Existential Warfare: Preparing the USAF for Decade Ahead
2014-03-31 Michael W. Wynne, 21st Secretary, United States Air Force
The Crimean crisis and the PRC pushing out in the Pacific are two reminders that the world is not of our own making.
The defense of Europe and Pacific defense require capabilities to deter and prevail, where global reach and dominance is a sine qua non of playing the game.
The Air Force of today has been shaped to reflect the requirement for more efficient conduct of the wars of the past decade, and not the next. Rather than looking at Putin’s actions as that of a romantic ideologue of the 19th century, they are part of the reality of the 21st century.
Though we all quest for the congenial society of the “global commons” which interestingly remains the quest of our State department, others are muscling in on either territory or territorial waters desiring to restore empires of old or simply rewriting the map to their advantage. They are trying to shape a “global commons” to their advantage; not simply sending representatives to the UN to debate the subject.
The heritage of the USAF has not been to be in a holding pattern while others remake the map. The tradition has been to hold hostage any geographic location in the world to protect US interests.
This was the mantra of General Curtis Lemay as he formed Strategic Air Command with its rigid rule set; and later of President Ronald Reagan as he realized that weakness was what led to war, while strength underwrote deterrence.
As a nation we realized that this notion could lead to our providing an umbrella for growth around the world; and under that umbrella; Governments and Treaty Councils would become more interested in growing their economies then growing their defenses. This was built on the ability of the US to demonstrate leadership within which global military reach was a reality, not an aspiration.
The United States, for now, seems to have temporarily forgotten the history of the rise and fall of Nations.
Trips to the Mayan Villages or the Roman Ruins show that ferocity beats acquiescence in hoping for a better future.
It would appear that in the midst of the current administration’s desire to be liked around the world, it is finding that weakness is either tolerated or taken advantage. Likes and dislikes factor into geo-politics as part of alliance structures, but for the US to lead those alliances it needs to reinforce its support with effective military global reach.
First Georgia and now Crimea reminds us that the defense of Europe is not a done deal, but a continuing effort. And if we are pivoting to the Pacific and part of the alliance structure to defend Europe, global reach by definition is crucial, not simply parking regional capabilities for wars against relatively backward militaries.
No matter what happens on the global stage, some have difficulty recognizing the reality of a brutal world.
We hear the echoes as Secretary of State Kerry calls Global Warming our greatest enemy; and President Obama chides the Russian Government for not measuring up to his projected standards of appropriate conduct. As The Washington Post put it, Putin apparently missed the memo on how his actions were simply so 19th century.
The question is clearly on the table for the Baltics and Poland: how will the US and European nations actually move to defend them rapidly if necessary?
In fact, shaping an exercise program to do so would make more sense than the US subsidizing the Russian energy czars by giving Ukraine extra money to pay for the increased price of Russian imported natural gas.
Air Force Modernization to Enhance Global Reach
The Chief of Staff of the USAF is seeing his modernization plan, one held on abeyance to pay in part for the Afghan war, a war we are now exiting or being tossed out, facing significant difficulties in getting either budgets or strategic attention.
Strategic attention is in short supply in today’s Washington.
The debates focus more on insider positioning than on dealing with the intrusions of global reality. It is not about playing on the chess board with pawns and no Queens.
General Welsh has called for a new strategic plan, the first in nine years, and asked that the theme be ‘Strategic Agility’.
Being one of the co-authors of the previous plan, I would suggest he focus on the ‘existential defense’ and global reach as the key themes underwriting the strategic necessity of his new strategic plan.
Having an Air Force which can operate globally and hold key adversaries at risk is not a nice to have luxury but a key underpinning of ensuring that the global commons which operates is one which meets the US and its allies interests, and not those to the adversary’s of our way of life.
As one CNO extolled; America needs to build a force prepared for the existential fight; and all other wars are therefore a lesser-included case. This concept has been left fallow; as we concluded that the existential case was far too low probability to fund; and the weapons for the lesser-included wars far less expensive.
For the Air Force; this meant King Air’s as platforms; and for other services rules of engagement that promoted a fair fight; and led to placing our warriors in legal limbo for decisions made under fire.
Is this the way we want to fight the existential fight?
