February 1, 2008  

The rebirth of the Outback Air Force

The U.S. Air Force, which has built partnerships with the air forces of developed countries, is now forging links with those of less-developed countries. The service has added air force leaders of those nations, such as those in Africa, to the meeting list of its highly successful series of worldwide Air Chiefs of Staff conferences.

Countries in these remote regions are where Islamic extremists and other terrorist groups attempt to set up base camps from which to attack the U.S. and its allies. The Air Force is also shifting its exchange programs to the lesser-developed nations and bringing more people from these countries to Air Force bases for training. These partnership initiatives are improving the Air Force’s ability to execute the vital air power piece of the foreign internal defense (FID) mission in some of the most remote regions of the Earth.

The Joint Staff defines FID as “participation by civilian and military agencies of a government in any of the action programs taken by another to free and protect its society from subversion, lawlessness and insurgency.” These missions are generally long-term and include many of the soft skills of nation building, as opposed to focusing on direct-action missions, such as commando raids, which are done by sophisticated special operations forces often supported by select general-purpose forces.

In addition to these networking initiatives, the Air Force is expanding two major operational efforts that will increase its ability to build partnerships in these parts of the world. The first is the expansion of the 6th Special Operations Squadron (SOS), the only Air Force squadron dedicated to the combat aviation advisory mission. The second is the activation of the Central Command Air Forces Air Advisory Division to rebuild the Iraqi Air Force and the Afghanistan National Army Air Corps. The division’s war-fighting elements in Iraq are the Coalition Air Force Transition Team — Iraq (CAFTT) and the 370th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group (AEAG). In Afghanistan, the in-country element is the Combined Airpower Transition Force (CAPTF).

The combat advisory and other aviation FID missions are performed by what I call the Outback Air Force (OAF), named after the rugged Australian bush country. An OAF is an air force that can deploy to and operate in any country, no matter how crude its aerial facilities or how basic its own air force’s aviation skills. The OAF has a small footprint, so its presence does not jeopardize the host government the force was inserted to support. In an OAF, people are the key. They come from a variety of occupations, the mix depending on the specific mission requirements. Their backgrounds should cut across flight operations, maintenance, support, airfield operations, security, etc. They should be language-qualified and culturally aware of the host country. In addition to their technical skills, they should possess the special patience it takes to instruct foreign nationals. They must be self-sufficient and able to provide their own self protection.

While people are the key, specialized equipment is still critical. Their fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, unlike most of those in today’s general-purpose and special operating forces, should have the following characteristics:

å Be affordable and easily operated and maintained by U.S. and partner nations. This would allow an eventual handoff of equipment to the allied country and withdrawal of U.S. personnel.

å Be short-takeoff-and-landing (STOL) capable for fixed-wing aircraft. This would give the Air Force and its ally access to the 90 percent of the Defense Department’s “critical country” airfields that cannot handle a fully loaded C-130 because of landing surface strength or required runway length. The OAF must be able to operate in and out of almost all areas of the partner nation. The first rule of air power is to show up for the game. In aviation FID and combat aviation advising, “flying over” is not enough.

å Be tailored to the needs of the partner nation. Helicopters, because of their higher purchase and operating costs, shorter range and slower speeds, should only be used for missions that cannot be handled by STOL airplanes. This frees up the helicopters for the missions which only they can do, such as vertical air assault.


The success of OAF-type units threads the rich history not just of the Air Force but of all the services. The Air Force’s predecessor, the Army Air Forces, had the 1st Air Commando Group, which used a mix of airplanes and the first combat helicopter to support British “Chindit” commandos in the rugged Burmese jungle. Their success was repeated by the Air Force commandos in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The Army has been flying “no airport required” aircraft and helicopters since its beginning — in both conventional and irregular war. The Marines developed the OV-10 Bronco, an excellent counterinsurgency aircraft, used in Vietnam by three services. The Navy’s helo and OV-10 force flew superb air support for the riverine force in Vietnam. The history of the air sections of our intelligence services, such as Air America in Vietnam, and of our allies’ aerial FID efforts also contributes to the understanding of the need for an OAF. Even the STOL aircraft capabilities of civilian organizations such as the United Nations and Doctors without Borders, as well as the legendary Alaskan bush pilots, have much to teach us.

