Small Wars Journal

USAF Updates Its Irregular Warfare Strategy to Address Strategic Guidance

Mon, 12/23/2013 - 1:53pm

USAF Updates Its Irregular Warfare Strategy to Address Strategic Guidance

Mort Rolleston and Peter Garretson

The Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force recently signed an updated United States Air Force (USAF) Irregular Warfare (IW) Strategy to provide direction for the USAF to organize, train, and equip to provide capabilities necessary to meet strategic guidance.  The USAF published the initial version of its IW Strategy in 2009.  Since then, however, strategic guidance has sought to rebalance IW:

  • From large-scale operations to low-cost, small footprint approaches
  • From direct U.S. operations to indirect actions by, with, and through partner nations
  • From large-scale counterinsurgency and stability operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to a more distributed, though carefully prioritized, global effort focusing more on the Asia-Pacific region
  • From crisis response, near-term focused efforts to more deliberate, long-term efforts closely tied to enduring U.S. strategic interests
  • From predominantly a special operations force mission to one institutionalized across the general purpose force

Also since its publication, several studies by the Joint Staff and the USAF have highlighted critical shortfalls and challenges affecting USAF conduct of IW that need to be fixed to address this strategic guidance.  They include:  the lack of a coordinated U.S. Government strategy and execution; authorities that do not support long-term planning and execution timelines; capability and manpower shortfalls; the lack of “right tech” USAF platforms to transfer to partner nations; limited funding; and inadequate IW education and training.

The new USAF IW Strategy replaces the initial version to remain consistent with these developments.  It first provides the context underlying this strategy by briefly summarizing:  (1) what IW is; (2) how airpower contributes to IW-related operations and activities; (3) the changes in strategic guidance related to IW relevant to the USAF; and (4) documented shortfalls and challenges facing USAF IW operations before describing the USAF’s IW strategy to organize, train, and equip to address the new guidance and challenges. 

The USAF IW Strategy has nine initiatives:

1. Adopt a partnering culture:  Going forward, air advising and being an instructor to partner air forces and civilian aviation will be part of the fundamental identity, self-concept, and expectations of individual Airmen. Building and maintaining language, region, and culture expertise; demonstrating air advising skills; and thinking strategically about how peacetime operations can shape geopolitical relationships to provide advantage for U.S. foreign policy will grow in importance and positively affect individual promotions.

2. Influence U.S. global shaping activities guided by a new USAF Aviation Enterprise Development (AED) Vision and Strategy.  The primary USAF approach to conduct IW indirectly by, with, and through partner nations is to help develop, enhance, and sustain their aviation enterprise as directed by the Department of State as part of the overall U.S. security sector assistance effort.  While the USAF is only one of many actors involved in this effort and does not lead them, it has clear equities in its success, especially given it is a critical enabler of future base access vital to achieving Global Vigilance, Global Reach, and Global Power.  Therefore, the USAF AED Vision (now in coordination) intends to help shape this whole-of-government effort as it relates to the global air domain.  A forthcoming separate USAF AED Strategy will describe how the USAF will achieve its part of that AED Vision.

3. Advocate IW authorities that enable effective, long-term, persistent engagements.  The laws governing security sector assistance efforts across the U.S. government and the lack of broad authority for multi-year spending creates a confusing and difficult patchwork of authorities that prevents effective long-term planning essential for most IW operations and activities.  The USAF will continue to work with Congress and OSD to address or mitigate this challenge through legislation and other appropriate means.

4. Establish the means to meet global light aviation demands with American aircraft and services.  One goal of strategic guidance is for the United States to become “the partner of choice.”  However, because the U.S. military today often does not fly the transferrable, affordable, modular, and interoperable platforms emerging air forces need, those nations tend to approach other suppliers, to include potential strategic competitors.  Therefore, the USAF will establish a creative, effective, and affordable way to enhance its ability to develop PN air forces that operate light aircraft.   

5. Adequately man planning staffs associated with IW.   To effectively execute strategic guidance, there must not only be adequately trained personnel on planning staffs (particularly those AFFOR staffs supporting the geographic combatant commanders), but also enough personnel to effectively plan and execute IW, especially in drafting and executing long-term country plans.  

6. Excel at IW-related planning, resourcing, execution, and assessment.   Properly developed and executed long-term Theater Campaign Plans, Campaign Support Plans, and Country Support Plans that effectively consider the full spectrum of IW activities at a sufficient level of detail are critical to enable USAF resourcing and manpower processes to effectively address IW-related needs and shortfalls.  Airmen will continually engage in this process with all involved to ensure air, space, and cyberspace power are effectively integrated into these plans.

7. Develop a USAF concept and strategy using general purpose forces to support unconventional warfare.  While UW is a specific competency and mission area of special operations forces, it has been supported by GPF in recent conflicts on an ad hoc basis, a trend expected to continue.  Therefore, it is important that Airmen think through the future use of UW in advance and promote early consideration of airpower as appropriate in joint and interagency thinking by developing a USAF UW concept and strategy.

