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Air Force stepping out of comfort zone.

Throughout the blue-suit community, there is an undeniable and growing recognition that the Air Force is changing, not just by design, but also in an effort to adjust to these tumultuous times.

The shift so far is subtle but possibly consequential. It is about making the Air Force less about fighter jocks and more about intelligence specialists, "battle management" experts and unmanned aircraft operators. It is about giving airmen and women more "expeditionary" combat skills, and training them to run truck convoys alongside soldiers and Marines.

Offering further substantiation that the Air Force is stepping out of its comfort zone is the recently released videogame, "USAF: Air Dominance." The game, intended to woo young recruits, purposely was created to illustrate to prospective airmen that the Air Force has more than just glamorous dog-fighting jet pilots.

"We want to show that there are other things out there, like unmanned air vehicles and cargo planes," Sgt. Marv Daugherty, with the Air Force Recruiting Service, told National Defense. The game lets potential recruits pilot the premier F-22 air-superiority fighter, operate a Predator UAV and fly a C-17 transport plane on a humanitarian relief mission.

"Our Air Force is different," asserted Lt. Gen. Donald K. Wetekam, deputy chief of staff for installations and logistics.

With the Army strapped by the hectic pace of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force needed to step up to the plate, he noted. "We are providing 25 percent of the Army's convoy support in Iraq," said Wetekam. "It's not one of our traditional missions, but it demonstrates the flexibility of our airmen."

These developments also go hand-in-hand with the latest move by the Air Force to rebalance its mix of active-duty and reserve forces. The Reserves and Air National Guard gradually will see their fighter squadrons downsize in favor of missions that are considered more pertinent to the U.S. war on terrorism.

Many Guard units currently operate aircraft that are more than 30 years old. This opens up a window of opportunity for tactical fighter wings to transition to other "new relevant missions areas," said Lt. Gen. Daniel James III, director of the Air National Guard. These new areas include space, command-and-control, intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance. The service, for example, plans to increase the number of Predator squadrons in the years ahead. A growing percentage of UAV operators are likely to be guardsmen, and they will support regional commanders around the world from tactical operations centers in the United States.

"This is a way of transforming the Air Force," James told reporters.

Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said he was pleased to see the "big, bold" steps taken by the Air Force.

"The Air Force has to deliver certain capabilities so that the Army can be a joint expeditionary force," Blum said at a Pentagon news conference. In light of the Bush administration's announcement last year that thousands of Army troops based overseas would move their home bases stateside, ground forces will become more dependent than ever on the Air Force for logistics and transportation. "The Air Force will have to reconfigure its organization, capabilities and technology," Blum said.

So far, Blum added, he is encouraged by the Air Force's actions. "As an Army customer, I am extremely excited and energized by these changes," he said. "The Air Force didn't take safe steps."

Gen. Donald G. Cook, head of the Air Education and Training Command, already has a plan to boost "expeditionary combat skills" service-wide, beginning in basic training for enlisted personnel and extending throughout officer career courses.

"We have to define what skills our airmen need," he said. "Our challenge is developing a culture of expeditionary airmen."

Another critical piece of the transformation is to become more efficient, said Wetekam. The Air Force currently is spending way too much money on non-combat functions, such as maintaining installations and keeping up an aging aircraft fleet.

Against a backdrop of possible budget cuts, the Air Force will need to find ways to slash costs, or it will risk losing its combat edge, cautioned Wetekam. Enemies such as Al Qaeda know that they can win by forcing the United States to spend itself into financial ruin, he said. "Part of the enemy's strategy is to bankrupt us and our ability to carry out the war on terrorism."

In the logistics and maintenance fields, he added, "there is tremendous amount of waste inherent in what we do." Business reform efforts such as "lean" methods of running air logistics depots have yielded savings, but that is not enough, Wetekam said. "I don't believe we have a standard model for process improvements. We are doing that in the logistics community, but I'd like to see that across the entire U.S. Air Force."

It remains to be seen whether the ongoing transformation efforts of the Air Force will result in a permanent makeover. Although officials pledge that, no matter what, the cultural underpinnings of the service will not change.
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Title Annotation:Defense Watch
Author:Erwin, Sandra I.
Publication:National Defense
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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