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Task Force Concepts of Operations: transforming the USAF. (Features).

Editorial Abstract: Lieutenant Colonel Weaver and Colonel Cain provide an insightful description of the seven operating concepts for transformation--the Air Force approach that complements the Department of Defense initiatives. The concepts work well in the new strategic environment, help codify the expeditionary mind-set, and provide a methodology by which leaders can determine capability requirements and assess shortfalls and risks. The authors also explain why change was needed, the implication of that change, and its progress.

IN FEBRUARY 2001, the United States Air Force began to develop a new operating philosophy to complement Department of Defense (DOD) transformation initiatives. Originally couched under the rubric "Task Force Concepts of Operations (CONOPS)," the philosophy continues its evolution under the slightly revised heading "Operating Concepts." (1) Seven organizing components impart structure to the transformational approach that will ultimately guide Air Force capability-based procurement and operations. Information about the philosophy and its components is slow to filter to service members because of what one staff officer termed the "preexperience and predoctrinal" nature of the concepts. However, after two years of thought and development, outlines of the philosophy are becoming clear enough to merit discussion and explanation among Air Force members.

Rationale for Transformation

Operating concepts appear at this moment because senior Air Force leaders realized that traditional planning and programming methods were inadequate for Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld's transformation emphasis. Before the 11 September 2001 attacks that brought American security policy into sharp focus, the services struggled to understand why they should transform what was arguably the most effective and capable military in the world. The secretary of defense's Office of Net Assessment led the effort to devise the transformation road map until the debate within DOD--about the need for transformation, the scope of transformation initiatives, and the direction that transformation should take--erected an impassable roadblock.

After 11 September 2001, Air Force leaders realized that the conflict spectrum included tasks that their service was ill prepared to accomplish without new procurement practices and force presentation models. Ironically, as the Air Force got on the transformation bandwagon, it found itself engaged in a global war on terrorism, historically unprecedented homeland-defense efforts, and the potential for major contingencies in the Middle East and Northeast Asia. Thus, airmen should rightfully expect that any official statement regarding transformation should reflect the initial reluctance to tamper with an effective and successful combat formula, the urgency of defending a formerly invulnerable homeland, and the anticipation of the most significant and challenging combat mission to come our way in more than a decade.

One compelling imperative for transformation stems from the continually evolving strategic environment's uncertain character. Strategists maintained for nearly a decade that no peer competitor would emerge to challenge US regional or global hegemony until at least 2025--if then. Analysts first suggested that Russia's strategic power-projection capabilities could be revitalized and challenge US interests in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. As Russia continued its decline, however, the likelihood of that possibility became less and less plausible. Gradually theories about a potential clash with an emergent China replaced fears of a revitalized Russia. China's vast territory, equally vast population, and unrealized economic and military potential appealed to those in search of an enemy. A more thorough look at China, however, reveals the distance that country must travel to achieve peer-competitor status in any strategically significant dimension. The next closest candidates for peer competitor status are the democracies of India (with a growing population and a high-tech economic base) and the European Community (with its dramatic economic surge). However, planners are almost required to employ the science-fiction realm to devise a credible scenario that leads to military conflict between either of these candidates and the United States.

Just when consensus seemed to congeal around the realization that American dominance--"reluctant hegemony" as some characterize it--appears set to prevail for the long haul, a host of challenges and a dramatic change in strategic focus emerged. The global war on terrorism seemed to violate deeply held beliefs among US military professionals about how to employ military power. Throughout the 1990s, experience appeared to confirm that short, decisive campaigns, overwhelming military power, and unwavering public support worked together in an almost algebraic way--certainly in an axiomatic way--to produce battlefield success. The war against terrorism violates nearly all of these principles. First, national leaders agree that this conflict has no clearly defined end state or end time. We have no obvious metric for strategic success against enemies with a mesmerizing message that convinces followers from all economic classes to abandon family, money, country, and even life to strike at US ideals and substance. Sec ond, the front lines of the war on terror involve combating ideologies; and ideologies are notoriously immune to the core competencies that soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen so proudly nurture. Special operations forces (SOF) most effectively occupy the front lines of counter-terrorist campaigns to the extent that they are subject to military force at all. Third, public support for such campaigns is notoriously fickle, and may fade if no more terrorist attacks reach American soil. American notions of justice and fair play can drain the energy from a SOF-centric campaign if the public perceives that tactics used to achieve tactical or operational goals--no matter how worthy those goals may be--threaten to tarnish our ideals of justice and honor.

