February 1, 2008  

An irregular challenge

First, IW [irregular warfare] is a form of armed conflict. As such, it replaces the term “low-intensity conflict.” Second, IW is a form of warfare. As such, it encompasses insurgency, counterinsurgency, terrorism and counterterrorism, raising them above the perception that they are somehow a lesser form of conflict below the threshold of warfare.

— Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept, February 2007

The Air Force stands at a fork in the road, deciding how much of its resources it should devote to the current war and its irregular nature, and how much to the threats of a peer competitor challenging its dominance of air and space. Making the choice more difficult, funding of the requirements for irregular warfare will possibly come from budgets originally built to support aircraft such as the F-22, F-35 and new tankers. There will be risk in moving some of the programmed funds to a more balanced set of investments, and it will test the Air Force leadership to sustain such a program. But it will engage the Air Force in more aspects of the irregular war around us.

The Air Force will not create irregular warfare capability in a vacuum, however. It must balance this new emphasis on irregular warfare, the war we are in, with the Air Force’s traditional missions for the war we might be in at a later time. For many in the Air Force, this will be a tough but necessary call.

In the early 1980s and in the aftermath of the Iran hostage crisis and U.S. operations in Grenada, the military services were embroiled with Congress in a contest to determine how the Defense Department would resource and structure special operations forces. The Pentagon created the Center for Low-Intensity Conflict to study and recommend any needed requirements or reorganization. I sought assignment to that organization, unsuccessfully, and in conversation with my F-4 pilot neighbor, he explained why the organization would fail to change anything. “The Air Force needs to equip itself to fight the big wars,” he said. To fight the Soviet Union and the East Bloc, we have to win the air battle for superiority, he explained, and if we can do that, we can always use whatever is in that arsenal to scale down. We can always fight the lesser, if we prepare for the greater. And besides, he concluded, that’s low-intensity conflict (LIC), not war. “We need an Air Force for war.”

Last summer, I was in the Pentagon talking with an Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) official about the Quadrennial Defense Review mention of a DoD “road map” for irregular warfare. The official, one of those working on the road map, told me that at the beginning of their process, each service was asked to detail what of their force structure was applicable to IW and what additions in force structure might be necessary in the future. The Air Force’s answer came back that everything in the Air Force was applicable. When questioned, the Air Force representative explained that the real need was to procure and structure forces for the “peer or near-peer competitor” of the U.S., and those forces needed for that major war would always be applicable to anything else. The OSD official said the Air Force felt that “the Air Force’s funding priorities are 180 F-22s, or 200 F-22s, or 400 F-22s.”

I thought maybe I was in a time warp. The thinking of my 1980s neighbor and of the Air Force rep at the IW road map meeting is similar, but the times are not. We are not six years before the Soviet Union collapse; we are six years after the World Trade Center collapse. I hope the OSD official was telling me the story for effect, setting up a single Air Force member who is a throwback to illustrate how everyone else is behind the times. Maybe.

Today, we have no doubt of the existence of extensive, though loosely networked, terrorist organizations conducting what is termed “global jihad.” The war with these extremist elements is not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but in many other countries where extremists are conducting destabilizing operations against moderate Muslims and our other allies. Terrorist operations in Madrid split one of our strongest allies out of the Iraqi coalition, while Pakistan, another major ally, is only chief among many nations targeted for disruption and destabilization. Numerous others have endured terrorist attacks intended to destabilize governments as the terrorist groups seek to carve out ungoverned places where they can operate, train and recruit. Clearly, it will be a long-lasting, violent conflict with many theaters of operation that are not areas of open warfare, but which are warfare nonetheless. As the Joint Operating Concept quoted above asserts, irregular warfare is war, not LIC, and for this war we must plan, budget, invest, organize, procure and train.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said much the same thing in his October speech to the Association of the United States Army: “Arguably, the most important military component in the war on terror is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we enable and empower our partners to defend and govern their own countries.” But few would see the applicability to the Air Force secretary’s speech. After all, he was talking to the Army, wasn’t he?

Since my visit to OSD early last summer, the Air Force has displayed forward and broad thinking, at least beginning to come to grips with irregular warfare. The Air Force Doctrine Center in August published its Doctrine Document 2-3 on “Irregular Warfare.” Proactively, Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) recommended to the Air Staff that the service should create a new irregular warfare wing. This wing would be made up of four squadrons of turboprop aircraft for manned ISR, light strike, medium airlift and heavy airlift, along with a fifth squadron flying helicopters. Additionally, out of the old Joint IED Defeat Office, the Air Staff has created an office for Irregular Warfare Requirements which will hold discussions on the needs of the Air Force to act effectively in the IW arena. It’s a beginning and it promises some lively discussions of the Air Force’s future.