The need for an Outback Air Force capability now results from four converging events:

å The need to replace the Vietnam-era aircraft (OV-10, O-2, C-123, A-37, etc.) that the U.S. gave or sold to the developing countries’ air forces. These aircraft have come to the end of their useful lives.

å The need for the Air Force to quickly rebuild the air forces of Iraq and Afghanistan almost from scratch.

å The need to reduce the brutal operational tempo and high cost of fighting an irregular war in Iraq and Afghanistan with expensive and sophisticated general-purpose and special operations aircraft and equipment. The deployed aircraft are often flying many times their normal number of flying hours. The Air Force is consuming the life of the general-purpose forces it may need for future conventional contingencies.

å The need for the Air Force to fight a joint/interagency global war on terrorism (outside of the struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan) in the remotest regions of the Asia-Pacific region, Africa, Latin America and far Eastern Europe.


From World War II to the present, the relationship of the American military with foreign internal defense and its direct-action counterpart resembles the cyclical life of the mythical bird, the Phoenix. Repeatedly, fire consumed the Phoenix, which then rose from its ashes, only to be consumed again. The Phoenix cycle for the American military can be described in the following way:

1. In response to an international crisis, the president directs the services to conduct FID and/or direct-action operations, either as an independent operation or as part of a conventional war.

2. To be executed successfully, the FID/direct-action operations require major changes in the way a part of each service is organized, trained, equipped and employed.

3. The services resist change and insist the FID/direct-action missions are just a “lesser case” of the conventional operations they already do. Operational results prove unsatisfactory.

4. The president or secretary of defense orders the armed forces to specialize a part of its force structure for FID/direct-action operations.

5. The services finally increase their FID/direct-action capability by scrambling to find people who remember how to conduct these operations. Sometimes it requires bringing back retired officers and noncommissioned officers. The services finally specialize a relatively small part of their overall force in these operations — with dramatically more effective results.

6. The FID/direct-action operations end.

7. The services declare the need for FID/direct-action forces a one-time event.

8. The services gut their FID/direct-action capability and throw the “lessons learned” book into the trash.

9. Repeat.

Four major events broke the Phoenix cycle for American direct action capability. First, the aborted 1980 rescue attempt of American hostages in Iran highlighted the inability of the U.S. military to execute this type of commando operation. Second, the preparation for the second Iranian rescue attempt (canceled when the hostages were released) dramatically expanded Air Force and Army special operations aviation capability. Third, the passage of the Cohen-Nunn Amendment to the Defense Authorization Act of 1986 split special operations capability from the services to the newly created U.S. Special Operations Command. Fourth, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks resulted in the direct-action forces of the Air Force (flying the sophisticated AC/MC-130s and MH-53/MH-60s) receiving even more funding and aircraft. In support of operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, forces focused on the missions of infiltration, close-air support and exfiltration of Special Forces, SEAL and special tactics commandos. The special mission units of the other services also received more support as more resources were shifted toward them. The direct-action segment of the Phoenix cycle was finally broken.

As a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the ground and maritime FID parts of the Phoenix cycle were also broken as the Defense Department increased Army Special Forces and civil affairs units and Navy SEAL platoons, and created a Marine Corps special operations command. However, the Phoenix cycle for aviation FID still needs attention. A re-creation of the historical capabilities of an Outback Air Force would provide air support to the ground and maritime forces operating in the most remote regions. Fortunately, the seeds for this capability had been planted with the creation of the 6th Special Operations Squadron and the Central Command Air Forces’ air advisory efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.


