Airpower as a Lynchpin for a 21st Century Pacific Strategy

A pair of F-22 fighters escort Fencing 1220, a Gulfstream 4 simulating a hijacked airliner, over Alaska as part of Exercise VIGILANT EAGLE (Credit Photo: Maj. Mike Humphreys/U.S. Army, August 8, 2010 via NORAD)

2012-09-23 by Lt. General (Retired) Deptula

Change is constant in the Air Force, and that change needs to be embraced, because out of change comes adaptability to meet the challenges of the times. 

A strategic reality that affects the US military in the Pacific, is something that you all have known for a very long time, and is finally receiving National attention—that the 21st Century is the Century of the Pacific.

The National Defense strategy has been revised accordingly, and is recognition of the security challenges in the region.  It’s not an understatement to say that the proliferation of anti-access/area denial capabilities, across all domains, presents one of the most daunting challenges our military has ever faced.  We are not going to buy our way out of this challenge—the money isn’t there—nor are there any silver bullet solutions.

We’re not going to blast our way out of this problem with overwhelming force, as we no longer have the force structure we enjoyed in the ’80s, and besides, anti-access/area denial is designed to defeat traditional strengths.

We’re going to have to think our way out of this problem.

We’ll succeed by exploiting our number one asymmetric advantage–the brains of American Airmen.

The Challenge

The Air Force’s core competency is innovative thinking; so let me take my remaining time to offer some thoughts on this topic…because we’re in an era where applying industrial age warfare concepts—concepts of the last century—will simply no longer succeed in the information age.

Air Force members today need to fully appreciate that you are all “Airmen” first with a connection to an enterprise much larger than your particular specialty.  This connection is inherent in the unique way in which we think, more than it depends on the particular job we learn when we come into the Air Force.

Early proponents of airpower called it “airmindedness.”

As airmen, we embrace the ability to rise above the constraints of terrain, literally, and to transcend the strictures of the horizontal perspective—we refuse to think or to operate in less than three dimensions.  It’s this unique and specific focus that keeps our Nation on the leading edge of the challenges we face…or in other words, it’s what makes aerospace power one of America’s key asymmetric advantages.

Today, our joint forces have the highest battlefield survivability rates not only because of the advances in medicine—but also due to our ability to rapidly get our wounded to critical care facilities…BY AIR.

Today, unlike the contests of the past—our joint forces go into combat with more information about the threat they face, and have better situational awareness provided in near real-time, and they get that information…FROM AIR and SPACE, through cyberspace.

A pair of F-22 fighters escort Fencing 1220, a Gulfstream 4 simulating a hijacked airliner, over Alaska as part of Exercise VIGILANT EAGLE (Credit Photo: Maj. Mike Humphreys/U.S. Army, August 8, 2010 via NORAD)
A pair of F-22 fighters escort Fencing 1220, a Gulfstream 4 simulating a hijacked airliner, over Alaska as part of Exercise VIGILANT EAGLE (Credit Photo: Maj. Mike Humphreys/U.S. Army, August 8, 2010 via NORAD)

Today, unlike the past, our joint task forces are able to operate with much smaller numbers, across great distances and inhospitable terrain because they can be sustained over the long-haul…BY AIR.

Today, navigation and precise location anywhere on the surface of the earth for application in both peace and war is provided by an Air Force GPS constellation… FROM SPACE.

Today, not only do surface forces receive firepower from the air when they need it, but the adversaries our Nation views as the greatest threat to our security can be compelled to accede to our strategic objectives by direct attack… FROM THE AIR.

Over the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century, Airmen have created a structure of capabilities that have become ubiquitous…as a result, the Air Force has become the indispensible force…now that’s both a blessing… and a challenge.

You all have made it look easy when it’s not, and as a result too many take what you do for granted.

Air, Space, and Cyber power are based on the characteristics of technology—but the invention, design, development, fielding and application of those instruments flow from human imagination, knowledge, and capabilities.  Air Force Airmen have harnessed technological capabilities to the ever-evolving requirements of national security by deterring potential adversaries; and flying, fighting, and winning when necessary.

The Air Force seizes on the virtues of air and space to project power without projecting vulnerability, and as a result, you provide our Nation’s leadership with strategic alternatives not available any other way. 

This is a proud heritage and a legacy that you must continue.

It won’t be easy—its been emphasized before with sincere efforts where some were more successful than others, but I’d suggest what needs to be accomplished is not more lists of capabilities, new creeds, or mottos, but through culture change.

Creating a culture and environment that encourages disruptive thinking instead of discouraging it. 

Folks, we’re not going to meet the budget challenges of the future by simply buying less of what we already have—we need to embrace and invest in innovation, creativity, and change.

One way do that is to change our military culture to one that embraces the advantages of operating in the third dimension as a primary means of securing our objectives, not simply one of supporting another medium of operations.

Air Force components shape, deter, and dissuade so we can attain fundamental national interests minimizing the need for combat operations.  When combat is necessary, Air Force capabilities yield a variety of strategic, operational, and tactical effects that provide disproportionate advantages.

Our Nation has three services that possess air arms—the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps.  Those air arms exist to facilitate their parent services core functions—their mastery of operations on the ground, at sea, or in a littoral environment.

However, our Nation has only one Air Force, whose sole reason for being is to exploit the advantages of operating in the third dimension of air and space to directly achieve our security objectives.

Let me repeat that… our Nation has only one Air Force, whose sole reason for being is to exploit the advantages of operating in the third dimension of air and space to directly achieve our security objectives.

