The United States has refocused its strategic priorities in an oft-talked about “Pivot to Asia” and has made a deliberate decision in new defense strategic guidance not to size the military for large scale counter-insurgency operations, but instead to posture to deter conflict in Asia where there is a clear anti-access, area-denial threat. Such a shift has implications and raises questions about the appropriateness of retaining force structure and concepts developed for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan across all the military services.
Since fiscal reality dictates that the United States must downsize its military and focus on a more limited set of priorities, is it appropriate for the United States Air Force to create and sustain an institutional irregular warfare capability?
If the key strategic pre-occupation of the United States in the forthcoming decades is maintaining a force posture credible to defeating aggression on the high-end of the spectrum in Asia, what is the place of irregular warfare?
And what are the changes required to make the fundamental components of Air Force irregular warfare – air advising, air diplomacy and aviation enterprise development – more aligned with larger U.S. strategies?
An institutional Air Force irregular warfare capability directly supports U.S. foreign policy objectives in the Asia-Pacific and represents an asymmetric strength the envy of our competitors. Institutionalization of USAF irregular warfare capability is important, because it supplies exactly the sort of “low-cost, innovative” strategies called for in the defense strategic guidance and provides a tool to address the larger deeper problem: shaping the conditions for continued advantage.
America’s problem in Asia is more than just maintaining a favorable balance of military power. Such a balance is certainly critical to regional stability and global security. Asia is, after all, the heart of the global economic engine of growth, and it is U.S. military strength that ensures customary freedom of navigation in the global commons and deters newly powerful states from using force to settle conflicting claims. Asian states appreciate the positive historic role the United States has played over the past 50 years, but some hand wring about the ability of the U.S. to continue to play that role. While the importance of maintaining military balance is undeniable, the larger challenge is a competition for leadership, legitimacy and influence. Legitimacy is dependent on the actions available to the U.S. to continue to be perceived as present, committed and the security partner of choice.
The great military theorist Carl von Clausewitz enjoined that “war is politics by other means.” But the strategic competition in Asia, if well managed, is likely to be one of posture and deterrence rather than war. Rather, the United States might instead consider the rejoinder of China’s first premier, Zhou Enlai, that “All diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means,” and realize that the strategic competition between great powers takes place against a backdrop where competing interests struggle for influence and legitimacy within their own states; the realm of irregular warfare.
According to Joint Publication 1, Doctrine of the Armed Forces of the United States, irregular warfare is a “struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s). IW favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capacities in order to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will.”
And Asia – Southeast Asia, South Asia, North Asia, and Central Asia – all feature non-state actors who seek to erode the legitimacy of various states. Each of those should be considered dangers and opportunities to U.S. and global security. Any such conflict could flare into a crisis, triggering instability that undermines the global economic system or presenting the threat of a failed state with all its attendant costs to blood and treasure. Such internal conflicts can be used by one power against another to distract, entangle and undermine the stability of their partners. Each internal conflict creates an opportunity for a “preferred security partner” to fill a vacuum, and provide critical opportunities that build sympathy and lay the groundwork for access.
All the great powers seem to understand that the game in Asia is about more than just deterrence, but influence. Take for example the recent piece by Yan Xuetong titled “How China Can Defeat America” where he the author states:
“To shape a friendly international environment for its rise, Beijing needs to develop more high-quality diplomatic and military relationships than Washington. No leading power is able to have friendly relations with every country in the world, thus the core of competition between China and the United States will be to see who has more high-quality friends. And in order to achieve that goal, China has to provide higher-quality moral leadership than the United States. China must also recognize that it is a rising power and assume the responsibilities that come with that status. For example, when it comes to providing protection for weaker powers, as the United States has done in Europe and the Persian Gulf, China needs to create additional regional security arrangements.”
Of course it isn’t a zero-sum game, and the U.S. welcomes a China that assumes the responsibilities with status. But the U.S. shouldn’t remove itself from the competition to remain the security partner of choice, and it doesn’t have to. This form of competition plays to America’s asymmetric strength, and Yan himself acknowledges: “America enjoys much better relations with the rest of the world than China in terms of both quantity and quality. America has more than 50 formal military allies, while China has none. North Korea and Pakistan are only quasi-allies of China.
In the competition for security cooperation and building partnerships, the U.S. has another asymmetric advantage: It’s an air-faring nation with an Air Force than can bring constructive effects. While understood by few, “boots on the ground” is not the only opportunity to help friendly governments in irregular warfare. The last decade of sustained warfare has given the United States Air Force (USAF) a tremendous opportunity to collect important lessons on how Airpower – both military and civil – can enhance the legitimacy of partner states. What is required now is to take the lessons, processes, education, training and guidance learned in contingency operations, and institutionalize them as part of how the USAF interacts in the pre-conflict phase (“Phase 0”) of building partnership capabilities and capacities. This form of engagement doesn’t require large numbers of boots on the ground, armed and visible to the populace, but it does require a few “brains on the ground” who are properly prepared to interface with their host nation counterparts.
Using air forces in this manner is a surprisingly effective strategy. The nation gains significant access and influence via its engagements abroad, yet the entire “building partnerships” portfolio amounts to less than half a percent of the USAF budget.
USAF involvement in irregular warfare operations has long conjured up images of long-loitering drones firing missiles at insurgents among external audiences. But such an image betrays a deep lack of understanding of the breadth of how airpower contributes to influence and legitimacy, and even more so about how Airmen understand irregular warfare. Particularly under conditions where fiscal or political constraints limit the introduction of U.S. ground forces, USAF advice and assistance can empower a legitimate government to employ the benefits of airpower to control its skies, diagnose the situation on the ground and respond to situations on the ground with the unparalleled speed aircraft provide. That response could be the rapid movement of indigenous forces to protect a village or reinforce a town. But equally likely is the movement of government officials or aid workers or humanitarian assistance, extending the services and legitimacy of government.
When airmen look through the lens of irregular warfare, they seek to consciously use airpower in the service of legitimacy – at the tactical, operational and strategic levels: to enhance the legitimacy of partner nations, to bolster U.S. legitimacy in alliance relationships and to advance U.S. legitimacy on the field of global strategic competition. The irregular airpower strategist recognizes that the strength of airpower isn’t only in its responsiveness, but in its long-term contribution to a nation’s integrity, thus the contribution of airpower isn’t only in the kinetic realm, but in the moral sphere as well. What’s distinctive about this outlook is that it fundamentally recognizes the elements of time and relationship building, and the centrality of building partnerships and building partners’ capacities, not as an afterthought, but as a fundamental element to strategy at all levels.
Every friendly state whose capacity can be advanced to where they can provide for their own internal defense, patrol their own skies and coasts, defend their own airspace is one less opportunity to be a failed state or an easy target of aggression, and one less potential crisis that would cost America its sons and daughters. Every friendly state which can provide for its own security can become a net security provider, and contribute capabilities for regional response that allows burden sharing. By proving ourselves to be a reliable security partner in the Asia-Pacific, we enhance our own access; thus, edging out strategic competitors and complicating their anti-access strategies. But being the security partner of choice goes beyond deployments that just prove our presence and resolve to defend our partners’ security to include meaningful planning to enhance our partners’ capacity for self-help.
Central to this mindset of using airpower as a constructive tool of foreign policy in developing nations are the concepts of aviation enterprise development and air diplomacy.
Adam Lowther defines air diplomacy as “a concept broadly understood to encompass the use of airpower for diplomatic purposes…Ranging from humanitarian relief operations to ‘train, advise, and equip’ programs, the U.S. Air Force offers the President options for the conduct of American diplomacy that are rarely duplicated elsewhere in government,” and notes that “Because airpower is characterized by speed, range and flexibility, policy makers frequently call on the Air Force to conduct ad hoc and permanent diplomatic missions.” The required change is to make the deliberate use of air diplomacy more purposeful, and more aligned to our larger strategies. The Air Force must not just figure out how “innovative low-cost approaches” can accomplish rotational presence to reduce costs, but how such rotations can be used to deliberately advance long term U.S. foreign policy objectives.