The 6th Special Operations Squadron (6th SOS) is the Air Force’s only dedicated combat aviation advisory unit designed to assess, train, advise and assist allies to operate and sustain their own air forces and integrate that force with their army and naval counterparts. The 6th SOS does not have the charter or manpower to teach basic military operations, such as training someone in elementary C-130 flying skills. They do teach advanced tactical skills, such as the use of night-vision goggles for night helo air assault operations. Non-special operations Air Force commands, such as Air Education and Training Command, handle the more basic levels of training.

Personnel of the 6th SOS are volunteers and get at least six months of specialized training before becoming qualified as combat aviation advisers. They come from many job specialties: pilots, maintainers, security forces, etc. Like their Army Special Forces counterparts, they receive extensive training in languages, cultures and ground combat skills, in addition to the Air Force skills they are to teach.

The 6th SOS is organized into flights, each specializing in a region of the world. This specialization allows immersion language training and focused cultural education. The squadron deploys as cross-functional Operational Aviation Detachments — patterned after an Army Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha (A-Team). The 6th SOS flies an eclectic mix of assigned and leased airplanes and helicopters. These aircraft may be foreign, such as the Russian Mi-17 helicopter or An-26 transport, or U.S-made, such as the Cessna 208 Caravan or the Bell Huey II. These aircraft reflect the types flown by the developing countries with which the squadron works. It is a relatively small organization of about 230 people, whose reputation has grown such that it receives twice as many requests for worldwide advisory missions than it can fill. If the Air Force decides to further expand its OAF capability, the 6th SOS provides an excellent template to follow.

The need to rapidly rebuild the devastated air forces/air corps of Iraq and Afghanistan triggered the expansion of another version of the Outback Air Force. Lt. Gen. Gary L. North, commander of U.S. Central Command Air Forces, accelerated and expanded the rebuilding begun by his predecessor, Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan III. This rebuilding effort was especially critical because the Air Force realized that the sooner the partner air forces were stood up, the sooner they could provide support to their own troops and government agencies. In the future, as American ground forces are reduced in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force would also be able to shrink its presence in this theater. The Air Force has been fighting in this theater continuously for 16 years and is ready for a break. Initially, when the U.S. draws down its ground forces, the need for air support could very well increase as the indigenous troops and their American advisers may need even more “help from the sky” to make up for less capability on the ground. As mentioned earlier, North has formally organized an Outback Air Force, the CAFTT and 370th AEAG in Iraq, and the CAPTF in Afghanistan, to rebuild this air force and army air corps.

The advisory effort will have more than 600 personnel from a broad range of specialties. This requirement far exceeds the capabilities of the small 6th SOS cadre — especially considering that unit’s worldwide responsibilities beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. At least initially, a shorter combat aviation adviser training program is given to the new advisers. Air Training and Education Command provides basic aviation and ground training to them. Some of the Iraqi and Afghan students are being trained through the normal International Military Education Training program. The 6th SOS teaches specific adviser duties for air advisers. The Army’s ground adviser schoolhouse provides training on generic adviser duties. Special Operations Command also provides multiple courses in foreign cultures, counterterrorism and other specialized training.

The results of these Desert Flying Tiger efforts have been substantial, given the extraordinarily difficult physical, cultural and political conditions under which they work. They have found that working with different cultures is as challenging as the technical aspects of running an aviation training program in a war zone. The air advisers have become adept at overcoming unexpected obstacles. The tenant “flexibility is the key to air power” was never more appropriate.

The Iraqi and Afghan air forces/air corps are being built with a variety of aircraft, flying missions such as aerial reconnaissance, light/medium airlift (including VIP transport), helicopter lift/air assault, and, in the future, light attack. Most important, the air forces are being tailored to their own national requirements and not those of a miniature version of the U.S. Air Force. Their personnel, from general officers to the lowest-ranking enlisted men, are being advised or trained in the appropriate skills needed to build and operate an air force. While the program has had many major successes, it is still overcoming some major hurdles, such as language and maintenance difficulties. These problems are especially present in Afghanistan, which has less experience with a modern air force than Iraq. Despite these challenges, the Air Force knows the road home lies through the stand-up of the Iraqi and Afghan air forces.

