Features | Security

Time for Airpower Diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific

The U.S. Air Force should use airpower development teams to build relations in the regions.

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Time for Airpower Diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific

With the Department of Defense (DoD), U.S. Pacific Command, and the services scaling back and cutting outreach and engagement efforts as they try to protect core missions in the wake of sequestration, now may be the time for the Air Force to look east and boldly undertake an expanded airpower diplomacy effort in the region. While some may suggest that the Air Force should hunker down and preserve its “core missions,” it is in tough times like these that the best solution is to innovate—not retrench. Continuing to focus on the Asia-Pacific, as the Obama administration is committed to doing, should provide the Air Force an opportunity to zero in on what matters most for the service to effectively accomplish its missions across the region.

What is becoming increasingly clear for many within the Air Force, and perhaps the other services, is that the types of alliances and defense agreements that marked the post-World War II American approach to Europe will not work for the Asia-Pacific. While many countries in the region see the United States as a source of stability and the U.S. military as a reliable partner, culture, history, and domestic populations are unlikely to support an American defense posture in the region that antagonizes China. Thus, American airmen are now seeking to highlight airpower diplomacy and its associated capabilities as a way to overcome the reticence that is often palpable in many Asian capitals. While many of these soft power capabilities are nothing new, they have often received too little recognition because, admittedly, they are the least “sexy” missions the USAF performs and do not offer a clear counter to a rising China.

However, it is through airpower diplomacy that the U.S. Air Force will, in many cases, advance American interests in the Asia-Pacific, build new relationships with potential partners, and strengthen enduring friendships and alliances. As any student of effects-based operations understands, achieving American objectives does not always call for the defeat of an adversary. Sometimes diplomacy will do the trick.

With that in mind, we argue that the USAF should borrow from the Army National Guard’s experience in Afghanistan in devising a strategy for using airpower diplomacy to achieve its objectives in the Asia-Pacific.

Strategic Guidance

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The new Department of Defense strategic guidance, published in January 2012, calls for American forces “to build the capacity and competence of U.S., allied and partner forces for internal and external defense” while also acknowledging that “a reduction in resources will require innovative and creative solutions” to accomplish this task.  As the U.S. seeks to become the global “security partner of choice,” it faces an increasingly constrained fiscal environment in Asia and around the globe. Thus, the 2012 strategic guidance highlights the critical importance of developing “innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives” (Emphasis in original). From the U.S. Air Force point of view, a key role in the Internal Defense and Development (IDAD) mission in Asia is Aviation Enterprise Development (AED), which is defined, in part, as “infrastructure development that considers the civilian aviation sector and the military/security aviation sector of a nation as mutually supportive systems of an integrated air domain in developing nations.”

The “Total Force” as Example

As the U.S. Air Force’s leadership formulates a vision and strategy for Aviation Enterprise Development—called for in the U.S. Air Force Irregular Warfare Roadmap—the realities of Asia’s military and political dynamics will force leadership to confront the challenges that are certain to arise in attempting to meet requirement for IDAD partner-nation capacity building. Currently, Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) is establishing the capacity to train and advise partner-nation aviation units to accomplish the IDAD mission for the Asia-Pacific and globally. However, a “total force” solution should include the National Guard and Reserve components, which provides a tremendous reserve of latent aviation expertise. Indeed, this pool of talent could be mobilized for partner aviation-enterprise development by adapting an already existing and highly effective model: the National Guard’s Agribusiness Development Teams (ADTs).

The National Guard initially developed the ADT concept to respond to capacity building and agriculture development needs in Central America during the late 1980s. It later adapted the concept and employed the first ADT to Nangarhar province, Afghanistan in February 2008.  An ADT from the Texas National Guard arrived in Ghazni province shortly thereafter and have continued to be deployed to the country ever since. With Afghanistan still an agrarian economy, the goal of deployed ADTs is the "revitalization of the agribusiness sector” through the “immediate agricultural expertise” of ADT members gained through their civilian careers. Translating this model from agriculture to airpower is a natural fit and the developing aviation sectors of American friends and partners in Asia is an equally appropriate place to focus such airpower diplomacy.

National Guardsmen selected for duty with an ADT are expected to have expertise in one or more agricultural specialties, such as "traditional farming, horticulture, pest management, irrigation, animal husbandry, [or] food processing…” Moreover, ADTs were partnered with land grant colleges and universities from their home state, providing each ADT with reach-back capability to address challenging agricultural issues. Appropriate skills and reach back also exist within the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve.     

The model proved so successful in positively impacting the critical economic center of gravity in Afghanistan that Missouri and Texas continued to rotate new teams into their respective provincial areas of operation, with Missouri ultimately deploying six consecutive ADTs. At least 14 other states sent ADTs to Afghanistan between 2008 and 2013, with as many as nine different ADTs operating in Afghanistan at a time in 2010 and 2011.

As a means of improving the U.S. Air Force’s engagement capacity across the Asia-Pacific, asking the National Guard Bureau to expand the ADT model to create Aviation Enterprise Development Teams (AEDTs) is worth examining. If created, AEDTs would be a Joint Army/Air National Guard effort that could leverage the civilian skills of guardsmen and reservists to impact a key economic center of gravity for Asian nations. Not only could the Air Force expand its airpower diplomacy activities across the region, but it could focus on Asia-Pacific nations that it does not have an existing relationship with through the National Guard State Partnership Program..The aim in this case would be to provide unique capacity-building capabilities to combatant commanders as authorized under Title 10 of the U.S. Code.

Given the wealth of both military and civilian aviation expertise embedded throughout the Guard and Reserve, it is uniquely suited to accomplish the vital, yet atypical, AEDT mission. Experience shows Agricultural Development Teams provide battle-space owners a robust counterinsurgency and state legitimacy-enhancing tool while quantifiably improving local conditions and governance. AEDTs would accomplish similar tasks while providing the immediate ways and means of accomplishing the desired ends described in the latest USAF Global Partnership Strategy.

Undoubtedly, aviation enterprise development is complex. However, the reach-back resources of AEDTs would include not only institutions of higher learning, but also federal and state security and law enforcement that operate light aviation, such as the Civil Air Patrol, Federal Aviation Administration, and Department of Homeland Security. AEDTs would also likely have relationships with the Department of Commerce, development organizations, and aviation educational institutions from their respective states. These extensive reach-back resources, in addition to the fixed-wing and rotary-wing expertise of AEDT members, would offer an enabling capability to address the undoubtedly thorny aviation infrastructure issues faced by many of the Asia-Pacific’s developing nations.

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In a rapidly changing geostrategic environment, the U.S. defense guidance has put a premium on the importance of building cooperative security relationships with Asian partners. This concept, which is at the heart of the USAF Global Partnership Strategy, could be powerfully advanced with the creation of AEDTs. Broadening the AEDT concept to utilize the broad aviation enterprise expertise of the U.S. Air Force and, to a more limited degree, the U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard, AEDTs have the potential to foster relationships between the U.S. and strategic Asia-Pacific partner-nations. In the end, enhancing the aviation capability and capacity of these nations in a manner that is cost effective for the United States may do more for furthering American interests in the region than the acquisition of a few more costly aircraft.