While the political system has been distracted by a seemingly interminable presidential campaign over the last several months, the U.S. Air Force has begun a transformation of its global warfighting strategy. It’s a safe bet the defense advisors to Bush and Gore are barely aware of the change, but it has the potential to rewrite Pentagon war plans and spending priorities.
The new concept is called “Global Reconnaissance Strike,” and it is designed to deal with the danger that future adversaries will deny U.S. forces access to overseas bases in wartime. Drawing on the experience of the Kosovo air war, the strategy shifts (or “inverts”) the main weight of bombing campaigns from in- theater fighter-bombers such as the F-15 and F-16 to long-range bombers originating outside the theater of operations. The planned theater force during the early days of conflict would be reduced (or “distilled”) to a small complement of very capable fighters — F-22 Raptors — able to protect bombers and long-range surveillance planes in hostile airspace.
This is a complete reversal of the Air Force’s strategy since Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990’s. That strategy (which was widely interpreted as the triumph of the service’s “fighter mafia” over the bomber community) assumed hundreds of short-range fighter-bombers could be sent to war zones in the early days of an air campaign. Now the Air Force has decided the necessary bases might not be available, either because they are put off limits by local governments or because enemies destroy them. So it is reserving what bases exist for its most advanced air-superiority fighter, the stealthy F-22, while looking outside the theater for strike assets.
The implications for Pentagon spending priorities are profound. First, the need to bolster the long-range bomber force — which today contains only 21 stealthy B-2’s — increases. Second, the F-22 becomes pivotal in enabling the whole air campaign, raising the number of Raptors required. Third, the Air Force version of the hugely expensive ($200 billion+) Joint Strike Fighter ends up looking like a plane in search of a mission. The new strategy thus continues the erosion of service support for the controversial JSF.
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