Released in 2016, the Air Force’s Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan contained a section called “Basing and Logistics.” This section introduced several concepts, to include adaptive basing and untethered operations, that might have been new to some logisticians at the time. These concepts form the basis of what has become Agile Combat Employment (ACE). Since then, more people are familiar with these ideas as they have spread from Pacific Air Forces (where the beginnings of the modern iteration of this concept were exercised as early as 2014) to US Air Forces in Europe (which has successfully executed several Rapid Raptor deployments) and Air Combat Command (ACC) (which presently seeks to codify ACE).
However, despite increased familiarity, the field would benefit from a more nuanced understanding of the concept, to include why it matters now and the multitude of ways it can be utilized. Further, especially in the logistics arena, areas of criticism and concern must be addressed in order to successfully execute ACE. I will address these subjects below, drawing attention to why ACE is critical to the Air Force’s future success, and close with reflections on why we cannot wait for the future to execute ACE in the field.
Why ACE Now?
The 2018 National Defense Strategy clearly lays out that we are in an era of great power competition. The strategic basing concepts that have formed the cornerstone of Air Force operations since the fall of the Soviet Union will not serve us well in future conflicts. We no longer face violent extremist organizations with limited funding and minimal capability to destroy fully manned and equipped Air Force bases. We now face modern, technologically advanced adversaries who have studied our tactics and strategies over the last twenty years and created strategies for power competition while we fought insurgencies around the world.
Neither the People’s Republic of China (PRC) nor the Russian Federation (RF) want full-scale war with the United States, but both are willing to push the boundaries of international norms in order to increase territory, influence, or both (as demonstrated by the PRC’s actions in the South China Sea and the RF’s invasion of Ukraine). Both the PRC and the RF recognize that when the American military goes to war, we seek to supply and maintain a forward line of troops at positions of advantage far from the homeland. This strategy also puts us at a significant logistical disadvantage. Therefore, both of our adversaries have focused on Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) as a strategic approach because this exacerbates our disadvantage.
Further, if matters did escalate to armed conflict, the opening stages would immediately see the PRC and the RF attempting to destroy our nearest forward bases via air or missile strike as part of a gambit to inflict enough damage that retaliation would be nearly impossible. This is a keystone of the RF’s strategy called Strategic Operation for Destruction of Critically Important Targets.
In the face of all this, why does ACE matter? The way we have organized and operated our bases for more than twenty years has become a liability, not a strength. Our most forward Main Operating Bases (MOB) have become the first thing our adversaries will seek to defeat. MOBs are not only large, centralized collections of personnel and equipment, but they are also logistical hubs and storehouses of materiel. By eliminating a MOB, the adversary not only degrades our immediate combat capability via personnel killed and equipment destroyed, but they also degrade our future ability to repair our remaining assets and bring new personnel and materiel forward.
The Air Force needs to find ways to reduce its vulnerability by reducing its dependence on large forward-presence MOBs. One way to do this is by increasing our force’s agility and decentralizing our operations and logistics functions. The Air Force must challenge the status quo of what forward deployment looks like. The answer is to pursue ACE.
What is ACE?
The Air Force does not have a definition for ACE in its doctrine. As an overarching concept, the best definition I have found comes from Maj General (Retired) Brian Killough, former Deputy Commander, Pacific Air Forces and Deputy Theater Air Component Commander to the Commander, US Indo-Pacific Command: “Agile Combat Employment focuses on the ability to disperse, recover and rapidly resume operations in a contested or austere environment.” The seminal document on the ACE concept is Brown, Spacy, and Glover’s 2015 article “Untethered Operations.” The authors lay out a scenario in which fighter aircraft utilize a network of forward operating locations (FOL) for refueling and rearming, thus reducing or eliminating the need for these aircraft to return to a MOB. This enables these fighter aircraft to remain at the forward edge of battle longer and enhances the effects a single aircraft can have in a conflict.
These fighters and FOLs are not supported by permanent ground crew attached to a long-term operating location, but by teams that fly from location to location in a cargo aircraft, providing logistics support and temporarily activating sites as needed. These teams are comprised of multi-role Airmen who can perform the duties of multiple Air Force Specialty Codes and are supported by forward-based fuels and equipment packages. To those who are familiar with the Rapid Raptor concept, this should sound familiar because it is the natural next step in the evolution for this idea.