Your job is not just to learn how to best apply air, space, and cyber power in the Pacific, but also how to effectively advocate and articulate those capabilities so they are embraced and incorporated in our military as alternatives of choice.  That’s also how you become even more joint than you already are.

Jointness means that among our four services, a separately developed and highly specialized array of capabilities is provided through service or functional components to a joint force commander—his or her job is to assemble a plan from among this “menu” of capabilities, applying the appropriate ones for the contingency at hand.

It does NOT mean four separate services deploy to a fight and simply align under a single commander. 

Nor does jointness mean everybody necessarily gets an equal share of the action.  The reason joint force operations create synergies is because this approach capitalizes on each services’ core functions—functions that require much time, effort, and focus to develop.

Jointness is not homogeneity—it is not “going along to get along. It’s not complying with the majority view because that’s viewed as being collegial.

It is recognizing that to be joint we require separate and distinct services, and that it’s an imperative that service members understand how to best exploit the advantages of operating in their domains.  To have jointness, the separateness of our services is a requirement.

Our construct of joint operations requires that we have the strongest Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force in the world.

So far, I’ve spoken of innovative thinking; culture change; jointness; the attributes of the Air Force; the virtues of airmindedness, AirSea Battle, and the challenges of the Pacific…so let’s tie these altogether.

All of you are very familiar with the description of the challenge of the Pacific as overcoming the tyranny of distance.  Our Navy friends claim that the ocean covers 70 percent of the earth; Airman certainly acknowledge that fact, but also observe that air and space covers 100 percent of the earth.  I have a new expression for you that blends both, and is most applicable to the Pacific theater…  “The air is the ocean that comes to every person’s door…” so how might we exploit that fact as you deal with the challenges of the future?

We need to realize and exploit the advantages of modern aerospace and information age technology to build new concepts of operation; and we need to also realize that innovation can be applied to organization as well as from technology.

Shaping an Effective Approach

We need to think beyond the constraints that traditional culture imposes on new technology.

For example, 5th generation aircraft are termed “fighters,” but technologically, those F-22s the 199 Fighter Squadron here in Hawaii fly, and F-35s destined for Kadena, and that our Marine and Navy brothers and sisters will also get, are not just “fighters”—they are F-, A-, B-, E-, EA-, RC, AWACS-22s and 35s.

They are flying “sensor-strikers” that will allow us to conduct information age warfare inside contested battlespace whenever we desire—if we fully exploit their “non-traditional” capabilities.

This will require leading-edge networking capabilities, and different approaches to solving our data bandwidth challenges.

For example, to solve the explosion in data growth from new sensors, instead of building bigger pipes to transmit all the collected data, we ought to process the data on-board and only transmit what’s of interest to the users.  This approach inverts the way we do intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) processing today.

We need to bring a new long-range ISR/strike aircraft into the Air Force inventory as fast as possible to capitalize on the impact of long-range precision effects – kinetic and non-kinetic.  Then we need to amplify those effects through integration with the array of other forces through networked ISR from seabed to space.

Service-component integrated capabilities have the potential to enable advanced concepts of joint operations.  An example would be 5th generation sensor-strikers—F-22 and F-35s—used to cue Aegis fleet missile defense batteries to engage adversary anti-ship ballistic missiles launched against US aircraft carriers.

We will also need to be able to rapidly reconstitute denied space-based communication architectures for immediate use—using alternatives in the air or at sea.

Now, to fully capitalize on these capabilities will require a new way of designing our force.

Shaping an Agile Operational Framework

We have to think outside of the organizational constructs that history has etched into our collective psyche.  Network-centric, interdependent, and functionally integrated operations are the keys to future military success.

The future needs an agile operational framework for the integrated employment of U.S. and allied military power.

It means taking the next step in shifting away from a structure of segregated land, air or sea warfare to integrated operations based on the four functions of ISR, strike, maneuver, and sustainment.

We need to link aerospace and information-age capabilities with sea and land-based means to create an omni-present defense complex that is self-forming, and if attacked, self-healing.  This kind of a complex would be so difficult to disrupt that it would possess a deterrent effect that would be stabilizing to the entire Pacific region.

The central idea is cross-domain synergy.  

The complementary vice merely additive employment of capabilities in different domains such that each enhances the effectiveness, and compensates for the vulnerabilities, of the others.

A tremendous strategic advantage will accrue to the US and our allies if you exploit organizational innovation to develop an ISR-Strike-Maneuver-Sustainment Complex.  This complex is not just about “things.”

It’s about integrating existing and future capabilities within an agile operational framework guided by human understanding.

It’s an intellectual construct with technological infrastructure.

In the face of disruptive innovation and cultural change, the military can maintain the status quo, or it can embrace and exploit change.  I suggest that the latter is preferred.

The bottom line is that there’s never been a time that required more new ideas than today.

Airpower, the Air Force, and PACAF are particularly well suited to respond… to develop a strategy that is evolving into one best described as  “Strategic Agility.”

Article is taken from abbreviated and edited remarks of Lt Gen David A. Deptula, USAF (Ret) at the Pacific Air Forces celebration of the 65th Anniversary of the establishment of the United States Air Force; Delivered at Hilton Hawaiian Village, Honolulu, Hawaii, 14 September 2001.

We have published a number of books which develop some of the themes discussed in this very clear statement of the role of airpower in 21st century strategy.

Please see the following: