The first conflict dominated by precision strike capabilities, Desert Storm, occurred more than two decades ago. Since then, all conflicts in which the United States has engaged have been marked by the extensive, even overwhelming, application of precision strike capabilities. In fact, the U.S. military worked for decades to achieve its current level of capability which can be described simply as “one aircraft, one weapon, one target”.
A central strategic issue for the future is whether the United States military can maintain its dominant position in the face of three challenges to the current U.S. dominance in global precision strike. The first challenge is the proliferation of so-called anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities designed specifically to counter the U.S. dominance of the air. The second is the shift in the focus of political-military interests to the Asia-Pacific. The third challenge is the ability of precision strike forces to address an evolving target set.
There are five critical steps to preserving U.S. dominant precision strike in the first half of the 21st century. They are:
- A More Rapid Transition to a Fifth-Generation Tactical Fighter Fleet. The case for investing in fifth-generation platforms is unassailable. A sensible strategy would be one that reduces expenditures on legacy platforms in order to increase the number of F-35s acquired each year so that the total reaches approximately 1,000 by 2024.
- Develop and Deploy A Robust Complement of Precision Deep Strike Capabilities. Both the Air Force and the Navy need to invest in new capabilities to see and strike deep in the face of advanced air defenses. The critical steps are development and procurement of a large fleet of next-generation bombers, investment in sea-based cruise missiles and deployment of a highly capable Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system.
- Invest in a Family of Advanced Weapons. New and modernized platforms are not enough to maintain U.S. dominance in air-based precision strike. Continuing preeminence will require investments in extremely precise, long-range, high speed and stealthy weapons to ensure the ability of U.S. forces to hold at risk the full range of targets in the face of the A2/AD threat.
- Connect Air, Sea and Ground Platforms and Systems. Advanced networks will be required to support distributed operations, the “combat cloud,” and near real-time sensor-shooter collaboration. The military services need to devote the required resources to achieving connectivity.
- Enhance Base Defense and Prepare for Proliferated Basing. Airbase resilience, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, is vitally important politically as well as militarily. Such resilience will be a function of increased investment in a combination of active defense, passive defense, attack operations and proliferated basing.
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