The Role of Airpower in 21st Century Operations


2013-04-10 Concluding remarks by Lt. General (Retired) David Deptula at the recent International Conference on Air and Space Power in Istanbul Turkey held 28-29 March 2013.

This conference gave us the chance to discuss the potential of air and space power’s contribution to 21st Century warfare, and to do so through the lens of not only airmen, but other service and civilian partners as well.  The discussion and agenda was so rich in content and ideas that it’s difficult to capture all in the period of time we have to wrap up.  I’ve attempted to capture some of the higher order points to coalesce the essence of the conference, and I will do that according to the topics of each of conference panel topics.

Air & Space Power Today

110 years ago, the courage and tenacity of the Wright Brothers opened a new horizon.  Not long thereafter Airmen from Italy first employed weapons from an airplane in Libya, and 100 years later they were employed there again—but this time with much greater effect.

Since the early days of aviation the progress and the accomplishments of air and space power have been legendary. Air and space power changed the face of warfare — not just in terms of precision and lethality, but also in all its facets from logistics, to intelligence, to mobility, mission support, and survivability.

Where we are today it’s becoming evident that we are moving into a future very different from the past.

As a result, we need to chart a path to achieve a future force structure much differently in the 21st century — the “information age” –than we did in the 20th century — the industrial age of warfare. 

Today, air and space power allows us to project asymmetric, agile, effective power with surprise and initiative while minimizing vulnerability.  It’s time to exploit these advantages to a greater degree as we move into the future.  Rather than simply modernizing the means of executing traditional military responses, we need to capitalize on air and space power to yield new solutions.  However, that will require not just education as to the effects of aerospace power, but also a seat at the table so the political decision-makers understand the options air and space power provide.

Responding to Black Swan events require agility and resiliency. Leveraging several of the new platforms being built now provide a solid foundation for building agile forces. (Credit Image: Bigstock)
Responding to Black Swan events require agility and resiliency. Leveraging several of the new platforms being built now provide a solid foundation for building agile forces. (Credit Image: Bigstock) 

It is interesting to note that Operation Northern Watch—the air exclusion zone imposed over northern Iraq from 1991 to 2003, conducted from Incirlik AB here in Turkey, became the longest active combat operation in the European Command area of operations since the end of  World War II.

It demonstrated that aerospace power can exert a credible, immediate threat of precise force application, or impose a high or low visibility monitoring regime, without significant risk to personnel, the high cost, or number of resources or personnel involved in achieving similar effects through a traditional occupation of territory on the ground.  Compare the effectiveness and cost of 12 years of the air exclusion zone that contained Saddam Hussein’s aggressiveness, to the nearly decade long application of ground forces in Iraq.

In over 12 years of no-fly zone operations over 391,000 sorties were flown with zero losses—let me say that again…12 years; 391,000 sorties; zero losses—and at a fraction of the cost of ground operations with their associated loss of thousands of lives, resources, and trillions of dollars.

Given the real-world evidence of the alternatives of air-centric verses ground-centric operations, aerospace options should provide growing attention to political leadership as we move from today to tomorrow. 

However, there is a huge lack of political understanding and public awareness of airpower.  John Olsen has amplified that situation in stating that, “we have a really good case, but we’ve been bad at presenting it for the past 100 years….”

We have to do better.

Air and Space Power in Special Operations

Dr. Kainikara headed a panel that addressed the diverse nature of airpower as it applies to special operations.  Better integration of all military forces, was—and still is—an objective of jointness.  No other mission area does a better job of integrating operations in the different domains than do special operations forces.  They take jointness one step further by integrating diplomacy, information, and economics with military elements to achieve vastly improved unity of effort to meet our security challenges.

We are strongest when we bring the full weight of all these elements to bear on our tasks.  Applied with strategic skill, these multi-dimensional levers of power—when acting in concert—can deliver decisive effects at particular points in time, often at less cost in blood, treasure and prestige, than can military action alone.

It does little good to perfect military capabilities and concepts of operations in isolation from the other elements of power and influence.  

Air Commodore Osinga summarized that point well by stating, “a concept of operations cannot compensate for a lack of strategy.”