What conflicts are we most likely to be involved in over the next few years? We already are hip deep in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even those most adamant that we withdraw from Iraq are willing for us to remain in Afghanistan. So it is safe to say that we are 100 percent likely to remain engaged in the war in Afghanistan and will probably remain engaged for a while in Iraq. Both of these theaters of open warfare feature American weaponry and people engaged directly with the enemy. As we train the indigenous people to secure their own territory, we will recede from the direct battlefield. Our ground forces will recede more quickly than with our air power, however, and we will continue to provide communications, intelligence and airstrike capability until the indigenous air force gains self-sufficiency.

Less likely is the peer competitor who can challenge U.S. dominance of air and space, and it is even less likely that such a competitor will present the U.S. with an existential military threat. China, for all its wishing that it would project threatening military power off the Asian continent, will not have such ability for many years, and anyone who wants to fight them on land in Asia can’t be taken seriously. North Korea cannot threaten except with missiles, which it cannot now aim or arm. Syria and Iran are credible threats in their regions, but are best thwarted by our allies than with open warfare. While the U.S. needs to be able to fight such enemies, major combat operations against such foes is much less likely than continued irregular activity on many fronts.

Necessarily, Air Force budgets and requirements need more balance, with additional acquisitions in the irregular warfare arena. The real and present danger that an Islamic extremist organization could gain control of a nation controlling large oil reserves, impacting the fragile global economy, is as great a danger as the international community has faced in the last 15 years. Additionally, the chance that a terrorist organization in control of Pakistan or some other state with weapons of mass destruction could threaten us with those weapons is probably roughly equal to the probability that China or Iran will eventually present us with an existential threat. Again, irregular warfare has become warfare, and resourcing its requirements is as important as resourcing major combat operations requirements.

There are also many places where there is not a theater of open warfare, but where we will be involved in helping indigenous forces with internal security concerns. U.S. airmen and soldiers will not be directly involved in the fighting, but they will aid the foreign forces. Training and equipping our allies, enabling them to extend their government’s influence into the spaces of their territory presently not policed, is the main challenge of irregular warfare. Today, we struggle with whether or how to make our weaker allies capable of dealing with the insurgencies inside their borders: in south Lebanon, which today belongs to Hezbollah; in Pakistan’s western tribal areas of Waziristan; in Kenya’s border areas near Somalia; in the remote islands of Indonesia and the Philippines; in Sri Lanka’s northern region with the Tamil Tigers; in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, which all contend with al-Qaida in the Maghreb; in Yemen’s border areas with Saudi Arabia.

America will participate in many and maybe all of these conflicts through indirect means: Americans will train and equip the militaries, advise the militaries and the governments, and provide some aid and support. The Army will be expected to train local armies and police forces. The role of the Air Force will be less clear to many, but far more crucial than most non-airmen would expect. The initially small numbers of trained ground forces will need to apply their developing capabilities to many places quickly. They won’t do that with trucks alone. They will need intelligence gained by air operations, rapid air transport, air reconnaissance and surveillance , and air-to-ground weapons support. With good participation by its air arm, a government gains much more viable counterinsurgency and irregular warfare capability than with ground forces alone, and it can apply its counterinsurgency elements infinitely more quickly, more effectively and more often. Airplanes and helicopters are pivotal capabilities that can rapidly transform our allies into successful counterinsurgents.


Gates said, “How the Army should be organized and prepared for this advisory role remains an open question and will require innovative and forward thinking.” The same is true for the Air Force.

Developing significant forces to train partners in irregular warfare will have collateral benefits for the Air Force, enlarging it with new missions. These missions, translated into requirements, have not been properly understood or resourced. The advent of irregular warfare, defined as war and not LIC, requires doctrine, budgets, force structure and people, and it will drive the overall growth of the Air Force. The IW mission will need people who make a career out of learning about other countries and how best to teach them the skill sets of professional airmen.

The current doctrine and AFSOC White Paper are only the start to opening the debate. In my view, the mission of building partner nation air forces is a U.S. Air Force, not a Special Operations Command (SOCOM), mission. Air Force budgeting and advocacy will ensure its continuation when SOCOM might prioritize its budget elsewhere. SOCOM has never demonstrated an ability to run an aircraft acquisition program. In fact, we have been in a special-operations-intensive war for several years, and SOCOM has lagged in aircraft procurement for its air component, and reduced AFSOC by 60 mobility aircraft during this time. Also, the large and global requirement to engage in partner training missions will require much more than an AFSOC squadron, however large it becomes, to perform the special operations mission of aviation internal defense. Certainly, those folks in the current 6th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) at Hurlburt Field, Fla., are experts and will provide a good nucleus of what should be built — in the Air Force.

