond the reach of the central government. On this basis, ungoverned or under­governed territory is cause for concern in every area of operations as a potential source of instability and antigovernment initiatives. Not simply a land-centric phenomenon, un­governed space further extends to all three media noted in the USAF mission. Air sovereignty continues as an open issue in Africa and much of Latin America. Space is governed, if at all, more by the science, technology, and cost of doing business there than by any enforceable rule set. And only the relative rates of innovation among belligerents (e.g., hackers versus security specialists) govern the cyber arena. The Internet has become much more than just a conduit for a fanatic’s e-mail. In effect, it functions as a safe house—a sanctuary—for terrorists. Each of these three media poses a real and current problem in IW. The point is this: force development should prepare every specialty (though perhaps not every Airman) for IW. The battlespace is global in every sense, and every medium is affected.

The caution here, however, is more of a reminder. Enemies choose IW, unrestricted warfare, or other asymmetric tactics because they have no alternative. The current force’s ability to “do incredible things really well” has shut down any main-force options that may have existed, and this high-end force will not become debilitated to the extent that opponents see any potential in that arena.14 This remains the force that defends US sovereignty. This is the fight, however unlikely, that we cannot lose. Some force adjustments are practical, but the development of an IW-/COIN-capable USAF should be concomitant with its responsibilities to defend the sovereignty of the nation against peer competitors.

For IW and COIN conflicts in general, the USAF’s most fundamental job is to help establish a credible host-nation air force. Today that capability exists on a permanent basis only in one relatively small squadron in AFSOC. The 6th Special Operations Squadron certainly has the talent but lacks the mass necessary for engagement across the breadth of areas affected by the long war. By similar logic, it also lacks the persistence necessary to sustain its own good works. The USAF’s general-purpose forces have the necessary mass and, with the appropriate force-development program, can have the requisite talent as well. The USAF should step up to the challenge and shape its force for a winning strategy in the long war Airmen must be able to assess, organize, train, equip, assist, and advise foreign air forces if they are to be successful.15 What’s the bottom line? In Operation Iraqi Freedom, the fastest way home for the USAF is through a credible Iraqi Air Force.

One of the most difficult issues in this future development cycle will involve establishing a culturally and linguistically proficient force. “Assess, organize, train, equip, assist, and advise” is difficult enough as a mission set when everyone speaks a common language. It is much more so when new languages are mixed with new technologies and procedures. Regardless of advantages that might accompany teaching everyone else English, US exit strategies should accept that the teaching and operational systems left behind will likely revert to naturally spoken languages almost immediately—but without the in-kind benefit of the English-based infrastructure upon which the training is based (e.g., tech data). The current alternative, going forward with a just-in-time approach, is similarly bankrupt as a strategy. Language offers the gateway to understanding culture, serving as a critical first step in understanding the center of gravity in COIN—the people. The USAF should actively determine its hard requirements for languages and then plan accordingly. In a break from past practice, force-development planning for languages and culture should also include a sustainment package to ensure future resource proficiency and availability.16

Strategic Communication

Strategic communication, military support to public diplomacy, public affairs (PA), information operations (IO), influence operations, psychological operations (not to mention the peripherally related areas of military deception, electronic warfare, and computer network attack and defense) all currently fall under a single umbrella—a plate critically overfull. More to the point, strategic communication lacks focus at strategic, operational, and tactical levels—an especially critical series of shortfalls, given the highly astute and sophisticated use of all information media by our enemies. The problem starts at the top for the United States with a lack of (whole-of-government) consensus on the who-what-how of strategic communication. US strategic communication, with its emphasis on a persistent, top-down narrative, collides with the reality of timely implementation at the military operational level and below. Current doctrine, training, and practice do not support, in a systemic way, a proactive engagement in a rapidly changing context. True, we have experienced successes—but all too often due to individual effort and individual heroes who have used their situational awareness within these fluid environments to take advantage of some fleeting opportunity.

We should develop IO to the same extent as every other weapon system in the combined air operations center. For example, PA experts should be present at every targeting discussion to ensure that we wrap the proper communication plan around every kinetic operation and, where appropriate, that we schedule kinetic operations in support of the communication efforts. Additionally, an IO weapon alone may constitute the best means of attacking some targets. The key lies in understanding that effects drive the targeting option rather than the other way around. To date, US efforts in IW/COIN have underemployed IO, and ­every mission suffers as a result.