Just as Air Force leaders began to discern outlines of the campaign they faced, the White House introduced one of the most significant national security strategy (NSS) changes in recent memory. The new NSS places greater emphasis on the utility of military power as an instrument of national power. Now military planners must shift their focus from a strategic framework in which the military is a tool of last resort (subordinate to diplomatic, economic, and informational instruments) to one in which military power could play a dominant role--a preemptive role--in US foreign-policy initiatives. In this new role, DOD and service leaders had to shift their attention to providing more expeditionary capabilities than they anticipated as the Cold War faded into history.

Air Force transformation efforts, therefore, needed to confront at least four characteristics of the new security environment. First, a peer competitor will probably not emerge for at least the next 10-15 years. Barring the advent of a competitor's technological leap that fundamentally changes warfare, this leaves the United States and the Air Force in a dominant technological position that discourages a search for radical new operating concepts and technologies. Second, DOD and the services were not satisfied with earlier attempts to revolutionize institutions and technologies presented by the end of the Cold War. Now the proliferation of overseas threats and the urgency of the threat to the homeland dictate a conservative and evolutionary development strategy. Third, because the Air Force experienced nearly a decade of relatively stable but underfunded combat and combat-support force structures, it is not optimized for the expeditionary demands placed on it by the emerging security environment. Fourth, the reality and urgency of present-day threats exert pressure on service leaders to emphasize and nurture contemporary capabilities. The Air Force finds itself mired in an expanding deployment and employment cycle that favors current systems and infrastructure. In other words, the system is under great pressure to perform, which means less emphasis and concern for embarking on a path that aims to produce fundamental technological, institutional, or operational change.

Status--Task Force CONOPS

The Air Force transformation focus produced seven conceptual operating concepts to cope with pressures radiating from the emerging strategic environment discussed above. Operating concepts and CONOPS monikers proved confusing both within and outside the service. The USAF Transformation Flight Plan provided the most complete description of how the operating concepts would lead to transformation. (2) This document linked Air Force transformation initiatives to larger plans under the auspices of the Defense Planning Guidance (DPG) and the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). The USAF Transformation Flight Plan first outlined a clear transformation definition: "A process by which the military achieves and maintains asymmetric advantage through changes in operational concepts, organizational structure, and/or technologies that significantly improve war-fighting capabilities or ability to meet the demands of a changing security environment." (3) This broad definition afforded planners enough guidance and ample maneuve r room to respond to midcourse corrections as senior leaders refined specific goals in response to shifting security demands.

No matter what the details of the specific security concern may be, the transformation approach concentrates on providing a menu of air and space power capabilities to joint force commanders (JFC) as they design operational campaigns. Formerly, the service concentrated on procuring systems to meet a defined threat. According to the emerging philosophy, threat-based planning produced a very capable but inflexible force structure that ultimately struggled to adapt when confronting enemies that did not conform to the characteristics portrayed in the threat assessment. The new approach attempts to match actual and desired capabilities to a risk-assessment process that will assist program decision making. If the Air Force lacks a capability in a certain area, Air Staff CONOPS "champions" and major command (MAJCOM) "flight lead planners" will determine if the continued lack of capability presents significant risk. If the champions and flight leads perceive that the risk is unacceptable, they will recommend that the Air Staff direct the MAJCOM to fund programs to provide the capability. Capability-based planners argue that the approach moves service procurement functions out of a judgment-based, linear mind-set into an analytical-based system that better matches resources to required functions. Additionally, leaders will now be better equipped to defend service procurement decisions within the joint community and before Congress. The operating concepts provide structure for the capability-based analysis designed to transform how Air Force personnel think about purchasing, deploying, and employing air and space power.

The Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force (AETF) Operating Concept forms the basis for providing complete and tailored air and space capabilities to JFC through the remaining six operating concepts. AETF provides an analytical framework for programming decisions that provide operational capabilities to address national security challenges. AETF "prime" functional areas represent a force-in-being that provides the foundation for the deployable air and space expeditionary force (AEF). When Air Force leaders match prime assets to designated AEFs, they represent "core" deployable capabilities. In effect, the AEF core matches air and space weapon systems with available manpower to provide expeditionary forces to jFCs. When a JFC assigns AEF resources to mission taskings, the "mobility" function becomes an essential capability that provides combat and combat-support power to allow the AEF to exert global air and space dominance. Finally, "foundation" capabilities serve as long-term force multipliers to the AEF thr ough education and training, logistics, acquisition, infrastructure, and health care. As all four components (prime, core, mobility, and foundation) come together to respond to security challenges, they form air and space expeditionary task forces that function as integral parts of joint task forces.

The Space and Command, Control, Communications, Computer, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (Space and C4ISR) Operating Concept provides capabilities for real-time information collection and manipulation that reaches across the tactical, operational, and strategic force-employment spectrum. Existing infrastructure remains tied to threat-based information demands. To achieve the expeditionary vision inherent in Air Force transformation philosophy, the Space and C4ISR CONOPS will require significant investments to move from a CONUS-based approach to a lighter, deployable expeditionary approach. As Space and C4ISR capabilities transition from day-to-day deterrence and dissuasion tasks to providing support for more focused war-fighting activities, the emphasis will shift to tailoring capabilities to enhance predictive battle space awareness (PBA) for joint forces that .are engaged. The pace and scope of Air Force transformation relies on integrating timely and accurate information and command and con trol architectures with combat and combat-support capabilities, thus making the Space and C4ISR Operating Concept a critical component of service transformation initiatives.

The Global Strike (GS) Operating Concept received the most attention during its development because of the erroneous assumption that Air Force leaders were creating a mission for the F/A-22. In reality, planners understand that shrinking overseas basing and support infrastructure combined with the proliferation of sophisticated antiaccess systems will constrain the effectiveness of existing capabilities. Thus, GS will involve a full range of capabilities designed to allow joint forces to gain access to the battle space, neutralize antiaccess systems, and affect any adversary's high-value capabilities. Integrating the elements contained in the Space and C4ISR Operating Concept will obviously serve as a key enabling part of CS, as will mobility and sustainment operations. Essential GS capability will center on finding, fixing, tracking, targeting, engaging, and assessing (F2T2EA) adversary antiaccess capabilities, thus allowing follow-on joint and AETF forces to employ combat power across the full range of the theater.

Expeditionary forces capable of rapid, small footprint deployment into areas of strategic and operational interest represent the most significant transformation from the Cold War force in the operating-concept structure. In this area, the Global Response (GR) Operating Concept promises to offer the most important shift in procurement emphasis as service leaders implement the transformation flight plan. CR will present JFCs with rapidly deployable, precise, and decisive capabilities to defend US interests across the globe. CR capabilities most closely resemble those resident in today's SOF, but unlike today's SOF, the CR Operating Concept will integrate strike and support capabilities to provide persistent capabilities ranging from raids to small-scale contingency operations. The defining requirement for CR capabilities centers on rapidly attacking "fleeting or emergent, high-value and high-risk targets by surgically applying air and space power during a narrow window of opportunity." (4) Thus, CR capabilities will provide commanders with an invaluable tool with which to counter terrorists; rogue states; and chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear challenges to national security.

Since 1947, Air Force capabilities and operating concepts have focused on fighting enemies far from our borders. That focus changed on 11 September 2001. The Homeland Security (HLS) Operating Concept contributes to the interagency HLS effort by preventing attacks, protecting critical infrastructure, and responding to physical or cyber attacks that threaten our security and our way of life. This operating concept is perhaps the most difficult to define and implement because air and space capabilities that advance US security and interests against overseas adversaries do not necessarily function in the same ways in the domestic arena. Legal constraints against using military and intelligence-gathering capabilities to support law-enforcement and civil-defense authorities impart a significantly different character to Air Force capabilities and operating concepts as specific scenarios that threaten homeland security emerge.