8. Address USAF shortfalls in conducting direct IW operations.   Nearly all USAF capabilities can be used to conduct or support direct IW operations.  The USAF Service Core Function Master Plans and combatant commander Integrated Priorities Lists describe various shortfalls in the ability of the USAF to conduct effective direct IW operations.  Such shortfalls need to be addressed.    

9. Implement the USAF IW Operations Roadmap FY12-FY16 In October 2012, the CSAF and SECAF signed the USAF IW Operations Roadmap.  This roadmap lists a number of tasks intended to:  (1) achieve the same level of proficiency in IW as conventional warfare; (2) institutionalize IW across the USAF; and (3) address a number of identified materiel and non-materiel IW shortfalls.  Many of these tasks have been completed, but various others are still being worked.  Completing these tasks will improve USAF IW capabilities and operations.

In sum, achieving these initiatives will significantly strengthen the USAF’s ability to support strategic guidance on IW.   They will address materiel and non-materiel shortfalls and improve USAF deliberate, long-term planning for IW.  In addition, these initiatives will influence and improve whole-of-government efforts to build partner capacity, as their success is critical to enabling access to conduct global air, space, and cyberspace operations in the future.  Finally, these initiatives will improve the chances that nations important to American strategic interests will partner with the United States as opposed to strategic competitors.

About the Author(s)

Mort Rolleston is onsite Scitor contractor working in the U.S. Air Force Irregular Warfare Strategy, Plans, and Policy Division. Previously, he spent nearly ten years as an onsite strategic planner for the U.S. Air Force Strategic Planning Directorate, three years as the lead analyst for the Joint Staff's Information Operations Joint Warfighting Capabilities Assessment, and three years as a Legislative Assistant for a Member of Congress.  Mr. Rolleston has an M.A. in Security Policy Studies from George Washington University and a B.A. in Central and Eastern European Affairs from the University of Colorado.

Lt Col Peter Garretson is a transformational strategist at Headquarters US Air Force. He is currently Division Chief of Irregular Strategy, Plans and Policy, where his focus is on how the United States can enhance the legitimacy of partner nations through a whole-of-nation concept called Aviation Enterprise Development (AED), and proactively shape the peacetime Air Domain to deliver positive foreign policy, security, and economic outcomes for the United States and its partners. He has previously served as an Airpower strategist and strategic policy advisor to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force on his Strategic Studies Group, and four years as the Chief of Future Technology for HQ USAF Strategic Planning.  He was the first serving US officer to serve as a visiting fellow at India’s premier strategic think tank, the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis (IDSA) as a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) international affairs fellow. Lt Col Garretson is a former DARPA service chief's intern, Los Alamos National Lab service academy research associate, senior pilot, and winner of the NSS Space Pioneer Award.  Lt Col Garretson helped architect the Air Force Future Wargame Series from 2005-2009, as well as conceiving and executing the first-ever multi-agency deflection and disaster exercise and the first US-UK-France Trilateral strategic workshops.  He was a collaborator in a number of strategic documents, including the 2011 National Military Strategy (NMS), the NSSO Study, the UAS Flight Plan, the Air Force Vision for Learning, Air Force Energy Horizons, DARPA 100 Year Starship, and was the initiator of the Air Force Strategic Environmental Assessment, Air Force Futures Group and Blue Horizons Program.  He has published on a variety of topics including space policy, space strategy, scenario based planning, using Space & Energy to advance to US-India Strategic Partnership, Space-Based Solar Power, Planetary Defense, the role of Science Fiction in Strategic Planning, the Future of Wargaming, Grid Computing, Augmented/Synthetic Reality, and Airpower in US strategy in Asia, and is currently writing a book on a vision and grand strategy for America in Space.


Robert C. Jones

Sun, 12/29/2013 - 4:21pm

I have a great deal of respect for how the Air Force does strategy. But IW is a major challenge for a service that is fiscally "all in" on pointy nosed fighter planes designed for a conflict that may never occur.

There is not much capital (money or personnel) left to invest in the types of platforms that are most effective when confronting IW situations.

Capabilities and capacity for strategic deterrence, strategic lift and IW operational platforms are what we need for the peace we operate within today and into the foreseeable future.

Then there is partnering. Most of the nations with the greatest IW threat have even less interest in IW air capacity than the US does. These are nations that think jet noise is cool and that pointy nosed fighter planes are sexy. They then train to dog fight ala Tom Cruise in Top Gun rather than on how they would actually fight if they ever had to go air to air with another nation. Standing off and firing sophisticated missiles at each other is not sexy or cool.

Then their is industry. Lockheed Martin does not want to sell relatively simple and inexpensive (and effective) IW aircraft when it can sell extremely complicated, expensive (and ineffective) pointy nosed fighter planes instead. This is both to the US Air Force, and all of these foreign partner air forces as well.

So, yes, I see how this AF strategy nests well with our most recent Defense strategic guidance, and I see how it nests within recent USAF strategic products. But what I don't see is how it really helps us get to being able to support IW operations more effectively organically, or how it helps partners who are either already engaged in, or vulnerable to, IW today.

If the authors could help me understand this apparent disconnect between word and deed it would be very helpful.