As a long-term goal for force development, we should ensure that the IO experts mentioned above actually exist. For example, PA officers whom we have stovepiped as specialists in their career field should broaden their understanding of related areas. One option might entail combining PA and intelligence career fields with alternate assignments. Another option, in light of proposed cuts in the number of PA officers, might involve re-creating additional-duty options for operators as PA officers. These 18-month tours (with a 40-hour front-loaded training course) would give individual wings a PA officer chosen by that commander and, over time, would significantly increase the number of line officers with media savvy. Other options exist, but the point is this: we must utilize IO in order to win the long war, and the USAF should acquire and sustain the necessary resources to do so.

Building Partnership Capacity

BPC is not a particularly novel idea. Many coalitions and alliances have formed around similar concepts; in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, for example, “interoperability” initiatives provided essentially the same effect. With the proper IW/COIN filter, BPC not only extends military tactical and operational proficiency, but also lends itself to the strategic goals of central-government legitimacy and credibility. Ultimately, it also provides part of the solution for a very large and diverse long war in which a relatively small USAF lacks assets to be everywhere at once. To emphasize a point about shaping, however, BPC need not constrain itself to active engagements; rather, we may best view it as a long-range strategy. Building an air force or even improving one is not an overnight venture.

The US Navy Strategic Studies Group published a report in 2006 that spoke of a 1,000-ship Navy—a radically different proposition, however, from the 600-ship Navy of the 1980s advocated by John Lehman, secretary of the Navy at the time. The new concept looks at both the type of vessel required in the long war (perhaps more river/brown-water emphasis and less blue-water emphasis) and who might provide and/or operate that vessel. A shift or rebalancing in inventory types for the US Navy might occur but certainly not a fivefold increase in hulls—something impossible to achieve and sustain in the current fiscal environment and probably not the most effective solution in IW/COIN. Instead, under this concept, the Navy would increase specific capabilities by looking for partner nations in a comprehensive strategy for engagement. Airmen should ask themselves whether an appropriate USAF version of a 1,000-ship Navy exists.

USAF Airmen are already engaged in BPC in many locations—obviously Iraq and Afghanistan but also in exchange and education programs as well as USAF sections within various embassies and military groups. In too many examples, though, the selection process and preparation for overseas assignments amount to little more than an availability check. The USAF has smart, proficient, and motivated people who have shown remarkable agility in their ability to adapt and learn.17 Unfortunately, too much of this learning has occurred on the job. Institutionally, the USAF has an opportunity to shape the battlespace. Rather than approaching BPC as a bill to pay, the USAF should adapt its structure to meet a long-term commitment to educate and train foreign air forces. Alternatives to such a strategy are not encouraging.

The protracted, complex nature of insurgency challenges war-fighting institutions who find themselves culturally affixed to high-speed find, fix, track, target, engage, and assess cycles.18 This pseudoengineering/scientific approach to cause and effect falsely establishes near-term time constraints for success, and these expectations are exacerbated by an omnipresent, high-speed media that needs to report results on a near-continuous basis. These environmental conditions produce a frequently truncated assessment cycle, a lack of patience for cascading or long-term effects, and a spotlight on near-term tactical reporting, in stark contrast to the glacial progress in most historical accounts regarding insurgency.19 For example, some pundits note the British Malay experience as something of a “gold standard” in how one should conduct COIN. But LTC John Nagl of the US Army points out that if that is true, then the “pool and Olympic record” is about 12 years.20 Northern Ireland took somewhat longer.21 As an institution, the USAF has not historically demonstrated a strong willingness to see combat issues in 12-year cycles.

Acknowledging the distinctions between conventional warfare and COIN becomes especially important for Airmen as they assess how to contribute in COIN interventions. In these circumstances, the key—the first—strategic decision calls for determining whether to fight COIN or to enable COIN. More bluntly, the choice becomes whether to force an existing conventional military template onto a set of largely incompatible circumstances or to build up a partner nation’s capacity to win on its own merit. In strong consensus, speakers and symposium participants warned that no history supports the idea that outside powers win internal wars. Thus, we should choose to enable. As counterintuitive as it may seem at first, this reconceptualization of how to frame airpower’s contribution is fundamental to actually winning in the long view.

