Untethered Operations: Three Views on How to Operationalize It

Estimated Reading Time: 10 Min 

By: Jennifer Miller, Taylor Gifford, Chris Jacobson, and Jared Donnelly

In 2015, several Air Force officers published an article in the Air and Space Power Journal that proposed an operational concept for Anti-access/Area denial (A2AD) environments. The authors termed the concept Untethered Operations (UTO) and it called for a dynamic use of fighters, transport aircraft, and bases that would allow for “untethered” sortie generation that could seriously challenge an adversary’s ability to deny us access. This concept leverages coalition partner bases and USAF capabilities for a flexible, asymmetric employment of airpower.

The following is the vignette the authors presented to illustrate their concept.

A lone C-17 landed smoothly in the predawn hours at Ämari Air Base, Estonia. The C-17 was from the Heavy Airlift Wing in Pápa, Hungary. Ämari had yet to experience the devastation of a Russian air attack. The sheer number of NATO basing options made targeting all of them impossible and had so far kept Ämari safe. 

The cargo ramp was already lowering as the C-17 taxied to a stop and USAF Airmen piled out. The seemingly deserted base came alive as Airmen began organizing the ramp. There were aircraft maintainers, operations and intelligence personnel, and a squad of security forces. They went to work immediately, unlocking and organizing munitions, connecting fuel lines to hydrants, and setting up expeditionary defensive fighting positions. The operations and intelligence personnel set up a deployed ops center. 

In less than an hour, four Dutch F-16s entered the traffic pattern and landed quickly. Like the C-17, the fighters had barely come to a stop before Airmen clambered over them, helping the pilots unstrap and egress. The aircrews were hustled to the waiting intelligence officers while the aircraft were reloaded with bombs and fuel. The operations update and intel briefings would last just as long as it took the Airmen to rearm and refuel the jets. They would then depart on their next combat mission—their third of the night. 

In less than two hours, the F-16s were gone, and the C-17 was taxiing for takeoff. The next base was Łask in Poland where a flight of US F-16s was scheduled to join them. The C-17 could do this three more times before it had to return to Ramstein and refit. NATO forces were repeating this scene all over Eastern Europe. The war is going well; Russia simply doesn’t have the capacity to fight across such a broad front.

To advance the conversation on this topic Air Force officers from the fighter, mobility, and logistics communities have provided some views on the issues that need to be addressed to operationalize this concept. All agree that adaptive basing and forward arming and refueling points (FARP) are important concepts that could give us the edge in a future near-peer conflict, but each offers some suggestions for addressing challenges untethered operations present. Major Jennifer Miller (C-17 pilot) sees basing as a critical component of UTO that should be addressed through strengthening regional partnerships. Major Taylor Gifford (F-15E pilot) has identified deployment and employment training for USAF fighters as a significant factor in successfully employing UTO. Major Chris Jacobson (Logistics Readiness Officer) highlights several logistics challenges centering on fuel, robust infrastructure, and prepositioning of War Reserve Material (WRM).

MobilityOTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment
C-17 mobility airlift utilized in FARP execution is capable and dependable to accomplish the movement requested, no questions asked. Landing at remote fields with little to no support prepositioned, is business as usual for the C-17 Globemaster III. Gas, maintenance support personnel, and security teams can be preplanned into the self-reliant onboard package, enabling this specific choice of aircraft to arrive in the most austere environments of aviation requests. To make FARP a reality, we must adjust preparation and planning appropriately to offer senior leaders every location option they need to create an asymmetric advantage over adversary forces. The realities of gaining airfield access at the edge of a contested environment will limit mission execution of the fighters. It is a balance, the FARP package must be far enough away to protect the C-17 from threat, but also close enough to give the gas range required by the F-16s for loiter time and mission objectives. By alleviating air refueling options, range for fighters to launch, operate, and return, must be guaranteed but also limits the scope of location options. Arrival of a FARP package will be easily detected, but if locations are correctly placed in theater, the operation could be over and done before an adversary is able to adjust and respond with force that realistically threatens assets at the originating airfield.

Airfields in consideration must meet an evaluation of suitability limited by the fighter requirements. A common characteristic of an austere runway is one which is not used, and most likely not well maintained. C-17s can land on dirt runways, but fighters cannot and their pavement suitability requirements are much higher and longer. This limits the number of fields available to base out of for FARP execution. Depending on the area of the world, there could be astonishingly few options when paired with vast ocean distances. This concern does not lead to an impossibility of the FARP concept, but rather an opportunity to strengthen regional partnerships. Improvement of select airfields scattered around the world which specifically avoids threat rings, but within fighter mission range of possible targets, will help make the vision of FARP ops a reality to senior leader battlespace options. Investments made now to build or leverage regional partnerships can enable advantages for the next conflict.

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The feasibility of successful UTO is dependent on the USAF’s ability to define requirements and train to them. UTO must have a realistic duration defined for each planned Forward Operating Location (FOL), based on the logistical sustainment requirements relative to FOL capabilities. UTO must also have realistic limitations for operational employment. Flexibility and adaptability are key tenants of the UTO construct, but those should be founded on a baseline understanding of UTO capabilities and limitations. This understanding will only come from planning and exercising simulated UTO in a realistic environment. This training should be accomplished in two primary phases, deployment and employment, which can be accomplished individually or in tandem.

Exercising UTO deployment training to validate aircraft dispersal capabilities and logistics requirements at FOLs can be accomplished through logistics planning and site surveys. Understanding general FOL requirements will enable the development of baseline deployment plans relative to specific FOL capabilities, which can be updated with specific aircraft/Mission Design Series requirements as needed. Finding common FOL limitations will also help identify personal/areas of expertise required in a baseline UTO plan to handle contingencies. Actual aircraft dispersal training requires costly low-density/high-demand airlift and refueling aircraft. For training purposes, this can be simulated by using validated airlift load plans shipped via ground transportation. Fighter dispersal can be simultaneously accomplished utilizing nearby partner nation airports (military and civilian). Once aircraft, logistics, and personnel are deployed, the operational employment phase of UTO can then be tested.

Operational employment of USAF fighters from multiple geographically separated FOLs will require focused mission planning and coordination. Combined FOL combat operations create a tyranny of distance for mission planners, with distinct challenges regarding operational communication and security. UTO is designed to enhance force survival via dispersal, while maintaining continued combat capabilities against a near-peer adversary. Realistic simulations and exercises should test mission planning and execution relative to regional adversaries and their associated abilities to degrade/deny/destroy communication networks. To be effective, UTO operations must be able to pass secure information regarding threats and targets, as well as coordinate force package routes, timing, and contracts. A crawl-to-walk-to-run approach to training should end with exercising integrated and synchronized effects from multiple aircraft types operated from separate FOLs to meet tactical objectives. For UTO/FARP operations to be successful in the future, the USAF must properly train for it.

Logistics
The UTO concept as introduced in the ASPJ article considered the multitude of logistics challenges to achieve dispersal against a near peer competitor. The article suggests USEUCOM UTO capability will gradually increase from today’s FARP with a capability to launch a single strike mission to a future “High-End” end state enabling refuel and reload with new munitions for additional strikes from a UTO location. Leveraging the PACOM initiative of Rapid Raptor the goal for UTO is to have a four-ship strike package supported a single C-17. The article admits that PACAFs Rapid Raptor exercise was executed with a single C-17 but relied on Aerospace Ground Equipment and support equipment at the deployed location. EUCOM understands this is not a viable assumption to make in Operational Planning. The UTO logistics solution is to pre-stage equipment at various locations and utilize European road network to relieve air mobility burden.

We do not disagree with the logistics considerations made in this article. We would add three additional considerations and suggest solutions for considerations to achieve the UTO end state. The end state requires cooperation from NATO partners to robust airfield capabilities, install hydrant fuel systems, and pre-stage WRM support equipment. The article does not address the complexities of munition configurations for bomb reload. A 5th Generation aircraft will serve multiple roles on a future air tasking order (ATO) and will require a variety of configurations to support ATO requirements. Having the correct munitions and sensor pods available at every potential UTO base is unrealistic. Further complicating this challenge, command and control will likely be degraded by a near peer advisory causing degradation of AOC capacity to communicate ATO updates to dispersed strike aircraft. Recommend this challenge be discussed and war-gamed for solutions while UTO is still in early development.

It is also unrealistic to assume a 5th Generation Aircraft will have a 100% sortie generation during sustained combat. Therefore, it can be assumed a percentage of unserviceable aircraft will become dispersed at various airfields with limited maintenance capability. USAFE already routinely executes Maintenance Repair Team (MRT) deployments to assist diverted aircraft. Therefore, recommend today’s MRT response operations be a data point for USAFE analysis. The most obvious benefit of this analysis would be routinely updated Sight Survey data from the MRT who require host airfield equipment to repair the aircraft. Additionally, increased requirements to transport MRT and equipment over the roads will leverage USAFEs capacity to decrease clearance time for the required over the road clearance request that is unique to European countries. This road clearance, to transport military/hazardous material across all each sovereign country currently prohibits rapid transportation solutions.

Lastly, on August 26 2018 Defense News interviewed Brig Gen Augustin (USAFE/AF) on the USAFE’s recent Deployable Air Base Systems (DABS) initiative. The USAFE DABS initiative is to have the deployable system in theater available to rapidly establish airfields in unpredictable locations across Europe. In July-Aug 2018 USAFE completed a proof of concept exercise in Krzesiny, Poland to field test the DABS capability. We recommend the UTO concept incorporate DABS into the planning construct to further complicate targeting solutions for our near peer advisories. The DABS will rely on fuel bladders and limited munitions storage, thereby reducing sortie/strike capability. Airfields will be attacked immediately if Air Superiority is not immediately achieved during initial phases of the contingency with a near peer competitor.  DABS can serve as secondary and tertiary options to be utilized while rapid airfield repair is conducted on robust UTO airbases.

The UTO concept is an important contribution to the ongoing discussion of how to tackle the difficult challenges of the future security environment. The suggestions offered here are intended to help the USAF operationalize UTO and fight in an A2AD environment.

Maj Jennifer Miller is a student at the Air Command and Staff College in the Multi Domain Operations Strategists program. She is a command pilot with over 2,700 hours. She has worldwide operational experience as a C-17A instructor pilot and aircraft commander with multiple deployments. Email: jennifer.miller.5@us.af.mil 

Maj Taylor Gifford is a student at the Air Command and Staff College in the Multi Domain Operations Strategists program. He is a senior pilot with more than 2,000 flight hours, and is a previously qualified F-15E instructor pilot, evaluator pilot, and mission commander. Email: taylor.gifford@us.af.mil 

Maj Chris Jacobson is a student at the Air Command and Staff College in the Multi Domain Operations Strategists program. Prior to this assignment he was the Director of Operations at 31 LRS located at Aviano AB, Italy. He has a total of 13 years of experience as a Logistics Readiness Officer. Email: christopher.jacobson@us.af.mil

Dr. Jared Donnelly is an Assistant Professor at the Air Command and Staff College. He teaches in the Multi Domain Operations Strategists program for the Department of Future Security Studies. Email: jared.donnelly@us.af.mil

Featured Image: Courtesy USAF

Mobility Image: Courtesy Alejandro Pena, USAF

Fighter Image: www.Popularmechanics.com

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

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