Special operations—actualized and effective to a large degree because of the capabilities of air and space power addressed among the panel members—really excel by exploiting the network of relationships that take a comprehensive approach across all domains and disciplines.  But as Dr. Corum observed, “If you don’t have the right doctrine you can’t optimize airpower.”

A related challenge the panel touched upon is integrated architectures that optimize capabilities among the spheres of diplomatic, information, military and economic operations.

The Evolution of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) for Future Air Warfare

Dr. Lambeth’s panel acknowledged that it is difficult to overstate the growing role and importance of unmanned aircraft and their associated processing, exploitation, and dissemination systems.  Over the past 10 years these aircraft have achieved a maturity and contribution of great significance.  However, we have really just witnessed the initial steps of unmanned aircraft—their promise is boundless as we move into the future.

It is important to realize that the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or perhaps more accurately termed, remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), are but just one element of what can be a complex, geographically distributed, and resource-intensive set of operations.  UAVs represent the pointy end, if you will, of what in some cases is a very long spear, so I think it’s important to also recognize the entire network of links, architectures, and analysts that comprise the entire system associated with the use and exploitation of unmanned aircraft.

It’s the total package that’s required to deliver the value of the remotely piloted aircraft themselves.  Because these aircraft make use of networks that allow us to retain the bulk of our footprint outside of harm’s way we are ever more able to project power without projecting vulnerability—that provides an asymmetric advantage that adversaries find difficult to counter.

The steadily increasing capacity of these systems to deliver desired security effects is one of the two most significant reasons we’re seeing an explosion in demand for remotely piloted aircraft.

The second development has been the changing character of some of the threats we face.  During the Cold War finding our adversaries was easy—finishing them was more challenging.  Today the situation is reversed—finishing adversaries is easy…finding them is the challenge, and that places a premium on the importance of conducting effective intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance or ISR.  ISR today is the linchpin of our ability to conduct traditional find-fix-finish operations.

All that said, behind the hardware, the concepts, the engineering, design, and vision that are required to create remotely piloted aircraft are people.  Their imagination, innovation, dedication, and support have brought, and continue to bring to fruition the promise of remotely piloted aircraft.  So with people so critical to this enterprise, referring to it as an “unmanned system” is paradoxical at best, and dangerously misleading to the degree that these important tools may be banned by those who don’t want to see a world controlled by autonomous robots.

The panel concluded that the future of remotely piloted aircraft is very promising.  However, using remotely piloted aircraft as another means to exploit the advantages of operating in the third dimension of air and space is becoming a complex issue.  While introducing enormous capability and employment advantages, remotely piloted aircraft are not a panacea for warfare, nor will they replace manned aircraft.  They are but one tool among many in the set of modern aerospace weapon systems.  They have advantages and they have disadvantages.

Beyond the technical, operational, and developmental issues that will affect the vast potential of UAVs in the future, there are a series of policy and strategy implications that are made more challenging by the widespread misunderstanding of just how effective, ethical, and precise UAVs are as tools in our airpower toolbox.

In the hands of good strategists, they can be very beneficial in contributing to the accomplishment of security objectives.

The Transformation of Air and Space Power Through Interaction with Technology

Dr. Alemdaroğlu led a panel that covered the interplay of science and technology, future fighter development, and the challenges of air and space development.

One of our biggest challenges today is how very costly it is to build aerospace systems.  This is due to a great degree because we are lashed to outdated requirement and acquisition practices with layers and layers of bureaucracy and regulations.  It’s time to change the processes that have stifled what used to be a very productive relationship between technology and the warfighters.  In the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, aerospace was invigorated by technology with a speed between concept and capability that we can only dream about today where the norm is 20 year long major aircraft acquisition cycles.

What is possible from a technology standpoint today is inhibited by a set of overly complex acquisition, and operational test and evaluation processes.  It’s time to rid us of the mountains of acquisition rules and regulations, and move to collapse the excessive timelines between technological promise and program reality.

Doing that will not be easy, but may be aided by empowering fewer decision-makers, reducing layers of oversight, instituting fewer milestones, relying on judgment and accountability to a greater degree than thousands of pages of acquisition regulations—that no one individual can ever comprehend—and by capitalizing on modern technology itself by appropriately relying to a greater degree on modeling and simulation.