Hence, the USAF operates most effectively at the strategic level when engaged in support of COIN rather than directly waging it. Ideally, it can do so with and through the supported government and its institutions before the fighting actually begins. These USAF shaping and deterrence actions involve assess, organize, train, equip, assist, and advise initiatives within the context of other political, informational, economic, sociocultural, and military efforts—ultimately designed to establish and/or sustain a legitimate central government. Well planned, these actions also undermine the support structure and rationale for dissent and/or rebellion. These activities are essential to conflict avoidance or at least mitigation of antigovernment complaints and recruiting. An oft-repeated but subjective assertion regarding the optimal mix of actions states that one spends only about 20 percent of a successful COIN effort on military initiatives; the remaining 80 percent comes from the economic, political, and sociocultural contributions to the overall strategy. Information remains the lifeblood of every effort.

The very practical perspective of USAF participation in IW/COIN activities in the long war maintains that, even if it were a good idea (it is not), the USAF is simply not large enough to serve as the air force for every contested nation or region at risk. The USAF’s general-­purpose forces should have the ability to create what would have been their own effort from the resources of the host nation. If, in some cases, they should build from the ground up, they will need to draw upon a broad set of talents from throughout the full range of USAF specialties. To enable similar efforts by the supported air force, we should replicate the processes, disciplines, and inventories (people and things) that enable USAF efforts (appropriate to circumstance and culture).

Using an enable strategy produces the immediate benefit of significantly reducing the profile of Americans in a contested nation. As seen recently in Iraq, and repeatedly in history, large-power footprints can become a significant rallying factor for traditionally disparate, antigovernment groups. Even groups that would never work together in normal circumstances have joined efforts to eject the outsiders. Rather than helping the central government, a large US footprint can become a force multiplier for insurgent recruiting and propaganda. An enabling strategy with the proper emphasis on by, with, and through the central government diminishes the risk of this footprint virus.

According to Dave Ochmanek, senior RAND analyst and symposium speaker, insurgency or other IW activity now threatens (or has done so recently, or will do so in the future) roughly half of the approximately 190 nations in the United Nations.22 Potentially this is a very broad arena for BPC engagement, but numbers alone can prove misleading without a keen assessment to establish actual conditions. We commonly err by assuming that the best solution calls for a mirror image of our own force—perhaps true in some circumstances but a poor assumption to make without a validating assessment. Planners therefore not only should understand the target nation’s requirements, but also should have a clear understanding of that nation’s ability to learn, operate, and sustain programs developed with US assistance. Many nations at risk are not credible candidates for high-tech transfers and sophisticated platforms because they lack either a justifying threat or the structural and demographic capacities to maintain and operate these air, space, and cyber systems. Assuming that only old systems have viability would prove equally wrong. In BPC the correct answer involves providing the right tech rather than low tech or high tech. The current USAF inventory emphasizes high tech, thus constraining the available options for BPC through technical transfer. Aircraft do not constitute the sole case for BPC, but they have typically served as the airpower lead-in for the associated training, doctrine, and long-term military-to-military relationships that have enabled both US objectives and host-nation security.

The Vietnam-era platforms that gave the USAF this entry are gone or rapidly disappearing, and potential partners with limited resources and little justification for the high-tech aircraft typically found in the current USAF inventory now look to foreign rather than US suppliers to provide relevant, COIN-capable platforms. Certainly we can employ other USAF competencies in BPC (air traffic control in Africa, for instance), but the diminishing market for US aircraft should remain a concern. Realistically, the new right-tech platform may be an unmanned aerial system, but to create the opening for a long-term enabling plan, the USAF should first develop a strategy for exportable COIN technologies. If the F-20 legacy still applies, it also means that the USAF should operate these platforms in its own inventory.23


Naming some suitable platform would be a seductive first choice for beginning discussions of how airpower can contribute to COIN, but USAF expertise and the potential for engagement go well beyond the technical flight-line engagement by operations and maintenance personnel. Actually controlling airspace or maintaining sovereign control of that space, for example, remains an issue in most of Africa outside of terminal areas. In concert with the International Civil Aviation Organization and Federal Aviation Administration, the USAF is uniquely suited to assess, advise, and assist in this area. Ensuring compliance with international aviation standards for air movement would clearly prove advantageous in the long war, and the USAF could make critical contributions to shaping the battlespace. First, however, the USAF should decide what IW/COIN will look like for the institution. If the service chooses to enable its partners to fight and win on their own, then it should make a near-term investment in ideas and force-development initiatives that will pave the way.