Having re-created this relatively small OAF capability, the Air Force has a difficult dilemma as to whether to grow and institutionalize it. The Air Force now has the oldest aircraft inventory in its history — averaging more than 24 years old. In addition, the accelerated operations tempo over Iraq and Afghanistan is taking an increasing toll on the service life of both general-purpose and high-end special operations aircraft. Given this background, why should the Air Force convert an additional part of itself to an Outback Air Force focusing on irregular warfare (IW) and building partnership capacity (BPC).


Many airmen feel that the service does a fine job executing irregular warfare now, using its existing organization, training and equipment. They point to the massive Air Force effort using existing general-purpose and special operations forces in Iraq and Afghanistan as proof that more specialized capability is not needed. Some of these airmen also think that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are temporary aberrations. When these conflicts are over, the need for “niche” capabilities such as IW and BPC in less-developed countries will shrink to a small requirement that can be handled by Air Force special operations forces. Another concern is, should the Air Force expand its OAF capability, it might create pressure to convert too much of the Air Force inventory to meet these types of requirements. This could reduce the Air Force’s ability to fight a future conflict against a sophisticated, near-peer enemy. The Air Force, like the Navy, must worry about the possibility of conventional conflict with a near-peer adversary after Iraq and Afghanistan, because the burden for fighting that war will most likely fall on them. The airmen who advocate “staying the course” also worry about “the pie.”

The pie, in this case, is the Air Force’s budget. These airmen repeatedly point out the pie is only so big. Any money diverted into specialized IW or BPC air forces would take away from money available to fight a conventional war. To them, it makes sense to use only the existing general-purpose and special operations forces for IW and BPC duty. The Air Force would not have to fund a specialized IW force, and the conventional war-oriented force fighting the IW could swing back to a conventional conflict if needed.


A second group of airmen thinks the Air Force could be much more effective if it focused a larger part of the service toward IW and BPC missions. Even this increase, they say, would take only a small fraction of Air Force resources. The people advocating this change tend to be the people who have actually done these missions. To understand the position of these airmen, an analogy is useful. Imagine a trucking firm that owns a fleet of magnificent 18-wheel tractor-trailer trucks used for long-haul freight. If the delivery requirements change to a lot of off-road, short-haul deliveries, it would behoove the company to ensure its fleet included smaller 4-wheel-drive pickup trucks. If it didn’t, the company would soon find the 18-wheelers cannot do the job efficiently or at all because of their large size and lack of off-road capability. The firm also risks losing business to other firms that can adjust faster to the new requirements. The use of pickup trucks would also preserve the service life of the 18-wheelers, so these larger trucks would be available when the long-haul requirements return — as they inevitably will. If you replace long-haul trucking with conventional warfare, short-haul trucking with irregular warfare and the trucking firm with the Air Force, the analogy might well fit. There exist “pickup truck” equivalent aircraft to fly every IW mission the Air Force has today.


What this second group of airmen proposes is the third revolution for Air Force war fighting since its founding in 1947. The first revolution was the shift in focus away from conventional combat capabilities of the Korean War to those of nuclear warfare in the 1950s. Under the massive retaliation doctrine of the Eisenhower administration, the bomber generals running the Air Force viewed the Korean War as an aberration, and conventional war-fighting skills, such as conventional dive bombing and dogfighting, were de-emphasized. Even tactical fighter pilots focused on delivering nuclear weapons. The Vietnam War provided a rude awakening when conventional war-fighting skills were immediately needed but had significantly rusted. Also in Southeast Asia, special air warfare (the air support to irregular warfare) was rediscovered and expanded.

After the Vietnam War, the Air Force underwent a second revolution. Run by fighter generals who cut their teeth in Southeast Asia, its conventional warfare capabilities were dramatically improved with more realistic training, such as the Red Flag exercises and aggressor aircraft simulating enemy fighters. At the same time, the Air Force retained its ability to deter and fight nuclear war. What did decline was the Air Force’s ability to conduct special air warfare. The other services also de-emphasized their IW capabilities. The word “counterinsurgency” disappeared from the Army’s lexicon. The shock of the failure to rescue the American captives in Iran eventually resulted in special operations forces being removed from service control and combined under U.S. Special Operations Command, with its own leadership and budget. The Defense Department, with Congressional prodding, improved the SOF ability to plan and conduct direct action (commando) missions. But what remained de-emphasized after the Air Force’s second revolution was the ability to partner with developing air forces which could not afford to create smaller versions of the Air Force. What was also missing was a robust ability to do extended IW operations in remote regions where there was little aviation infrastructure.

