Air University Review, May-June 1986
Colonel Paul L. Wilke
A friend of mine told me an interesting story the other day. For a variety of reasons, his family made a good many road trips. Increasingly, members of the family became dissatisfied not only with their present car but also with the way the journeys went. So they shopped around, bought a nice new vehicle, did better planning on how to drive it, and shortly thereafter set out on a trip. They were extremely pleased because they were making excellent time and were getting great gas mileageextremely pleased, that is, until someone asked where they were going, and nobody knew! Of course, this last detail was fictional, but still it made an interesting story.
RECENTLY, I have been involved with people who are dissatisfied with the present scheme of things. These people are the interested individuals in the tactical airlift community of the U.S. Air Force. Their concern centers around the warfighting capabilities of our tactical airlift forces. Their disquiet stems from many things, among them the experiences of Red Flag and Maple Flag exercises and of a Military Airlift Command (MAC) study titled Close Look II. As a result, there has been a tremendous increase of interest in tactical airlift tactics and in equipment improvements that will enhance force survivability.
A large part of the increased interest in improving or developing new tactics stems from the Red Flag/Maple Flag experiences. The first tactical airlift participants in this rigorous training scenario returned from their missions to be inundated with films from ground-based antiair systems and fighter gun cameras showing their slow-flying transports as easy marks for these predators. Something had to be done.
By and large what was done was to turn to Air Force fighter pilots for advice on how to avoid these threats. The well-meaning answer was that even though tactical transports were slow and not very maneuverable, there were still things that they could do to help themselves. For example, the fighter pilots told the airlifters, they couldnt fly in straight lines in big formations and hope to escape unscathed. According to the fighter pilots, the airlifters had to fly as low and as fast as possible, constantly jink and juke, always fly curvilinear paths rather than linear ones, and spread way out so that individual aircraft in an ostensible formation could not even see one another.
Such suggestions by the fighter community had a great impact. The spread-out, curvilinear, jinking-juking philosophy greatly complicated the navigational problem, bringing demands for new equipment such as an inertial navigation system. Also there was a great impact on tactics. The airlift crews picked up on the fighter pilots suggestions, innovated newer and more audacious fighter-like tactics, and brought them back from Red Flag to their home units.
In some dusty corners, however, doubts lingered. Is it really the tactical airlifters mission to fight their way through a threat array in the manner of fighter-type aircraft? Also, the jinking-juking, always curvilinear transports on the Red Flag missions invariably made loadmasters, experienced during a thousand airdrop missions, motion sick. What will be the effect on a planeload of paratroopers who often do not feel too well on "normal" missions? If the whole purpose is to get these paratroopers to a certain place in fighting condition, are we doing the right thing? Similarly, if formations are spread out all over the countryside, how are the airborne forces going to be delivered in the proper sequence and mass they need to complete a successful air assault? As Major Ronald Boston pointed out in his article "Doctrine by Default," the lack of sequence and mass proved disastrous to airborne operations in North Africa and Holland during World War II.1
Another driving force toward the development of innovative new tactical airlift tactics has been the MAC Close Look II study. Close Look II was the follow-on study to a similar effort conducted by the tactical airlift community in the early 1960s. That earlier study resulted in a revision of tactics from those that had been in existence since World War II to those currently accepted today.
Lieutenant Colonel William Forsythe, deputy director of the study, said in his article "Close Look II" that the change in the threat posed by the Soviet Union and its allies from the early sixties to the late seventies demanded another in-depth look at tactics.2 According to Colonel Forsythe, the purpose of phase one of the study was to review tactics, examine equipment improvements for the force, and assess current and projected threats. Because of the dimensions of the threat, analysts conducting the study foresaw a need for increased flexibility in tactics. The general approach taken "was to first review the current tactics, equipment, and procedures available." One of the recommended changes in tactics was similar to "solutions" developed at Red Flag, i.e., the use of single ship or very small, more maneuverable formations.
Yet another strong suggestion of Close Look II was that individuals at the squadron level become more involved in developing new tactics. The theory behind this idea appeared to be that the people actually doing the job would probably have a lot of helpful ideas on how to improve tactics. I became aware of the objectives and involved in the process at this point.
