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Published: 1 March 2009
Air & Space Power Journal - Spring 2009
Why spend billions of dollars equipping our allies when we don’t help them integrate into the fight? Although we have extensive programs in place to equip allies with world-class weapon systems, cultural barriers and differences in procedures prevent the formation of a truly unified multinational team. Unified international military efforts play a significant role in the often-overlooked center of gravity of public opinion in today’s world. Even having another country contribute forces and arms, regardless of their effectiveness, provides some help in building a unified team. But why not make a greater investment in training our allies after equipping them in order to integrate their forces into coalition operations so that they can contribute effectively?
The greater the degree of our participation in training foreign forces, the more closely aligned those forces will be as they project combat capabilities. If our allies’ methods of employment resemble those of the coalition after we’ve provided them equipment, we can more easily integrate their forces into future coalition conflicts anywhere in the world.
South Korea provides an excellent example of such an opportunity. We have the means to prepare the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) for integrated employment of its F-15K fighter aircraft into such conflicts. The United States has placed great emphasis on equipping the ROKAF with the F-15K and training it in the use of that aircraft. But could we take other steps to enhance the F-15K’s effectiveness in conflicts outside the Korean peninsula? Although the United States has an adequate support structure for training, adjustments in its implementation will better prepare the ROKAF for productive conflict integration.
This article briefly outlines background information regarding the importance of international training, along with the history of South Korea’s purchase of the F-15K. It then identifies the goal of integrated coalition operations, citing specific examples of challenges to meeting that goal and outlining steps we should take to overcome any obstacles. Furthermore, it suggests an opportunity for the United States to help the ROKAF bring together many of the steps towards coalition integration during a Red Flag exercise. Finally, the article briefly presents a broader perspective by addressing other contexts beyond the F-15K. Although the complexities of international training have great ramifications in the geostrategic environment, a complete discussion of regional effects lies beyond the scope of this writing.
The United States invests in future allied support around the world by expending considerable energy to ensure that its allies can operate compatibly with the US military system. It seeks to maintain regional influence and improve the capabilities of its partners to defend themselves and become interoperable in coalition operations. In 2002 South Korea announced its decision to purchase 40 F-15K strike fighter aircraft; in 2006 it bought 20 more. A newer version of the US F-15E air-to-air and air-to-ground two-seat, two-engine fighter aircraft, the F-15K is one of the world’s most capable strike fighters. The combination of its unique combat characteristics and capabilities, including the AIM-9X missile, helmet-mounted cueing system, infrared search and track, and excellent air-to-ground weaponry, arguably makes the F-15K the most significant strike platform in the Pacific region. In addition, the extended flight range enabled by the conformal fuel tanks has strategic significance because the aircraft can reach even the northernmost regions of North Korea. Although the purchase took the form of a direct commercial sale from Boeing, the United States established a foreign military sales (FMS) case to support the training, which provided instruction for eight ROKAF crew members—four pilots and four weapon systems operators (WSO)—in a US flying training unit (FTU) at Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina, in 2005. It also included provision for a US instructor pilot (IP) to conduct follow-on training in South Korea in the first ROKAF F-15K fighter squadron.
Although the FMS-contracted training for the F-15K significantly helped the ROKAF employ the aircraft, it cannot, by itself, ensure effective integration of the platform in coalition operations. Before that happens, we must overcome other significant obstacles.
The ROKAF’s ability to contribute effectively in a coalition conflict outside the Korean peninsula is two-faceted. First, on the tactical level, the disciplined and very capable ROKAF aircrews have significant potential to wield the F-15K’s combat power, currently unmatched in the region. For that reason, we should remedy the limitation that prevents utilization of this asset outside the immediate geographic area of South Korea. Second, the strategic contribution of a coalition partner’s participation has a value all its own. Having a willing partner unable to participate would prove disappointing on the strategic level because of the missed opportunity for additional political credibility. For tactical and strategic reasons, we must facilitate the ROKAF’s worldwide involvement by giving it a higher training priority.
In addition to reaping US benefits, the South Koreans have much to gain by improving their ability to integrate into worldwide coalition operations with their F-15Ks. The number-three air force contributor in Operation Iraqi Freedom, South Korea continues to support coalition operations in the region. Integrating its F-15K aircraft into global coalition operations would help fulfill that country’s objective of expanded influence. Although the significant threat of North Korea may preclude deployment of F-15Ks off the peninsula in the immediate future, any political changes between North and South Korea may allow such participation in the years to come.