There will need to be multiple, integrated, irregular warfare wings like the single wing proposed by AFSOC, and they will best be applied if one of these wings exists in each of the theater air components: Central Command Air Forces, U.S. Air Forces in Europe, Pacific Air Forces, Air Forces Southern and eventually Africa Command Air Forces. Each wing could then maintain its own theater knowledge, cultural and language skills, and theater rotational presence for training purposes. Also, the IW mission would have four-star advocates in Air Force councils and coronas.

During my time as wing commander at Hurlburt Field and as vice commander of AFSOC, I traveled to a few 6th SOS training events and saw firsthand their tremendous value in creating partner capability, a brotherhood of airmen, and real friends in Jordan and Latin America. Trips by 6th SOS members paid big dividends as we deployed forces for Operation Enduring Freedom, establishing bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. We often discussed the people we needed who would spend careers getting to know our partners, their languages, their cultures and their airplanes. The Air Force at large has often considered the same needs, and has tried to create career paths for these people, but we have failed in this effort and people who devote many assignments and many years to such missions are limited today to very small numbers. This situation will not change, but innovation can go a long way toward addressing it.

To achieve long-term theater expertise, language skills and understanding of this mission, a sizeable element of the people involved in each irregular warfare wing should be in the Air National Guard (ANG), aligned with their state to a partner nation state with a theater training center. This partnership between a state ANG, a theater air component and a nation in the theater will synergize to create a real powerhouse of capability: assigning some ANG units an enduring mission only they can do well, providing each combatant command with a lasting, regional Air Force coalition-building center of excellence, and providing a venue to employ the airman diplomacy recently begun in earnest by the chief of staff with his counterpart air chiefs.

Unfortunately, training partner nation air forces has in recent years become only a means of facilitating foreign military sales, usually to bring the price per aircraft down for continuing American procurement. Sales were thus limited to countries that could afford very expensive aircraft like F-16s, F-15s or C-130s. With insurgencies underway or probable in upward of 60 countries, there are plenty of small countries that cannot afford to buy or operate such equipment. Most of these countries have only an elementary understanding or appreciation of air power and no understanding at all of joint operations. They need small aircraft, easy-to-obtain-and-maintain parts, and low-operating-cost aircraft — one and two engine turboprops, helicopters, manned ISR platforms, with the training and command-and-control ability to use them effectively. Consider also the collateral benefits to these countries: They will gain air rescue and humanitarian operations capability to support their populations in time of need after natural disaster or terrorist attack.

In many cases, these partner nations will need to build an air arm nearly from scratch. But they aren’t becoming major powers, as they need only enough to enhance their ability to secure their own territory, not enough to threaten that of their neighbor. Their need is, for them, domestic, to add real mobility, real intelligence and near omnipotent situational awareness to their internal struggles. They can then outflank the radicals inside their territory, pinning them down and denying the insurgents their freedom to train, maneuver or succeed. Adding air to the training of partners will enable them to achieve success more quickly and more completely.

In 1974, I arrived fresh out of flight school at Nakhon Phanom Thai Air Base and was treated to the sight of about 60 aircraft parked on the ramp. C-47s, C-7s, A-37s, A-1s and T-28s were all parked in neat rows, almost touching one another, where they had been turned over to the Thais, as the Air Force and Air America had left behind many of the airplanes they used in the Southeast Asia War. As that conflict ended, these aircraft, procured mostly from aircraft storage facilities (boneyards), had been bequeathed to the country where they were based. Most of those aircraft were never used again because the attempt to equip an ally instead gave them obsolete aircraft with no logistical tail for support.

In 1987, a couple of years after I had considered how to get involved in the short-lived Center for Low Intensity Conflict, those requirements resulted in the creation of U.S. Special Operations Command, with its own budget and air component.

These historical precedents demonstrate that the growing requirements of irregular warfare will also find a way to become satisfied. The first and best option is for the Air Force to lead the way in developing people, airplanes and units that will create air forces to fight insurgencies.

Today, the Air Force controls air and space from the surface to the sun. Our partner nations, constituting the front lines fighting the global jihad, need to create a scaled-down similar capability within their own domestic airspace. As the only air superpower in the world, the Air Force is the best organization to take on this mission. To do it correctly means planning for the long term, moving patiently and empowering a lot of young airmen. It’s new and will require new aircraft, new wings and new thinking. It will create a new culture in our Air Force, regenerating it into the larger Air Force the country needs.

MAJ. GEN. RICHARD COMER’s more than 30-year Air Force career included postings as chief of the Office of Coalition Coordination at Central Command and director for policy and planning at Northern Command. He also commanded 16th Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field. He is a consultant for U.S. Aircraft Corp. on government programs and its A-67 Dragon irregular warfare aircraft project.