American Enterprise Institute speech
My mission today is to describe the challenges facing American air power in the years ahead.
I plan to do that by briefly assessing the major threats to global stability and then focusing on a range of operational concerns that may impede the Air Force’s capacity to carry out its part of national strategy.
At the end, I will draw some programmatic conclusions — but I would like to begin with some history.
A Pivotal Moment
It is sometimes said of Americans that they have high hopes for the future and little sense of the past.
When you look at what long memories have done for places like Iraq, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.
Nonetheless, I share Patrick Henry’s view that there is “no way of judging the future but by the past.”
So I’d like to take you back two generations, to a moment in the history of the early Air Force when its leaders were facing a crisis of confidence about what air power could accomplish.
It was the winter of 1945, the war in Europe was largely won, and the military was shifting its sights to the coming invasion of Japan.
The war thus far had not been an entirely satisfactory experience for leaders of what was then called the Army Air Forces.
They had proven that they could control the skies above U.S. troops and cause considerable damage to enemy cities, but they had not vindicated the belief of prewar visionaries that strategic bombing could win wars.
Part of the problem was that the Army kept drawing its bombers away from the strategic targets air planners favored to support ground forces in the field.
But the larger problem was that bombers often couldn’t hit the high-value economic targets air-power advocates were convinced lay at the heart of enemy warfighting capabilities.
A particularly embarrassing episode occurred shortly after the Army Air Forces gained access to bases within range of Japan’s industrial heartland.
Applying its precision-bombing doctrine to a large plant producing aircraft engines — potentially a key chokepoint in the Japanese war economy — the 21st Bomber Command launched 835 bomber sorties that cumulatively destroyed only four percent of the target.
Poor bombing results weren’t just bad news for proponents of air power.
If bombing couldn’t win the war in the Pacific, then up to a million soldiers might die invading and pacifying the Japanese home islands.
It was desperate time, which is why the head of the bomber command, General Curtis LeMay, decided to abandon precision bombing of point targets in favor of area attacks against Japanese cities.
The critical turning point came on the night of March 9, 1945, when LeMay launched 334 Superfortresses loaded mostly with firebombs against the Japanese capital of Tokyo.
The conflagration they created in Tokyo was so spectacular that tailgunners on bombers returning to base that night could see the glow of the burning city from 150 miles away.
Sixteen square miles of the city were burned out, leaving a million people homeless.
The number of Japanese deaths — over 80,000 — was as great as that caused by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima six months later.
The Tokyo fire raid was the antithesis of the discriminate bombing doctrine that airmen had favored before the war, but in military terms it was a huge success — in one night, 22 industrial targets important to the Japanese war effort were destroyed.
So for the remainder of the war, urban area attacks were the main focus of the bombing campaign.
In August of 1945, shortly after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese government surrendered.
The great invasion that U.S. leaders feared so much had been avoided.
The Larger Meaning
Now, why do I mention all this today?
Because it seems to me that the way World War Two ended sent the Air Force on a long detour away from its roots — a detour in the direction of mass destruction that only began to seem a mistake after the world’s greatest military force was defeated in Vietnam.
At its inception in the 1920’s and 1930’s, air power was about precision and finesse.
It was about winning wars quickly.
It was about avoiding carnage rather than causing it.
But neither the totalitarian threats nor the warfighting technologies of the mid-twentieth century cooperated with that vision, so airmen made their case by abandoning the dream of quick and humane victory.
Instead they followed the path of least resistance to a nuclear war plan that in 1960 envisioned killing 360 to 425 million eastern-bloc citizens in a few days.
That approach to warfighting got the Air Force what it had always wanted — independence with a vengeance.
When a White House emissary told Strategic Air Command leader Curtis LeMay in 1957 that his secret war plan for throwing everything at the Soviets as soon as he got warning of a possible attack violated presidential policy, LeMay responded…
“I don’t care, it’s my policy — that’s what I’m going to do.”