The Global Mobility (GM) Operating Concept provides the capabilities for giobal power projection. Future force-application scenarios will require a more responsive mobility presence that relies less on established infrastructure and more on tailoring the deployment footprint to effectively meet mission requirements. GM will integrate traditional airlift! air-refueling capabilities with enhanced command, control, ISR, space-based, and sustainment capabilities. The benchmark for CM operations will center on how effectively Air Force forces deploy, base, sustain, redeploy, and shift Air Force and joint forces to meet rapidly emerging threats.

The Nuclear Response (NR) Operating Concept affords the deterrent umbrella under which the other six operating concepts will function. Details of this operating concept remain classified, but the emphasis rests on providing capable, safe, and secure nuclear deterrent forces that can rapidly shift to meet mission requirements defined by national leaders, should deterrence fail.

The structure that the operating concepts provide allows program managers to examine capability requirements under the Capability Review and Risk Assessment (CRRA) process. The CRRA review board advises senior leaders on potential shortfalls in Air Force force structure using capabilities defined by CONOPS champions. Armed with knowledge of the shortfalls and the risk associated with not correcting them, service leaders can choose where to apply scarce resources and funding allocations. Advocates of operating concepts insist that this process will yield a more quantifiable defense of force capabilities than traditional threat-based planning systems while simultaneously affording JFCs with a wider range of capabilities. Advocates argue that from an acquisition management perspective, the new philosophy should protect major systems from gradually deteriorating funds that plague the program objective memorandum (POM) cycle over the life of a weapon system.

Implications for Achieving Transformation

One of the clearest and most compelling reasons for pursuing defense reorganization and change stems from shifts in, and the characteristics of, the new strategic environment. There are clear tensions within the system that require close monitoring and energetic diplomacy, but there are few aggressors who will present overt challenges to the system's status quo. The threat posed by such aggressive states imposes a degree of caution that encourages maintaining current conventional forces and capabilities while gradually fielding new technologies that preserve those forces and capabilities. At a lower level, non-state threats may erode the deterrent value of those forces, thus providing justification for gradually enhancing flexible combat power in a time of relative peace and stability.

A willingness on the part of US leaders and the public to pursue preemptive and even unilateral military action to guarantee domestic, security appears tied to the uncertain character of the international environment. The twin threats posed by conventional and nonconventional actors dictate a cautious and evolutionary approach to military procurement and operational philosophy that simultaneously guarantees dominance and flexibility. To the degree that this assessment matches the realities of the global system, it is a reasonable--even prudent--approach to meeting challenges that emanate from that environment.

The operating concepts provide a degree of focus for Air Force programming and procurement as the service confronts an uncertain and complex strategic environment. Rather than diverting attention and resources to pursuing ill-defined goals or risking institutional stability and identity in organizational reengineering efforts, the new philosophy allows planners to assess risk, identify program shortfalls, and shape programming policies to guarantee that air and space power provides a clearly defined set of capabilities to policy makers and war fighters. Compared to the enthusiasm and outlandish projections of those who push for revolutionary and entrepreneurial change strategies, this approach appears evolutionary and conservative. After nearly a decade of pursuing radical change with little tangible result, however, the service may be justified in adopting a more measured approach designed to enhance service capabilities gradually while preserving an overwhelming advantage in a wide range of combat and comba t-support functions.

If the service intends to achieve the vision inherent in the operating concepts, what can airmen expect in the coming months and years? First, we should witness an aggressive campaign to codify the expeditionary mindset in doctrine and Air Force culture. Like any other doctrinal evolution, this should involve attempts to control the scope and tenor of the debate regarding the state of the art in air and space power theory. Second, since the philosophy focuses much of its energy on the procurement system, reasonable observers should see a new emphasis on promoting and protecting capabilities that reinforce Air Force roles in projecting power in the event of a major war while advertising the utility of the same capabilities in smaller contingencies. Third, related to the degree of emphasis on the procurement system, Air Force members should see a degree of predictability in the POM cycle matched with increasing service leverage with the shrinking base of defense contractors. Fourth, for the next 10 to 15 years we should see an international system that resembles the one we have today in which US air and space power in conjunction with the other components of the joint force dominates the conventional military arena. To the degree that the philosophy accomplishes these outcomes and contributes to maintaining US dominance over the international system, the operating concepts will be judged successful.

