The Role of the US Air Force in the Future Fight


2013-02-08 by Michael W. Wynne, 21st Secretary of the USAF

The start of a new year and of a new Administration is good time to think about the future.

A key challenge facing the new Administration and Congress is to ensure that US military capabilities continue to innovate and evolve in challenging times. 

A key element which can help shape leveraged innovation is the role of jointness among the services and among the allies.  Leveraging the current force structure of both this nation and our potential allies is crucial to innovation going forward and to learn once again the Adage of General (ret) George A. Joulwan; ‘One Team; One Fight’.

A key example is the shaping and support for the Mission of the US Air Force, which is to Fly, Fight, and Win in Air Space and Cyberspace.  This; of course in direct support of the Nation’s Leadership, developing, for them, a multitude of responses to crises in conjunction with the Joint Chiefs and Political leaders.

As we describe the implementation of this mission and point it towards the future fight; some things are clear.  As we dive into this seemingly vast subject; we will strive to focus on the mission; for with this focus the rest of the capabilities of our Air Force are first developed in support of the mission; and then found to be missions unto themselves; such as Education, Training; Medical; and Program Development.

Securing the Global Commons

The challenge of securing the global commons is a global challenge and requires significant allied and partner collaboration.  As seen recently in Mali or in crises in Haiti or Japan, USAF assets play a key role in providing support for security in the global commons.

Securing the commons implies knowledge, which implies information and data about security.  The mission of the Air Force expands is implemented by acquiring capabilities in Air, Space and Cyberspace by detecting incursions, developing some frames of reference for decision makers to determine, with interpretation and added information from various agencies, what actions to take, politically with Allies; and potentially various stages of aggression to deter, and dissuade aggressors; or with measured effect, defeat the incursion.

While Cyber is developing, and appears to be best managed as an joint enterprise; the integration into various capabilities benefits the entire force structure down to the lowest level.

Similarly, the USAF provides capabilities for supplying either logistics or forces via air transport.  It provides as well as advanced  but now integrated technology into society such as weather, Global Positioning; and many times clearer views of natural disasters or critical accident investigations.  All of this allows the USAF to assist by providing information, or food stocks where needed to offset natural or man made disaster from enveloping a population become an integral part of offering our National Leadership a variety of options with which to approach and assist other national or international organizations.

Many times; these capabilities, originally conceived to assist in open warfare, migrate to provide alternate and important uses which are possible due in no small measure to the trend toward interoperation and leveraging allies around the world.

Global Deterrence

The USAF develops capabilities to assist with allies in the deterrence and dissuasion portion, which again requires capabilities to bring a credible threat.  This is the essence of the discussion of the capability of our Nuclear Arsenal, as it ages in place.

Paul Bracken has underscored that we are in a Second Nuclear Age, and in this age deterrence is different but as significant as the first. Bracken is concerned that we are ignoring the rebirth of nuclear weapons within the global dynamic at our peril.

This raises a fundamental question for the USAF.  How does the USAF contribute to or lead US thinking and capabilities to deter in the Second Nuclear Age?

Does the USAF forces retain sufficient credibility to assist our nation’s leaders to dissuade threats of aggression with similar horrific weapons of war?  

In the same way as described in General (deceased) Curtis Lemay’s era; in which the role of Bombers was to hold hostage any point on the globe, now delimited by a Global Positioning Locator. Some would rightly say that with sixty percent of our globe covered with water, this is the mission of the Navy; but this is the essence of joint for where the Air meets the Sea; the issue becomes joint.

Is the current state of our Bomber Fleet living up to this adage?

An F-22 Raptor from the 3rd Wing, Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, rejoins the fight after refueling during Northern Edge 2008 May 8. Twelve Elmendorf F-22s were part of the more than 120 aircraft participating in the largest military training exercise in Alaska. An Alaska Air National Guard KC-135 Stratotanker, from Eielson Air Force Base’s 168th Air Refueling Wing, delivered the fuel during the refueling mission. This electronic warfare exercise separates the 5th generation aircraft from the rest. Credit: Northern Edge 2008.5/8/08

We note that there is a partial fall back; and recently some recommended that we abandon this notional concept and instead convert some of our Nuclear Missiles into Conventional Missiles to effect this outcome at considerably less expense.  A review of potential target sites in any portion of an ever-changing landscape of our world today makes one blanche at this substitution, as it marginalizes our capability; and thus our credibility to effectively dissuade a determined aggressor.

