Air dominance is essential to virtually every operation the U.S. military conducts. It is an essential component of the U.S. military’s “DNA.” Budget cuts, shrinking force structure, poor investments in modernization, technological innovation and a growing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threat are combining to call into question the Department of Defense’s ability to maintain air dominance in future conflicts. Without air dominance, the U.S. military’s concepts of operations will unravel.
The value of airpower dominance is not lost on our competitors and adversaries. Consequently, they are pursuing asymmetric strategies intended to neutralize the U.S. advantage. Their approaches are generally subsumed under the rubric of “anti-access/area denial.” This phrase includes deployment of significant arsenals of more precise ballistic and cruise missiles for the purpose of neutralizing U.S. and allied airbases and related infrastructure. A2/AD also involves the deployment of sophisticated multi-layered integrated air defense systems. In addition to active defenses, countries are investing in electronic warfare and cyber capabilities with which to attack or neutralize U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, command and control and precision strike capabilities. Fourth-generation fighters are proliferating and several countries are developing their own fifth-generation combat aircraft.
Even as the threat is evolving the U.S. military is emerging from a decade of war with forces that are battle-worn, aging and in need of modernization. The U.S. military, in general, and the Air Force, in particular, is in the early stages of a major effort to reset equipment worn out by a decade of war as well as a program to modernize its asset base. At the same time, currently programmed defense budget cuts of nearly $500 billion may make modernization plans impossible to execute. Should deeper cuts occur, particularly sequestration, an entirely new force structure and modernization plan will have to be created.
The pressure on the Air Force is particularly severe. The U.S. Air Force today is smaller than at any time since its creation. Yet, the demands on both it and naval aviation remain extremely high. Both the Air Force and Navy have undertaken significant force structure reductions in recent years in order to fund critical modernization programs. The Air Force vision is of a force that is “smaller, but superb.” Yet, program terminations and delays in the introduction of new aircraft have created a situation in which the U.S. aerial fleets are both smaller and older. It is not certain that proposed defense budgets will be sufficient to support current modernization plans. In the event of sequestration, there is no clear bottom to the decline in U.S. airpower. As a senior member of the U.S. Congress warned recently with respect to the Air Force, the cumulative effect of these challenges could be catastrophic to the U.S. military’s ability to maintain aerospace dominance.
“That dominance is now at risk, however, as current defense cuts threaten to do what no enemy can: end U. S. control of the skies. If we weaken our air superiority, our country’s entire war-fighting strategy will be forced to change. We will no longer be able to operate anywhere on the globe without risk.” (Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), “The Air Force we Need,” Politico, April 29, 2009)
Every so often there are proposals floated by think tanks or Congressional offices for various options for attaining air dominance on the cheap. They usually involve truncating or even cancelling current modernization programs and waiting for new technologies such as unmanned combat air vehicles to emerge. Such proposals are most assuredly one of the quickest routes to the loss of U.S. air dominance. In truth, the only way to protect and extend the current U.S. advantage in air power is to invest fully in near-term modernization programs such as the three variants of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a new long-range strike system or strategic bomber, replacements for the Tomahawk and air-launched cruise missiles, P-8 maritime patrol aircraft and the KC-46A refueling tanker.
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