Let’s face it. It’s time to stop paying only lip service to the idea that people are the most important element in war-fighting.
—Colonel John Boyd, U.S. Air Force, Testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, 1991
In today’s development of future concepts, technology is all the rage. Whether it is the promised third offset, multidomain battle, data-to-decisions, or the Air Force’s Future Operating Concept, future battle concepts not only demand new technology, but are reliant on it. Lost in the discussion is the human element, mentioned in passing in the context of human–machine teaming or treated as a woefully inefficient biological system in need of technological help. This is a conceptual failure of mammoth proportions.
Humans are the primary element of warfare. Traditionally, the strength of U.S. forces, particularly air forces, has been the quality of their personnel, brought about by the intensity and realism of their training. U.S. military personnel forget this at our peril.
The United States has gone down this road before during periods of rapid technology development. In 1957, the Army adopted the “Pentomic Division,” whereby infantry and airborne divisions were reorganized into groups of five battle groups with five infantry companies and support.1 Designed for the nuclear battlefield—where the “old” linear battlefield was too vulnerable and ground forces would need to be distributed—the concept was considered flawed from the outset. The Pentomic Division could neither discharge its primary function nor (presumably) function at the lower end of the conflict spectrum. The Air Force was no better.
The Air War Over Korea
Also consumed with advanced technology, the Air Force nevertheless entered the Korean War with fighters that were inferior to the Soviet MiG-15. This technological imparity—combined with poor doctrine and slack discipline—led to unnecessary losses. It was not until the F-86F Sabre was fielded in 1953, three years into the war, that the United States had an aircraft roughly equivalent in performance.
In the meantime, a core of well-trained, experienced individuals left over from World War II helped balance the scales. Of the 39 aces in Korea, 34 had fought in World War II. As a group, they averaged 2,000 fighter hours—more than a modern fighter pilot can expect in a career. These few individuals accounted for 40 percent of the MiG kills in Korea. It was people who carried the day in the air over Korea.
The Soviets discovered the same thing. The Soviet MiG pilots sent covertly to fight in the war also were veterans of World War II and were almost as dangerous as their U.S. counterparts, achieving a kill ratio of 1.4 MiG-15s lost to every Sabre. As those experienced pilots were replaced by less-well-trained Chinese and Korean aircrews, the kill ratio became more unbalanced, with Communist forces losing six MiGs for every Sabre downed.
By the end of the war, the Air Force had fielded superior aircraft and reinvigorated flight discipline and mutual support, only to throw away the hard lessons relearned for a misplaced focus on nuclear warfare—the warfighting concept du jour. As a result, the United States entered Vietnam with the wrong aircraft for conventional warfare and a crop of pilots who were untrained for the dynamic environment in the air over Indochina. It showed, but institutional dynamics prevented the Air Force from adequately addressing training until 1972.
The response, driven by officers with combat experience now on the Air Force staff, was late but effective. In 1972, the service introduced aggressor squadrons, and by 1975, it had developed the Red Flag exercises to provide realistic, adversary-focused training.2 The approach worked, and it worked well. Still, in the post-Vietnam environment, flying hours were shorted, and training suffered. Not until the Reagan administration was the Air Force able to dig itself out of the training hole.
As 1990 rolled around, the United States had a well-trained force, where the minimum number of hours per year to remain combat-ready was 240, and fighter aircrew regularly flew 300 hours annually. Those were good hours, undiluted by contingency ops, heavy on exercises, and aimed toward the upper end of the mission spectrum. NATO aircrew exercised together—training to go beak-to-beak with the Soviets in Central Europe, in bad weather, under continuous assault, in the face of conventional, nuclear, and chemical weapons.
Exercises were as realistic as possible. In the Salty Demo exercise at Spangdahlem, Germany, Air Force Red Horse engineers built an entire runway and then blew it up to practice runway repair skills under simulated attack. They rebuilt it under simulated combat conditions into Spangdahlem’s alternate launch and recovery surface. That was realistic training.
It showed in Operation Desert Storm, where the United States fielded a well-equipped and superlatively trained force. In a 1991 hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, reform advocate Colonel John Boyd laid out the recipe for success:
If we ask, What does it take to win wars? reformers believe that there are three basic elements, and in order of importance they are: people. Why? Because wars are fought by people, not weapons. They use weapons. Strategy and tactics, because wars fought without innovative ideas become bloodbaths, winnable or not. Hardware, because weapons that don’t work or can’t be bought in adequate quantity will bring down even the best people and best ideas. Now in looking at these three elements, we must keep in mind that the most important element in winning is to have military people that are better than the enemy.3
For all the revisionist focus on the technology elements, the key difference between U.S. forces and their Gulf War adversary was training.
Having successfully mixed the recipe for battlefield success, however, the Air Force immediately slacked off. U.S. fighter squadrons gradually slipped away from the intense training model as flying hours began to drop. By 2014, the average Air Force fighter pilot averaged around 120 flight hours per year. Training became less intense, exercises fewer and less frequent, and the simulated adversary less capable and more generic. The force of Desert Storm had trained to fight the biggest, baddest bear in the forest: Soviet armored divisions pushing west with massive artillery and air support. Today, a greatly diminished force trains to fight rag-tag insurgents driving pickup trucks, although a refocus on major combat operations has been evident in the past few years.
