Air Transportation: January 26, 2004

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The U.S. Army, trying to keep up with the marines in the "quick response" department, have studied their recent Iraq and Afghanistan experience and come up with a unique solution; the PRF (Planeload Reaction Force, which is not the official name, but is easy to remember). The carrying capacity of an air force C-17 transport was scrutinized and it was determined that you could get a Bradley fighting vehicle on board, as well as 75 troops. These soldiers would have two mortars with them, and their usual rifles and portable missiles. There would be specialists qualified to call in air strikes and naval gunfire or missiles strikes, as well as army artillery. The unit would have satellite phones so that they could always be in touch with the Pentagon. The troops would be on their way within twelve hours, to any trouble spot on the planet that still had an airport that would let a C-17 land. In other words, any airport that could handle a jet transport. 

Several years ago, the army proposed to have a rapid response brigade of troops, equipped with armored cars (the Stryker vehicle), that could get to any hot spot on the planet in 96 hours. Eventually, it became apparent that the air force would not have sufficient aircraft available to support that kind of schedule, especially if it was the kind of crises the air force had to rush off to as well. But one C-17 is a reasonable request, and the air force would be hard pressed to refuse to promptly supply one for the PRF. 

But to insure that cooperation, the army has sweetened the pot. The army and air force generals are both aware of the fact that air force B-52 or B-2 bombers regularly train by flying half way around the planet. So as the PRF lands in the distant hot spot, air force heavy bombers arrive overhead. While 75 troops may not seem like a powerful force, give them some heavy bombers circling above, each with dozens of JDAM smart bombs, and all of a sudden the balance of power on the ground shifts to the American's favor. It worked in Afghanistan, and the army is betting that there may be situations in the future where it will work again. 

This approach pleases the air force because they were shopping around a new doctrine in the late 1990s that advocated these very same tactics. Put a few guys on the ground to draw fire and spot targets for the bombers, and the air force would put everything right. Afghanistan seemed like proof of that concept, although it turned out to be somewhat different. The few hundred American Special Forces really needed the thousands of Afghan allies they were supporting. The army realizes this, and the air force probably does as well. If the army gets on the ground with the PRF, and starts making a difference, the air force will be compelled (perhaps by a TV crew embedded with the PRF) to provide more C-17s so that more troops and vehicles (armored hummers, in addition to a few more Bradleys or Strykers). 

The PRF would, in many cases, beat the marines to the punch. While there are always several marine amphibious task forces at sea (with helicopter carriers and a reinforced battalion of marines each), these are not always off the coast when a situation bubbles over. Or, like Afghanistan, the combat zone is far from the coast. "Who gets there first," is no trivial matter in the Pentagon. The first team in gets the best press (and the best treatment when next years defense budget is allocated) and most of the attention and praise. Until air power came along, it was no contest. The navy and the marines were sent in to take care of distant problems. But once air power came along, and an independent air force was established in 1947, the army began to believe it could out-do the navy in the quick reaction department. So far, the navy has managed to hang on to most of the quick reaction jobs. But the PRF ups the ante in ways the sailors and marines can't match.

 


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