WASHINGTON, June 17 (UPI) -- The veteran military officials picked by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to take over the Air Force face a tough job redefining the service's role in what many see as the key kind of combat the U.S. military will face in the immediate future: counterinsurgency.
The problem, say many who have studied the topic, is that the things the U.S. Air Force has made its priority capabilities -- establishing air supremacy over the enemy and perfecting the timely and pinpoint delivery of high explosives -- tend to be less useful in irregular or asymmetric conflicts like those in which the U.S. military is currently engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In particular, critics have singled out an over-reliance on air strikes in Afghanistan as a significant barrier to the success of a "hearts and minds" strategy on the ground, given the inevitability of "collateral damage" -- the accidental killing of civilians.
"From an Air Force perspective, we were told to plan for a different kind of war," Lt. Col. Michael Pietrucha told United Press International, commenting on the general direction of post-Cold War strategic thinking, which emphasized the potential for conventional conflicts with strategic competitors or regional powers like China or Iran.
Pietrucha, a specialist in irregular combat who until recently worked at the Air Force Warfare Center, stressed he did not speak for the service.
He added it was appropriate the Air Force had different priorities, because of its strategic roles in assuring "force projection" -- the ability of the U.S. military to strike anywhere in the world -- and in operating the nation's nuclear strike capabilities.
"We have a set of global responsibilities that require us to keep a slightly different focus," he said, adding that while counterinsurgency might be the most common kind of conflict the military would face in the immediate future, "The most common conflicts are not necessarily the most dangerous."
Other observers agree that, if the Air Force has been slow to meet the counterinsurgency challenge, they have other priorities, too.
"They have always put their emphasis on air supremacy," said a senior congressional staffer, "on the basis that unless you have that, your troops on the ground are at risk."
"The question," he added, "is whether they have overemphasized it."
One suggestion of an answer comes from the Air Force's now infamous congressional "whispering campaign" -- behind the backs of the Pentagon leadership and the administration -- to get more money for its hugely expensive new planes, the F-22 Raptor and the still-in-development F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
In picking Gen. Norton Schwartz, the first ever non-fighter or bomber pilot to head the service, Gates has ensured that, in future, that question will be answered from a different perspective.
Gates told reporters he chose Schwartz as the new chief of staff because he "brings fresh eyes to these (procurement) issues."
"It was mobility, jointness, special operations and being very, very smart" that led him to pick Schwartz, Gates said.
Observers say the choice of Schwartz, a veteran of special operations who most recently headed the Air Force's Transport Command -- in charge of mobility and lift -- is significant given the service's culture.
"It's not something I ever expected to see in my lifetime," retired Air Force Col. Chester Richards told UPI. Richards, a strategist who has studied and written about military power for three decades, said the nomination represented a chance for the service to "reinvent itself" and "shift away from being a force that just kills people on the ground" to one that brings other capabilities to the table, more relevant to the hearts and minds mission.
The Air Force itself says it already provides those capabilities, such as surveillance and lift, the ability to move troops and materiel around the combat theater.
"No one in the world can replicate the speed, volume and flexibility of the United States' air mobility team," USAF spokeswoman Maj. Olivia Nelson told UPI. She said that, on average, an Air Force mobility aircraft was launched somewhere every 90 seconds, and that in Iraq, Air Mobility Command was flying more than 200 sorties a day.
Pietrucha noted that lift, which can move relief supplies or drop packaged humanitarian rations as easily as it can ship troops and weapons, is a key capability in hearts and minds missions.
"There are lots of ways air (power) can help from a hearts and minds standpoint," said Pietrucha. "Jet noise is a great non-lethal effect … an indicator of presence," which tells friends and foes alike on the ground that the U.S. military is there.
But he added that "kinetics" or "fires" -- striking with bombs or other ordinance -- is a central part of any combat situation.
"The delivery of weapons in a counterinsurgency environment is still a very useful capacity," said Pietrucha, "especially if you are on the ground and in contact with the enemy," he added, in a reference to "close air support" -- the use of air power to win firefights on the ground.
The problem, said Richards, is that "When you fly over and you look down, everyone pretty much looks the same," which can easily lead to errors, like the recent friendly fire killing of 11 Pakistani troops, reportedly by a U.S. airstrike.
In a study last year, Brian Glyn Williams, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, found allied forces in Afghanistan were hampered in their hearts and minds mission by an over-reliance on air power.
The inevitable collateral damage from close air support actions was "the main complaint from Pashtuns" who had been displaced by the fighting, and one of the major factors fueling anger at foreign military forces, and thus potentially generating support for the insurgency.
Pietrucha said the propaganda value of reports about civilian casualties probably outweighed their truth value. "Because the adversary is the only presence on the ground, they can get their story out first -- whether it is true or not."
"We may know it's not the case (that an air strike hit a wedding party or a school), but we can't prove it, or at least not quickly enough."
In Part Two, tomorrow: How the Air Force needs to change.