One thing we learned in the early 1990’s was that an aggressor strains to believe in their success; and the least bit of encouragement, however benign, strikes the spark of invasion. Thus did Hussein inquire as to whether an option to a Kuwait defense was in our National Interest; and when advised of uncertainty, seized on the wrong decision?

And as Bracken warns:

The kind of crisis in which learning might occur could revolve around something like the Pacific islands in dispute in the South China Sea. 

If there’s a major Chinese move against one of these islands, the Japanese and US forces will be forced to respond. 

But what if the Chinese start moving some nuclear weapons around? 

What do we do then?

 Avoiding the Far Fight

The Air Force develops capabilities to defeat an aggressor. The essence of ‘win’ implies an overwhelming match.

If deterrence or dissuasion is the point; or if not then sufficiency to assure victory at the end of the fight.

Currently there is obvious concern with the diminishing capability of US air and naval forces to prevail when confronted what are characterized as Anti-Access or Anti-Denial adversaries.  There is a seeming reluctance to enter sovereign Air Space where the possibility of the availability of an Integrated Air Defense System or simply having Advanced Surface to Air Missiles available.

Our leaders have suffered from criticism about not supporting aggressively current sets of Freedom Fighters; or their associated populations, but are potential adversaries looking at this as cover for marginal equipage?

Is this a policy choice or a realistic calculus on the current balance of power?

Future historians may have to make this assessment.  But as a student of military art, one wonders what message we are sending when you suggest that you can not operate in increasing areas worldwide.

The plan to convert from fourth generation to the fifth generation of apparent fighter aircraft across the flying services is a key element of avoiding tough fights.

This dramatic slowdown in transition has reduced the concept of overwhelming match, moving towards sufficiency. 

At the heart of missing the point, is the impact of new technologies, like 5th generation, on driving innovation across the force. Here it is interesting to note that Germany’s Blitzkrieg was buttressed by new technological weaponry but the majority of the force structure, perhaps eighty percent, was more than a decade or two removed from the new technologies.

The point is that new platforms can drive innovation in the entire force structure as a culture of innovation pervades the effort.  Thus; recognition of the nature of the capability puts a premium on coordination, leverage and interoperation to move not the entire set of platforms in the force but the force structure back towards overwhelming match.

Fortunately, this is not only conceptually true, but given the nature of the training tempo that has been our history.  And such innovation can be tested in very realistic operational situations.

Conceptually, the fifth generation fighters have the following characteristics:

  • They can acquire greater information about the situation.
  • They can rapidly disseminate this situation to other nodes around them, considered the 360-degree nature of their communication capability.
  • This provides for opportunities to assess the nature of the aggressor, to receive updated political or military instructions as to a plan of approach or attack, to coordinate with accessible fourth generation fighters as well as Bombers in the region of interest;
  • And leverage available ground and sea based sensor or shooter assets to become an extension of their target acquisition systems.

In prior articles, it has been noted that one of the most difficult arts that these Combat Controllers who fly the Fifth Generation Fighters must learn is restraint.  Their mission task is to deter, dissuade, and defeat using all means at hand.  This form of fighting might not involve their firing weapon, though clearly being armed increases the margin of victory. When they do fire, having relief at hand may be the reason or covering a withdrawal.  This is parallel to how ground force commanders recover to a more defensible position may be the order of the battle.

That said, clearly they represent the tip of the spear for the onset of warfare. They must enter contested airspace with an eye towards mapping the path to victory.  They need to be able to provide detailed targeting data to following forces and where possible eliminating the most contentious threats.

Training needs to embed that the nature of their fight implies that when they directly engage, they become instantly targetable. Therefore, their engagement must be at the point of victory or withdrawal.