The problem with such a strategy, though, is that it became unthinkable once enemies had their own secure nuclear force.
That reality became all too clear in Vietnam, because despite its vast firepower and the commitment of half a million men to the jungles of Indochina, America still suffered the greatest military defeat in its history.
And so there was a second turning point in Air Force history as air power theorists assimilated the limits of overkill.
The second turning point began a slow migration of air power back to its roots — back to a world in which finesse trumped firepower, avoiding the death of innocents mattered, and the political consequences of conflict were paramount.
This time, the new threats and technologies cooperated.
In fact, they have brought the Air Force today to a moment in which it may be able to fully realize the fondest dreams of Douhet and Mitchell, if it can only find the money to modernize.
To understand why that is so, let’s take a look at the major threats to global stability that most concern our leaders.
Threats to Global Security
Few administrations have been as clear as this one in setting forth their ideas about the future military challenges that the nation faces.
A case in point is the threat matrix prepared by Pentagon policymakers to guide this year’s quadrennial review.
The matrix defines four generic threats confronting America and the world…
— “Traditional” threats, meaning conventional threats, which are said to be receding in likelihood due to America’s military dominance.
— “Irregular” threats, such as the Iraqi insurgency, which are said to be more likely because they offer an asymmetric counter to U.S. conventional might.
— “Catastrophic” threats involving the use of weapons of mass destruction by states or non-state actors.
— “Disruptive” threats in which adversaries upset the military balance by achieving breakthroughs in new technologies.
It’s sort of amusing to hear this framework described as a fundamental break with the threat assessments of the past.
If it was a real break with the past, it would acknowledge a range of economic trends that pose true peril to the nation’s long-term welfare, such as rising dependence on foreign energy sources and waning technological competitiveness.
Instead, the matrix offers a standard military assessment that could just as easily have been constructed in the 1960’s.
Back then we were increasingly worried with the demands of counter-insurgency warfare in the third world, apprehensive about the spread of nuclear-weapons technologies to new countries, and downright hysterical about some of the disruptive breakthroughs we thought the Soviets might achieve.
So what’s really new about the Pentagon’s threat matrix, other than our heightened sensitivity to unconventional threats in the aftermath of 9-11?
What’s new is the tools at the disposal of our enemies.
The information revolution has empowered every type of adversary with technologies few past enemies could have imagined…
— Encrypted email.
— Digital sensors.
— Engineered viruses.
— Satellite phones.
— Hacking software.
— Electromagmetic pulse devices.
No doubt about it, we’ve empowered the world — especially if it feels like waging asymmetric warfare.
In the hands of well-organized states, these new technologies pose a real challenge to America’s global military power, including its ability to command the air.
Pentagon planners understand that danger, and therefore have included three major combat scenarios in their quadrennial deliberations covering China, Iran and Korea.
But even in the hands of a few dedicated zealots, new technology confers options seldom available in the past to the poor and the disaffected.
Somehow, the quadrennial review has to think through that problem too.
Which brings me to my core question for today — what challenges and opportunities does this technologically-transformed environment present for U.S. air power?
Eight Key Points
I’d like to address that question by briefly stating eight key points about the emerging operational environment.
My first point, probably the most important, is that new technology is transforming the world so fast and so fundamentally that we can’t pretend to know what the future holds.
That’s why we have no alternative to capabilities-based planning — we must develop forces with tools and skills fungible across the widest range of potential dangers, because we can’t say for sure which threats will be most pressing in the years ahead.
In general, that requirement drives us towards air and space power, and away from more traditional forms of military power that are limited in their reach, their field of view, and their versatility.
My second point is that whatever the future may hold, there is little doubt that the Air Force’s paramount mission will remain command of the air.
Air dominance enables every other facet of joint warfighting — without it, there is little that we can achieve in any other arena of future combat.
Americans have enjoyed air dominance for so long that they sometimes seem to regard it as a birthright.
But if we fail to make the modest investments required today to assure air dominance to mid-century, all of our other grand plans for remaking the military will come unraveled.
