Tactical Air Forces for the Future
Gen. John L. Piotrowski, USAF (Ret.)
The Gulf War showed yet again that in the modern era tactical air power is virtually synonymous with the projection of military power. By design, shaped and honed by a half-century of experience, tactical aircraft make up the spearhead of rapid deployment, with the inherent capability of immediate engagement upon arrival at the target destination. That capability has been dramatically boosted by technological advances in weaponry and in the electronic "eyes and ears of the battlefield" that played such a key role in Operation Desert Storm.
Tactical air forces are embedded in three U.S. military services: the Air Force, the Navy and the Marine Corps. The United States Army commands an aerial capability of its own in a formidable force of attack helicopters, effective in the close air support of ground warfare and other missions, as will be brought out below. Still, attack helicopters have yet to achieve the needed speed, range, firepower, and survivability for coping with the fuller spectrum of tactical missions.
The United States Navy's tactical air arm is an important factor in power projection. Aircraft launched from the decks of carriers have the advantage of flexible deployment from operating platforms not dependent on access to facilities on land. The speed and effectiveness of their deployment, however, are a function of the proximity of the given carrier task force or battle group to the target area, along with the distance of the military targets to be struck inland. The experience of past contingencies, Desert Storm included, has pointed to the synergistic combination of land- and sea-based tactical air power.
This synergism had already been graphically demonstrated in an earlier contingency, the punitive action by the United States against Libya in 1986.