Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A pilot speaks: The USAF is harder on internal ideas than it is on evil insurgents

Guest columnist Robert Seifert was an experienced AC-130 gunship pilot. Why did the Air Force make it so hard for him to promote an innovative idea for the aircraft he knew best?


By Robert J. Seifert

By Robert J. Seifert

Best Defense guest columnist

I was a USAF AC-130U gunship pilot from 1996 to 2004 and it was the most rewarding and frustrating experience of my life. I flew two deployments in Afghanistan and three in Iraq, and am writing this now as it becomes ever more clear that we must prevail in conflicts like these or risk a never-ending war against insurgents.

On my second deployment to Iraq, I realized that the AC-130 was capable of much more than dedicated support to special operations forces. I was witnessing and reading about Iraq becoming less and less secure, yet our gunships rarely saw or engaged insurgents. We were being assigned to orbit one or two units for all of our loiter time, and not surprisingly, there was never any enemy activity. Who’s going to start trouble with a gunship overhead? It was obvious Iraq had a security vacuum, yet the weapon system and crews most capable of providing security were under-utilized and begging to go home for a perceived lack of mission. For me, the light came on after eliminating 75 insurgents in a single night in conjunction with a tactically astute British conventional unit, and the fact that I kept stumbling across insurgent ambush teams that were unlucky enough to strike while my crew passed overhead.

With a secretary of the Air Force plea for ideas to improve USAF effectiveness in Iraq headlined in the Air Force Times, I prepared a PowerPoint briefing detailing one such idea. With the help of our squadron intel officer, I presented a CONOP for improved AC-130 operations to my deployed mission commander, a USAF lieutenant colonel and well-respected gunship pilot. He tried to critique the new CONOP but quickly became frustrated with my counter-arguments and finally told me to “Stop worrying about the conventional guys… only the stupid ones are being killed.”

I deployed home to my squadron in Florida and gave the same brief to my squadron commander in his conference room with about seven or eight of the most respected AC-130 crewmembers we both knew. The respected crewmembers were positive and had zero issues with the new CONOP, but the squadron commander said we don’t support conventional guys and “the brief stops with me.”

As an experienced AC-130 instructor pilot, and having worked in weapons and tactics for three years, I applied for and was selected to attend the AC-130 weapons school and began the course in Jan. 2004. Part of the course was to write a paper of tactical significance to the AC-130 community. I chose to write about my proposed CONOP for the AC-130.

During this grueling six-month course, taught by instructors who had never deployed to Iraq, I was ever more convinced that my CONOP was the optimal means of gunship employment in Iraq and was beside myself, watching Iraq continue to unravel as gunship crews routinely returned to base with full loads of ammo.

Knowing the consequences, I emailed an overview of the CONOP to the AFSOC commander, Lt. Gen. Hester, who I knew came from a conventional background and might better appreciate supporting conventional forces. Unbeknownst to me, until a later meeting with my squadron commander, Lt. Gen. Hester sent his one-star deputy, who had never flown a close air support mission, to discuss the CONOP with my new squadron commander. I can only assume that my squadron commander convinced him the gunship was being optimally employed, and Gen. Hester soon wrote me back, thanking me for my interest and to keep my commander in the loop in the future.

Soon after, I was eliminated from the weapons school after simultaneously receiving several failing grades from flights and a warning that I’d be gone if I busted one more flight, which I believe happened on the next flight. The only negative comment on my final training report was that my “weapons school paper lacked content, analysis, and detail.” When I asked my squadron commander why he thought I was eliminated, he became very agitated and told me it was because I had emailed the AFSOC commander. I don’t know if this was the direct reason, or if it was simply an example of why I shouldn’t be a weapons school graduate, but it was obvious it was time to find a new airplane to fly.

I requested a transfer to the training command where I would train new pilots. This was granted, but in the time it took to leave the squadron, I submitted the same paper that “lacked content, analysis, and detail” to the Air Force Journal, where it was widely reviewed and praised. The Air University commander, Lt. Gen. Elder, personally praised the article and offered his help to fight “pushback.” My squadron commander was upset, though, over my continued advocacy of the CONOP and conveniently disqualified me from flying when he disagreed with the way in which I completed a pre-flight risk assessment on a routine flight. Unfortunately for the Air Force Journal, AFSOC/Public Affairs was given the task of checking for any classified content in the article, and not surprisingly, it took a year to do so. Their final verdict after a year of scrutiny was that everything was classified but the opening paragraph.

By then, I was a T-6 instructor pilot in Texas and was happily enjoying my new Air Force job, but still upset with the treatment of my article and the ever-worsening situation in Iraq. I fortunately discovered the Joint Force Quarterly (JFQ), which favors no particular service, and they quickly cleared the article for publication in less than a month and published it in its entirety in 2007.

Just prior to my discovering the JFQ, I mailed a copy of my article to former Air Force Chief of Staff Ron Fogleman, knowing of his reputation for doing the right thing. He wrote me back and asked to speak with me on the phone. We discussed the CONOP at length, and he told me that he and another retired USAF general were going to present the idea to General Moseley at a meeting with the chief. He emailed me after the presentation to General Moseley and said he would get back to me once General Moseley had provided feedback. That was my last contact with General Fogelman, and I can only assume that General Moseley contacted AFSOC, who told General Moseley what they thought of the CONOP and its author.

Upon being published by the JFQ, the USAF Advanced Air and Space Studies class (the top graduates of the Air Command and Staff College) collectively reviewed my article, told me most of them agreed with it, and asked me why I was getting pushback on it. The article was also featured on and received dozens of positive comments to the effect of, “this is exactly what we need to be doing,” “how could we not be doing this,” “Air Force bureaucracy strikes again,” etc.

For all practical purposes, that’s where the story ends. Nothing more came of the article, although I’m pretty sure our support for conventional forces improved minimally, as several friends from the community told me that they were doing what my CONOP proposed. I’m convinced it was nowhere close to what needed to be done, or else AC-130s wouldn’t be flying a miniscule portion of the CAS missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan wouldn’t be where it is today.

In conclusion, the AC-130 is the one weapon system for which insurgents have no answer. It immediately dominates any enemy that dares expose itself to friendly forces and is universally admired (even worshipped) by those who are lucky enough to have seen it in action. Unfortunately, it’s semi-owned and well protected by Special Ops forces (SOCOM) and semi-owned and ignored by the USAF, which would have retired it 30 years ago if it wasn’t for SOCOM. This unique arrangement helps explain why the world’s greatest insurgent killer rarely kills insurgents or makes a decisive impact at the strategic level. It’s unfortunate and will hopefully change one day, but it will take more than lip service and hollow pleas for good ideas.

Since writing this op-ed, the author has received information not available before and feedback to convince him that he was not retaliated against due to his aggressive advocacy for more optimized AC-130 employment. He has also realized that the article had the unintended consequence of questioning the reputation of the AC-130 crews, both past and present, which was not his intent.  AC-130s are the most feared weapon on today’s battlefield, and that is due to the hard work, sacrifice, and deadly effectiveness of its crews. Anything that questions that is obviously a mistake, and the author apologizes to all gunship crews and commanders for any harm and ill will that he has caused.

Maj. Robert J. Seifert, USAF (Ret.) is a 1992 USAFA graduate with over 5,000 hours flying the AC-130U, T-6 and C-21 aircraft. He flew more than 100 combat missions over Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Today he is a military history tour guide in Germany.

via Wikimedia

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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