The Air Force Needs To Define Its Next “Big Five”

In the aftermath of Vietnam, the U.S. Army had to redefine its identity and build a new force structure. It found that identity at the Fulda Gap in a new doctrine for maneuver warfare designed to defeat a structured offensive against NATO by the massed conventional forces of the Warsaw Pact. The core of this new doctrine was the concept of AirLand Battle. Based on the work of General Donald Starry, AirLand sought to turn the Warsaw Pact’s sheer numerical superiority and its ability to overwhelm Western European defenses by sending successive waves of units or echelons crashing into NATO’s defenses. General Starry’s brilliant insight was to recognize that the structured nature of Warsaw Pact offensive operations was its key vulnerability. The key to AirLand Battle was the use of maneuver and long-range fires to disrupt against the second and subsequent Warsaw Pact echelons, thereby denying it the ability to build up an overwhelming numerical advantage against NATO’s front lines. Complementing Army operations were air and missile strikes by the U.S. Air Force and Navy throughout Eastern Europe and even into the Western military districts of the Soviet Union.

In order to execute the AirLand Battle doctrine, the Army needed a new suite of capabilities. It settled on what became the Big Five: the M-1 Abrams tank, Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle, Apache attack helicopter, Black Hawk utility helicopter and the Patriot air defense missile system. The Army also began a program to develop the Multiple Launch Rocket System, although this was not an official “Big Six” program. When taken as a whole, the Big Five both enabled the Army’s doctrine of AirLand Battle and served as the core of its modernization program for some twenty years. While neither AirLand Battle nor the Big Five were ever tested against Warsaw Pact forces, they were the foundations for the remarkable successes for U.S. ground forces in both Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom.

Today it is the Air Force of all the services that needs to find itself. It is trapped between the vanished past of the Cold War, a present in which its critical roles often went unacknowledged and an uncertain future. For more than twenty years U.S. and Coalition forces haven’t faced a significant air or missile threat. The counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan depended on airborne ISR, transport and close air support but in a relatively permissive environment. It has been a long time since the Air Force has had to think seriously about its core identity or about such missions as offensive air superiority or defensive counter air. Some observers have suggested that AirSea battle could provide the same catalyst for Air Force (and Navy) plans and programs that AirLand Battle was for the Army. That might be the case if the Pentagon were willing to specify a threat/scenario against which to focus AirSea Battle.

The Air Force needs more than a new identity. It also needs its own version of a Big Five for the 21st Century. It once had a Big Five, designed in the Cold War, which consisted then of the F-22, the F-35, the C-17 transport, the B-2 bomber and a new refueling tanker. Today what remains is a Big Two: the KC-46 tanker and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. To these it might be possible to add the new Long Range Strike (LRS) family of systems although this is still so inchoate it is difficult to put much stock in it, yet. Faced with the advent of both Russian and Chinese fifth-generation fighters and dependent on a perilously small fleet of F-22s, Air Force leaders have begun to discuss the need for a sixth-generation air superiority aircraft. Some analysts like to fantasize about a future unmanned combat air vehicle as another component in a new Big Five or even a replacement for manned platforms.

In order to define its new Big Five, the Air Force needs to define who it is and what it will do in the new century. If the challenge is deterring Chinese aggression in the Western Pacific, this would require a particular strategy and combination of “Big Five” systems. Guidance from the White House and OSD regarding threats or scenarios against which to plan would help. But even if guidance is not forthcoming, the Air Force can articulate its own vision of the role of air power in future conflicts and what platforms and weapons it needs to be successful.