Combat Air Power: “The Need For A New Path”


A Conversation with General Corley About the Future of Air Power

General John D.W. Corley
General John D.W. Corley

In late August 2010, Second Line of Defense’s Robbin Laird visited with General Corley for a wide-ranging discussion of the future of air power. General Corley retired November 2009 as the 4 star Commander of the Air Combat Command, with headquarters at Langley Air Force Base, Va. and Air Component Commander for U.S. Joint Forces Command. ACC operates more than 1,200 aircraft, 27 wings, 17 bases and more than 200 operating locations worldwide. General Corley is a widely respected air power thinker and joint force commander. In this interview, General Corley provides us with a tour de horizon on air power and national security strategy with a special emphasis on how to leverage the new capabilities and to build upon those capabilities for the future joint and coalition force.


Persistent Pressure Or The Need To “Dissuade, Deter, Reassure”
General Corley argued that air power is the key lynch pin for the joint force and enables the U.S. to have global presence. He built his discussion around identifying the core or endurable goals for the operation of a Combat Air Force (CAF).

“What are the enduring contributions such a force must provide? What are the enduring ends, which have applicability across a range of military operations? I think sometimes, people are wanting to carve out the limited utility of service A, B, or C, what that service contributes in terms of niche capabilities for the broader the range of military operations, rather than focusing upon joint capabilities across the global operational spectrum. In my mind, I think enduring capabilities for a CAF is, first, the ability to dissuade and deter, and I probably think I would add the word reassure. I think we are missing the point if we don’t have an ability to dissuade an adversary, to deter an adversary, or to reassure an ally.”

These capabilities then facilitate “decision superiority” as well the capability to execute “persistent pressure”:There’s an element of needing to be persistent across the global engagement.”

These enduring ends have to be underwritten by a credible concept of operations.

“The enduring goals, ends, or objectives of the combat Air Force (CAF) are underpinned by a set of concepts of operations. For the air domain, air superiority is a service core competency of the Air Force, bolstered by collaborative competencies from other services that also contribute to air superiority. This is a constant of operations that underpins operational freedom of action. If you don’t underpin operational freedom of action, then again, your freedom from attack, freedom to attack, freedom to maneuver vanishes. If that vanishes for the joint force, then I don’t think you have an effective fighting joint force. I also think your ability to dissuade/deter comes called into question.”

Offsetting Budgetary Constraints: The Advantage of a “Stealth Sensor Integrated Force”
General Corley then discussed how to best proceed in an era of constrained financial resources to empower such a concept of operations supporting the global ends of the U.S. military and the CAF. Throughout the interview, General Corley highlighted that to achieve core strategic objectives in a constrained environment, it was crucial to build upon the new air combat capabilities provided by the F-22/F-35 force. The capabilities of a deployed “stealth sensor integrated force” to operate as the tip of the spear and to enable the rest of the air and joint force to operate globally was highlighted.

Leveraging the legacy fleet with selective modernization to work more effectively with the “re-normed” air arm based on the F-22/F-35 was significant, but he warned against buying new “legacy” aircraft because of their inherent limitations. The approach is to leverage extant legacy assets through building the foundation provided by F-22s and F-35s.

“For example, if I’ve got a fleet of F-15s, how can I leverage those F15s in a potential future environment at the challenging end of the scale with the range of military operations? F-15s today, or F-18s, or F-16s, do not possess the needed survivability inside an anti-access environment. One can say what you will, argue what you won’t, they will not be survivable. And from con-ops point of view, they’re being pushed further and further out due to terminal defenses or country wide or regional defenses that exist. And this diminishes their utility, but they can still be effectively utilized. For example you may take an existing platform, like an F-15 from the Air Force and begin to apply a pod to provide for infrared search tracking, so that it could basically begin to detect assets and then feed that information back to other assets. Or, by providing for connectivity with some advanced tactical data link, that platform, in turn, could be directed to launch weapons from it.”

Towards A New ConOps: Harnessing The Shift From Sequential To Simultaneous Operations
General Corley discussed the key shift from “sequential” to “simultaneous operations” enabled by the new aircraft, which provided a core baseline from which to shape global presence. The General also underscored the importance of the new aircraft in providing significant gains in sustainability and readiness, which made the new force more affordable from an operational point of view.

“How could you ever argue against this digital world which yields more identification of fault if a fault does exist, helps you isolate where that fault is, helps you identify what in fact is going to be necessary to be done for maintenance. It is pooling that information in a careful protected manner, so that appropriate actors can interpret it, manipulate it back to those individuals responsible for the main incidents of support, but also could yield to the individual operator of that vehicle, whatever the impact of the fault happens to be. What are the ramifications? Operators would begin to understand they still have viability in the conduct of a mission that they’re currently performing.”

The General underscored a variety of ways one can leverage the new fleet to provide for continual modernization of the air-enabled joint force.

Among such leverage functions are:

  • Development of new weapons able to capitalize on the F-22/F-35 fleet
  • Incorporation of unmanned elements in the combat force directed by the air element
  • An ability to capitalize on dispersed or decentralized air operations
  • An ability to leverage the digital nature of the new aircraft for an upgrade process.

“I love to have digital interfaces, because if I can bring on board a new capability, which I would like to be able to bring on board a new weapon. I would like to be able to do that and not go through many months’ worth of examination of it, designing the next Rapid Prototype (RP), getting the control panel to talk to the central computer, the central computer to display a different weapons engagement zone in terms of a head-up display, and then ultimately try to discern what is sensor suite A telling me, or sensor A telling me via sensor B and trying to resolve the anomalies between them, and then trying to bring those together.”

But he cautioned: “If you don’t underpin operational freedom of action, then again, your freedom from attack, freedom to attack, freedom to maneuver vanishes. If that vanishes for the joint force, then I don’t think you have an effective fighting joint force. I also think your ability to dissuade/deter can be called into question. We can take note of an example of that when I talked about the global precision attack. If we can no longer hold targets at risk because we no longer have credible assets to be able to strike targets, whether that’s lethal or non-lethal ways to strike those targets, then we are no longer credible. For example, when the 509th bomb wing’s 20-year old B-2 platform no longer possesses the ability to penetrate anti-access environments, even with the finest aviators, maintainers, logisticians, then the global precision attack concept of operations is called into question. If it’s called into question, can you credibly dissuade and deter? And so the ends begin to come apart.”

A key shift in the new concept of operations is enabled by the ability of the new multi-mission systems, F-22, F-35 and Aegis to allow for simultaneous, rather than sequential operations. We have historically talked about sequential escalation, and that’s been rooted in the nature of the structure of the tools we have. What’s interesting about the nature of the new tools, whether it is F-22, F-35, or Aegis is that decision makers can deploy this kit and it is not an escalation: it is a deployment. It could be used for defense, it could be doing security operations, it could be working with allies, in a certain sense, and you have not committed yourself.

General Corley emphasized in conclusion that :

“In earlier decades, when we bought more of one new type of capability in a given month than does the United States Air Force buy in total during this entire year, that buying power also allowed the purchase of specialized assets. Those environments of additional dollars allowed you to buy very specialized platforms in sizable quantities,  platforms that were focused solely on a specific capability. Specialized capability like air superiority, or specialized air surface capability like an F-117. Those fiscal and industrial environments don’t exist today: because of the birth of technology and the age of the digital world, enhanced sensors,  kill chains associated with weapons, and enhancements in terms of survivability with the new aircraft, we now need to pursue another path. This path is to build upon the F-22/F-35 foundation.”