The most recent Joint All-Domain Strategist School (JADSS) graduates from Air Command and Staff College spent a year studying ACE. Based on my review of a selection of their papers and presentations, there are at least six different ways in which ACE could be executed. A key distinction the JADSS scholars highlighted in their paper “EUCOM Agile Combat Employment: A Proposed Framework” was the difference between a type of steady-state ACE and ACE for Survival (ACE-S). Steady-state ACE is used in a deterrent or combat role by spreading US and allied forces over multiple FOLs with varying levels of size and permanence, which complicates the adversary’s risk calculus.
ACE-S is the idea that with limited warning (12 hours at most) prior to the start of hostilities, US and allied forces are dispersed from MOBs to geographically separate locations with the expectation that the MOB will not survive the initial attack. These dispersed forces would quickly reconstitute, report accountability, and move on to pre-planned operating locations to provide combat airpower to the Combatant Commander (CCDR) within 24-48 hours of the opening of hostilities.
Inherent within both Steady State ACE and ACE-Sis the need to differentiate among how these operations are carried out for different airframes. One could assume that Mobility Air Force assets and strategic bombers would be pulled back as far as feasible from the conflict to preserve their capabilities while keeping them available for CCDR requirements. Non-bomber Combat Air Force (CAF) aircraft need to be split into at least two different categories based on mission sets and strategic value of individual assets.
Fighter aircraft will theoretically constitute the weight of effort in the opening days of any highlevel conflict. Based on their limited range and specificity of their mission (suppression of enemy air defenses, air-to-air combat, close air support, or tactical strike) they need to be closer to the action. The larger number of these aircraft and their ability to refuel and withdraw from an area quickly allows for greater risk with forward basing relative to enemy proximity. The High Value Air Assets (HVAA) that largely comprise the CAF’s Command and Control, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C2ISR) fleet must initially retrograde from the contested area to a safe operating location, as losing any of these assets in an opening strike would be devastating to national security. However, these assets must be able to be utilized in combat once air superiority is achievable in the battle space.
Therefore, a separate approach for ACE must be developed for HVAAs as well. This means there are three resource related lenses (Mobility/Bombers, Fighters, and HVAA) through which to consider the execution of the two operational lenses of ACE (steady state ACE and ACE-S), for a total of six variations. Despite there being six variations of the concept, they all share central considerations that need to be addressed if the Air Force is to successfully implement ACE.
Considerations and Areas of Concern with ACE
The execution of ACE requires a sea change, not just in how we think about basing, but also how we approach C2 of logistics and logistics processes. These functions are intricately intertwined with traditional basing concepts, and changing one requires consideration of changes to the others. Further, tomorrow’s near-peer conflict will inevitably include cyber warfare, which has the potential to cripple our existing C2 and logistics processes. While integrating these functions into ACE, we must also examine their potential cyber vulnerabilities as well as how we can adapt and overcome them.
Successful execution of C2 in ACE requires a willingness to both move away from centralized control/decentralized execution and accept that in modern warfare, leadership down to the wing level will have limited understanding of the battle space’s present state. One of our adversary’s primary goals will be to limit our communication between strategic and tactical level decision makers. Further, our enemy’s use of A2/AD strategies threatens to significantly hamper the ability of C2ISR assets like AWACS and JSTARS, resulting in further degradation of battlespace awareness and communication capabilities at the strategic level.
When coupled with forward deployed combat support ground crews and operational forces utilizing maneuver and mobility as a survival mechanism, this creates a significant C2 challenge for the Air Force. Since the 1990s the Air Force has utilized the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) to generate operational goals and target lists, carry out airspace deconfliction, prioritize assets, and even target weaponeering.
This information is subsequently passed down to the squadron level through the Expeditionary Wing command structure on a daily basis via the Air Tasking Order. The next generation of warfare and the execution of ACE must assume that centralized control will be lost in the first 48 hours of war. Leaders should plan to distribute C2 from a single node like the CAOC to multiple, smaller C2 nodes.Moreover, this distributed control must also extend from the operations realm to the combat support realm. Ground commanders of multi-role airmen, necessary to execute the forward presence inherent to the ACE concept, must have the flexibility to decide when to move and what risk is acceptable to enable the mission.