Current events would argue for refocusing our attention on what are proper ways to modernize the military. In part it is about money; in part it is about the priorities within which money is to be spent. It is also about the opportunity to leverage what our allies are investing in and how to cross our modernization strategies with theirs.
It is not just about money, but it is about focusing on effective outcomes to force modernization.
We have written previously about the ‘Offensive Enterprise’ and the ‘Defensive Enterprise’; we historically separated offense and defense whereby Batteries of Nike Missiles and F-106 Air Defenders served simply the defensive enterprise.
But America’s strength lies in the ‘Offensive Enterprise’ where we put our forces at risk; but the world understood the effectiveness of reprisals.
With the conjunction of the fifth generation revolution with new missile defense sensors and shooters a new approach is possible.
But first we must start with where we are. This is a position of structural weakness: in which leading from behind is confused with global leadership.
We are in a situation where the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs says he doesn’t want to put our Airman, Navy in this case, at risk; and demurs on providing a Syrian ‘No Fly Zone’ but days later the Israelis show this as weakness in Command as they fly in and destroy a questionable weapons depot.
We had capability but didn’t want to use it. This might be seen as a difference between existential; and choice. It certainly was by many of our allies; causing the Administration to rush to the podiums with support for treaty allies; and force allocation decisions that are still being realized; but continues to leave some with questions of intent.
Now the President asks NATO to beef up its defenses; and stand with America. What does that mean in the absence of a clear strategic plan and commitment to funding that plan?
Ending wars is one thing; failing to prepare for the ones already hitting you in the face is another.
This is not about the future, it is about the reality of the present being recognized as an attempt by adversaries to shape the future.
In this continuing saga; the budget shrinks the Navy; collapses the Army; and now has fostered a description of ‘Pipe Dreaming’ by the principal Airman.
What are we missing when assembling a deterrent force for an existential opponent; or for the next war not of our choice?
We can take some guidance from our constitution, which has in the preamble ‘We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.’
Given this charge, we need to alert our Congress, as did General George Washington, of the need to fund properly the requirements; and get on with the business of defense. It would appear that Gen Welsh; in declaring the current defense plan a ‘Pipe Dream’ is doing his best to alert the present day Congress of this outcome.
While he is sounding the alarm, his investment decisions are becoming evident in what funding he has asked for. Though recognizing that the out years are swelling beyond what might be allowed, he is also following some internal dictums.
These are steering the Air Force structure away from non-stealthy platforms and towards straightforward air dominant platforms shaped by a global force of fifth generation aircraft. He has asked for investment funds for the sixth generation air dominance platform; and is turning more and more into disciplinary constructs that while tolerant of social needs recognize that attention to duty is a primary requirement for service in a fighting force.
Gen. Welsh has stipulated his top three investments for the future in the Air Domain as the F-35, the Long Range Strike Platform and the Range extending Tanker. There are undoubtedly corollaries in the Space and Cyber Domain; but these have been expressed often.
We could add a fourth: new weapons for the air fleet; both Offensive and Defensive.. Hypersonics appears to be a crucial and breakthrough technology, which can reshape the impact of weapons, but we are flying a fifth generation aircraft with third and fourth generation weapons. And this is not about simply US investment dollars.
We can get to a weapons revolution by leveraging the global enterprise of the F-35 and our allies building new weapons for the global fleet as well as leveraging allied investments as well. For example, our working relationship with Australia allows us to accelerate our joint hypersonics research both more cost effectively and in terms of capability as well.
Though it is hard to surprise your competitors in this period of sharp and intrusive cyber attacks, our Airmen have always surprised with their training competence; and so also in the future war, as our coalition members learn about the intrinsic value of the F-35 beyond its value as a Fighter and understand through exercises and realities its value as a Battle Management Platform.
Without a doubt, as we embrace the concept of coalition warfare, we have built and are distributing an interoperable Battle Management platform that connects available shooters with available targets; and with intense training will surprise even our own leadership.
In a response to pressure, Gen. Welsh interrupted the Air Force ‘Top Gun’ program, stranding many and concerning allies. This has been restarted, and the hope is, the time was used in the best way to learn the new systems are not the old systems.
Setting in Motion Additional Innovations
As Churchill said plaintively; ‘Now that we are out of money, it is time to think.’
Clearly, we need as well to think about a more effective acquisition process to take advantage of where we are; and yet allow for full integration of the ‘call to the future’.
