By Marina Malenic

The creation of an Air Force unit devoted to and equipped for irregular warfare is “an idea whose time has come” and is one of the major changes in U.S. military force structure expected to emerge from this year’s review of Defense Department priorities, a top Pentagon official said yesterday.

“Some kind of irregular warfare…Air Force unit, whether it’s a series of squadrons or a wing or a group or whatever…I think is an idea whose time has come,” said Michael Vickers, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, low-intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities. “I’m fairly confident we’ll end up with something.”

Vickers oversees special operations and counter-terrorism; partnership strategy and stability; and global threats and counter-narcotics. He was speaking to reporters at a Defense Writers Group Breakfast in Washington.

Earlier this year, Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, alluded to the service’s internal examination of the idea for a counterinsurgency wing and a specialized aircraft geared toward the task.

Vickers said the department’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), now under way, will evaluate the need for a new airplane and how such equipment would fit into a “portfolio approach” to military capabilities. Vickers said dividing the service’s capabilities into “high end,” “low end” and “swing” forces is one possible paradigm.

“One of the things we’ve seen is that you can’t do the high end and the low end very easily with the same force,” he explained. “So I think there is a need for that kind of capability. I think that capability is being looked at in the QDR. But the question is, how much and…the mix.”

Since entering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan almost nine years ago, the Pentagon has expanded its special operations capacity dramatically. Now, Vickers said, more of that kind of specialized training and equipment aimed at irregular conflict must be brought to the general purpose military.

“We tend to believe now that the most persistent form of conflict over the next couple decades will likely be irregular conflicts of one kind or another, but we still have to be prepared for conventional conflicts,” he said. “And we require general purpose forces to be able to span that spectrum.”

He noted that each of the services has had to adapt differently to the current wars, depending on its particular role in the security environment. According to Vickers, the transformation of the Air Force and Navy, which have primarily been responsible for strategic and high-end conventional deterrence over the decades, will be the most dramatic.

“I think they are being pulled from the middle to the ends of the spectrum,” he said. “But I need a portfolio of capabilities, for the high end and for the low end, and they’re very different aircraft. If I were to try to buy all middle, or all high, or all low, I would fail across that spectrum.

“Further improving our irregular warfare [capability] across the force…is job one for the QDR,” Vickers added.

He said Pentagon analysts will primarily be examining “where we still have gaps.”

Asked whether a light-attack “counterinsuregency aircraft” might be needed, he said the idea has been under consideration by both the Navy and the Air Force. He said the purchase of light-strike and light-reconnaissance planes is one of the issues that this QDR is examining closely.

“The advantage of those kinds of aircraft, besides being adapted to the counterinsurgency battlefield, is that they tend to be very inexpensive and they’re something the partner [nations] can afford,” he said. “So if you look at a partner that is beset by an insurgency, these are the types of aircraft that would seem to be very useful around the world.”