A brisk, two-day inspection of the "Home of the Fighter Pilot" out the desert is an interesting way into the argument over the whole concept of Rapid Deployment Force. The conventional widom is that the developing RDF is so incapable of rapid deployment that it is not much of a deterrent, and still less of a force.
In a sense, that's true enough. If the mobility of the essential tactical air component is a reasonable measure of the state of the RDF as a whole, the force is at best several years away from being the versatile, globe-girdling fire brigade the administration has in mind.
The question is why, and some intriguing answers emerge from the demonstration of rapid-fire aerial combat, interlarded with equally rapid-fire briefings, that the Air Force puts on fox visitors. What you see, vividly, is an awesome potential for instant application of raw force. What you come away with is an impression that this potential is inhibited, not so much by the error-prone high technolog of the art (as some would have it) as it is by considerations largely beyond the control of the air crews or even the Air Force brass.
The World War II joke was that nothing could stop the Army Air Force except the weather. Modern electronic wizardry (infra-red, laser beams, sophisticed radar) can deal with the weather. What slows down the jet-age Air Force, according to commanders and crewmen here, are things like, well, the domestic politics of Saudi Arabia . . . or a critical inability to hold onto middle-echelon, non-commissioned officers . . . or semmingly inexplicable shortages of spare parts.
The Air Force, for instance, has a $400 million investment in F15 fighter-bombers. Their ability to fly regularly, however, is circumscribed by the lack of a mere $8 million in crucial spare parts, according to Lt. Gen. Larry D. Welch, commander of the Ninth Air Force and also of the tactical air element of the RDF.
Unlike the Navy, which is losing far too many of its carrier pliots, the Air Force has an acceptably high (and rising) pilot retention rate. These are four qualified applicants for every pilot opening. "But we have a tremendous retention problem with middle-level NCOs," says Welch. "They can get out and go to work for 50 percent more. The only way to correct that is to be competitive." w
Welch slips off the record with classified estimates of how quickly his tactical air power could back up a RDF intervention in, say, the Persian Gulf. Getting the squadrons swiftly to the scene is not the problem. But the current logistical arrangements, "we would be out of business after only a few sorties," says one officer.
In the absence of a more accommodating approach to U.S. munitions depots and other "pre-positioned" supplies on the ground in Saudi Arabia's and nearby countries, what's needed is a vast armada of costly supply ships close at hand and an expensive chain of supply vessels stretching back to the United States.
The Air Force, naturally, would like to have a lot more of a lot of things. But the airmen here claim clear superiority in the area they value most highly: the quality of American air crews. "Battles are won by men, not by machines," says Welch, "and we insist we have superior air crew training."
That claim is not easy to question when you have witnessed an eye-straining, ear-piercing display of aerial prowess and toured the sprawling complex of training facilities, runways and firing ranges at Nellis.
A jet streaks by a reviewing stand at 600 mph to take our picture; less than an hour later, an 8-by-8 print is handed to us. We watch air-to-air, heating-seeking missiles home-in on flares that simulate the tailpipes of enemy jets. A pair of Phantoms "destroy" enemy "tanks" by lobbing lasser-guided bombs from a range of 2.5 miles with a claimed 10-foot margin of error.
Even the one embarrassment was instructive. For the climax of the show, a pair of fighter-bombers launched two 2.000-pound, electronically guided bombs. They kicked up dust right on target. But both were duds. Somebody, the guess was, had set the arming devices incorrectly.
Two points can be made. One is that behind every electronic impulse and button-push so critical to all the aerial gymnastics lies a human land -- and human fraility. But a second point is that "smart" (guided) bombs are pretty smart. If they are expensive, they are also, in the jargon, cost-effective; their extraordinary accuracy cuts way down the encessary number of sorties-per-target and, accordingly, cuts the loss of pilots and high-cost aircraft.
Critics argue that excessively high technology makes the Air Force vulnerable to breakdowns and human error. My sense of it is that this is an inescapable condition of modern air warefare -- equally inescapable for the Soviets -- and not the largest problem confounding the not the tactical air ingredient of the RDF.
As far as discipline, dedication, daring and sheer proficiency go, anybody getting the treatment at Nellis would have to give the capabilities of the tactical air part of RDF high marks. "Our problems." Gen. Welch argued rather persuasively, "are with distances, logistics and presence"
These are very real deficiencies. But if the administration is going to have an RFD stick big enough to back up the thunder of its rhetoric, the deficiencies are going to have to be met not just by the military but by the American taxpayers, politicians and diplomats.