To hearken back to Lemay’s concept of holding hostage any point on the globe, escort duty may become an issue, again either on ingress or on egress but more likely accepting the mission of suppression of enemy air defenses which then allows the Bomber multiple target opportunities on a given mission.

The nature of the emergent Bomber provides it with extraordinary sensor acquisition characteristics as it takes in the swath of then enemy territory and with that swath the placement and scope of potential secondary targets.  This is all too off-boarded and transcribed into follow-on forces as needed. This means potential landing areas; and potential safe placement of ground forces.

How To Achieve Mission Success: From Experimentation to Operational Innovation

These are terrific discussion points, but what of practical application?

What of areas of training and operational situations can be a first use to further hone these concepts?

How can these capabilities as described be evidenced outside of the fertile imagination of the very talented gamers that populate more and more realistic multi-player simulations?

The current wisdom is that testing must conclude before operations can be fully implemented has been turned on its head during the past two decades.

Operational use at crucial points is the real testing of systems.

F-16s in South Korea. Credit: Caters News Agency

With the introduction of the Predator, and the Global Hawk to be tested and faulted by the operators to yield a far better overall operational capability yet found not operationally suitable by the test community.

But, for all the faults, once introduced, there was no rush to withdraw the capability.  Rather it was corrected and better used, more fully implemented and in fact called revolutionary as some big thinkers forecast the end of piloted aircraft.

Then on You Tube, the Russians were seen shooting down a Georgian RPV, which filmed its own demise to get the posted video.  Though there was no retraction of the prognosticators, the forecasts were quieted.  The reality of warfare is that the enemy gets to vote.

Nonetheless, operators drew enormous military capability during this period where control of the sky in both theaters of engagement was unquestioned.  But even in the conditions of complete air supremacy allowed these systems to operate, another problem emerged: how to operate effectively with the areas covered and the data generated?

The area was vast and the sensor capability was being expanded. The ability to evaluate what data was collected, and how to best use it and disseminate it brought issues to the front that had never been faced before.

The onslaught of data brought outcries from operators who decried the age of information; and simply wanted first to see it, and then to analyze; and then see it again.

This learning impacts the utility of fifth generation data acquisition, which was being developed before, and during the data and information revolution, when finally interoperability has come to mean need to share in near real time.

It meant putting allies in a position of knowledge to avoid harms way and to protect the accomplishment of their mission.  It meant extolling the virtue of connectedness between ground troops and the air fleet and it may even mean the emergence of fluid command where the command authority moves from air to ground and back again.

The Navy is experimenting with fluid command between on shore and off-shore fire control. Can that command authority be extended beyond visual range in support of battles formerly out of range of engagement?

It is noteworthy that to truly exploit the significant discontinuity that the fifth generation affords will require experimentation to determine the most effective operational approaches.

Such experimentation has already commenced within the US Marine Corps. 

They see the formation of a very different version of the Army Air Assault force introduced in the Ashau Valley and documented in When We Were Soldiers and Young.  This updates the MEU in a decisive way and portends potentially the era of independent action with an Expeditionary Assault Group.

Experimentation can and should as well be with the fleet, and combine fluid command between the ship and the shore with directed indirect ships fire in support of the dynamic air assault.

The utility of the 360-degree sensors and the utility of the z axis providing for vertical assault and support is being fully tested by the Marines.

As in the case of the ROVER link, the testing is in the hands of the operator and the feedback is direct and forceful.

Whereas there are restrictions between the test community and the Corporate Engineering staff, no such restriction occurs when trying to make or extend the mission or mission set in real operations.

What the USMC has set in motion, the USAF needs to expand upon.

Similar to a children’s game of leap frog, the USAF and the USMC can tag team to drive con-ops innovation.

The Air Force F-35s needs the same pressure of experimentation and operator feedback as the Marines have set in motion.

This stands now as better than any fourth generation aircraft, but will be subject to the pain of the best being the enemy of better than ever.  This is the nature of operational tests which does not extend the mission; and does not in parallel enhance the mission capability.

The OT&E are statically forced to evaluate specifications designed years ago and with the technologies available at the time.