Strategy should remain a top-down function in order to provide coherent guidance in parallel tracks at every level. We should view USAF doctrine no differently; we have much work to do in this arena. AFDD 2-3 (and 2-3.1) represent a good beginning for reestablishing IW activities in the USAF field of view, but third-tier documents will not likely have sufficient influence on the whole doctrine pyramid for this task. We still typically view IW, FID, COIN, and BPC as the purview of special operations forces and outside the full-spectrum USAF mission. But because BPC is strategically fundamental to winning the long war, we should therefore describe it in the USAF’s basic doctrine—AFDD 1. Placed there, at the top level of USAF doctrine, BPC can filter appropriately throughout the doctrine pyramid. In this way, doctrine for every specialty will grow. In many ways, the establishment of a long-term relationship may be more important than short-term, concrete changes. Culturally, Americans often find this a hard choice to make because each investment in time or personnel will likely face a bang-for-the-buck assessment, based on tangible rather than intangible metrics. As with the other recognitions of COIN’s distinction from conventional warfare, strategic planners should recognize that BPC is not a short-term investment. Again, the USAF’s overall strategy will drive how it configures itself.

Structurally, the personnel system is not prepared at this time to find, educate, train, and develop experienced Airmen for a long-term sustained engagement with partner nations. We have no method for identifying development and qualification requirements; nor is the USAF personnel system set up to track these qualifications in a manner consistent with finding the right people for each job in the long war. Additionally, the USAF has adopted a somewhat fractured business model for IW/COIN. ACC houses the USAF Coalition and Irregular Warfare Center of Excellence. The Air Staff (A1D) has recently reorganized to focus on force-development issues; A3/5 and A7 are considering the creation of an IW group. CENTAF has established an expeditionary advisory group. AFSOC is tripling the size of the only “FID squadron” in the USAF. Air University hosted a COIN symposium for its USAF sponsors. All of these are good actions, but do we have an overall strategy? A top-down vector remains the essential starting point for accelerating the USAF’s preparation for and contributions to sustained engagement.

As discussed in various RAND reports and based on the service’s experience in Iraqi Freedom, today’s USAF inventory is largely compatible with much of the kinetic work that we need to do in COIN (by the USAF, not necessarily by a partner nation).24 The nonkinetic approach, however, has several gaps, and IO represents perhaps the single most important deficit in the US arsenal today. Barring a return to annihilation strategies, the principal difference between military success and political victory seems to lie in convincing the enemy that he has lost or at least that he has better options for the future with our side. We can best attain this human dynamic, or social-engineering effect, through the use of an integrated, persistent, and comprehensive information program closely synchronized with the traditional kinetic operations of the military. We should fully incorporate the entire array of IO capabilities as a weapon system in the combined air operations center and give them equal status as an accountable, selectable, effects-producing option for the commander. The USAF should redesign the relevant planning processes to incorporate these capabilities and then organize and train to exploit them. Finally, every symposium workshop considered two specific questions with regard to how the USAF might posture itself for the long war.

Does the USAF Need a Concept of
Operations for Counterinsurgency?

A specific concept of operations (CONOPS) for COIN that uses the current Air Staff model as the reference found little favor at the symposium. Once the USAF decides on its vector for IW/COIN, if the Air Staff needs this function for effective acquisition and implementation strategies, it could create such an office and product. However, workshop participants saw the CONOPS function itself as a mechanical by-product, rather than a precursor, of an effective IW/COIN strategy.

Does the USAF Need a Specialized
Inventory for Counterinsurgency?

The COIN symposium participants strongly endorsed BPC as an essential element for the future of the USAF. Given the fact that few of the 80-plus nations potentially at risk would have the capability to operate the USAF’s very high-end current inventory, options for incorporating right-technology platforms into the USAF inventory become a logical step. Doing so would create the necessary expertise and a suitable menu of relevant choices for an exportable air force. Platforms alone cannot create an adequate air service in any country, but at least for the foreseeable future, they open an effective path for creating credible institutions.