In a scenario where there is no ability to call back to a Colonel for permission for a one-time flight for a Red-X aircraft, we have to be ready to allow Captains and SNCOs to make the call and assume the risk. If the situation in a FOL deteriorates to the point that the team must make an unplanned move, the Air Force needs to allow the team lead to make that decision if communications are otherwise unavailable.
In all cases where distributed control becomes the order of the day, clear communication of commander’s intent becomes invaluable. In our present command schema, the Wing Commander gives their intent to the Group Commander who then passes it to the Squadron Commander, down to the Flight Commander, etc. In ACE, there may not be time for communication to work its way through the traditional chain of command, so it is critically important that leaders at all levels understand commander’s intent well enough to execute missions at a moment’s notice. If the Air Force is to execute ACE, distributed control and increased risk at lower levels is necessary, as is a willingness to operate on commander’s intent when the adversary denies access to traditional C2 structures.
Modern Air Force logistics, specifically our aircraft supply system, is a theoretical marvel of efficiency. This efficiency is such that we rarely have excess stock crowding our supply warehouse shelves.
The system as a whole is computer driven with local and enterprise stock levels being constantly monitored and updated with part utilization information. The flip side of this is that we have extremely limited parts stock-on-hand for surge operations, and the entire computer-based system depends on numerous civilian systems that are extremely vulnerable to cyberattack. Obviously, this is not acceptable in a wartime scenario.
Several Air Force logisticians have recently pointed out that our supply system is not ready to support operations in a modern armed conflict. As Captain Alex Pagano, an Air Force Aircraft Maintenance Officer, wrote in an article for the ER earlier this year: In order to move this single part, it took six primary systems to accomplish this request.
Moreover, these primary systems are supported by 323 other wholesale and retail systems with hundreds of interfaces between them that drive the entire logistics enterprise—each one a vulnerability.
Our reliance on these systems is revealed through the changes in logistics response times when we begin to operate in a degraded environment. Continuing to use the European theater as an example—under normal day-today operations, it takes approximately twenty minutes to issue a part if it currently resides in one of the kits or in the warehouse on base.
To transport that part, it takes, on average, 5.4 days to move it from the homeland into the European theater. Now consider data corruption in a supply system—corruption so severe that it shuts down the primary logistics IT systems we use. The issue, sourcing, and delivery time now more than triple when our Airmen begin to utilize degraded operations procedures to process transactions. With even further system degradation, they are relegated to using nontraditional communication means, and the sourcing time triples again.
Lieutenant General Berry, Headquarters US Air Force’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics, Engineering, and Force Protection, noted: DOD supply chains have become fragile and brittle. We have been forced to predominantly rely on sole-source suppliers, which creates single points of failure in our supply chains, erodes the manufacturing base, creates a multitude of manpower challenges, and limits our capacity to surge in times of crisis.
Over the last twenty years, our supply chain has become a wonder of efficiency with low local stock levels, just-in-time parts delivery, computerized inventory control, and preferred relations with vendors and shippers. But while this efficiency may be a best practice for the commercial enterprise, it does not meet the need of the military enterprise. The execution of ACE requires the Air Force supply chain to be less efficient and less centralized. A forward MOB with a large parts warehouse becomes a vulnerability when the MOB is attacked.
If we are to use ACE as a deterrent, we must move toward decentralized supply kits at forward locations that are left there for extended periods of time. In the opening days and weeks of a conflict we should not plan on private contractors flying parts into a war zone for just-in-time fixes, nor should we task what will be an already overtaxed military mobility or Civil Reserve Air Fleet in the same way.
Forward located supply kits will offset this requirement and enable continued forward ACE operations. These kits do not need to have all the same parts that a supply warehouse might have, but they should have the most used parts and the ones most critical for mission execution.
They might be like a Readiness Spares Package that the Air Force already uses for deployments, but they would need to be independent of a particular unit and able to remain in cool storage at a forward location for an extended period of time. Moreover, these kits need to be transportable via air, truck, or rail to maximize their mobility. Decentralized kits also require the Air Force to buy more parts.
This is a necessary step in preparing us for modern war where we will use ACE as either a deterrent or a means to project power. The necessary creation of new parts might allow some reinvigoration of the DOD supply chain along the lines of Lieutenant General Berry’s comment, but it would require additional financial investment in a time of projected shrinking military budgets.
Command and control and logistics functions are just two of the primary areas we must change if we are to successfully execute ACE. Other areas exist, and they each carry a variety of secondary concerns that must be explored:
Where will we establish these new FOLs?