At the squadron level, we saw a proliferation of combat environment training, hostile environment training, and combat aircrew training programs. We saw tactics symposiums and more emphasis on flying training against the threat and evasive maneuvers to counter the threat. Many a bright young man became deeply involved in this effort, and many new ideas were developed that had much merit. Yet increasingly I had the feeling that we were all caught up in a frenzied rush to find a better way to get thereof how to do the joband no one was speaking of where we were goingwhat the job really was. The noise of how was loud, raucous, and clamorous; the silence of what was being ignored.
Doctrine should tell us, should it not? Professor I. B. Holley, Jr., in his article "An Enduring Challenge: The Problem of Air Force Doctrine," says, "Doctrine is like a compass bearing; it gives us the general direction of our course."3 In "Some Thoughts on Air Force Doctrine," Major Robert C. Ehrhart offers another good explanation of doctrine, which he says proves "guidance and a sense of direction on the most effective way to develop, deploy, and employ air power." Further, doctrine "explains what air forces are capable and incapable of doing and why they are used in certain ways It gives us general headings, but it does not give us detailed instructions on how to get there."4
What is this doctrine which tells us where we want to go? For the U.S. Air Force, it is found in Air Force Manual 1-1 (AFM 1-1), Basic Aerospace Doctrine of the United States Air Force. This manual defines aerospace doctrine as "a statement of officially sanctioned beliefs and warfighting principles which describe and guide the proper use of aerospace forces in military action." It further says:
Basic doctrine states the most fundamental and enduring beliefs which describe and guide the proper use of aerospace forces in military action. Basic doctrine is the foundation of all aerospace doctrine. Because of its fundamental and enduring character, basic doctrine provides broad and continuing guidance on how air forces are prepared and employed.5
As should be expected, AFM 1-1 has only general things to say about airlift. It says that the objectives of airlift "are to deploy, employ, and sustain military forces through the medium of aerospace." More specifically, it says that airlift under combat conditions projects power by airdropping, extracting, and airlanding ground forces and supplies "to exploit an enemys weaknesses."6 In summary, what we get from AFM 1-1 is that airlift helps to win wars.
To say that we need airlift does not do much to help us discern where it is we want to go, that is, what, specifically, airlifters are supposed to do. But AFM 1-1 has not failed us. It says that there are really three levels of aerospace doctrine, the first of which is basic doctrine. The third level is tactical doctrine, which "applies basic and operational doctrine to military actions by describing the proper use of specific weapon systems to accomplish detailed objectives."7 This latter doctrine, then, is the how to get there, the link to tactics. But, yes, you saw a reference to operational doctrine, the link between the first and third levels. According to AFM 1-1, "operational doctrine applies the principles of basic doctrine to military actions by describing the proper use of aerospace forces in the context of distinct objectives, force capabilities, broad mission areas, and operational environments."8 Eureka, need we only look into AFM 2-4, Aerospace Operational Doctrine: Tactical Air Force Operations, Tactical Airlift, to find answers we seek?
Before we go searching for AFM 2-4, though, I must take a step back and admit that Close Look II did take cognizance of doctrine. Colonel Forsythe, in his article, said,
We believe that an update of airlift doctrine is long overdue. For example, most of the Air Force and MAC manuals and regulations defining the mission and doctrine of the command predate airlift consolidation which occurred a little over five years ago.9
Yet as we examine AFM 2-4, we notice a curious thing. Five years after the Close Look II study, the effective date of AFM 2-4 is still August 1966. Back in the sixties, the operational units were still called Troop Carrier Squadrons. Despite the changing environment and threats faced by tactical airlift according to the Close Look II study, AFM 2-4 has remained unchanged during a period in which the "most fundamental and enduring beliefs" of AFM 1-1 have been revised four times. Perhaps the seeming neglect of AFM 2-4 is only superficial and what was valid in 1966 remains valid today? Let us look at the manual.
Air Force Manual 2-4 does tell us what tactical airlift is to do. Tactical airlift forces are to conduct air assault operations to deliver combat forces to objective areas and supply them during and subsequent to the assault phase. Airlift forces are to use airland, airdrop, extraction, or other means to accomplish this mission. They are also to provide means to rapidly relocate forces during mobile operations and to provide logistic support, tactical aeromedical evacuation, and special air support. The interesting job description comes in chapter 2, which tells us that tactical airlift is to deliver and recover forces in combat zones at any level of conflict, in any terrain, any climate, any combat condition, as far forward as necessary. The chapter further elaborates on "as far forward as necessary" to mean to deliver personnel, supplies, and equipment on a sustained basis forward to the brigade level and also perhaps to the battalion/company level and further forward, by any means feasible. Other parts of the manual state that in airborne operations, the forces must be delivered in size, with sufficient mass and with precise timing.