In IW/COIN, our principal strategic objective calls for a legitimate, credible, and functioning host-nation government. From an effects perspective, the principal military effort should provide a sanctuary wherein the political, information, economic, and sociocultural initiatives of that government can mature and eliminate the hostile environment from which the insurgents operate. This is not a new mission. In fact, the USAF proved instrumental to the success of a very similar operation over five decades ago—the Berlin airlift. Coalition and joint airpower in concert with a massive logistics effort by the Army on each end of the airlift provided such a sanctuary. For essentially a year, airlift fully sustained the Western-occupied portions of Berlin; ultimately, however, airlift per se did not physically open any roadblocks. The Soviets succumbed to diplomatic and economic realities forced on them by the West. Had inadequate airlift limited these other efforts to just a week or a month, the results for Berlin and the West might have been quite different. By emphasizing airpower in this case, the military gave the diplomats an apparently unconstrained time to work, and, ultimately, the risk-versus-gain equation ran against the Soviets—a phenomenon commonly the case in IW/COIN. Building partnership capacity is the functioning tool to reach that end.

* This article is the product of many contributors, with special thanks to the workshop facilitators at the 2007 Air Force Symposium on Counterinsurgency, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, 24–26 April. Thanks as well to Stan Norris and Chris Cain for repetitive reviews and suggestions. The author is a research analyst with the Air Force Doctrine Development and Education Center, Maxwell AFB, Alabama.

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1. See Terrorism 2007, Special Bibliography no. 332, comp. Glenda Armstrong (Maxwell AFB, AL: Muir S. Fairchild Research Information Center, July 2007), http://www.au.af.mil/au/aul/bibs/terror07.htm; and Irregular Warfare, comp. Joan T. Phillips (Maxwell AFB, AL: Muir S. Fairchild Research Information Center, March 2007), http://www.au.af.mil/au/aul/bibs/irregular.htm.

2. Quadrennial Defense Review Report (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 6 February 2006), 23, http://www.defenselink.mil/qdr/report/Report20060203.pdf.

3. The first six “phase-centric” (per Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations, 17 September 2006) workshops looked at shaping, deterring, seizing the initiative, dominating, stabilizing, and supporting civil authority; four additional “functional” workshops looked at policy-strategy-doctrine, strategic communication, the role of education, and building partnership capacity. The final workshop, a senior-leader forum, looked at various IW/COIN issues. The “role of education” discussions expanded to “force development” in this report. The eight speakers included Gen Ronald E. Keys (ACC), Maj Gen Donald C. Wurster (AFSOC), Maj Gen Dick Newton (Headquarters Air Force A3/5), Colin Gray, Jim Corum, Conrad Crane, Dave Ochmanek, and LTC John Nagl.

4. For example, tanker planners routinely balance fuel required with booms required. The efficient carriage of 200,000 pounds of fuel may necessitate only a single aircraft to refuel a C-5 or B-52. However, “coasting out” with one boom and a squadron of fighters is simply a nonstarter. Separately, C-130 load-outs are routinely in debate.

5. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, the air problem faced by the Iraqis so confounded them that they buried their front-line fighters. More likely in the future, enemies will simply avoid those venues dominated by the United States and/or allied partners. See also Sr Col Qiao Liang and Sr Col Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare, February 1999, http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/china/doctrine/unresw1.htm.

6. See Alan J. Vick et al., Air Power in the New Counterinsurgency Era: The Strategic Importance of USAF Advisory and Assistance Missions (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2006), 133–35, http://www.au.af.mil/au/aunews/Articles/RAND_MG509.pdf.

7. Dr. Colin S. Gray, “Irregular Warfare: One Nature, Many Characters” (presentation, 2007 Air Force Symposium on Counterinsurgency, Maxwell AFB, AL, 24 April 2007).

8. For example, a hostile communications campaign could highlight a hospital built from the ground up by a Red Horse team as “another example of the central government’s inability to deliver basic services to the people. This corrupt government must go to the Americans who are backing and controlling them to get anything done. Boycott the hospital in protest of the Americans running this puppet government.” We should specifically adjoin every such “kinetic” operation in this environment to the communication plan that focuses on delivering the desired effects.

