As part of its ongoing effort to address the twin challenges of declining defense budgets and increasing threats, the U.S. Air Force has begun a conceptual study to define the future force of 2023. It chose that point in time because that would mark the end of the period of budget sequestration mandated by the Budget Control Act. The task of the 2023 study is to define the best possible Air Force that can be created for the money and by that date with which to engage a high-end threat. Based on this definition, the study is then to look backwards to the present and define an approach to getting there, particularly with respect to retention of critical and unique capabilities and investment in major modernization programs. Altogether a worthwhile exercise.
In thinking about the future, the Air Force faces three challenges of which it has control only over one. The first challenge, one over which the Air Force has no control, is the capabilities and strategy of the high-end adversaries we may face in 2023. Such an adversary will have lots of modern military capabilities, including so-called anti-access/area denial systems, space, cyber and, possibly nuclear weapons. This adversary will have the advantages of relative short distances to his objectives and the ability to select the time, methods and weight of attack. By definition, the U.S. will be playing an away game, one in which the adversary gets to make the first move.
The second challenge is the U.S. national security and defense strategies of 2023. Decisions here are, as the expression goes, above the Air Force’s collective pay grade. Nevertheless, the 2023 study can assume two conditions. First, no U.S. administration is going to give up this country’s role as leader of the free world and a global power. Second, that a future high-end adversary will present a political and military challenge to U.S. interests that requires a credible conventional warfighting capability, if only as a deterrent. The Air Force won’t get a pass, here.
The third challenge, one where the Air Force has a measure of control, is to build the forces and systems needed to deter and if necessary defeat such a high-end adversary. But it also needs to recognize and respond to some basic realities. The first of these is to complement its current modernization plans with a major investment in distributed systems. Against a regional adversary, the Air Force’s fleet of F-22s, F-35s and strategic bombers, complemented by carrier-based aviation and sea-launched cruise missiles is likely to prove decisive. But the Air Force and Navy cannot buy enough aircraft to counter the sheer mass of platform and weapons that a “near-peer” of 2023 could deploy.
Investments for the future need to be where technology is moving: to sensors, weapons and distributed networks. The Air Force needs to be able to blacken the skies, so to speak, but not with manned platform. Rather, it needs to deploy a distributed architecture of mobile weapons and sensors. Jim Thomas of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments speaks of the need to establish a sufficient density of sensors and weapons in contested airspace so as to defeat any defenses and to destroy the required target sets. This used to be done by sending in lots of airplanes with very primitive weapons and sensors. With respect to fighters, the platform with pilot was both sensor and weapon. The focus of platform development beyond the F-35 should be on their roles as command and control nodes amidst a swarm of sensors and weapons and as the means of carrying and deploying these other capabilities.
Another reality is the need to do more, perhaps most, operations from the homeland. For sixty plus years the U.S. military has had the advantage of forward deployed forces and basing infrastructure in friendly countries. Neither of these situations is certain to pertain for some, perhaps most, future high-end conflicts. Most U.S. forces will start from home stations, countries may not be willing to allow access to their territory for U.S. forces or, most significantly, the bases we wish to use will be under threat from advanced, long-range strike systems deployed by our adversaries.
It took heroic efforts during World War Two to bring our air forces within reach of the adversaries’ homelands. Without Great Britain as the unsinkable aircraft carrier would there even have been a strategic bombing campaign of Germany much less the Normandy invasion? Unless we plan to fight our way across the Pacific, creating air and sea bases along the way, we will have to conduct future major campaigns from strategic ranges. In addition, forward bases will be under continuing threat. The Air Force will need to adjust the balance between short and long-range strike systems in its portfolio for 2023. The Air Force should consider building, at a minimum, 200 Long Range Strike Systems so long as these are designed to carry advanced weapons and sensors to perform the penetration mission.
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