Unfortunately, several differences in training and employment currently limit South Korea’s involvement in coalition efforts. Thus, we must take additional steps in tactical training to prepare the ROKAF’s F-15K aircrews for more effective participation. Additionally, communications procedures and structures within South Korea resist easy transplantation to another geographic setting. Finally, a number of cultural barriers could hinder true coalition operations.
A number of procedural training issues may hinder smooth integration. Air-to-air refueling is the most significant area that has a direct effect on coalition operations. Although difficulties in this area are surmountable, we must make changes to enhance interoperability. The F-15K is capable of air refueling (AR), but ROKAF aircrews do not currently conduct AR training. The fact that the aircrews are not AR qualified significantly limits the option of deploying the F-15K to coalition fights that occur outside Korea. No matter how well the ROKAF can integrate its F-15Ks into coalition operations, that integration will have no significance unless it can deploy assets to other areas.
In addition to changes in flying training, modifications in communications structure and procedures would benefit F-15K aircrews as they integrate into coalition flight operations. The current aviation communications structure in Korea is based on a two-frequency system: ROKAF frequencies and separate US Air Force (USAF) frequencies. ROKAF aviators speak to ROKAF controllers in English on one frequency, and USAF aviators speak to USAF controllers on another, even though they all fly in the same airspace. Although this system avoids language difficulties within the geographic confines of Korea, we should implement changes to improve coalition communication elsewhere. This limitation in itself does not preclude involvement, but the additional “fog and friction” caused by difficult communications could adversely affect success in combat.
Awareness of cultural differences would also benefit the ROKAF’s integration into coalition operations. A culture for coalition flight operations among the United States and its allies, predominantly influenced by the USAF, already exists, based on recent allied air operations. Although the ROKAF has its own established culture, its success at integrating into a multinational coalition will depend not only upon coalition efforts to include the ROKAF, but also upon the ROKAF’s ability to adapt when required. One can analyze USAF efforts to assist the ROKAF in adjusting to cultural differences on three levels.
First, the differences between South Korea and the United States are significant. Unlike our more numerous Western allies, the South Koreans have an Eastern culture whose characteristics carry strategic implications. Understanding these cultural differences is extremely important and “requires higher and more mature levels of strategic skills.”1 For example, in South Korea senior individuals (based on age or rank, even among civilians) wield absolute authority. Thus, integration challenges could arise if a junior USAF officer were assigned as a mission commander over a senior ROKAF flight lead. Although this is a common practice and poses no concern within the USAF, it would never occur within the ROKAF.
Second, and less widely known, are cultural differences between the ROKAF and the USAF that we must account for, particularly on the operational level. Take, for instance, the difference in safety programs. The ROKAF does an excellent job of emphasizing flight safety, but sometimes the implementation is overly risk-averse, resulting in the leadership’s unwillingness to practice challenging but necessary procedures. To take a specific example, the ROKAF abides by a general policy of not conducting flight operations in the rain. During conflict, most people would agree that cancelling missions due to rain on the runway would be overly conservative, yet, in light of the ROKAF’s policy, operating F-15Ks on a wet runway might create undue risk. Ironically, ROKAF leadership’s efforts to enhance safety could increase risk when its aviators must attempt necessary procedures not regularly practiced.
Third, differences in USAF and ROKAF fighter cultures have an effect on the tactical level. For example, the tendency of the ROKAF formation flight lead to defer decisions to leadership on the ground during contingencies might cause coordination difficulties should an emergency arise during coalition operations. Although cultural differences can be overcome, lack of awareness of such differences by both air forces could have drastic consequences.
To produce seamless coalition operations, we must bridge the gap between USAF and ROKAF training philosophies. Doing so will transform two separate but very capable air forces with limited coordinated activities into one unified coalition team capable of smooth integration; it will also maximize synergistic contributions on the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. Therefore, although a number of limitations affect F-15K interoperability, we can overcome them. The following discussion presents available US training structures and forums, analyzing how we can effectively use them to support integration; it then offers specific examples of how to handle differences in training, communication, and culture.
Training Structures and Forums
The first change in training philosophy places more emphasis on the US training structures already available. These structures, analyzed below, include instructor personnel, facilities, units, and other forums of instruction. Significant improvements in coalition capabilities would result if we made only minor adjustments in emphasis and direction to existing systems. Of these many available training structures, the following have been or could be utilized in the F-15K program: mobile training teams (MTT), extended training service specialists (ETSS), USAF F-15E FTUs, and personnel exchange tours between operational squadrons.