How do we get partner nations to allow us to establish new FOLs, even on a temporary basis?
How do we secure and account for forward deployed logistics kits at a cool (not actively used) FOL?
What does the manpower and administrative structure for a multirole Airman ground team look like?
What will training for a multi-role Airman entail?
How are decisions made regarding what sites to utilize and when?
There are a number of issues to work out before we can start executing ACE Air Force-wide, let alone use it in a combat situation, but the time to start figuring out those things is now.
Having covered what ACE is, as well as touching on some Maj areas of concern with its execution, let us return to the why. As previously stated, we need ACE because the era of great power competition has returned. Unfortunately, the other great powers decided that we were the “greatest” power and therefore their strategies are designed to defeat us in our present combat orientation. That alone should prod us to reconsider how we plan to fight.
The RF, the more overtly aggressive of our allies, is on a downward trajectory in terms of power and power potential. Its population demographic will continue to trend downwards for at least the next three decades.Its economy is largely dependent on fossil fuels, the cost of which are also trending steeply downwards and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
As it stands right now, its economy is roughly the same size as New York State’s, and it will only get smaller. Its leader, President Vladimir Putin, has enough power and political influence that he just successfully rewrote the RF’s laws in such a way that he will remain in power until he dies. Taking all this into account, this is the RF’s high-water mark for the next several decades, and their best moment to strike.
The PRC, while less overtly aggressive, is the more dangerous of our adversaries over the long-term due to its economic might, manpower, and rapid leaps forward in technology and combat capability. However, the PRC faces similar demographic challenges to the RF and may be crippled under the economic weight of caring for its older generation by the 2040s. Also, the PRC’s rapid economic expansion has slowed, and as the PRC shifts away from the manufacturing-based economy that drove its growth over the last twenty years we can expect to see the slow-down continue.
Similar to the RF, General Secretary of the Communist Party Xi Jinping has recently centralized power around himself, demonstrating considerable political strength. Here again we see that our adversary is at or near the apogee of its power but that this will begin to wane in the next ten years.
Quite often, ACE is referred to as a future concept for Air Force operations. Considering the present situation in global politics, I suggest that ACE is a concept we need now. Obviously, we must overcome numerous challenges. The move to a steady-state deterrent ACE posture will not happen overnight but we must start taking steps toward it. Planning for wartime execution of ACE-S and steady-state ACE needs to be prioritized and executed now.
Units must practice how they would operate at temporary FOLs and anticipate what a multi-role Airman ground support team would look like. Program offices need to start looking at how the supply chain could be made more robust, and we need the Air Force and Maj commands to start giving units guidelines on execution expectations.
While ACC is presently working on ACE, my impression is that the command might not have input from the field that should drive planning. My suggestion to address this is a series of conferences on how to execute ACE across the CAF, utilizing the subject matter experts from the field. ACE cannot wait. Our adversaries have planned to defeat us as we organize, deploy, and fight now.
Our adversaries’ best moment to attack is now or in the near future. If we want to win the next war, we must defeat their calculus and force them to reconsider. ACE is how we do this. ACE is not a future concept; ACE is a concept for the present.
Special thanks to the Joint All-Domain Strategists School Class of 2020 for allowing me to review a selection of their papers and presentations and to Lt Col Joshua Downing and Maj Ernest “Nacho” Nisperos for reviewing the initial drafts.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maj Guthrie is the 461st AMXS Maintenance Operations Officer. In this role he manages all flight line maintenance and world-wide utilization of the Air Force’s 16 E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft fleet valued at $5.9 billion. He was commissioned in 2009 through the Officer Training School at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama and is a graduate of the Aircraft Maintenance and Munitions Operations School’s Combat Support Course. In his previous assignment he was a Senior Instructor at the Japanese Air Self Defense Force’s 1st Technical School and served as a regular lecturer at their Officer Candidate School and Senior Pilot Course. Prior to that he served as the 4th Maintenance Group Operations Officer and is a four-time graduated Aircraft Maintenance Unit Officer in Charge with experience on the HH-60, F-15E, Mi-17, C-208, C-182, and MD-530 aircraft. Additionally, Maj Guthrie deployed twice to Operation Enduring Freedom, serving once as an air advisor to the Afghan Air Force and once as a deployed Aircraft Maintenance Unit Officer in Charge.