For more than 60 years, the success of U.S. forces in conflicts large and small has been tied to the ability to deliver crushing blows on adversaries from the third dimension. Dominant airpower consistently provided the hammer which together with the anvil of powerful land and sea forces has formed the core of what many observers have termed the American Way of War.
The strategic role of airpower experienced a transformation based on the revolutions in precision targeting and long-range weapons. Air campaigns that once required hundreds of aircraft and thousands of “dumb” bombs to achieve only limited results could now be successfully accomplished by a handful of platforms equipped with “smart” weapons. The advent of cruise missiles and powered weapons provided additional advantage to U.S. air forces.
Strike is not only critical to the success of the joint force; it is vital to the ability of U.S. air forces to gain and maintain air superiority. Where possible, the battle for air superiority must be taken to the enemy. As the Israeli Air Force demonstrated in 1967, the destruction of hostile air forces on the ground can lead to air dominance and shape the course and outcome of a conventional conflict.
A number of challenges or issues are emerging that, if not properly addressed, could significantly compromise U.S. capabilities to conduct strike warfare. The most commonly discussed challenge is that of the emerging anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threat. China is building an A2/AD structure that could severely restrict the ability of U.S. and allied forces in the Western Pacific to defend themselves and their nations or to hold at risk critical, high value targets in China. In the next several decades, other nations, including prospective adversaries, are certain to acquire advanced A2/AD capabilities. At its core, the anti-access threat to forward operating bases, aircraft carriers and missile-equipped ships and submarines will require U.S. forces either to alter force structure in order to operate at a safe distance from the adversary or take measures to maintain offensive operations while under attack.
Addressing the area denial threat will require new methods and means for penetrating and, as necessary, defeating advanced integrated air defense systems (IADS) as well as improving the performance of air delivered weapons. Area denial raises questions regarding the character of future strategic ISR capabilities, the sophistication and hence cost of future platforms and weapons systems and roles for non-kinetic capabilities such as electronic warfare or cyber “weapons.”
In the 1980s, confronting an improving Soviet conventional threat, particularly in Europe, the U.S. Army devised a new doctrine called AirLand Battle that capitalized on our advantages and exploited Soviet weaknesses. The U.S. military today recognizes that the nature of aerospace conflict is changing and has begun to develop response. AirSea Battle is an intellectual framework being developed by the Air Force and Navy to leverage our strengths against an adversary’s weaknesses.
The proliferation of advanced A2/AD capabilities necessitates the modernization of U.S. aerospace forces. Today, the Pentagon has a handful of critical modernization programs. The first of these is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Simply put, an unstealthy plane will have great difficulty operating against a large scale, intact IADS. The availability of fifth-generation strike platforms in large numbers is central to how the U.S. plans to fight.
A second critical program is the planned Long Range Strike (LRS) system. In order to hold at risk high value targets and provide a mean for conducting a protracted air campaign, the U.S. must have a large capable bomber fleet. Today, the balance between short-legged and long-range aircraft skewed towards the former. 100 LRS is probably a minimum; the pivot strategy may require twice that number.
A third capability critical to the future of U.S. airpower is advanced electronic warfare. The Navy’s EA-18G particularly when equipped with the Next Generation Jammer will provide an enhanced capability against modern IADS. There looks to be a need to complement this capability with penetrating jammers.
A lot of words have been spilt regarding the near-term revolution in military affairs resulting from advances in cyber warfare capabilities. There are reasons to believe that employing cyber “weapons” in future conflicts may be more problematic than proponents acknowledge. First, there is the difficulty of assessing the effects of cyber attacks on military systems; this is called battle damage assessment. Second, even if an attack is successful, remediating the effects may be only a matter of a smart programmer and a few minutes on a laptop. Third, once a counter is developed the cyber weapon could be rendered ineffective.
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