This manual gives tactical airlifters quite a job descriptionthey have to do it all. With the Armys deep-attack options articulated in its new AirLand Battle doctrine, the opportunities to deliver and resupply way forward seem prolific. No wonder tactical airlifters feel the desperate need for new tactics of the low, fast, jinking-juking type. And if these tactics, combined with the single ship or small dispersed formations needed to survive, fly in the face of the Armys need to have healthy troopers delivered to an objective area in sufficient force, size, and mass and at the proper time, then maybe we have an unsolvable paradox. Maybeexcept for one small part of AFM 2-4, which makes all the difference in the world. It says that airborne operations require a high degree of control of the air and that the air assault must have massive tactical air support in the form of interdiction and close air support to succeed. This same point is made in FM 100-27/AFM 2-50, USA/USAF Doctrine for Joint Airborne and Tactical Airlift Operations. Although this manual, like AFM 3-4, Tactical Doctrine, is more concerned with the how-to-do-it than the what-to-do, it explicitly states the absolute need for air superiority for the entire airborne operation. In a 1982 interview, Lieutenant General Robert Kingston, Commander of the then Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (a potential heavy user of tactical airlift), said that transport aircraft would never be unprotected.10 He also said that although in some cases mass airdrops might be called for, they would not be reasonable unless all threats could be suppressed. Based on a doctrine that requires air superiority for all airborne operations, the quest for new airlift tactics could take on an entirely different tack.
Even with the important condition of air superiority for tactical airlift operations, I still question the current validity of our 1966 operational doctrine. Major Ehrhart said that doctrine "explains what air forces are capable and incapable of doing." Perhaps we no longer are capable of delivery and recovery in any terrain, climate, combat condition, as far forward as necessary, at any level of conflict. Perhaps we are not capable of delivery to the company, battalion, or even brigade level on a sustained basis. The year 1966 was too long ago not to question the present validity of its operational doctrine, particularly in light of the frenzy to develop new tactics which should be based on such doctrine.
I believe that the importance of doctrine has been largely ignored. Everyone is concerned with tactics, from the Close Look II study on down to the crew member in the squadron. Yet no one cares or even knows about doctrine. I cannot remember a single time, in any forum, where an influential MAC personality discussed doctrine. Wing and squadron tactics shops arent poring over AFM 2-4 and discussing what is the proper role of tactical airliftand they should be because that is the essential point. Perhaps it can even be said that if people were aware of the 1966 operational doctrine, they would not propose some of the tactics being suggested. But unless we talk about it and examine it, we shall never know whether it is correct.
As a starting point, let me suggest some alternate concepts of operational doctrine. As previously stated, perhaps AFM 2-4 gives tactical airlift too ambitious a job description. It may be no longer reasonable to expect tactical airlift to accomplish the mission described in the current AFM 2-4. Although this has been our operational doctrine at least since 1966, perhaps it has never been reasonable to expect tactical airlift to accomplish the mission described in the current AFM 2-4. Although this has been our operational doctrine at least since 1966, perhaps it has never been reasonable to expect such broad capabilities.
As Major Boston points out in his excellent article, such capabilities were neither expected nor achieved in World War II. During the invasion of Sicily, for instance, the airborne assault was restricted to a nighttime operation because of the fear of enemy fighter interception. Little moonlight and strong crosswinds caused the actual airdrops to be a disaster, especially from the point of view of accuracy, and the widely scattered troops (dropped over a range of more than fifty miles) were not able to accomplish their mission. Later during the same operation, friendly antiaircraft guns mistakenly firing on allied transports completely broke up aircraft formations and kept troops from their objective areas.
Major Boston further points out that during the Normandy invasion the airdrops were again scheduled only at night, this time because of enemy antiaircraft and fighter threats. Unfortunately, clouds over the continent broke up formations, and once again the results were widely scattered drops. Because of the terrible results obtained, future air assaults were restricted to daylight operations only. So much for any weather, any terrain, any combat conditions.
Major Bostons historical examples point out that the 1966 and still-current operational doctrine was not accepted nor even feasible in World War II. Further, Major Boston shows that the whole question of airlift doctrine was seriously argued during that period. Some advocates of tactical airlift wanted to reserve the tactical transports along with the airborne divisions as a strategic force to be used for deep-strike combat missions. Others questioned, based perhaps on actual experience, the ability of such a force to succeed in such missions; these people advocated the use of air assault assets in small-scale operations only, to destroy and capture key locations. Additionally, these latter people saw the utility of tactical airlift in resupply, logistical transport, and aeromedical evacuation roles, which they viewed as both viable and valuable missions.
Although 1966 operational doctrine does not strictly adhere to the ideas/doctrine of massed airborne armies as a strategic deep-strike force, it is much closer with its "do anything, anywhere, anytime" ideas to that doctrine than it is to the doctrine of limited airborne operations and greater emphasis on resupply and logistical support. Yet the questions raised and points made by the adherents of the latter doctrine seem even more valid today than they were during World War II. Thus, the matter remains a doctrinal question that must be discussed and clarified.
The 1966 AFM 2-4 also calls for delivery of personnel, supplies, and equipment on a sustained basis forward to the brigade and even the battalion/company level. If this means in all cases, it is questionable doctrine. During the 1972 siege of An Loc in Vietnam, the U.S. Air Force faced no airborne threat, yet it could not attain total control of the air. The projectiles fired by enemy small arms demanded their share. The large, slow tactical transports were especially vulnerable during the airdrop phase. Even with the large amount of firepower we massed around An Loc, we could not prevent the loss of tactical airlift aircraft to small arms fire. With the far more deadly arsenal of weapons likely to be in range of U.S. Army companies and battalions in some theaters, is it reasonable to expect sustained tactical airlift support in all cases? Further, unless the Air Force makes clear, through doctrine, what it is capable and not capable of doing, the Army, with the deep-strike portion of its AirLand Battle doctrine, may not only expect but also absolutely rely on the "anything, anywhere, anytime" philosophy. Losses would dictate a change in plans, but why wait for losses when doctrine should tell us now what is and what is not feasible?
I personally think that tactical airlift operational doctrine needs some changing. Mass air assaults are still possible, but only in a benign environment. For example, a large airborne force could be dropped in front of an advancing enemy to block his advance in an area that could not be otherwise quickly reached. Large airborne assault operations are also possible in regions lacking sophisticated weapons, especially if surprise can be achieved. However, as the threat increases, most likely the scope of operations will have to decrease. Short of nuclear weapons, I do not think enough firepower could be massed to blast a path for an air assault operation behind enemy lines in Central Europe. If this is true, let us get rid of the "anything, anywhere, anytime" ideas of our present doctrine.
Similarly, I do not think tactical airlift can afford to say that it can provide sustained support forward to brigade, battalion, and company levels in all cases. Rather, it should say that it will provide sustained support as far forward as the threat allows. If support is needed further forward, then someone with weapons ought to be concerned with removing the blocking threat.
My personal opinions on tactical airlift doctrine, however, are not important. What is important is that the tactical airlift community starts talking about itthe "it" being what we are supposed to do. The importance of such discussion is highlighted by Lieutenant Colonel Dino Lorenzini in his article "Space Power Doctrine."
The development and articulation of doctrine serve as a focal point for discussion, challenge, and group consensus-building. Thus, when new concepts are being formulated, the process of doctrinal develop- ment may be more valuable than the product that is finally produced This process clarifies thinking by identifying key ideas, aids understanding by exposing various points of view, and eventually unifies opinion by eliminating weak arguments.11
When we have discussed, challenged, clarified, and built consensus, then we can worry about tactics.
Tactical airliftyou are a friend of mine. You are required to make many important trips of one type or another. The equipment you have is old, and there may be much better ways of getting there than you presently use. I do not blame you for wanting newer equipment and for seeking better ways of going. But first, my friend, first let us all decide where it is we want to go.
Colonel Paul L. Wilke(USAFA; M.A. University of Utah; M.B.A. Auburn University at Montgomery) is Assistant Chief, Mobility Forces Division, Directorate of Programs and Evaluations, Hq USAF. He has been a C-130 pilot, instructor and standardization evaluation pilot, operations officer, and squadron commander. Colonel Wilke is a Distinguished Graduate of Squadron Officer School and Air Command and Staff College, as well as a graduate of Army War College and Air War College.
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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