Although not selected for use in training F-15K aircrews, the MTT, consisting of “personnel on temporary duty . . . to train foreign personnel,” offers an excellent option for supporting the ROKAF.2 Usually working in an overseas location, using equipment purchased by the recipient country, the team serves a tour of 179 days or less.
On the other hand, ETSSs are not bound by the 179-day restriction. In the case of the F-15K, the USAF utilized these specialists instead of an MTT to take advantage of the longer tour length. In 2006, 2007, and again in 2008, the USAF assigned an F-15E IP to the ETSS position in order to instruct and fly with the ROKAF. However, only after numerous delays and increased pressure from South Korea were the additional ETSS positions filled. Although the number of available slots worldwide remains limited due to manning constraints on US IPs, this stands as an example of an ideal role through which the United States can encourage integration.
We should emphasize the unique opportunity for an MTT or ETSS to integrate with the foreign military: “The importance of selecting the most highly qualified military personnel . . . cannot be overemphasized due to the sensitivity of their positions and international impact of their actions.”3 By properly instructing and directing these individuals in the objectives of foreign training, we can greatly help meet the goals of integrated training. We must assure that these instructors recognize that their roles are to instruct, communicate, advise,and build camaraderie. The instruct role should be professional and emphasize integration among allies. The role of communicator can greatly benefit both the USAF and ROKAF since an on-scene specialist with a unique perspective of both sides can often greatly enhance continued coordination between air forces. As advisor, the ETSS or member of the MTT should proactively and tactfully present ideas and suggestions to the leadership of both nations to ensure that the program maintains proper focus. Similarly, we should stress the value of camaraderie for its long-term effects. Building friendships with our allies can pay dividends in the training program for many years to come. If we emphasize all of these areas in their training, MTT members or ETSSs can become invaluable assets in future integration of the weapon system.
With regard to a third training option—the FTU—we previously mentioned that four ROKAF pilots and four WSOs completed transition and instructor-upgrade programs at the F-15E FTU at Seymour Johnson AFB in 2005. Benefits of this training include learning from an established system, observing strengths and weaknesses of that system, forging allied relationships within a weapon system community, and returning to South Korea with a shared operational perspective that should encourage integrated operations in the future. Unfortunately, this type of training is expensive for the recipient country, takes away limited training slots from US students, and provides training to relatively few visiting students. Despite these shortcomings, this structure proved an excellent means to encourage integration at the outset of the F-15K training program.
During an exchange program—yet another training option that enhances integration—pilots and WSOs receive assignments to operational flying squadrons in the other nation’s air force, thus offering benefits similar to those of the FTU. The ROKAF has requested these assignments, but we have not yet coordinated them for F-15K and F-15E aircrews. While the USAF aircrew member instructs in the South Korean F-15K unit, encouraging integration concepts in a role almost the same as that of the ETSS, a South Korean pilot or WSO could learn USAF flight methodology firsthand in a US operational squadron. This arrangement also presents USAF aviators with an opportunity for informal cultural training—currently emphasized by USAF leadership. Upon completion of the assignment, the ROKAF aircrew member could return to South Korea as an expert in USAF F-15E procedures and could therefore foster the process of integration.
In addition to the training structures mentioned so far, a number of other existing training forums could help meet the objective of bridging differences. We already use ongoing training exercises with the ROKAF, but additional, specialized integration of the USAF and ROKAF in these enterprises would yield substantial benefits for coalition capabilities. Red Flag exercises in Nevada or Alaska and the Combined Large Force Exercises (CLFE) already regularly taking place in South Korea are perfect for advancing operational and tactical integration at the unit level.
Specific adjustments to training can help overcome difficulties and bridge the gap for integrated coalition operations. For example, the eight ROKAF aircrew members designated as the initial cadre of instructors in the F-15K all received AR training at the F-15E FTU at Seymour Johnson AFB. They became qualified not only to conduct AR but also to teach AR procedures. Though their currency has expired, they could regain it by flying with an AR instructor. The aircraft is capable of AR, and the instructors have the requisite training. All that remains is coordination between the USAF and ROKAF to facilitate tanker-training operations.
AR operations occur regularly in South Korean airspace, but only for US aircraft. Although we would require coordination on a variety of items, such as funding, we could easily expand these operations to include the ROKAF’s F-15Ks. For example, those aircraft could conduct AR from the same US tankers that refuel our F-16s. Periodically, a two-ship of F-15Ks could air-refuel at the end of an AR time block, ensuring that the ROKAF aircrew could obtain and maintain its AR qualifications.