A key expression of air diplomacy in developing nations is the deliberate use of air forces to conduct aviation enterprise development, which the 2012 Air Advising Operating Concept defines as “the sum total of all air domain resources, processes, and culture, including personnel, equipment, infrastructure, operations, sustainment, and air-mindedness.” What does that mean? Simply this: you can build 6,000 feet of asphalt at the end of a road, and you’ve gone a mile down the road. Build 6,000 feet of runway, and you have connected yourself to a global network of commerce.
But to operate that runway and the airplanes that advance a society sustainably, aviation know-how is required. Over the past decade of experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, the USAF has built extensive expertise on how to properly mate technical and cultural expertise through air advisors to develop real and lasting capability. That’s a capability we need to adapt to purposefully serve our new grand strategy in Asia. Properly done, there are an extensive array of capabilities and benefits from aviation enterprise development and the associated air advising that enhance a partner nation’s security, trade, education, development and set the conditions for broader cooperation and commerce. Properly tuning the USAF’s production of Air Advisors will require USPACOM and other combatant commands to consider and communicate a “demand signal” for aviation enterprise development and air advisors in their country plans.
Advocates of institutionalizing irregular warfare in the Air Force are less concerned with advocating for an alternate force structure than they are about a broader understanding of how to employ airpower. Irregular warfare strategy is less about buying platforms than it is about using existing platforms and capabilities in unique ways. Institutionalizing it means educating, enabling, and organizing airmen as enduring capabilities to assist developing nations’ air forces in a way that supports maximum U.S. whole-of-government contribution to enhance foreign policy freedom of action and security. Advocates want to see the necessary guidance, schools, processes and incentives put in place that will enable the USAF to play this role in a purposeful, deliberate manner.
Such a purposeful, deliberate effort will require a small but meaningful number of institutional changes to ensure the United States Air Force is properly postured to prevail in the contest for influence in Asia-Pacific. While the air diplomacy and aviation enterprise development are executed by the respective combatant command, their success depends on the adequacy of the airmen and forces presented to them and how successfully they have been organized trained and equipped, and that requires leadership and policy from the headquarters of the Air Force.
USAF professional military education will have to adapt if it is to enable both the general purpose airman and career air advisors with regional expertise. There’s a need to create content and courses for planning long-term (5, 10 and 20 years) “phase 0” operations that emphasize a range of options beyond mere foreign military sales. Such courses need to target Regional Affairs Specialists (RAS) and planners in the Combatant Commands (USPACOM, etc.) and component air staffs (PACAF) to ensure those options are captured in regional and country plans. The USAF will need to begin planning to create regional affairs specialists and area-focused PhD-level education not purely on existing slots to fill, but upon a global strategy that anticipates where such capacities might be needed at least a full decade in the future. The USAF will also have to change how it tracks and understands its airmen’s capabilities – choosing to value air advisory skills enough to track them and manage the career development of select airmen to make them available for these roles.
As the USAF revises its Air Expeditionary Force, it will have to make certain changes to its incentive structures – removing the systemic disincentives from forming long-lasting relationships with foreign military members and the overly strict rules for permissive temporary duty and creating new incentives. Such new incentives might involve establishing a compensation system for unique skill sets (such as flying and maintaining light aircraft) that are necessary to assist developing air forces, and perhaps, creating a web-based “market” that allows us to match individual interests to needs. Lastly, it will mean a decision to create planning tools that allow the USAF to understand and plan effects against influence networks in the same way it can plan kinetic effects against industrial webs.
If the U.S. Air Force is willing to institutionalize the necessary mindset and incentive structures, it will provide the nation with a difficult-to-beat foreign policy tool.
Rather than distract from the new defense priorities, an effort to institutionalize irregular warfare capabilities into the Air Force supports it. In an age of fiscal austerity, airpower can be a powerful tool to advance U.S. foreign policy, enhancing legitimacy of the U.S. as a security partner and empowering our partners to provide security to their own populations. An air force so configured is just what the nation requires to prevail in the contest for influence and access in Asia-Pacific.
Peter Garretson is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force and the Division Chief, Strategy, Plans & Policy for Irregular Warfare at HQ USAF. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. military.