9. For an excellent and concise discussion on working with a “host nation,” see T. E. Lawrence, “The 27 Articles of T. E. Lawrence,” The Arab Bulletin, 20 August 1917, http://net.lib.byu.edu/~rdh7/wwi/1917/27arts.html. For example, number 15 of 27 articles or principles reads as follows: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.” Lawrence cautioned that his advice applied to his situation only and that every situation or circumstance engendered different “rules.”

10. Including the supported central government, any US forces involved, and so forth. It is patently not true that one can see an enemy system in isolation from elements that interact with it (e.g., the USAF becomes part of the system, and the system reacts to actions, nonactions, presence, nonpresence of this subsystem interface or element).

11. As noted earlier, all military operations clearly strive for efficiency in fighting, but efficiency should not be counterproductive to winning; effectiveness should take precedence over efficiency.

12. One should not construe this to mean that politics is somehow separate from “war.” Clausewitz’s fundamental assertion that “war is the continuation of politics with the admixture of other means” has perhaps even more relevance in IW/COIN than the set-piece attrition conflicts with which readers most frequently associate him. And “admixture of other means” certainly provides an opening to discuss the whole-of-government approach with emphasis on the human dynamic.

13. At the symposium, General Newton talked about the “phoenix cycle,” referring to the mythical bird that rose from its own ashes. According to him, after World War II and the Korean War, the country disbanded its IW capability and had to resurrect it for the next conflict.

14. Although this is certainly more of a political statement at this point than a military threat, Russia has once again begun long-range-bomber missions as of summer 2007. “President Vladimir Putin said . . . security threats had forced Russia to revive the Soviet-era practice of sending bomber aircraft on patrols beyond its borders. Putin said 14 strategic bombers had taken off simultaneously from airfields across Russia . . . on long-range missions. ‘We have decided to restore flights by Russian strategic aviation on a permanent basis.’ ” See “Russia Restores Bomber Patrols,” CNN.com, 17 August 2007, http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/europe/08/17/russia.airforce

15. “Assess,” “assist,” and “advise” are unique, specific skills typically associated with special operations forces but are critical talents for the success of USAF general forces in the long war.

16. Languages learned as an adult can atrophy rapidly without an active sustainment plan. For the “less commonly taught” languages, such as those immediate-investment languages found in a memorandum on strategic languages issued by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense dated 26 October 2005, voluntary maintenance of difficult dialects is indeed a poor investment strategy. The USAF replaced its voluntary fitness programs when it saw the need; language and cultural sustainment needs proactive programs as well.

17. For example, the original cadre of Iraqi Freedom C-130 trainers (or any “in lieu of” returnee). Across the board, they did great work.

18. “Does fast always mean successful?” See Dr. Thomas Hughes, “The Cult of the Quick,” Aerospace Power Journal 15, no. 4 (Winter 2001): 57–68, http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/airchronicles/apj/apj01/win01/win01.pdf.

19. Although no commander considers killing insurgents the critical point in, or the foundation of, a winning strategy in COIN, “body count” remains the ubiquitous metric reported in every contact with the enemy and, by default, becomes the measure of success or failure.

20. Discussions, 2007 Air Force Symposium on Counter­insurgency, Maxwell AFB, AL, 24–26 April 2007.

21. The British in Northern Ireland have taken 38 years to get “the warring parties to the table” (assuming that 1969 marked the starting point for this conflict—some would say 1922, 1916, or even the middle of the nineteenth century). See Douglas A. Borer, “From Belfast to Baghdad—What Have We Learned?” Christian Science Monitor, 16 August 2007, http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/ 0816/p09s02-coop.html.

22. Dave Ochmanek (presentation, 2007 Air Force Symposium on Counterinsurgency, Maxwell AFB, AL, 26 April 2007).

23. “Despite lobbying by Northrop, the F-20 was never seriously considered for US Air Force service, and the US Navy eventually decided to buy F-16s rather than F-20s for its aggressor aircraft program. These two facts essentially doomed the F-20 foreign military sales (FMS), since international customers tended to buy the F-16 because it was used by the USAF, and the F-20 was not.” See “F-20 Tigershark,” GlobalSecurity.org, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/aircraft/f-20.htm.

24. See, for example, Vick et al., Air Power in the New Counterinsurgency Era.


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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