Similar to changes in training, those in South Korea’s communications structure would contribute to the desired integration of the F-15K in any deployed location. A possible solution to the problem calls for occasional use of USAF frequencies by Korean F-15K aircrews in South Korea. Simply by speaking more frequently with US air traffic controllers already present in South Korea, those aircrews would gain experience in a required activity in deployed locations. By practicing both their speaking and listening skills on the radio, they could avoid many difficulties in communication. Similarly, although this will present a challenge to USAF air traffic controllers, it would give them valuable, additional exposure to communicating with coalition members.
We can make use of Red Flag in the United States or CLFEs in Korea to educate the ROKAF regarding the culture of coalition operations—a necessary step in achieving smooth integration. Allies of many countries have undergone this “culture training” in a very operationally realistic air-war scenario. Though not part of a formal syllabus, observing the way that the USAF and its other allies rehearse in these war simulations would quickly contribute to the ROKAF’s incorporation into a coalition environment should a real war arise. Granted, the exercises would neither address all of the cultural differences nor educate the ROKAF about them; however, since we “train the way we fight,” many important differences would likely present themselves.
Furthermore, we should emphasize cultural differences in other training structures. While remaining sensitive to the ROKAF culture, an ETSS or MTT in Korea could continually give members of that air force insight into differences that might adversely affect coalition operations. Every air force culture need not completely mold into one system, but knowing the differences and minimizing their impact should become the goal.
Like the ROKAF, the USAF also needs to modify its training program to effectively integrate foreign air forces such as South Korea’s. Whereas suggested changes for the ROKAF focus on operational capabilities and tactical training, those for the USAF should concentrate on cultural, language, and diplomatic issues that can significantly affect the strategic level. In addition to the instruction role, for which most USAF personnel are well trained, they should become familiar with the diplomatic roles of advising, communicating,and building camaraderie before assuming foreign-training duties.
As we address changes incrementally, we can practice and demonstrate increased integration in the form of exercises. Continued dry runs for real combat integration would prove extremely beneficial. Conducted several times a year in Nevada and Alaska, Red Flag, a combat exercise that often encourages allied participation, would provide a fantastic opportunity. Current Red Flag plans call for the inclusion of ROKAF F-15Ks in the near future, and an MTT or ETSS would facilitate smooth integration between ROKAF and USAF participants. Arguably the most realistic and complete combat flight-training exercise in the world, Red Flag offers much more than excellent training. In addition, other phases in the preparation for, logistical support of, and deployment to Red Flag would present invaluable opportunities for the ROKAF to practice and demonstrate many of the skills required to integrate as a coalition member in global combat operations.
Because “training the way we fight” is an important principle for success in combat, we must follow methodical, preparatory steps to prepare a unit for these types of operations. A fighter unit does not engage in combat without proper training, and neither would the ROKAF attempt to prepare for integration without taking such steps—for example, mastering basic skills in air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Additionally, we should take the following measures to develop skills required for integration.
Unique because of the many USAF fighter units present, South Korea offers a perfect training ground for practicing robust integration during CLFEs, including, for example, honing communication skills by utilizing the same radio frequencies as the USAF. Similarly, integrated briefings, ground operations, flight coordination, and debriefings allow participants to work through cultural and training differences between our forces. Ideally, a USAF MTT member, an ETSS, or an exchange officer in the F-15K unit would assist with coordination and training during this step of integration, as would a US-trained ROKAF aircrew member. These practice coalition exercises in South Korea would enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of integration at Red Flag.
That exercise also offers integration practice for support personnel in logistics and maintenance. The ROKAF has experience in deploying its C-130 aircraft into other theaters, such as Iraq. Utilizing these assets to airlift maintenance and logistical equipment in support of the F-15Ks’ move to Red Flag would provide very realistic preparation for combat deployment. Although some differences exist between combat and exercise deployment of these support assets, many integration steps would remain the same, and a Red Flag deployment would most certainly permit ROKAF maintainers and logisticians to demonstrate and practice their integration into a combined operation. A US MTT made up of several deployment logisticians and maintainers could provide excellent assistance in the weeks required to prepare, deploy, bed down, and redeploy. The fact that South Korea has its own airlift, maintenance, and logistical support would allow it to use Red Flag to rehearse for combat operations that would involve its F-15Ks.
