Air Force to revamp combat aircraft in 10 regional rapid-response teams Move expected to relieve overworked active pilots

August 05, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Air Force announced plans yesterday to turn most of its combat aircraft into 10 teams within the next two years, a major restructuring intended to respond more rapidly to post-Cold War missions and to provide overworked pilots with needed relief.

Acting Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters and Gen. Michael Ryan, the service's chief of staff, told reporters that these teams -- called "Air Expeditionary Forces," or AEFs -- will create a "leaner, lighter and more lethal" Air Force and make greater use of part-time National Guard and Reserve units.

Active-duty pilots have increasingly complained that they are deployed too often to the world's far-flung trouble spots, such as Bosnia and the Middle East. Partly as a result, mid-career Air Force pilots have been leaving in droves for more lucrative jobs in the commercial airline industry.

This year, the Air Force expects to fall 800 pilots short of the 14,000 needed to keep the force at full strength; last year, it was 41 short. In 1996, the Air Force had a surplus of 409 pilots.

"We have wonderful troops who will do all that we ask them to, but we have been asking them to do too much," Peters acknowledged yesterday. The new regional units "will allow more predictability and stability in their lives."

The Air Force has already used bonuses to try to persuade veteran pilots to stay. It is also bringing more recruits into flight training in an effort to fill gaps created by departing pilots.

Besides easing personnel problems, Ryan said, the new AEFs will be able to respond quickly to hot spots or humanitarian missions around the globe. Fighter, bomber and support units from air bases in the United States will be brought together for training tailored for a particular mission.

Between 175 and 225 aircraft will be assigned to each AEF. The overall restructuring will use virtually all the service's combat aircraft. In addition to active-duty, Reserve and Guard pilots, the AEFs will have their own security and medical teams, transportation and supply services.

Each AEF will be on call for a 90-day period every 15 months, with two AEFs on call at any one time. Officials will be able to supply a schedule for training, exercises and operations one to two years in advance, thus providing Guard and Reserve forces, along with their employers, with more notice than they have today.

By the end of the year, the Air Force will decide which bases in the United States and overseas will serve as headquarters for the AEFs.

The need for the AEFs, officials said, resulted from the evolving nature of Air Force missions and the military reductions produced by the end of the Cold War.

During the Cold War, the Air Force operated as a garrison force, focused on containment and operating out of bases in the United States, Europe and the Pacific. But in the past decade, many of those bases have closed.

Meanwhile, since the end of the Persian Gulf war, the number of operations ranging from humanitarian missions to peacekeeping patrols and short combat operations have increased sharply.

Since 1992, for example, the Air Force has taken part in more than 500 humanitarian missions to the former Soviet Union and an additional 100 deployments to Africa.

"This requires an expeditionary approach," Ryan said.

Recently, the Air Force has experimented with creating several AEFs, including one contingent of fighters and bombers that was sent to the Persian Gulf to give area commanders a range of military options.

"Our experiences with AEFs has convinced us that such forces are a far superior way to respond to crises and that we should move forward from ad hoc forces," Peters said.

Pub Date: 8/05/98

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