Enabling the Tip of the Spear: Re-Focusing the USAF
by Michael W Wynne, 21st Secretary of the USAF
All of the services were and are confronted by the new realities of the future defense budget in a very straightforward manner. Not only through the first budget agreement wherein the outgoing Defense Secretary volunteered to yield some $450 Billion; but in a subsequent sequestration that is nearly certain to come, there was a second nearly $450 Billion to be levied against defense. This activity and the panicked response brings to mind a quote once attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, “Gentlemen, we have run out of money. Now we have to think”. (1)
One of the early lessons that we learned was that joint operations were to be the key to success in our engagement with the modern dispersed enemy. This construct has recently been supported in a brief from Mike Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict. He pointed to the “brilliant operation” in October 2001 that ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, a combination of special operations, intelligence agencies and Air Force capabilities. He said that operation was a “precursor” to many successful operations since.
Putting this into current realities, Budget stringencies are to be expected; but re-enforcing the core enabling capabilities which each of the services provide for the joint and coalition force are not a budget cut they are more or less a withdrawal into service isolation. There was a clear mandate for leveraging and connecting legacy and modern platforms to extract yet greater lethality from the total force. This budget imperative must result in a intense requirement to expand on this early described operation; to leverage the operation that the coalition of forces used in Libya against an ill trained, but potentially lethal Air Defense System. This is the set of decisions now confronting the Air Force leadership. There are a strategic necessity for the service, the nation and global partners.
As we withdraw from the wars of uncontested airspace, the joint and coalition forces face an uncertain future. As the forces become smaller, there survival in operations more crucial to mission success. An ability to dominate the 360 degree battle space with the initial insertion force becomes a crucial one to that success. The whole requirement set for the fifth generation fighter was effectively aimed at this problem. Should the Air Force now shrink from the future and pursue the past? The nation needs the Air Force to ‘risk up’ and reassert deterrence for all, especially our peer competitors, to see.
There comes a definitive time for putting aside the catapults and bows and arrows that have stood firm against an enemy; and face the enemy to come. In modern terms; there comes a time to see clearly that Integrated Air Defenses that can reach out several hundred miles, and effectively deter penetration by fourth generation platforms which our peer competitors have both sold and trained their buyers have changed the nature of the next fight. Larger enemies that have remained peer competitors have retained this same or enhanced capability for themselves; and are specifically training against some of our more useful tactics of the past decade. They were present and accounted for in the engagements where we used our penetrating F-117s; including celebrating the loss of at least one when the Pilot got overconfident. Now the F-117s are gone. They likely trained the Libyan force which caused excessive planning, but could not allow the usage of the F-22, because we neglected to connect the F-22 to the remaining joint and coalition force.
In the place of the F-117; the Air Force pushed for the F-22. Across administrations, and in times of tough budgets, they realized the necessity for making the ‘unfair fight’ the basis of deterrence. Now, there is a smaller fleet than planned, OK. Let’s make it ‘all that it can be’. Rather than simply ignoring the modernization of the F-22s in favor of upgrades to older significantly less survivable systems, whether the F-15s or F-16s, it is time to put this core force back on track as the lynchpin of what the USAF does – crack the backbone of air defenses and other systems providing protection against the US and allied insertion forces. The Air Force needs to truly evaluate the question of why and the utility of extending the life of lass capable platforms; and accelerate those they know are survivable. The best is fast becoming the enemy of good enough
What does this mean, and how to best go about reintroducing the unfair fight? We all know that P-51’s would make a cheaper alternative, but it is also clear that peer competitors would brush them aside. No, we want the dominance that the fourth generation of Eagles and Falcons enjoyed at their introduction. We have some evidence from Northern edge, and now from Bold Alligator. The exchange pilots are telling the story about what constitutes the next generation fight. Let’s hear from them in a straightforward way. Get the best from the budget, stop listening to the permissive, and realize that every great platform has had the critics; but they are now the backbone of our forces. When President Reagan endorsed the ‘Star Wars’; it had technical and budget critics; but the emphasis on deterrence was clear; and contributed to the end of the cold war, and the ‘budget crisis’ of that era.
The F-35 will become the dominant new 360 degree fighter to enable the USN-USMC-US Air Force team to establish battlespace dominance. But the F-22 has a unique role in providing for SEAD and other mission capabilities unique in the US force structure. But to get full value out of what this fleet can deliver, the F-22 needs to be MADL enabled. The data delivery systems which MADL allows, enables the F-22 to provide the spear in the attack, and then transition into a key wolfpack role in establishing 360 situational dominance.
MADL in the F-22 is not an option; it is not a luxury; it is a way to remind the USAF of what its role is. It provides a core function no other element of the joint force can provide, and not sometime in the deep future, but right now. Later is not good enough.
And not only does the F-22 recover its role, but its ability to work fully with the F-35 and to shape con-ops innovations across the board will be enabled for the decade ahead as the new fighter enters the fleet.
There is another possibility equally powerful. As with Rover, there is no reason MADL cannot be linked directly to laptops or to the ground warriors. Imagine an F-22/F-35 fleet mutually enabled by ground operations, and such operations which provide the foundation for shaping an entirely new approach to maneuver warfare. This is the missing link to bring into the fifth generation that concept of operations where Special Operations, Intelligence and Air Power can open the Fight, operating wth full leverage from both Joint and Coalition forces to be a true deterrence.
Budget reductions are not time for standing down capability and turning away from innovative thinking. Rather, they can be an opportunity to make choices and propel needed capabilities fast forward. Yes, there is risk; but looked at clear eyed, isn’t there a bigger risk if our competitors are not deterred.
So make it time to think forward; and take each in its turn before the forcing function of further budget reductions; or worse, the incursion of a capable enemy hurries our Air Force into the era of next fight making us all wish we had done things differently.
Recall, it was unfair that the pesky Americans wouldn’t line up to confront the enemy in our own revolutionary war. Our Air Force needs now, during this lull in world conflict, to think forward and plan for a different style of fight.
(1) The quote is newly a runaway favorite of venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and government sorts looking to be crisis-blessed with innovation and invention. Is originally attributed to Sir Ernest Rutherford, the famous New Zealand physicist
For a discussion of the centrality of data and communication for the new air fleet please see