As the Marine Corps is fast learning, the best way to combat the critics that simply see the F-35 as a replacement for the F-16 or F-18 is to put it in stressful situations and then marvel at how the operators see farther, operate more capably and frankly don’t want to go back ever to older aircraft.

They begin to worry about their brethren consigned to fourth generation fighters, absent the fifth gen lead.   The Air Force has a true partner in exploitation, and as the AF did with the F-22.  They should allow interspersion between Air Force and Marine Pilots.

This is always the case when co-assigned; and will be again, but this time the leadership can and should sponsor the interaction.

(For a USMC pilot’s reflections upon his experience in a USAF F-22 billet, see the following:

What a great legacy of jointness this will allow.

Applying an Innovative Operational Approach: Shaping a Fleet Impact Strategy

Let’s discuss the application of the operational training approach for fleet innovation.

There was a recent contract asking for the production of at least 31 additional F-35’s. This should be enough for a robust squadron.

The Air Force should encourage deployment to distant theaters. Previously, I argued that the Air Force put 3 squadrons of F-35’s in Korea.

Obviously, there is an opportunity to add the F-22s to the mix and get on with innovation in the defense of South Korea.

Let the Wolfpack rule. It is about using the initial 5th generational lead elements infusing innovation throughout the force and laying down a template for further innovation as new elements are added.

Bring back all the fourth generation Fighters and their maintenance.  This would allow a theater wide application of USAF Fifth Gen Fleet operations; and truly test the maintenance philosophy being taught at Eglin at the Joint Maintenance Training.

As a bonus; there could be a bonafide test of integrating fourth generation operations into the fleet.  The Korean Air Force is very proficient in the F-16 operations would yield a true training ground for leveraging the fourth generation capabilities into the fifth generation command and control loop.

This takes leadership courage. The last time the Air Force tried to deploy the fifth generation, it was considered to disruptive to the international order.

It is encouraging and maybe a foreshadowing that this Administration has allowed such a deployment; and will see merit in the accomplishment. 

For the Air Force, this would be a break through on several levels.

First it would demonstrate conclusively the true advance of a total fleet change to fifth generation fighters.

Second, it would boldly demonstrate to the whole of Asia that we are with them.

Third, it would represent a terrific opportunity to test the interoperation of the fifth and fourth generation fighters as well as introduce both the Japanese and Australian air fleet to this type of joint operation.

With the Army, both Korean and American being involved in the peninsula, the connectivity and fluid command and control would be thoroughly exercised. Naval Fleet operations, which have already considered what the inherent capability of the F-35 is in extending the reach of the AEGIS Platform can now gain an amazing sensor capability should the time come for practicing missile defense; or in exercising throughout the Pacific Theater.

With the Pacific being the most demanding for air operations, perhaps it is time to consider drop tanks for the fifth generation fleet where the range extension can move the launch point wherever needed, and the stealth cover can be automatically emplaced once the tanks are jettisoned.

This useful device can alter concepts of operation as they have for generations of range extended aircraft.   While none are in evidence as of yet, it does seem like an ideal rapid acquisition program, in advance of the military requirement.

As a nation, we have had a strategic peace for a long extended period, even while the tactical theater struggle challenged our attention.

Now, there is an opportunity to recover to a position of strategic strength; and make not expensive choices to create a long range, command and control fleet trained and ready for the future fight.

Admiral Mullen once talked of the ‘Thousand Ship Navy’ as he extolled the virtue of the inter-operational allied fleet.  The Air Force should do the same in the Air, for the future fight will not be ‘mano-a-mano’; but fleet on fleet; and tactics and strategies that more mimic old ground strategies may yield big dividends.

Leveraging distant fires, creating opportunities for fourth gen success in a fifth gen engagement will be central to mission success.  The Air Force role in the future fight looks to be Air Combat Manager, recalling the mission to Fly, Fight and Win.  But this will be done through the Fifth Generation-led revolution not by older systems such as AWACS.

Editor’s Note: Secretary Wynne played a key role in putting Lt. Col. Berke into the F-22 to start the joint learning process.

Also see the following recent pieces on USAF innovation approaches:

An earlier version of excerpts from this piece appeared on AOL Defense.