Governments may also be well served by capitalizing on what industry has to offer.  In many cases the reduction in the size of military staffs has led to a shift in where military innovation lies—from military staffs to the defense industry.  We saw how TAI is doing this with its FX fighter conceptual design.

The military should embrace and exploit change by better partnering with the innovation and streamlined practices that exist in industry. 

We all need to learn better how to rapidly adapt new technology to the innovative concepts of operation that technology enables, regardless of where the ideas come from.

Conceptual Changes in Use of Air & Space Power

Before I summarize this panel I have been asked to give you my definition of “jointness,” which is very applicable to our discussions.

Jointness is not homogeneity — or sameness — jointness requires that we have separate services—an Army, a Navy, an Air Force, and in some nations, a Marine Corps.  This is because it takes about 20 to 25 years to become expert in mastering operations in each of the domains of land, sea, air and space—to become a competent Division commander; surface-action group commander at sea; air component commander; or marine-air-ground task force commander.

Jointness is where a joint task force commander selects among the service components the appropriate mix of these components to meet the needs of the particular contingency at hand.  Every contingency will be different—the beauty of real jointness is that properly applied, it allows a joint force commander to put together the right force, at the right place, at the right time.

The bottom-line is that each of the services have a role to play in jointness, but those roles will not always be the same—nor equal, but will depend on the circumstances of the situation for which they will be employed.

Brig Gen Doucette led our final panel that gave us some great insight into the future by addressing new concepts of command and control, how aerospace power can provide a degree of asymmetric dominance, and how it can be an agent of transformation as the centerpiece of new approaches to meeting our security needs.

Underlying these precepts is the fact that 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.  We need to create a culture and environment that encourages disruptive thinking instead of discouraging it.

We need to realize and exploit the advantages of modern aerospace and information age technology to build new cost-effective concepts of operation.  However, one of our challenges is that people still tend to view cost in terms of individual unit cost, as opposed to cost per desired effect…that better reflects real value—and that is where we need to move the discussion and decision space.

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

For example, 5th generation aircraft such as the F-35 are termed “fighters,” but technologically, they are not just “fighters”—they are F-, A-, B-, E-, EA-, RC, AWACS-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 to the degree that those capabilities become accepted as the new “traditional.”

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 processing today—and it has the potential for doing so quicker, better, and cheaper.

To fully capitalize on these capabilities will require a new way of designing our force.  We need to also realize that innovation can be applied to organization as well as from technology.  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 allied military power. 

It means taking the next step in shifting away from a structure of segregated land, air or sea warfare that has come to be know as combined arms warfare, to integrated operations based on the four functions of ISR, strike, maneuver, and sustainment to achieve desired effects—or combined effects warfare.

We’re at a critical juncture in history—at the center of an information in war revolution—one where the speed of information, advance of technology, and designs of organizations are merging to change the way we operate.  This change has dramatically shortened decision and reaction times, and reduced the number of systems it takes to achieve desired effects.

However, we can fail to realize the full potential of airpower, based on how we look at it.  Just as we label the F-35 with a traditional naming convention as a fighter—even though it is much more than that—we tend to view remotely piloted aircraft in terms of how well they can observe and destroy targets.  This is a combined arms perspective.

Airpower provides us much more than simply combined arms platforms.  

To fully exploit its versatility, we need to pay more attention to combined effects.  This paradigm shift will not come easy, as thousands of years of history has inculcated us with a combined arms approach.

But we know that precise targeting does not always give us precise effects.  So we have to anticipate second, and third, and higher orders of effect in the employment of every aspect of airpower.

For example, look at the observer effect that remotely piloted aircraft have extended to modern warfare.  The simple act of observation has caused strategic disruption of terrorist adversaries.  When we observe an enemy—and they are aware of the precision effects that can be immediately employed when seen—we dramatically change their behavior.

We know that aerospace systems give us more tools, but they don’t automatically give us better answers.  That’s why humans need to stay in the technology loop.  We know remotely piloted aircraft provide us reams of ISR data, but we need real-time analytic processing to make better decisions.