The reason the Air Force is in a readiness crisis today is people: The service is short fighter pilots and maintainers. Aircrew training levels may well be the lowest ever. The problem is fundamentally an underinvestment in training and personnel that goes back more than 25 years and is poised to continue, because all the services consistently undervalue people and overvalue hardware. Readiness has dropped even as equipment has become more advanced—and expensive. Exercises have been canceled or shortened. Training infrastructure has languished. The Air Staff convinced themselves that simulation is as good as the real thing.
People, Ideas, and Hardware
Training deficiencies cost lives. The Navy illustrated that point in 2017 when it lost more people in operational mishaps than all the services combined lost in combat operations. A lack of training costs lives in peacetime and in combat, one way or another.
In Allied Force in 1999, the two primary precision bomb–dropping wings in U.S. Air Forces Europe–Air Forces Africa (USAFE) were the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath and the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base. For around half the aircrews involved, their first time employing live laser-guided bombs was their first combat drop. Mistakes abounded. Targets were missed; weapons were targeted against things they shouldn’t have been. Errant weapons killed civilians. Targets had to be reattacked, at additional risks to the crews. All of this was directly attributable to training cutbacks associated with the “peace dividend.” And the training shortfalls were not limited to the shooters.
During one mission, a flight of two F-15Es could not engage (presumed) Serbian ground-attack aircraft because the French E-3A airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft couldn’t connect the dots to ask for permission. There is plenty of fault to go around, but it should not rest entirely or even mostly on the French crew.
At the time, there were four E-3 detachments supporting the operation. The best were the Royal Air Force’s E-3Ds. They were first-rate controllers who had been continuously operating out of Aviano for years and were familiar with the airspace, the adversary, and their NATO partner capabilities. The U.S. E-3Cs were close behind, in second place only because by 1999 they had been on continuous deployment for nine years and their training opportunities were limited and crews were strained. NATO E-3As came in a distant third, and in fourth place were the French.
The difference was training.
Despite the name, neither the NATO nor the French AWACS trained to be airborne warning and control systems. They trained to be airborne radar posts that reported to other elements that would exercise the “control” function. I flew alongside the French in combat for years, and they are first-rate aviators. When asked to undertake a difficult task they had not trained for, they ponied up and gave it a shot. But the best intentions fall short when undertaking a task for which people are neither trained nor proficient.
So there was a twofold problem: two AWACS providers who did not train to do what they were asked to do, and NATO leaders who, for whatever reason, did not adjust to account for the difference in capabilities between different units. It wasn’t just tactical training that fell short; senior officers were not adequately trained to manage the operational-level fight. What was supposed to be a three-day campaign to compel Slobodan Milosevich to stop slaughtering Kosovar Albanians turned into a 78-day exercise in destruction during which we used precision airpower to bludgeon a minor power into submission.
After Allied Force, the Air Warfare Center established a training facility at Nellis to address the lack of operational-level training. The combined air operations center simulated a distant combat operations cell in live and virtual environments, providing training to air operations center staff. Interest waned, however, and the center was never funded to its full potential. Other priorities remained more important than training.
In the rush to embrace advanced technology, the Air Force (and the Department of Defense writ large) has neglected its most valuable resource: its people. This reached a low point in 2013, when mandatory budget cuts were imposed on a service that was unprepared to take the hit in systems procurement. Not only did the Air Force impose a 13 percent cut in flying hours, but in a woefully ineffective game of chicken with Congress, it stood down 18 of 36 active-duty fighter squadrons—self-inflicted wounds Soviet war planners would have sold their beloved babushkas to achieve in 1988.
To make a bad situation worse, the Air Force followed with a rapid drawdown in 2014, forcing out thousands of experienced maintainers and blowing a hole in the maintenance enterprise. The five-year cut was compressed as much as possible into a year. The reason? Modernization of aging hardware.
The United States consistently has been forced to commit poorly trained and underequipped forces to battle after a long period of neglect. U.S. defeats in the Philippines in 1941, the destruction of the Asiatic Fleet in the first three months of World War II, the stunning defeat at Kasserine Pass, and the disaster of Task Force Smith in Korea in 1950 all can be attributed to the low quality and level of training provided to U.S. forces. In both Korea and Vietnam, Air Force aircraft loss rates, particularly of freshly arrived aircrew, were unnecessarily high.
The Department of Defense needs to look to the future —and its future is people, ideas, and hardware, in that order. Chasing fanciful concepts that purport to do away with fog and friction or that centralize decision-making far from the fight feel great on a PowerPoint slide, but given our spotty record on acquisition programs, we should turn toward training our people to fight under real-world conditions: when information is sparse, conditions uncertain, and the enemy far more adept than we would prefer. People win wars (and lose them), and if we do not let them down, they will not let us down.
1. Sebastien Roblin, “The Mind-Blowing Way America Planned to Fight a Nuclear War against Russia,” The National Interest, 25 February 2017.
2. Red Flag was part of a series of exercises designed to get aircrew through all the stupid mistakes they would make in their first ten combat missions—and to do it in a heavily debriefed environment where mistakes are dissected, analyzed, and corrected. Green Flag is a Red Flag exercise with a heavy electronic warfare emphasis, including live jamming of communications and radars. Maple Flag is hosted in Canada at the Cold Lake Air Weapons Training Range.