Air University Review, July-August 1984
Lieutenant Colonel David C. Schlachter
COLONEL Kenneth Alnwick in his article in the March-April 1984 issue pointedly showed the difference between the conceptual and the actual.* He noted a shift in Air Force emphasis away from "classic special operations . . . toward a special operations force with a much more narrow focus" but came to a wrong conclusion when he implied that this "evolution" lessens the Air Force's war-fighting capability within the spectrum of conflict. As I see it, the historical examples used to support the article's premise really demonstrate that "classic" air power applied in support of past special operations was no more or less than it is today (or should be in the future)--i.e., adaptable to the needs of the employing commander.
*Colonel Kenneth J. Alnwick, "Perspectives on Air Power at the Low End of the Conflict Spectrum," Air University Review, March-April 1984, pp. 17-28.
In developing his premise that the future Air Force, unless restructured, might not be able to execute successfully "time-honored" missions in low-level conflict, Colonel Alnwick overlooked a simple but essential point. The Air Force as a military department and service provides forces for assignment to unified commands. It does not field forces or develop capabilities in isolation. Theater commands are responsible for identifying requirements; the respective services subsequently establish the priority and fund-supporting initiatives. In basic terms, the Air Force "gives them what they want."
The Air Force recently developed its first Air Force Special Operations Forces (AFSOF) Master Plan to chart the course for increasing USAF capability to conduct and support future special operations. The plan, unlike some others, is a significant document because it provides the Air Force with a fiscally responsible, time-phased plan to increase and then maintain the quality and quantity of special operations forces through the end of the century.
The concept of operations in the master plan is derived from projected strategies of the unified commands. Simply stated, unified commanders want Air Force combat capability to conduct "quick" or limited engagement military special operations in hostile or denied areas. Most air missions would involve undetected, long-range, low-level penetration into hostile airspace to reach target areas. Therefore, aircraft and aircrews tasked for special operations must have unique capabilities. For survivability and operational security, they must be able to operate at low altitudes under conditions of darkness or adverse weather, while navigating precisely either around or through known air defense threat areas to arrive at obscure drop zones, landing zones, infiltration points, or targets. These, then, are the outside parameters of needed Air Force special operations air support.
The degree of technological sophistication necessary to execute successfully special operations air missions moves the Air Force away from aircraft that are comparable to those in the Third World's air forces. Today's special operations aircraft are typically modified with terrain following/terrain avoidance radar, have defensive electronic countermeasures, have internal/external night vision capability, and are air refuelable. Future Air Force special operations aircraft like the JVX may need even more capable equipment. (Because of the JVX's fixed-wing and vertical-lift properties, the Air Force will no longer need long-range special operations helicopters when it is fielded.) Air Force aircraft available to foreign air forces for security assistance are tactical fighters, for the most part, such as the F-5, F-15 or F-16, and unmodified C-130 tactical transports--forces that are not significantly tasked for U.S. special operations support. While the corporate Air Force must maintain a capability to field mobile training teams to support military assistance advisory groups and liaison officers, Air Force special operations forces are not the prime players they were during the 1960s and early 1970s, nor can they be because of the equipment they fly.
The point that Colonel Alnwick missed is that air power in a special operations environment must be developed and refined to provide what it has always provided--flexible strategic and tactical capability against the war-fighting potential of a hostile force in line with unified command strategy. In this context, special operations forces are no different from other Air Force forces. Such combat capability can be focused for support of either U.S. unilateral or host-nation combat operations. Colonel Alnwick correctly called the shift away from Vietnam era special operations support, but the shift is part of the evolutionary process to keep air support responsive to the stated military requirements of unified commanders who fight the force--i.e., toward enhanced air support that is not hindered by threat, weather, terrain, target distance, employment location, or payload. Fortunately, the old commando motto "Any Time, Any Place" is just as applicable now as it ever was-maybe more so, and the Air Force must actively keep it that way.
Colonel Schlachter is assigned to Headquarters USAF/XOXP.
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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