Similarly, we need to anticipate threats beyond those posed by combined arms, because our adversaries use any available means at their disposal.  A short list would include cyber attacks, crowd sourcing, and distributed command and control—online.

Desired effects should determine our engagement methods, and force application is only one of a spectrum of options.  In fact, an effects-based approach is a springboard for better linking military, economic, information, and diplomatic instruments of power to conduct security strategy in depth.

If we focus on combined effects warfare—the end of strategy, rather than force-on-force—the traditional means to achieve it, what we have become accustomed to calling combined arms warfare—we can consider more effective ways to accomplish the same goal more quickly than in the past, with fewer resources, and most importantly, with fewer casualties.

Airpower allows us to do that.  It can be intertwined with, and contribute to all elements of power—diplomatic, informational, military, economic and social.  But it requires a broader perspective than traditionally applied to airpower in the past—beyond a supporting arm in the combined arms equation.  We need to seek being able to integrate aerospace forces with each of these elements in an interdependent manner.

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 conventional deterrent effect that would be stabilizing to whatever region it is deployed.

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.  This combined effects approach is about integrating existing and future aerospace 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, air forces can maintain the status quo, or it can embrace and exploit change.  I suggest that the latter is preferred.

The Way Ahead

This finally brings us to the point of summarizing this vision of airpower for the 21st Century.

In my mind, and based upon the points raised in this conference over the past several days, air and space power can greatly contribute to meeting the challenges of a more complex security environment in the face of declining resources available to meet those security challenges.

Why?  Because airpower can shape, deter, and dissuade so we can attain fundamental security interests minimizing the need for combat operations.

When combat is necessary, airpower capabilities yield a variety of strategic, operational, and tactical effects that provide disproportionate advantages relative to any other medium of warfare.

Strategies of the past were built to put as many ground forces as possible into harms’ way as quickly as possible.  Modern airpower power gives us the potential to change this approach.  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, air power has become the indispensible force…

Fundamentally, as Mr. Ruiz Palmer so well said it, it’s up to Airman to articulate what airpower brings to allied security, because you are the ones who best understand its capabilities and potential.  We need to articulate those capabilities in a way that politicians can understand.

Air, and space 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.  Airmen have harnessed technological capabilities to the ever-evolving requirements of security by deterring potential adversaries; and flying, fighting, and winning when necessary.

Airmen seize on the virtues of air and space to project power without projecting vulnerability, and as a result, we can provide political leadership with strategic alternatives not available any other way.  And that is why air and space power will be in great demand in the future.

That said, there is an Airpower “critical mass,” below which we dare not go lest we risk the loss of the critical capabilities and options that Airpower provides.  In the United States, what has been labeled “sequestration” will clearly have a long-term impact on that critical mass—not just on the US Air Force, but on all elements of the US military.

For those of you not familiar with the term, “sequestration” is basically an arbitrary, across-the-defense-budget reduction of approximately 10 percent—with an implication of future reductions in US defense spending every year over each of the next ten years.

As a result, the US military will need to have serious discussions about capability verses capacity, and modernization verses force structure.  One of the outcomes of this debate will be a question in our partners’ minds about the US ability to maintain commitments and strong relationships.

One of the second order effects of the capability verses capacity discussion will be that the United States Air Force will be looking toward our friends—like Turkey, all the NATO nations, and others—for capacity to maintain that Airpower “critical mass.”

This will require stronger, more integrated military-to-military relationships among friends to a degree perhaps much greater than ever before.

As Lt Gen Ploeger said it, “multi-nationality will be the only way to meet force requirements.”

In closing, I am awed by the innovative thought that was displayed here these past several days, and the perspective of the community of Airmen from all the countries represented here today, partners from our sister services, industry, and academia.

I look forward to a continued partnership among our community of nations as we seek better means to secure peace and stability in an ever-changing and complex security environment.

And hearing what we discussed this conference, I’m confident that Airman, and airpower will lead the way.  As Kemal Atatürk put it so well, “The future is in the sky!”

Speakers at The First International Conference on Air and Space Power (ICAP 2013), Istanbul, Turkey, March 27-29 2013