As the Department of Defense, the Congress and the nation debate how to manage the impacts of declining defense budgets the basic choices are as clear as they are limited. As the Strategic Capabilities and Management Review put it, the focus can either be on capacity – number – or capabilities – technologies. Another way of putting it is that the military can either invest in very expensive people or very expensive systems and platforms. To some degree the choice will depend on the U.S. national security strategy and the Pentagon’s defense strategy. But it will also depend on the threats the nation will face.
It is primarily for the last reason that the Air Force, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the Navy, must invest in new capabilities even if that means reducing its overall size and cutting the number of platforms it deploys. Our potential adversaries are not standing still. Rather, they are investing in a host of new capabilities to close their gaps with U.S. airpower. Recently, the Air Force published its Global Horizons study, which seeks to forecast demands in science and technology. According to this study, and confirmed by other Intelligence Community reports, the majority of foreign combat air forces will be made up of modern fourth- or fifth-generation aircraft. In addition, potential adversaries will gain greater access to advanced defensive systems and offensive munitions. They will also be able to contest the use of space and engage in sophisticated electronic warfare and cyber attacks on U.S. command, control and communications systems. According to Air Force Chief Scientist Dr. Mica Endsley, “In air operations, I think over the past few decades, we’ve enjoyed pretty good air superiority in a lot of the theaters we operated in — that’s not necessarily going to be the case in the future.” Air Combat Command (ACC) Commander Lieutenant General Gilmary M. Hostage III went even further in a public interview, stating that even today the majority of ACC’s combat aircraft “do not have the ability to operate without significant risk in an advanced threat environment.”
For the United States there is no choice but to invest in future capabilities. This means, in particular, fifth-generation platforms, most specifically the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but also a new long-range bomber. More needs to done in other critical capability areas. As the Under Secretary of Defense for AT&L Frank Kendall observed recently about gaps in his acquisition program, “we’ve neglected electronic warfare and held off on some advancements in precision weapons systems. But we need to start thinking about the next generation of weapons.”
While it is true that quantity has a quality all its own, in reality mass is of decreasing utility in modern warfare. Large but technologically unsophisticated forces are expensive to operate and maintain, difficult to deploy and maneuver and most important, tend to get obliterated by superior capabilities. So, when it comes to air and also naval power, in particular, capabilities will trump capacity.
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