The Emergence of a 21st Century Concept of Air Operations

The evolution of 21st century air operations is unfolding under the impact of a new generation of aircraft and a significant shift in the role of air operations in support of ground and maritime forces. The “5th generation” aircraft have largely been viewed as simply a next iteration of airframes whereby “legacy” or “4th generation aircraft” will be replaced by new stealth airframes. And aircraft have been largely viewed as operating within the classic domain of air operations, largely playing the role of air superiority, air dominance, air defense, strike and support roles seen as separable sequences of tasks.

While it is clear that expeditionary military operations cannot succeed without control of the skies, the fifth generation aircraft will be able to contribute to a significant change in the role of manned aircraft within air, ground and maritime operations. The change is significant enough that one can speak of the challenge of crafting a concept of 21st century air operations transformed by the introduction and use of the new aircraft. The transformation is underway as the 5th generation aircraft are being introduced, affecting employment concepts and roles of legacy air elements as well. Rather than anticipating change only with a significant replacement of one class of aircraft by another, changes in operations of “legacy” aircraft are already anticipating the changes to be accelerated by the new aircraft, and these changes will be accelerated as the new aircraft enter in larger numbers. The new “5th generation” aircraft will generate significantly greater “integrated” capability for the non-kinetic use of aircraft and an expanded use of connectivity, ISR, communications, and computational capabilities built around a man-machine interface which will, in turn, shape the robotics and precision revolutions already underway.

21st century air operations are a significant building block for overall U.S. and allied joint and coalition operations. Capability to connect air, ground, and maritime forces throughout the battlespace via air assets can support the decision-making of the ground and maritime command elements. Indeed, the C4ISR envisaged in network operations is becoming re-shaped into C4ISRD whereby decision-making is shared across the battlespace. Distributed information and distributed decision-making will be enhanced as air operations become much more capable of providing information in support of the deployed decision-maker, and kinetic and non-kinetic support elements can be cued in support of air, ground, and maritime combat requirements.

For a fuller treatment of this argument, download the full report in PDF format.

An earlier version of this special report can also be found as a PDF as well  in Defense Horizons (A 21st-century Concept of Air and Military Operations).

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Posted August 12th, 2009

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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