Supporting the Transformation Vision

These seven CONOPS are a significant step forward in fulfilling the transformation vision. They focus the drive to reduce procurement cycles and create a new expeditionary mind-set in the Air Force. They also focus efforts to develop and exploit technological advantages because they provide a method of measuring new technology's value. They also provide an important bridge between the old Air Force core competencies and the concept of transformation. They follow the logical conceptual evolution of ideas over the last decade in which discussions centered first on the military technical revolution (MTR), then the revolution in military affairs (RMA), and now transformation. In fact the CONOPS can be seen as one of the first real attempts to give these somewhat ethereal concepts practical life.

However, there are some very real cautions as we move forward. The emphasis on the POM cycle can create near-term operational-innovation blind spots. Stated another way, there are numerous operational innovations that affect only contemporary problems that could be seen as competitors for more long-term transformational goals. The question becomes, Does an investment that produces a marginal improvement in a current weapon system come at the expense of future and potentially transformational systems that are included in the POM? If it does, are the advantages significant enough to warrant changing the plan? While it is dangerous to focus on the present at the expense of a future vision, it can also be equally dangerous to focus on the distant goal and lose sight of the near-term need.

Additionally, the CONOPS support programmatic and technological change but may not provide enough impetus for institutional and doctrinal change. This is an easy trap to fall into because Americans are a technologically oriented people, and the Air Force is the service that is most comfortable with technological solutions to operational and strategic challenges. However, as the MTR and RMA debates of the 1990s demonstrated, real change takes place when institutions and doctrine change. For example, as we seek to support the AETE Operating Concept we must ask ourselves, Is our current structure, from the command level to the individual airman, suited for the new expeditionary mind-set? On the other hand, Does that institutional structure constrain transformation because it reflects a bygone strategic environment? What are the doctrinal implications of supporting CS or GM concepts? And what lessons have we already learned from Operation Enduring Freedom? The operating concepts do not directly drive changes in e ither of these arenas.

Effects of the Evolving Security Environment

The post--Cold War security environment drives planners to favor capability--rather than threat-based planning--as part of a transformational strategy However, the environment presents some significant obstacles. For example, current operations increase the stress on military institutions at the same time that DOD and service leaders demand significant reform. The historical record of reform under pressure is mixed and demands significant leadership attention. There is also a danger in deciding that simply making things happen faster (tightening the observation, orientation, decision, and action [OODA] loop cycle) will lead to success. This OODA loop focus is very much in keeping with the American mind-set; however, there are examples of opponents who achieved equally dramatic successes by protracting or slowing the operational tempo. The evolving situation on the Korean peninsula serves as an example. North Korea's rapidly developing nuclear program dramatically affects our conventional forces' decision cycl e by posing an asymmetric threat. The potential use of such weapons serves as a conventional deterrent. It changes the political balance and the military equation.

There is also a danger that the transformation-vision-and-operating-concept process could create an asymmetric vulnerability. The obvious emphasis on technology and decision cycles opens the way for threats from less technologically sophisticated sources or decision processes that do not depend on speed. The solution to this potential problem rests with institutional and doctrinal change that will lead to unconventional thinking on how best to use the technological advantages that transformation offers. As the technology gap grows, opponents will seek to neutralize that advantage through nontechnical means. History offers numerous examples of devastating success in this area. Rome in the first century A.D. lost three legions in the forests of Germany to an opponent that was organizationally and technologically inferior. Roman advantages in engineering and organized mass warfare proved poorly suited along narrow forest trails that led to the annihilation of an army. The effect of that loss had repercussions th roughout the empire and offers a useful lesson for the world power of the twenty-first century.

