USAF F-16s and South Korean F-15s on the line at Daegu AB, South Korea, participating in Buddy Wing exercises to improve fighter interoperability.
Photo: SrA. Devine Cox
The Air Force’s 27 years of standing as the world’s unrivaled airpower are officially over. “Peer” competitors—the term “near-peer” has recently been dropped from official language—now challenge America’s ability to control the skies in any conflict.
The upshot is that the considerable capital investment the United States made in air superiority 30 years ago must be made again, or the US may no longer hold significant advantages in a future conflict.
This frank assessment came from Air Combat Command chief Gen. James “Mike” Holmes. He called this a “blinding flash of the obvious.”
A steady parade of impressive new systems and investments by China, Russia, and other aspiring great powers means the US will have to push harder and faster to keep ahead—and maybe just to keep up.
“Smart, tough, capable peer adversaries have watched us” since 1990, “and they took notes,” he observed. Now, they’ve “developed … smart asymmetric tools that are designed to counter our strengths … and exploit our weaknesses.” The US simply can’t posture itself and operate in ways it has gotten used to, or there will be ugly surprises ahead, he warned in a speech to AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in November.
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The response must be to “bring the future faster,” Holmes explained, with a streamlined acquisition system that allows the US to field new systems “in a short number of years,” not at the plodding pace it has settled into.
“The world is changing, and if the Air Force and Air Combat Command don’t change with it, we’ll be disadvantaged, and that’ll have an impact on the entire joint force,” he asserted. “We’re back in a world with peer adversaries where they’re fielding something new every day, and we have to be able either to modernize the tools that we bring or bring new tools and field them much faster.”
As an example of a new reality that demands new action, Holmes pointed out that with high-resolution, fast-revisit commercial imagery satellites and social media, there’s “nowhere to hide” anymore. The US can’t secretively marshal forces, move them to ships or planes, and deploy them without an enemy being able to “figure out what you’re doing” almost immediately, he said.
Moreover, the rapid proliferation of “precision long-range fires” in the form of highly accurate, long-range missiles available even to low-rent militaries, coupled with widely available high-quality “cyber and information tools” means there are no sanctuaries anymore.
ACC will train its junior officers in how to quickly deploy small groups of aircraft to austere fields, quickly move them again in order to avoid being hit, and make those calls on their own initiative, Holmes said. It will mean driving decision-making authority to lower and lower levels and expecting young leaders to use their wits to carry out “commander’s intent.”
ACC has gotten too reliant on spelling out what units should do in excruciating detail, Holmes said, and if it is to win a future fight, leaders at all levels must be practiced in thinking for themselves.
The new information reality will also mean “the focus will shift from trying to find out everything you can” with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets to “trying to safeguard your data and maintain trust in what you know,” Holmes noted. Operators must trust the information before them even as they try to “create doubt in the enemy’s analysis and knowledge.” It will then be of prime importance to seize the initiative “through high-tempo operations, to force the enemy to react,” and maintain this advantage so the enemy can’t keep up.
One obvious response to the new reality, Holmes insisted, is to put an end to the fiction that the US is on a peacetime footing.
No longer can the acquisition system, the organization of the Active, Guard and Reserve forces, and the state of readiness be postured as if the US is at peace, Holmes said. It isn’t.
Air Force Special Operations Command troops meet with leaders from the Afghan Air Force to discuss plans to increase airpower in Faryab province, Afghanistan.
Photo: SSgt. Doug Ellis
The Air Force has not seen a year since 1990 when it did not regularly employ forces in combat, and even 1990 saw the massive Desert Shield buildup of forces in Saudi Arabia in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Forces are strained in part because “we continue to try to work primarily with our Active component, without mobilizing our Reserve component … when we’ve moved half our capability into our Reserve components.”
Holmes said bluntly that the 1980s investment in air superiority must be made again or control of the air will be lost.
“The investment made 30 years ago is being overcome by adversary efforts,” Holmes said. Every aspect of the US military depends on having control of the air, and it underpins everything the US military does. The goal, he said, is to have such mastery of the air domain that not only can the US operate inside enemy air defenses at will, but “you want the enemy to worry about whether they can take off from their own airfields, instead of how they’re going to get out of their airspace and into yours.”
He estimated that the equipment advantage the US has lived off since the end of the Cold War initially required about $8 billion per year—over and above the normal tactical aviation portfolio budget—to put into place. To keep air superiority, “we’re going to have to find money … like that. I don’t see a shortcut,” said Holmes.
Whether the next generation is a new fighter, or family of systems including fighters and drones and new kinds of munitions, “it’s going to cost about the same as it did 30 years ago to be able to do it,” Holmes asserted.
While he wouldn’t say just what the preferred route in air superiority will be—“I want to preserve the … decision space” of the Secretaries of the Air Force and Defense—Holmes said the themes will be familiar: counterair, suppression of enemy air defenses, electronic warfare, and a faster production rate on F-35s, as well as the capabilities that the “F-35s we buy five years from now” will require.
The centerpiece is also likely to be the still-undefined Penetrating Counter-Air (PCA) platform. Part of the decisions being made are also about “what we cannot afford,” Holmes noted. He wants to avoid “flying F-35s six hours back and forth from a major base in the Middle East, to drop a $20,000 bomb,” at a cost of up to $40,000 per flying hour to do it.
A Russian tank formation mobilized for an unannounced combat readiness inspection in 2016. Holmes says adversaries such as Russia are also using new media to divide Western democratic alliances.
Photo: Russian Federation Ministry of Defense
The fighter force today averages 30 years, he said. At the current rate of replacement, it will still be 30 years old 30 years from now. To get the buy rate of new aircraft up, he said, work will continue on driving down acquisition costs, but the big prize will be in pushing down sustainment costs “so we can afford them.”
