By Invoking The Legendary Flying Tigers The Air Force May Be Sending China Mixed Signals

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In its 75th anniversary year, the U.S. Air Force is releasing a collection of commemorative essays by USAF personnel. The latest draws inspiration from the renowned WWII Flying Tigers led by Major General Claire Chennault. Meant to call attention to the Air Force’s Agile Combat Employment concept, it also highlights the service’s weakness.

In 1941, Claire Chennault formed the 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG), better known as the Flying Tigers. They were not a U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) unit but rather a civilian mercenary group indirectly funded by the U.S. government and organized at the behest of Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek. Flying from a series of bases in Burma and Kunming in southwestern China, the Flying Tigers were remarkably innovative and successful in turning back much larger Japanese forces from their birth through their eventual incorporation into the USAAF in 1942.

Their success and use of distributed sub-units, bases and supply infrastructure is compared with the U.S. Air Force’s recently promoted Agile Combat Employment (ACE) vision for operating in modern, contested environments like the South China Sea in an essay by USAF Colonel Russell “Bones” Cook, commander of today’s 23rd Wing Flying Tigers which operates from Moody Air Force Base, Georgia.

Col. Cook begins with the obvious and concerning observation that even as the Air Force “shrinks to its smallest size since [before] World War II… We face adversaries that have similar capabilities, larger numbers, and threaten our bases and allies with overwhelming theater ballistic missile forces.”

The Heritage Foundation and the Mitchell Institute recently highlighted the Air Force’s waning power with the former rating the service as very weak and the latter asserting that it “lacks the capacity to fight a peer conflict.”

The Air Force’s response, in line with ACE, Col. Cook says is developing a “light, agile, and tailorable force and support packages that can maneuver to increase survivability and generate airpower against an enemy.”

He then cites examples of how the outnumbered, out-resourced but agile Flying Tigers (fewer than 300 personnel typically with just 30 serviceable P-40B and P-40E Warhawks) outmaneuvered Japanese forces, eluding destruction on the ground by flying from dispersed, hastily built, unfinished airfields. Cook calls attention to the AVG’s ability to work around vulnerable, unreliable supply lines by scrounging the countryside for parts, improvising repairs and retrofitting parts meant for other aircraft to keep as many P-40s in the air as possible.

“Most famously,” he recalls, “American armorers installed British guns and built homemade bomb racks and drop tanks on the P-40s, improvising the capability to deliver high explosive Russian bombs over increased ranges.”

Cook reminds us of the Flying Tigers’ “lightning mobility” and skeleton staffs of Airmen doubling in ground duties. This allowed dispersed AVG units to shift operations over 600 miles in an afternoon, bugging out to landing strips built by local Burmese and Chinese laborers “who also prepositioned fuel, built shelters, provided food, water, security, and rescued pilots and crews.”

Claire Chennault also rigorously trained his pilots in strike tactics and ground crews in rapid recovery and sortie generation in austere conditions. Despite their outdated P-40Bs, the Tigers averaged a 15-1 kill ratio against the Japanese, Cook points out.

That would be a tall order for U.S. Air Force pilots engaged in a future conflict – not alongside the Chinese but against them.

They would surely have a higher degree of coordinated, but almost certainly disrupted, joint support from the Navy and Marines as well as U.S. Allies from Australia and Japan to South Korea. But the command freedom that Claire Chennault enjoyed as an independent commander working with the Nationalist Chinese in a far-flung theater at the very outskirts of America’s reach would not likely extend to contemporary local unit commanders.

Mitchell Institute director of future concepts and capability assessments, Mark Gunzinger, says the Air Force recognizes that area airbase commanders may “have to rely on commander’s intent at times instead of the uninterrupted communications they’ve become accustomed to.”

“All of this,” he continues, “will require training, and more importantly, a shift in mindset from most of the last 20 years.” Gunzinger is surely right but contemporary airmen and their commanders won’t have an important luxury that the Flying Tigers enjoyed – time.

As pushed, harried and forced to move as the AVG was, Chennault could take advantage of the fact that WWII operations did not move at the likely pace of potential 21st century peer conflict. The quickly built, unfinished airfields that the Tigers leveraged will have to be in place before a conflict starts, not as it is unfolding. The definition of unfinished will be different as well.

Air Force F-16s, F-15s and F-35s won’t take off from the dirt runways their P-40 ancestors used. Even the MQ-9 Reaper drones the USAF has used in Afghanistan and the Middle East take off and land on paved runways and the new breed of Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) the Air Force envisions likely won’t operate from anywhere much more “austere” than places like Air Base 101 in Niger.

The USAF may be able to take advantage of some previously constructed remote airfields in the northwestern Pacific but they’re well known to the Chinese and probably already on a target list somewhere. The nature of the Pacific geography in and around the South China Sea means there will be few – if any – local laborers to construct makeshift bases for Air Force assets and little in the way of sympathetic rescue help.

Likewise, scrounging parts even semi-locally won’t be possible. As advanced as it was, a P-40 shared a lot more in common with a 1930s-40s tractor, truck, tank, generator or allied aircraft than an F-35 shares with contemporary systems. Retrofitting parts to a Strike Eagle or Block 50/52 F-16 won’t be the work of an afternoon as in Burma.

A new Air Force focus on developing “multicapable Airmen” with increased expeditionary training and independent operations capability is worthy but it won’t turn forward-deployed airfield security or communications personnel into armorers, maintainers or threat-library updaters.

The long, unreliable supply lines that the AVG dealt with will likely be more challenged, more lethally threatened routes today, served by a smaller Air Force and Joint Force logistics infrastructure that is currently strained in peace time let alone way. Pre-positioning supplies will be vital but will require strategic and tactical tradeoffs and the recognition that swift adversary intervention will render many caches of parts, equipment, fuel, personnel support and other resources unreachable or destroyed.

Effective pre-positioning will also require stocks of smart weapons and other ordinance the U.S. does not currently have. Even a relatively safely located F-35 or CCA is of little value without the ability to strike and employ kinetic effects. Finally, the intensive training which Chennault was relatively quickly able to sharpen his Tigers with isn’t a part of day-to-day Air Force reality at present.

Despite the USAF’s nascent Agile Flag exercises and other multi-element exercises, its pilots and ground crews do not fly enough, train enough to be truly on-edge, nor does virtual training fill the gap, however pretty the lights, pictures, remote communications and sounds of the simulators are.

In a video from the current Flying Tigers (23rd Wing) recounting observations from the most recent Agile Flag, Col. Cook and others from the Wing relate how much work the Air Force has yet to do to realize anything approaching fulsome ACE operations. Some of challenges are as basic as figuring out how the Wing or other forward units plug into the Joint Force battlespace command, how they’ll get support equipment or even their own communications equipment and people.

The essay is well meant but the unintentional signal it sends China is worrying. It telegraphs a force – like American forces prior to WWII – unprepared for conflict in a huge geographic area 7,000 miles from home. It attempts to show that the USAF is actively addressing the challenges it faces and complicating the strategic calculus for an expansionist China.

But in so doing and alluding to Chiang Kai-Shek – ousted from mainland China in 1949 and forced to flee to Taiwan – it puts the spotlight on a possibly brief window of opportunity for Chinese action and describes strategic and tactical problems the Air Force has not solved.

Moreover as the U.S. Air Force turns 75, it depicts a service and a nation that have not learned from history and are not showing the kind of resolve necessary to prevent them from re-living it.

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