James Roche

Secretary of the U.S. Air Force

September 11 unleashed a war that offered a glimpse of what future combat will be like: A lot of it will be fought from the air. And one man responsible for those new air tactics is U.S. Air Force Secretary James G. Roche.

James Roche
The 61-year-old Roche headed the electronics division of California-based defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC ) before his appointment to the Pentagon last year. Add to his electronics background the fact that Roche enjoys playing with a handheld global positioning system (GPS) and taking bearings from his 40-foot yacht with a compass integrated into his binoculars. From there, it was just a few steps to fashioning the most accurate precision bombing campaign in history. Not only was the Taliban quickly routed, but civilian casualties were reduced, and the new tactics created a blueprint for future air wars.

As the war began, Roche and Air Force Chief of Staff General John P. Jumper asked the Army "if we could just experiment a little," recalls Roche. So the Air Force filled the skies over Afghanistan with spy planes, drones, and satellites transmitting real-time images back to headquarters and to bomber pilots looking for targets. The result: The landscape below was so well-mapped by infrared and video cameras, lasers, and radar sensors that the enemy couldn't hide, even at night.

In a flash of inspiration, Roche borrowed some AC-130 gunships from the Army Special Forces and linked them electronically to unmanned drones called Predators. That way, pilots in the gunships could look through video monitors at targets photographed by the cameras on the circling Predators. Meanwhile, commandos on the ground were experimenting with the same equipment Roche uses on his yacht. Special Operations Army and Air Force teams juggled binoculars, compasses, maps, and GPS handhelds and called in target coordinates to B-52 bombers "so that in 10 minutes or less, `boom!'--a bomb goes off, and the opponent just doesn't understand how that happens," Roche says.

Roche's innovative battle tactics are the result of an eclectic background, including stints as commander of a Navy destroyer and as Democratic staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee. His ultimate goal is even more ambitious: an Air Force capable of locating and tracking a single moving target, such as a tank, and destroying it with precision bombing "instantaneously, 24/7/365." That could help to reduce even further the civilian casualties that do occur in war.

By Paul Magnusson, with Stan Crock, in Washington

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.