Moreover, the deployment and redeployment phases themselves represent excellent opportunities to address integration concerns and demonstrate the ROKAF’s powerful capabilities to South Korea and the rest of the world. These might even prove to be the most valuable portions of Red Flag training. After all, by successfully deploying F-15K aircraft such a great distance, the South Koreans could see the potential global-deployment capability of their asset. Deployment and redeployment would afford aircrews the opportunity not only to practice but also demonstrate their AR capability in ferrying operations. Although the AR practice and training conducted in South Korea enable aircrews to develop skills they need for “taking gas,” the international flight coordination and deployment integration necessary for attending Red Flag provide the next level of training required for aircrews to integrate their F-15Ks into international flight operations anywhere in the world. Once again, a USAF member assigned to the F-15K unit would assist in this process.
Finally, the ROKAF would gain useful experience and integration training at Red Flag itself. As it did during CLFEs in South Korea, the ROKAF could use many phases of Red Flag operations for practicing integration into coalition operations, including mission planning and coordination, briefings and debriefings, ground operations, flight administration, combat administration, and simulated combat operations. Unlike the CLFEs, however, Red Flag would mirror realistic aspects of coalition coordination in all phases, exposing the ROKAF to working with many more allies and operating on a much larger scale. Building upon the integration training conducted in the CLFEs, the USAF could once again help F-15K aircrews practice communication and training to bridge cultural differences. For example, communication during the combat training phase of Red Flag would help aircrews understand and coordinate an inordinate number of radio calls as well as expose them to radio congestion and aggressive flight profiles that challenge even native speakers of English. Although no one can comprehend every radio call, the exposure would certainly help prepare ROKAF airmen for difficult communication integration in actual coalition combat. No doubt, every phase of Red Flag confers benefits, but integration in its simulated combat operations possibly represents the best opportunity for F-15K aircrews to train the way they fight in the coalition environment.
Making changes to ROKAF training would apply in other contexts as well. Whether we apply the resultant benefits to other changes within South Korea or other nations, the implications can enhance coalition participation anywhere. All of the advantages of the proposed alterations for coalition conflict beyond the Korean peninsula would also add value for any conflict on the peninsula itself. Similarly, these concepts would prove useful to all South Korean aircraft, not just the F-15Ks. The USAF should consider applying the training changes to aircrews of other ROKAF fighters, such as KF-16s, F-4s, or F-5s.
On a broader spectrum, this proposal has similar implications for other countries anywhere in the world. Singapore, for example, finds itself in the early stages of the process experienced by the ROKAF. When Singapore agreed to purchase F-15SGs, aircraft much like the F-15K, it too gained an asset that could contribute significantly to a coalition fight outside that country. Now is the time for the United States to consider the training and integration that the USAF will provide in support of Singapore’s new world-class fighter and its potential coalition contributions.
On an even broader level, we must emphasize training from the outset with a strategic vision of not only equipping our allies with fighter aircraft but also offering comprehensive training that enables them to contribute effectively to future coalition conflicts. Obviously, the concepts presented here are not limited to fighter aircraft—or to aircraft at all, for that matter. Many of them could apply to any branch of the military. Although many details are specific to South Korea, we can adapt the broader ideas and implications to other nations and cultures as well. Regardless of the international context, all such training is important. By utilizing appropriate international-training measures and support and by bridging differences in training, communication, and culture, we will enable many of our allies to contribute to coalition conflict effectively and efficiently, regardless of the type or location.
Assistance to our allies remains vitally important. It is “far more than an economic occurrence, a military relationship, or an arms control challenge—arms sales are foreign policy writ large.”4 Rather than merely helping nations procure weapon systems, the United States should assist those partner countries in taking the next steps towards integration into coalition conflicts. By prioritizing ongoing international integration with our allies as we prepare for conflict, we can strengthen relationships and build sustained, combined war-fighting capability.
*The author is an operations officer on the Joint Staff. In 2006 he became the US Air Force’s first F-15K instructor pilot assigned to Korea. From 2004 to 2005, he served as F-15E flight commander for eight Republic of Korea Air Force aviators who trained at Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina.
1. Lt Col Andrew W. Stewart, Friction in U.S. Foreign Policy: Cultural Difficulties with the World, Carlisle Papers in Security Strategy (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, June 2006), 7, http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/PUB706.pdf.
2. Defense Institute of Security Assistance Management, Foreign Training Officer’s Guide (Wright-Patterson AFB, OH: Defense Institute of Security Assistance Management, 1982), 2-6.
3. Col Robert F. Mallory, “Achieving United States National Objectives through the Military Assistance Training Program” (thesis, Air War College, April 1962), 52.
4. Col Jacob N. Haynes, Foreign Military Sales: Shaping Foreign Policy and Enhancing the Industrial Base (Carlisle Barracks, PA: US Army War College, 2001), 18, http://stinet.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA 391092&Location=U2&doc=GetTRDoc.pdf.
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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