My third point is that at least in the near term, most of the really serious challenges to air dominance will come on the ground rather than in the air.
They will take the form of increasingly agile surface-to-air missiles, networked sensors, and mobile command centers that are hard to destroy.
The information revolution has made it possible for countries that can’t afford new fighters to build very good ground defenses, and therefore we must field offensive air power with the stealth and sophistication to overcome such integrated defenses.
Our most capable adversaries may one day deploy directed-energy systems that can unmask stealthy aircraft, but a far more pressing concern today is that even conventional radar can see most of the planes in our fleet.
To assure that all the other benefits of air dominance are available to the joint force, we must invest in whatever tools are necessary to suppress the emerging defensive threat.
My fourth point is that the problem of precision targeting that dogged the early Air Force has been solved — we can hit anything we can find.
So the big challenge now lies in finding the elusive targets that dominate the administration’s threat assessment.
I’ll come back to that in a moment, but let me first note that one of the big ways in which air power is changing is the range of destructive mechanisms it can deploy against adversaries — not just the high-explosive options of the past, but also non-kinetic and even non-lethal effects.
The Air Force subsumes all of these possibilities in a concept called “effects-based operations” that is well suited to a world which values political sensitivities and the avoidance of innocent deaths.
My fifth point is about the challenge of finding elusive targets, which is emerging as the Air Force’s most important mission after assuring air dominance.
You know, when a single bomber sortie can destroy a dozen targets, you don’t need a lot of bombers (assuming they are survivable).
But you do need a way of finding, tracking and targeting the adversary.
Today’s adversaries are so elusive that much of the debate of future investment priorities in the quadrennial review revolves around how to free up money for more intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance.
If we are going to avoid wasting a lot of money through needless redundancy, some service needs to take the lead on these new reconnaissance initiatives.
The Air Force is the obvious candidate because it already has the lead for orbital systems and it has the widest array of airborne reconnaissance vehicles.
That brings me to a sixth point, and a rather touchy one, about space.
Everyone knows that America’s ability to employ orbital systems is a key facet of its military dominance, and the Air Force plays a central role in that mission area.
There are sound, physics-based reasons why space will always be the best place from which to provide communications, weather data, and navigational positioning.
However, it is not so clear that space is the best place from which to collect the kind of intelligence we need today.
Obviously, if a country has control of its airspace and human agents are hard to develop, then space may be our best option for finding out what’s happening there.
But most places we really care about today are suitable venues for deploying manned and unmanned reconnaissance aircraft that can get much closer to items of interest.
Considering how uneven our efforts to develop next-generation imagery and eavesdropping satellites have been over the last few years, it seems nearly certain that we will turn increasingly to airborne collectors for the insight we need.
My seventh point concerns jointness, the sharing of assets and responsibilities among the services to facilitate military success and efficiency.
There was a time when airmen presented air power as the “winning weapon,” the tool that could win wars unassisted.
It was a wonderful dream, but nobody in the Air Force really takes that view of warfighting seriously anymore — the requirements of victory have become too complex.
So when proponents of air power think today of air dominance or precision bombing or aerial reconnaissance, they are usually thinking about how they can help the other services and allies as well as themselves.
That is a huge cultural shift, but it has been in progress since the Vietnam War, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the Army today is offloading artillery in anticipation of more airborne fire support from the Air Force.
Nor should we be surprised that the mobility metrics for the Army’s next-generation armored vehicles are keyed to Air Force transport planes, because that’s the only way they’re going to get to the other side of the world quickly.
Under the pressure of new threats and tight budgets, this cooperation will continue growing for the foreseeable future, breaking down the tribal biases of the past.
Which brings me to my eighth point — my final point — about the meaning of air power in the emerging operational environment.
When the phrase “air power” was first invented by visionaries at the beginning of the last century, it was meant to be taken literally — as the use of airplanes to bring about a revolution in warfare.
