THE United States Air Force's training and equipment are just the right thing for the current crisis in the Gulf, says Air Force Maj. Gen. Joseph Ralston. The Air Force's director of tactical programs says that's because the US fighter-plane force has been set up for use anywhere in the world. ``We have never specifically focused on tailoring our forces only for the defense of NATO,'' General Ralston says. ``We have tried to build the flexibility in our forces and the deployability of our forces for many, many years.''
To this end, he says, US fighter planes have practiced rapid deployment around the world, especially in the Middle East, Europe, and Korea. ``We have spent the last decade training for this type of scenario and equipping our forces to do that.''
The Gulf crisis has ``reinforced what we already knew,'' Ralston asserts. ``The best way to be ready for this type of contingency is to make sure that your training programs are realistic.'' For example, he says that when training in the Middle East, the Air Force has learned of the need to change filters more often because of the sand. ``Our training programs have served us well.''
Nevertheless, there have been several crashes in recent days, which spokesmen on the scene explain as caused by long hours in the air and night operations.
The general also says that US global ``Air-Land Battle'' doctrine is well suited for the current crisis. The doctrine calls for the Air Force to provide direct support to Army troops in the field and to attack an enemy's second-echelon forces - those reserves behind the front lines.
Ralston says the reduced threat in Europe, along with pressure to reduce the budget, has led to Air Force plans to reduce from 36 fighter wings to 28 wings. (A wing includes 72 aircraft.)
A smaller force must mean a more flexible force, Ralston says. ``The airplanes that you have remaining have to do more than one job.'' Thus the Air Force will keep the multipurpose F-15E and F-16 fighters as its main weapons, while phasing out or redeploying less-flexible aircraft.
Ralston says the Air Force will buy no additional F-117 stealth fighters. In addition, President Bush's proposed 1991 budget ends purchases of the F-15E. The Pentagon instead will focus all its development efforts on the advanced tactical fighter (ATF).
But it will be at least 12 years before the Air Force gets any of those planes, the general says. By then, he notes, the F-15E will be 30 years old. ``Traditionally, we get about 20 to 22 years usable life out of a fighter,'' he says.
Ralston adds that the Pentagon has already slowed the ATF program by two years, enabling it to trim $8 billion from the defense budget over six years. ``But Secretary [of Defense Richard] Cheney has articulated, and we feel strongly, that we have slowed that program down as much as is prudent.''
Ralston insists that the US must keep an active research and development program. ``We in the Air Force ... have never been able to compete numerically with our adversaries. We have had to do that through building better-quality equipment.''
THE general, a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, says the Air Force learned from that conflict the need to better defend aircraft against radar-guided weapons. ``We were not prepared to fight electronic warfare,'' he says. Fighters today have the necessary radar-detecting devices.
``We learned that we needed to be able to keep our speed up to defend ourselves,'' Ralston notes. ``The greatest advance that we have made since I fought in Vietnam has been with the digital computer. Our airplanes today - the F-16 for example - have an extremely accurate bombing system....''
Pilots today do not have to compute in their heads their velocity, dive angle, and altitude while in combat. ``Today's pilot can roll in with his F-16 - it doesn't make any difference what his dive angle, air speed, or altitude is ... he's going to be assured of a hit.''
Ralston says the quality of young men and women in the Air Force today is ``absolutely superb.'' This, he says, is a ``pleasant surprise of the all-volunteer force.'' In addition, Air Force equipment is also better built and maintained than it was 10 years ago, Ralston asserts. He points to an F-4 squadron he commanded in 1979-80 which won the Daedalian Award for the most outstanding maintenance in the Air Force. That unit had a 69.5 percent readiness rating. ``Today the average unit is better than 87 percent, and we have units that routinely exceed a 90 to 94 percent mission-capable rate,'' he says. ``I think there is a good-news story.''