In the 1950’s there was a similar alarm rung; and the response was the century series airplanes, evolving in design over a period of years and yet forming the backbone of our fighting forces.
This type of concept has been gifted to the Air Force by an attentive Congress with the preservation of the F-22 tooling which could form the underpinning of the 21st century series.
To accelerate the notion of the sixth generation; let’s shape an approach which leverages what we have as we shape new capabilities.
As we build out the F-35 global fleet, we could start complementing that fleet with a sixth generation derived from the F-22; perhaps an F-24. This process could start with a short solicitation for interest by competent parties for the derivative of the F-22 fighter, promising two successful winners. Let’s presume for the moment that the two successful bidders were in fact the Phantom Works and the Skunk Works; not to eliminate; but to presume. With that, let’s give to each an aging F-22; and ask that they formulate concepts for a follow-on air dominant fighter while maximizing the use of the presented airframe and attendant tooling.
This would be similar to the JAST in the 90’s; but more similar to the ping pong designs from the century series. In a previous article, I underscored several available improvements for the air fleet.
Research has not stopped on the avionics package, nor on the propulsion system, nor on the target acquisition systems; and from various suppliers. The integration of a range extending fuel tank is also in the works. Concepts of new weapons are easily transferred.
In a period of not more than three years; and for a fixed sum provided to each; let’s fly off the result.
The Long Range Strike System is already in the process but in a similar fashion could and should be accelerated. There is a strong desire to structure things to avoid budget clog; but the degree of difficulty of these planned platforms will balance themselves. Right now our allies want every F-35 that that our forces can’t afford. Funny how having a competitor close by focuses the mind and the budget. We will have more training possibilities with allies than we can attend.
That said, lets not forget to train while we deter.
A key advantage which can be drawn from the threat from North Korea is to revamp our airpower approach.
We can put the Fifth Gen F-22 and F-35 on the Korean Peninsula, withdrawing our vulnerable fourth generation aircraft, and train with our allies while they roll out of their fourth generation aircraft. With this force in place and training together–train as you fight is not an issue. The template for re-shaping global reach with an allied enabled F-35 fleet will be shaped in the next decade, and we need to shape additive capabilities as we build out a modernized USAF.
And this is not just about the USAF and its acquisitions.
It is about leveraging those of our allies as well.
A key case in point is the new tanker built by Airbus. There are seven nations that have ordered the MRTT from Airbus; and there are more in the pipeline. Because it was designed to American standards, and was a semifinal winner; it can refuel all comers. When the KC-46 becomes fully operational, these will interchange nicely in all engagements. When one talks of Global Reach and Power, tankers are clearly a key enabler. Accelerating the KC-46 is one thought; but what might be quicker is to interoperate with all the allies; some of who are already adding multirole to the tanking mission.
Some in Congress are waking up to the incongruity of ‘Lead from Behind’ and the geopolitical actions that are resulting.
Let’s plan a defense strategy that gives future administrations solid options.
Better to have respect; and then be liked by adversaries which have map rewriting agendas in the heads, in their strategic planning and supported by reshaping their militaries to execute the map re-writing mission.
For the Air Force, the new strategy might be a watershed opportunity to truly pay attention to the purpose of the Air Force. For in its essence the ‘Strategic Agility’ best be prepared for all contingencies; not efficiently; but effectively.
Whether ‘Vigilance; Reach; or Power’ these systems are first deterrence; and when deterrence fails; they better be there to win and win in a most unfair way. This underscores the mission of the Air Force.
Yes we want the Air Force to be ready to support a lesser-included war fighting case as well as humanitarian actions, but not at the prior assessed price of failing to deter and defeat in a war ‘not of our choice’.
The World America Built by Robert Kagan became one of the most talked about political books of the year 2011; influencing Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address and shaping the thought of both the Obama and Romney presidential campaigns.
A response to those who anticipate—or even long for—a post-American world order by showing what a decline in America’s influence would truly mean for the United States and the rest of the world.
As we are now learning how fast the decay can set in, and rapidly assess what America needs to restore. The Air Force can serve in the lead role for all the services as the aggregate Defense strategy turns to the future and ensures that the United States is not operating in a global commons redesigned by nations committed to extending so called 19th century visions into the 21st.