How The U.S. Air Force Wants To Change Its Deployments
Here’s a simplified version of how the U.S. Air Force currently deploys its combat aircraft: F-22s are needed in the Pacific, so a squadron is selected from one of the main home bases and deploys to a large, established installation in the region.
At that location, thousands of support personnel are either there on a multiple-year-long assignment crowdsourced from across the service without working together before for a short-term cycle.
But this scheme is not going to cut it for a future conflict, Air Force leaders argue, so they are planning an overhaul over the next couple of years. The architect of this plan, Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, the service’s assistant chief of staff for operations, says there will be some pain at first but it is needed.
“It is going to be a little uncomfortable for a few years, but the alternative is not doing anything, which is unacceptable,” Slife says.
This is the new plan: That F-22 unit, for example from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, will be tapped to deploy. The Air Force will gather a smaller required number of personnel from Langley—maintainers, weapons loaders, etc.—to be part of a new Air Task Force (ATF). That ATF will also include personnel needed to run a base—security forces, civil engineers, logisticians, etc.—from Langley or other bases nearby. For about 12 months before a deployment, they will all come together, train and exercise before the six-month deployment. Instead of crowdsourcing personnel from across the entire service, the ATF plan seeks to form a coherent team before going downrange, where they will be able to run small operating locations independent of the support of a major base.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall announced this plan during a speech earlier this month at the Air and Space Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference. This is part of a broader “reoptimization” of the service for a new, large conflict against an adversary such as China. The current model, optimized for Middle East operations from large bases, is not applicable for the service’s Agile Combat Employment model of moving small numbers of aircraft and personnel around to avoid being targeted.
“The threat had changed so fundamentally from what we’ve been used to for 30 years that a reevaluation of how we’re postured relative to that threat, in terms of how we generate readiness and how we optimize again for great power competition, was merited,” Kendall said in a Sept. 12 interview at the conference.
Kendall announced the creation of three ATFs that will deploy in 2025 to pilot the model—two to the Middle East and one to the Indo-Pacific.
In a follow-up interview Sept. 20 at the Pentagon, Slife laid out how the units will be structured and their timeline. The Air Force in 2019 announced the creation of a new deployment cycle, known as Air Force Force Generation (AFFORGEN). Under this system, service members go through four six-month cycles, known as “bins.” The first is at home bases, where aircrews are training and support personnel are doing daily routines of their jobs—security forces checking IDs, cooks helping at dining facilities, etc. The next bin is for preparation, where the personnel are starting to train for combat deployments—security forces focusing less on ID checking and instead training for protecting a combat location. Aircrews are starting to focus on specific scenarios around a region they will deploy to. Following that is another six month “ready” phase in which these forces will be participating in high-end, intense training such as a Red Flag exercise. Lastly, there is the six-month deployment.
Slife says the ATF will include a group of about 50-55 personnel in a support element charged with supporting the flying unit. After the initial phase at home base, these personnel will be plucked from their units to go to the ATF and start to get acquainted with each other. Under the service’s Multi-Capable Airmen (MCA) approach, this means learning additional jobs: Forklift drivers learning how to set up tactical radios, radio techs learning how to fire weapons, security forces learning how to set up expeditionary kitchens. The next six months will have the ATF participating in Red Flag-type exercises before the deployments.
In the case of the Langley F-22 example, not enough personnel will be available from that local base, so it will mean taking personnel from other bases in the region. Airmen from North and South Carolina, for example, will need to relocate to Virginia. Once deployed, the smaller team will be able to quickly move around different locations to run operations independent of a major base.
The new requirement has raised some concern from commanders across the service who are hesitant to give up personnel, especially in jobs that are understaffed. Slife says the Air Force has an analytical understanding of how many people are needed to run a base at an acceptable level and can plan around that. However, there will be some struggles at first.
“The alternative is to not change, and I don’t think the environment that the current model has been optimized for is the environment we’re going to find ourselves in in the future,” he says. “The current model works where you’re going to large main operating bases, fixed, largely free from adversary pressure or attack ... I don’t think our model survives in a higher-intensity scenario.”
Since the rise of MCA, there has been a concern of personnel being forced to do more with less and take time away from their main jobs. Slife pushes back on that idea, saying the goal is to have them singularly focus on their combat roles instead of a daily routine of running a base.
After the initial pilot deployments in 2025, the Air Force thinks it could be a model with broader applicability and could become the basis for how all rotational forces are organized going forward.
That said, “it is too soon to tell,” Slife says. “We need to learn whatever lessons we learn from this.”