Air power in that sense is still very important, but there is a larger, more metaphorical meaning to the phrase that seems to be taking hold in the information age.
Air power today is about the application of advanced technology to military purposes, whether it takes the form of aerial vehicles or orbital systems or digital networks.
The Army is, and always will be, about people.
The Air Force, I would submit, is about technology.
I said to you earlier that the defining feature of the global landscape today is its rapid transformation by new technology.
All of the military services understand this, but all are not as able or as willing to embrace new technology on its own terms.
Unlike the older services, the Air Force was founded on the promise of new technology.
Today, that enthusiasm for new tools and new possibilities permeates the culture of airmen in a way that has seldom been seen in the history of warfare.
So when we think about the challenges and opportunities of a world shaped by new technologies, it is the Air Force that is likely to see first what that means for the future of warfare.
This would be a good place for me to stop, except that I promised at the outset I would conclude with some programmatic findings.
I recall that back in the 1980’s, the Army made impressive progress in its modernization efforts by identifying its five most important new programs, and never missing an opportunity to highlight the “Big Five.”
If the Air Force today were selecting the five programs most crucial to its success in the emerging operational environment, which five would it pick?
Here are the five that I think matter most.
First, the F/A-22 Raptor fighter, which despite all its bad press is indispensable to preserving global air dominance.
People who aren’t pilots sometimes assert that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter would be just as good, but I can’t find anyone in the Air Force who feels that way.
In fact, in behind the scenes discussions last year, the Air Force offered to give up 600 Joint Strike Fighters just to get 200 more Raptors.
I think that’s a deal that policymakers ought to take, because despite its stealth and information technologies, the JSF simply can’t match Raptor in speed and maneuverability — things likely to matter when you’re trying to outrun next-generation SAM’s.
Second, the Air Force simply must get moving on replacing hundreds of Eisenhower-era aerial refueling tankers that are over three times the age of the commercial airliner fleet.
It’s disgraceful that we ask Air Force pilots to operate planes so old that no civilian airline would consider putting them into service.
We don’t really know when corrosion and technological obsolescence will begin taking a fatal toll on these tankers, because no one has ever operated jets for this long.
But when that day comes, if there aren’t a lot of new tankers in the fleet, we can forget about projecting air power in places like the Western Pacific — Navy and Air Force planes alike depend on them.
All the rest of my programs are reconnaissance systems, since that’s where we see the biggest shortfall in requirements today.
My third program would be Space Radar, formerly Space-Based Radar, because it offers the closest thing we are likely to get to persistent global reconnaissance in this generation.
The failure of senior warfighters to stand up and insist they need such a constellation for tracking surface vehicles and generating all-weather imagery shows a real lack of imagination.
Fortunately, Air Force leaders grasp the transformative potential of Space Radar, so the question now is whether they can tell that story convincingly to a skeptical Congress.
The fourth high-leverage program for the future is high-altitude, long-endurance reconnaissance drones such as Global Hawk and an extended-range Predator.
Military operations in Southwest Asia and elsewhere have vindicated the early enthusiasm of the Bush Administration for unmanned systems.
But it still isn’t clear whether warfighters will acquire them in adequate numbers to realize the full value of their persistence, precision and responsiveness.
In particular, the Air Force needs to press ahead with plans for a Global Hawk that can collect both imagery and signals intelligence for days at a time.
Fifth, and finally, there is the program to provide a manned replacement of electronic planes such as AWACS.
That program, designated E-10, has gotten a cold reception from Rumsfeld’s advisors because they deem it a threat to Space Radar.
But with both the Army and the Navy now willing to give up their own electronic aircraft to a joint solution, E-10 recommends itself as the one airframe that can satisfy virtually any mission objective.
Restructuring E-10 as a common sensor platform would advance the Air Force’s role as the lead agent for joint reconnaissance while saving the Army and Navy alike billions of dollars.
Given the budgetary straits the military is now confronting, maybe the idea of saving billions of dollars is the best place for me to stop.
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