A third revolution would see an increase and institutionalization of the Air Force’s ability to conduct IW and partner with air forces of the developing world. At the same time, the Air Force would retain its ability to deter and fight both nuclear and conventional war. The service could then efficiently employ air power across the total spectrum of conflict, from nuclear war to the smallest counterinsurgency.


Airmen need a basic understanding of the fundamental nature and characteristics of IW before they can identify any needed changes in service organization, training or equipment. Without this understanding, IW is often viewed as a smaller version of conventional warfare, which it decidedly is not. The Air Force is beginning to increase the education needed to understand this type of warfare. The Army and Marine Corps have already shifted much of their professional education toward understanding IW. If airmen do not study the history of air power in IW, they cannot realize the critical contribution that air power can play in that type of conflict. They then will not be able to maximize air power’s contribution to today’s IW fight in Southwest Asia and elsewhere. For the Air Force, the amount of IW education should range from a basic knowledge of IW by every Air Force officer and senior NCO to an in-depth knowledge for personnel assigned as air power advisers or IW campaign planners.

The advocates for change say that the Air Force should create at least one IW wing of approximately 1,000 people to provide a core unit from which to deploy combat aviation advisers and other personnel tasked with IW missions. These personnel would partner with developing air forces or execute specialized IW missions themselves. The second effort might be needed should a developing country be under attack and need time during which to develop its own IW capability. The shift of the Jungle Jim air commando mission in Vietnam from purely training to much active combat is an example of this latter requirement. The current effort to stand up the Iraqi and Afghan air arms would be much further along had the Air Force had this organization in 2003.

While this wing may begin by focusing on the current conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, it should eventually split into squadrons aligned by regions of the world. The wing, for instance, might have additional squadrons specialized in Latin America, Africa, the Asia-Pacific region and Eastern Europe. This would resemble the regional specialization of the Army’s Special Forces battalions and the current 6th SOS flights, and allow language immersion and in-depth cultural expertise. Like an expanded version of the 6th SOS, each squadron would assess, advise, assist and train across both flying and ground aviation specialties. Whether this organization resides in Air Force Special Operations Command as an expansion of the 6th SOS or moves to one of the Air Force’s other major commands would be determined by the Air Force leadership in consultation with the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.

Because of the complexity of the IW arena and the investment in language and cultural education, as well as both ground and flying technical training, it is important that many of the people assigned to this mission remain career combat aviation advisers. Informal discussions with Army Special Forces personnel indicate it takes about eight years to be fully effective as a Green Beret. The combat aviation advisory mission is at least as complex. These personnel need the language, cultural awareness, ground defense skills and other training given to those in the 6th SOS. Presently, the Air Force takes most of its combat aviation advisers from the general-purpose forces, gives them a basic knowledge of the air advisory business, sends them to Iraq and Afghanistan for up to a year, and then releases them back to the general-purpose forces only to start over again with new personnel.

While most of the personnel should be career combat aviation advisers, it may be advisable to rotate a percentage of people through the advisory business and then send them back to the general-purpose forces. This would spread knowledge of the combat aviation advisory mission throughout the Air Force and provide points of contact should the respective general-purpose unit be tasked with a temporary advisory role.

The capabilities of the Air National Guard and the Reserve Command should also be exploited. The Air National Guard, for instance, already runs a highly successful partnership program with air force units from select countries.

An Outback Air Force equipped with affordable, rugged STOL aircraft and rugged helicopters needs to be created precisely because the money pie is only so big. Like a family buying a fuel- efficient car, the sooner the Air Force invests in some “pickup trucks,” the sooner the service will benefit from much lower acquisition and operating costs. One senior Air Force officer even suggested that the service could save money by buying used aircraft and equipment for many of these missions. As an example, replacing a conventional fighter jet with a turbo-prop, light attack/reconnaissance aircraft would save money in both acquisition and maintenance. While the smaller aircraft carries less ordnance than a conventional fighter, the ability to afford more of them and base them closer to the fight can compensate for the payload difference. This is especially true when you consider the typical IW “targets” are more often a small group of insurgents, not a large group of massed armored vehicles.

The same comparison is true for mobility aircraft, which are even more critical to the IW fight. The existing Air Force tactical airlifter, the C-130, although highly capable, is several times more expensive than smaller substitutes and cannot get into many of the shorter, unprepared landing surfaces around the world. For U.S. use, the arrival of the smaller, twin-engine, C-27J Joint Cargo Aircraft will fill a critical role in moving cargo “the last tactical mile” (which in undeveloped countries can turn out to be the last tactical 100 miles). For less-developed countries, an assault airlifter even less expensive than the C-27J would be appropriate — like a turbo-prop version of the venerable C-47. The final capability gap to be closed is filled by a good STOL, utility aircraft — a gap which can be filled by one of many commercial aircraft. This type of aircraft can provide many missions for ground forces fighting well forward, including the critical medical evacuation mission.

A robust Outback Air Force would also eliminate the need for the Air Force’s “18-wheeler” general-purpose equipment to burn up its service life on IW and partnering missions. A case can be made to match small wars with small war equipment precisely because the pie is only so big.

One senior Air Force leader acknowledged that maintaining a no-fly zone near the Darfur region of Sudan would be very difficult because of the “lack of a basing infrastructure.” Central and South America air operations also suffer from the same problems. Another benefit of the OAF is that the equipment is not only affordable, but easy enough to fly and maintain, that a less-developed air force can effectively operate it. This will give the Air Force the option to create an effective indigenous air force and eventually be able to exit this theater of operations.

The need for new, specialized equipment has been accelerated because the Vietnam Era equipment that the U.S. gave or sold to the less-developed partners has now reached the end of its service life. Because the U.S. military asks manufacturers to build relatively sophisticated aircraft, many less-developed air forces are now turning to manufacturers in Europe, Russia, China or Brazil to replace the Vietnam Era C-7, OV-10, O-2 and A-37 aircraft. Continuing to produce only high-end aircraft, which most of the world cannot afford, will reduce America’s politico-military influence and, in the long run, hurt the U.S. aircraft industry’s industrial base.

The final category of equipment that needs to be specialized for IW is weapons. The Air Force needs to develop a family of smaller, more affordable weapons. The option of inexpensive weapons would allow our less-developed allies to buy enough of these weapons to train with them. Smaller weapons and warheads would also lower collateral damage in areas where insurgents hide among the population. The Air Force should investigate the smaller weapons being developed by the Army and Marine Corps for precision, low-collateral operation. The laser-guided, 2.75mm rocket is a good example of this type of weapon.

The expansion of the Outback Air Force capability would complete the Air Force’s third revolution. The Air Force’s ability to fight small contingencies would match the superb capability it has to fight America’s nuclear and conventional wars. Its global reach would spread to operating out of remote locations that it can now only fly over. Its global power would include the ability to execute small, precise strikes — to use the stiletto as well as the sword. The Air Force could more easily train developing air forces and provide them with “right tech” equipment they could afford to buy and operate. Finally, the expanded Outback Air Force would create a cadre of internationally astute airmen who understand the less-developed countries, which make up most of the planet, in both peace and war. The third revolution only awaits bold Air Force leadership.

COL. (RET.) GEORGE M. MONROE’s 30-year Air Force career as a combat fighter pilot and staff officer included working irregular warfare and interagency issues in Southeast Asia and during the Panama invasion. He works irregular warfare issues at the Air Force Directorate of Strategic Planning at the Pentagon. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Defense Department or the Air Force.