The question remains: What organizational and doctrinal changes are needed to support the operating concepts? While answers to this question will require a great deal of work, an outline of the possibilities is emerging. For example, the idea of training the way we fight has been a long-standing Air Force tenet. Now may be the time to consider organizing the way we fight as well. After the end of the Cold War, the Air Force took the lead in an internal command reorganization that better met global strategic challenges. That revolution may now need to be expanded even further to include a reexamination of wing, group, and squadron structures, for example. In the doctrine arena the direction, is less clear. The requirement is to create a doctrine that can take into account the unexpected, the asymmetrical, the required institutional change, and transformation. Historical support for such doctrine will need to be drawn from more distant parallel times such as the first five centuries A.D., the Age of Empire, or the period between world wars in the twentieth century. In any case, operating concepts allow us at least to sketch outlines of supporting institutional and doctrinal change.


Operating concepts are a real attempt to transfer ideas to practice. The long-standing discussion and sometimes-vociferous war over systems is being translated into action that matches the transformation visions of the secretary of defense and the secretary of the Air Force. They will codify processes, procedures, and force procurement plans already under way while beginning the process of educating and indoctrinating the Air Force community into the new expeditionary philosophy. Furthermore, if we are successful, external audiences such as the joint community will recognize airpower as a tool of choice. However, the seven operating concepts are not sufficient to achieve Air Force transformation. They must be accompanied by changes in structure and doctrine that will allow us to make major leaps forward--progress that has been shaped by the air and space power debate over the last decade.


(1.) As we went to press, service leaders had not yet decided on "Task Force concepts of Operations [CONOPS]," or "Operating concepts" as the official name for the transformation architecture, we introduced both terms in this article, which illustrates the dynamic character of Air Force transformation initiatives and adds a degree of justification for providing a "snapshot" of where Air Force transformation efforts stand. For the purposes of this article, "Operating concepts" and "Task Force CONOPS" are synonymous, However, the trend seems to favor using "Operating concepts" as a clearer, more descriptive name for the initiatives.

(2.) Headquarters USAF Transformation Division (HQ USAF/XPXT) The USAF Transformation Flight Plan; FY 03-07, n.d., on-line, Internet, 28 March 2003, available from

(3.) Ibid., iv.

(4.) Air combat command (ACC/XPS), Global Response Task Force CONOPS (ver. 3.0), 25 September 2002, 4. Lt. Col. Larry Weaver, USAF, retired (USAFA; MA, PhD, Indiana University). is a senior analyst for Synergy, a Washington. D.C., based company that supports US military forces around the world. While on active duty, Colonel Weaver served in the Office of the Undersecretary of the Air Force for Strategy and Threat Reduction and ass director of future technologies on the Air Staff. His academic expertise includes serving as a dean at Air Command and Staff College (ACSC) and as an assistant professor of history at the USAFA. His operational experience includes duty as a B-52 pilot. He is a graduate of Squadron Officer School and ACSC.

Lt Col Larry Weaver, USAF, retired (USAFA; MA, PhD, Indiana University), is a senior analyst for Synergy, a Washington, D.C., based company that supports US military forces around the world. While on active duty, Colonel Weaver served in the Office of the Undersecretary of the Air Force for Strategy and Threat Reduction and as a director of future technologies on the Air Staff. His academic expertise includes serving as a dean at Air Command and Staff College (ACSC) and as an assistant professor of history at the USAFA. His operational experience includes duty as a B-52 pilot. He is a graduate of Squadron Officer School and ACSC.

Col. Anthony C. "Chris" Cain (BS, Georgia State University, MAS, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University; MSS. Air War College; MA, PhD, Ohio State University) is the chief of the Professional Journals Division of the College of Aerospace Doctrine, Research and Education (CADRE). Colonel Cain was recognized as the AETC Educator of the Year while serving as a faculty member of Air Command and Staff College (ACSC). While at ACSC, he directed the Theater Air Campaign and the Airpower Studies Courses. In 2002, the Smithsonian Institution Press published his book, The Forgotten Air Force: The French Air Force and Air Doctrine in the 1930s. Colonel Cain's aviation experience includes serving as a B-52 instructor radar navigator and flying 26 missions in Operation Deserv Storm. He is a distinguished graduate of ACSC and a graduate of both Squadron Officer School and the Air War College resident program.
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Title Annotation:U.S. Air Force
Author:Weaver, Larry; Cain, Anthony C.
Publication:Air & Space Power Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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