Airmen as 'light infantry' may hinder AF mission

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Gerald Goodfellow
  • 28th Operations Group
Every couple of weeks I have the pleasure of briefing Ellsworth Air Force Base's newest first-term Airmen. Every time I brief these young Airmen, I make the point that the majority of our day-to-day focus here in the 28th Bomb Wing is to put "Bombs on Target from B-1 Bombers."

However, since Sept. 11 many Ellsworth Airmen have participated in combat operations that do not have anything to do with putting bombs on target from B-1s. In fact, Airmen from across Ellsworth have filled ground force combat gaps and taken part in harrowing firefights and missions in support of ground (mostly Army) forces through "in-lieu-of" taskings. I deeply respect the Airmen from Ellsworth who are, in many cases, heroically supporting our current wars on the ground. It is a fortunate situation that Air Force Airmen can support the joint fight and add to America's security in ways we did not imagine in the past. It is also fortunate for the other services' ground forces that we can "prop up" their capabilities by supporting them through these "in-lieu-of" taskings.

These kinds of taskings are not what most of us expected when we joined the Air Force. However, these are taskings that we are now being given and it is reassuring to me that we, as professional Airmen, will continue to carry them out with the same professionalism and dedication we aspire to when we "put bombs on target" from B-1s. This dedication and professionalism is what makes me feel fortunate to be part of the Ellsworth team and a Service, the U.S. Air Force, which has so selflessly supported these taskings. However, at some point the military community as a whole will need to take a hard look at the "in-lieu-of" taskings concept, and determine if Airmen should continue to perform these kinds of taskings.

I personally hope that all the services are currently striving to organize in a way that will largely prevent Air Force personnel from conducting "in-lieu-of" taskings in the future. This is because I do not believe the Air Force should be in the business of fighting combat operations on the ground. For example, although today it is a necessity, I do not believe in the long-run any Army or Air Force general officer will determine that it is in America's best security interests to continue to have Airmen driving trucks in Army convoys. As Air Force Doctrine Document 1 points out, the role of the Air Force spelled out by law in the National Security Act of 1947 is to "Organize, train, and equip aviation forces for prompt and sustained offensive and defensive air operations. This basic charter has essentially remained unchanged to the present."

America has branches of the service that specialize in ground combat and those services should perform those roles as directed by law just as the Air Force should perform its roles as directed by law. Ground warfare is not a role of the Air Force beyond some very specialized duties all of which are spelled out in Air Force doctrine, which include: force protection of air assets on the ground where they are most vulnerable, special operations to enhance air warfare, civil engineering functions (to include combat engineers), etc.

The last sentence of the current Air Force mission statement boils down very succinctly what I hope we continue to concentrate on in the Air Force: " fly and fight in Air, Space, and Cyberspace." I believe our piece of that mission here at Ellsworth is flying and fighting from B-1s, and meeting our additional Air Force responsibilities to man expeditionary Air Force units with expeditionary combat support forces to support the larger overall Air Force mission. Ideally, I believe everybody stationed at Ellsworth from the wing commander to the Airmen in civil engineering, maintenance, flight kitchen, personnel, bomb squadrons, etc., should be stationed at Ellsworth to support our B-1 and expeditionary combat support mission. I do understand that Airmen at Ellsworth will continue to fill "in-lieu-of" taskings for the foreseeable future. However, I also hope we can support these taskings without diminishing B-1 or Air Force capabilities. In fact, anybody who seriously considers combat for a living realizes the Air Force's importance to the joint fight, and would never want to see Air Force capabilities diminished. In a nutshell:

"Who controls the air controls the fight. When all the sterile debates between Soldiers and Airmen are set aside, this hard reality remains. It has been more than fifty years since U.S. forces faced an enemy willing and able to contest control of the airspace over the battlefield. We can't count on that condition to endure automatically. Were it to change, the offensive rapidity demonstrated so vividly in this war would become virtually infeasible. The Army and Marine Corps thus have a vested interest in the continued unchallenged superiority of their Air Force, Navy, and Marine Air partners, and acknowledging that interest needn't and shouldn't be seen as undermining their own strategic importance."

The above statement from the April 24, 2003 Washington Post was written by retired Col. Richard Sinnreich during the first weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom. What makes the statement so compelling is the fact that Colonel Sinnreich is not an Air Force officer but a former Army officer, who served at the Army's School for Advanced Military Studies, as its director between 1985 and 1987. SAMS is perhaps the Army's premier school for training officers with the abilities to solve complex war related problems.

In America's current wars the Air Force has found itself in a situation where it, in effect, has to pay for and train its Airmen to serve ground duty (a form of "light infantry", to quote Gen. Ronald Keys, Air Combat Command commander) and then pay to supply that light infantry with items from bullet proof vests to armored vehicles to keep them safe. In the future I hope the Air Force can stop doing this because I, like Colonel Sinnreich, believe the Air Force and our nation have a vested interest in retaining the ability to gain and maintain air superiority in our future wars. Further, I believe the Air Force should spend its money on capabilities that will ensure future air dominance. When the Air Force loses manpower or defense money because it has to fill unanticipated gaps in sister service capabilities, the Air Force is put at a disadvantage when it comes to modernizing its own capabilities.

I find myself in a dilemma when it comes to "in-lieu-of" taskings. I'm so very proud when I hear the stories of the firefights and tough ground combat that Ellsworth Airmen are performing as part of their "in-lieu-of" service. However, I also understand that supporting non-Air Force roles for prolonged periods could in the long run prove detrimental to the Air Force and America's overall security. This is why it is so important that we at Ellsworth continue to find ways to work smarter to fulfill our "bombs on target" mission while we continue to support the other kinds of taskings we receive.