Since the birth of military aviation, there have been two revolutions in airpower. The first and most basic revolution occurred in the first half of the last century. It centered on the creation of platforms and organizations focused on seizing control of the air and striking targets on land and sea. Although even to the present day the first revolution is associated with strategic bombardment, this is not where it had significant impact. Despite the expenditure of almost untold resources, material and lives in the pursuit of decisive strategic effects through massive, deep penetration raids on enemy homelands, the first revolution was largely successful at the tactical level. Limitations with respect to navigation, targeting and penetration of hostile air defenses prevented air forces from achieving the dreams (or in some cases fears) of air power theorists. Rather, airpower was highly successful in its support of land and sea forces, striking enemy ground formations and fleets and interdicting transportation and logistics.
The second revolution was essentially operational in character. It was based on dramatic successes in solving the twin problem of navigation/precision targeting and penetration. First demonstrated at the end of the Vietnam War and improved upon in subsequent conflicts, the ability to precisely navigate and deliver ordnance on target, coupled with techniques to manage the signatures of airborne systems, particularly through stealth technologies, dramatically changed the ability of airpower-oriented forces to impact military campaigns. Air strikes became almost exponentially more effective due to the phenomenon of one weapon per target as well as to the higher lethality achieved. The combination of low-flying air and sea-launched cruise missiles and stealthy aircraft armed largely with precision-guided munitions allowed for the rapid destruction of hostile air defenses, the establishment of air superiority and the near-paralysis of enemy command and control and military forces. This second revolution has been a key unrecognized factor in the current conflicts. Apache helicopters, AC-130 gunships, B-1s, fighter with guided munitions and UASs with Hellfire missiles have proven decisive in countless engagements.
The third revolution could well be strategic in character. It will be based on ubiquitous ISR and cheap precision weapons. This revolution is already being experienced at the tactical and operational levels as sensors and targeting systems become smaller, faster and more common and precision strike systems proliferate not only throughout the air services but to ground forces as well. Superb ISR coupled with advanced systems such as the Small Diameter Bomb, Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System, the Excalibur artillery projectile and even the Switchblade mini-UAS are today or will have soon a significant impact on the conduct of joint operations. Equally as important as their impact on the battlefield is the ability of advanced ISR and low-cost precision weapons to reduce the cost per strike, often by an order-of-magnitude or more.
The challenge for this third revolution will be to scale up the gains being made in tactical ISR and precision strike. To date, this latest airpower revolution has been conducted largely in a benign air environment, over relatively short ranges and against adversaries with limited target sets. U.S. fifth generation aircraft, most particularly the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, are intended to address many of the requirements for sophisticated ISR and precision strike in hostile airspace. But the U.S. at present must rely on a fleet of aging long-range bombers, only a handful of which are stealthy, and sea-launched cruise missiles for a long-range strike. Although judged still to be effective against existing air defense threats, these systems and weapons will face difficulty in penetrating advanced defenses. In addition, in the event of conflict with a large, well-armed adversary, the number of potential targets is likely to exceed available inventories of weapons, which tend to be rather expensive as are all current U.S. long-range ISR systems, be they airborne and space-based platforms.
Both the Air Force and the Navy need to invest in new capabilities to see and strike deep at reduced cost. It might also be argued that promptness should also be added to these requirements. The ability to deliver large volumes of weapons precisely and promptly against all but the most hardened targets would be a powerful deterrent of any prospective adversary. Should deterrence fail, such a capability would be able to meet the requirements in the current strategy to deny an aggressor the prospect of achieving his objectives or to impose unacceptable costs on the aggressor and to do so rapidly. Such capability could achieve the goals airpower advocates set out nearly a century ago.
Find Archived Articles: