Q&A with Air Force Secretary James Roche

Known as an innovator, Roche explains how on-the-spot experiments with new and old technologies triumphed in Afghanistan

The U.S. fought the conflict in Afghanistan almost entirely from the air. But it was a new kind of air war, with precision, high-altitude, 24-hour-a-day bombing of even the smallest targets, such as individual trucks traveling along mountain roads. The U.S. managed to demoralize the Taliban very quickly, gave support to anti-Taliban Afghans on the ground, and minimize civilian casualties. The result was the U.S. avoided the protracted ground war that many experts had predicted would be inevitable.

BusinessWeek Pentagon Correspondent Paul Magnusson sat down with Air Force Secretary James G. Roche, one of the principal architects of America's air-war strategy, to learn how the new tactics were developed. Here are edited excerpts of that interview:

Q: You have a reputation as an innovator in the Pentagon, as someone who is willing to experiment, and that has proved very important to the war in Afghanistan.

A:

First of all, most things like this are not done by just one person. I just happen to be Secretary of the Air Force. That I enjoy innovation and encourage it is certainly true. Even before [Afghanistan], we recognized that systems involved in intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance were going to be more and more important.

Kosovo was actually the first time we used unmanned vehicles for surveillance. [Air Force Chief of Staff General John P.] Jumper and I recognized that when you spotted something, it would sure be nice if you could put a laser beam on it and allow airplanes with laser-guided bombs to follow up.

[After] September 11, we felt that these needs would accelerate because we would be operating at a very great distance from the U.S. and that the normal things -- such as a U.S. base -- weren't in place in Afghanistan. The issue was to try to think about our weapons systems as well as our sensors.

We got permission to put in surveillance planes, the Global Hawk and the Predator. We added U-2s, Joint Stars, Rivets Joints, AWACS, plus Navy ISR platforms, and used the mosaic [of surveillance aircraft and satellites] to try to have 24/7, good-weather, bad-weather surveillance.

Q: What did that allow you to do?

A:

We then recognized that if we could get the Predator to find a target, and [overall war commander General Tommy] Franks allowed us to use the AC-130 gunships, we could experiment. We had the Predator working with the gunship to illuminate a target and talk the gunship on to the target. That worked so well that the gunships asked if they could have the data from the Predator go directly to them. Within six days, we were able to provide a quick-reaction system on board the gunship that allowed it to see the same thing the Predator was seeing.

We then started working with the Navy, which had laser-guided bombs, to be able to have a Predator "lase" a target and then to have the Navy bomb ride the laser down to the target. It turns out the easiest thing to do was not to try to get the airplane that had the bomb in such a position that its bomb could ride the Predator's beam down, but rather to have the bomber spot the Predator's laser beam and convert it to its own target. [With the unmanned surveillance planes] we could stay behind after an attack and see the extent of the damage and possibly call in a second strike. That was one set of experiments.

Q: What were the other experiments that worked?

A:

[Even before Afghanistan] we wanted to see if we could have Air Force planes and troopers on the ground much more closely connected. We recognize that if a particular target is fixed -- a building or a bridge -- we have lots of ways to deal with it, such as a Tomahawk from a submarine or a bomb from a bomber. But what if they move? How do you link the soldier on the ground to the pilot?

Troops on the ground now can get a range and bearing on a target and convert that to global positioning system terms and beam [that information] up to an airplane. In some cases, as we saw [with the absence of air defense in Afghanistan], a B-1 or B-52 could be loitering above and the person on the ground gets the coordinates, and in 10 minutes or less, "boom!" A bomb goes off, and the opponent just doesn't understand how that has happened.

The tough one is the targets that move. I have a [GPS computer] that I got as a present. The Army already has binoculars with a compass in them, and rangefinders with lasers and maps. So [you could use] a magnetic compass to get a bearing, put it on the map with your coordinates, and with the binoculars lase on something.... I'd eventually like to get the troops a pair of binoculars that can do everything.

Q: How did you get the unmanned planes up so quickly? You only had one Global Hawk, right?

A:

We had a couple of them, and they were in test. The Predator actually saw service in Kosovo.... Global Hawk was originally developed to fly a predetermined path and then back again. They land themselves using a digital map [in the drone's computer]. But the operators didn't know where to go because the planning hadn't been done. And the operators just started flying it directly, using the keypad, just like little kids do on games. What we found is, because of the digital world, you can correlate things very quickly.

It still isn't foolproof, but the pilots have accepted them.... There is no prejudice against these things anymore because when a naval officer in his F-18 talks to a Predator, the Predator answers right back.... From the point of view of the pilots of the aircraft flying with the Predator, there is a little tiny pilot in that plane.

Of course, we are conscious of the fact that we are not going to see [a situation exactly like] Afghanistan again. We had no air defenses to deal with and very good weather. So it's more a matter of not just sticking to the tried and true, [but] using old things in new ways. That leads us to ideas for new things.

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