Without some major departure from the plans now in place, Holmes said the F-22 will have to undergo extensive modernization to stay relevant, and “we’re going to be flying legacy, fourth generation airplanes for quite a while. ... We’re going to have to continue to put money into their modernization.”
To go with those fighters and other combat aircraft is going to have to be a vast improvement in command and control to maximize every step in the “kill chain.”
Artificial intelligence and automation will play an increasing role. These areas have been identified by top Pentagon leaders as the key technologies for getting far more out of forces already in use, and Holmes said they already play a considerable role in how the Air Force operates.
“We have moved aggressively into remotely piloted aircraft,” he said, but in cockpits, computers already prioritize targets, select appropriate uses of electronic warfare, and warn the pilot of threats to the point where “the pilot, in some cases, is kind of ‘voting’ with the airplane as to what to do.”
Cruise missile technology is also advancing rapidly, and Holmes reported “what’s holding us up” in this area is not the hardware but “the kind of moral and ethical parts of having the human in the loop, and then the details of how do you be as successful without a person.” He noted that computers can now beat humans at Chess or Go, but a human “chess master” paired with a computer can defeat the computer, and that’s how the Air Force sees the human-machine partnership—“the right mix”—shaping up in the near future.
The Air Force has to be cost-conscious, Holmes said, arguing that he must look for cheaper alternatives if it costs him “$60,000 per flying hour” to put a big ISR airplane in the air over a relatively unimportant target. That’s why he’s looking at light attack aircraft and “thinking about” light ISR aircraft.
Less costly to buy and operate, light ISR aircraft could free up higher-end aircraft for missions that actually deter or engage high-end adversaries. Light aircraft are “relatively inexpensive, but they’re not free,” and he expressed appreciation that Congress is funding the Air Force to experiment with these concepts.
Joint organizations must change, too, he said. Given the perpetually higher demand for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance products than there are ways to generate them, there has developed a “joint ISR board” and a “joint targeting board” that plans what the ISR world will be doing three days out, with redundant capabilities.
“I just don’t think that will work,” anymore, Holmes argued. Because of the speed of modern warfare, “I don’t think you can think that far ahead, I don’t think the targets will still be there, I don’t think the forces you were going to use to bring those fires against those targets will still be there, and so we’re going to have to change the way we look at that.” It’s going to mean “lashing up” service capabilities at lower and lower levels, Holmes asserted, not just at the top echelons.
Three Russian fighters—a Sukhoi T-50, an Su-35BM, and an Su-34 (l-r)—fly in formation at Ramenskoye, Russia.
Photo: Alex Beltyukov
The services will have to “trust each other” because they can’t afford to have redundant space, cyber or joint-fires capabilities, Holmes said. Expect some reorganization efforts stemming from USAF’s recent Multi-Domain Command and Control study “over the next year,” he predicted.
ACC is building new joint doctrine with the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), benefitting from years of effort with the Navy on what was called “Air-Sea Battle” on “how we’ll inject ourselves into contested environments and how we’ll fight together once we’re there,” Holmes reported. Parallel efforts are underway among the services’ special operations organizations.
Referring to the “training” part of his “man, train, and equip” function, Holmes said he’s done almost everything possible to put “white space” into the ACC airmen’s calendar, because even when they are nominally at home from deployment, airmen are too often still not at home.
They tend to be “on the road” even when Stateside, going to training exercises, and not “home” with their families.
Defining “ready for what?” is also part of this effort, he said. ACC’s airmen have explained to him that the definitions that have grown up in recent years—such as what a “permissive environment” is—don’t work.
“A permissive environment for F-22s might be highly contested” for other kinds of fighters, he noted. Now, he gives more specific instruction. “I want you to train for this regional adversary, and this is how we define your capabilities, and I want you to dedicate your training efforts toward that.”
Units can measure whether they can, indeed, execute their missions with what they have and know how to do, and if not, can ask for specific assets or training to make sure they can. This specificity will help ACC answer the “ready for what?” question, Holmes said. A lot of training is going to have to move into the world of simulation, he allowed.
For example, “we will not be able to build a live-threat emitter complex of the breadth and depth that some of our adversaries can put in the field.” The Air Force can build ranges large enough “that we can have confidence in the way we work together and integrate to defeat it,” and which thoroughly exercise crews’ “tackling and blocking skills,” but “I think we’ll move that highest-end training into a simulated environment,” he said. It’s not just that live ranges are costly, but simulation is necessary to represent the “density” of the threats US aircrews will face.
Also, “because we don’t want people to watch … exactly what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
A fifth generation Chengdu J-20 fighter at its first public appearance at an air show in China in 2016.
Photo: James Woodward
Holmes said flatly that he’d like to “unify the Active component and the Reserve component.” Increasingly, he said, the two function in Associate organizations, and they must function more seamlessly if they are to be successful in what some call “infinite war: longtime competition against peer adversaries.”
Retention problems are “a symptom” of the fact that the US is essentially already in this infinite war, with endless deployments over the last two-and-a-half decades.
“If we’re faced with a forever war, then let’s admit it and resource ourselves to be able to take it on, and … deter those peer adversaries,” he said.
Such a condition of constant competition is preferable to having a real, shooting war—although this too has already been going on for 27 years. The price is to “keep the game going and stay in it and maintain our values and the things we care about.”
America’s adversaries are “employing whole-of-government efforts at the strategic level that are designed to divide the Western democratic alliance that I’ve spent my whole life as a part of,” Holmes asserted. “They’re trying to use our differences to divide us as an alliance … to use our differences in the nation to divide us on our goals.”
This situation is thrust upon the US by nations such as China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia, whether the country likes it or not. The US must accept and build to the reality, Holmes said.
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