Despite a US defence budget of $705 billion, it is proving to be a bit of a mixed bag for the US Air Force based in and around the Indo-Pacific, with force structure, doctrine and platform retirement and modernisation playing an increasing role as the service reorientates itself for a drastically different fight.
Throughout history, military operations have favoured those who occupy the high ground. Command of the skies empowers both offensive and defensive operations while also providing powerful deterrence options as part of the broader implementation of power projection and national security doctrines.
Air dominance reflects the pinnacle of the high ground, where both a qualitative and quantitative edge in doctrine, equipment and personnel support the unrivalled conduct of offensive or defensive air combat operations.
Specialised aircraft designed to achieve air dominance proved influential as a tactical and strategic operating concept, with the use of tactical fighters providing air dominance, close air support and escort essential to the Allied triumph in the Second World War.
Further supporting the air dominance side of the air power equation, long-range strike, namely, combining heavy, strike-oriented aircraft with aerial refuelling platforms; complex airborne and ground-based sensors; command and control capabilities, provides an integrated force structure capable of responding to a range of tactical and strategic imperatives.
Budget spending up, but we're still seeing cuts
The 2020 National Defense Autorization Act will see a number of major acquisitions, organisational restructures and modernisation programs to support America's shift away from decades of conflict in Afghanistan and the Middle East towards the great power competition focus of the Indo-Pacific.
A core focus of the US pivot towards the Indo-Pacific and countering the economic, political and strategic assertiveness of China is modernising and expanding the capability of the US Air Force and it's Indo-Pacific-based Air Force assets.
Supporting this is a US$15 billion ($22.3 billion) increase to the US acquisition budget, bringing the Pentagon's total acquisition budget to US$146 billion ($217.3 billion) – despite this, it isn't all good news for the US Air Force.
Much like the Army and Navy, the US Air Force's budget is dominated by large, big ticket, expensive research and development and acquisition programs, like the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and Northrop Grumman's B-21 Raider long-range strategic bomber and Ground Based Strategic Deterrence Minuteman recapitalisation programs.
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This focus on large-scale programs has long hampered the USAF's ability to meet its global commitments as increasingly expensive, complex weapons systems hinder the ability to deploy based on available numbers and manpower resourcing further complicating tactical and strategic capability.
In response, the US Air Force's ageing platforms, namely Cold War-era strategic enablers such as the aerial refuelling platforms including the KC-135 and KC-10 platforms, alongside the long-range strike B-1 Lancer fleet and the venerable A-10 Thunderbolt II close air support aircraft, will account for modernisation and expansion programs.
As part of this, the Pentagon has asked for US$56.9 billion ($84.7 billion) for a number of major capability investments, including: US$11.4 billion ($16.9 billion) for 79 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, US$1.6 billion ($2.3 billion) for new-build Boeing F-15EX Advanced Eagle fighter aircraft and US$3 billion ($4.46 billion) for the troubled, but next-generation KC-46 aerial refuelling tankers.
US Air Force Chief of Staff, David Goldfein, said in January, "We didn’t get everything we put on the table. Some was walked back. But we got a lot of what we put on the table."
Retiring some airframes to keep the modernisation wheels turning
The US Air Force has confirmed that it will retire 17 of its oldest Cold War-era B-1 Lancer aircraft as the costs associated with keeping the platforms airborne and ready to support the mission of Global Strike Command becomes increasingly costly and time consuming.
Additionally, the US Air Force has confirmed that it will not modernise and 're-wing' a portion of its A-10 fleet, numbering some 44 aircraft, with the remainder of the A-10 fleet, 237 aircraft, to operate until 2030.
Further to this, the USAF has confirmed it will retire its Block 20 and 20 RQ-4 Global Hawk ISR drones, leaving its growing fleet of Block 40 aircraft to conduct the high-altitude ISR mission set alongside the Cold War-era U-2.
Despite this, it sought to protect the key programs like the B-21 Raider program. The US Air Force currently has plans to acquire 100 B-21s to operate in conjunction with a fleet of 75 B-52s that will be modernised.
However, as the Air Force surges towards an ambitious plan to field 386 squadrons, up 75 from its current strength, this will translate to an increased fleet of B-21 aircraft, with additional strategic experts in the US calling for a larger fleet of between 50 and 75 additional Raiders.
This has paved the way for the potential Australian participation in such programs, with Air Marshal (Ret’d) Leo Davies and his immediate predecessor, Air Marshal (Ret’d) Geoff Brown, calling for a more considered effort to recapitalise, modernise and expand the nation’s long-range strike capability amid a broader push for a strategic policy “reset”.
Australia’s glaring strike capability gap has long been an area of focus, with Ben Packham of The Australian, referencing the US Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, who said the US would “look favourably” on an Australian request to participate in America’s long-range strike aircraft program – namely the B-21 Raider.
Secretary Ross reportedly told Packham, "We have no intention of vacating our military or our geopolitical position, but we would be delighted to sell Australia more aircraft if that’s what suits your Department of Defence."
Deputy Opposition Leader and defence spokesman Richard Marles reinforced the need for a more robust Australian response, telling The Australian: "[The government would] ignore air marshals Davies and Brown at its peril. Not only do we need the right strike force, it is essential that our defence forces are fully resourced to properly support that strike capability. We must have the most capable and strategic defence force possible."
Australia’s air force modernisation, exemplified by the multibillion-dollar acquisition of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, is not being done in isolation, with lessons to learn by both the RAAF and USAF.
Many throughout Indo-Pacific Asia are embarking on their own air power modernisation and recapitalisation efforts, incorporating advanced fighter aircraft, long-range strike aircraft and advanced command and control and aerial refuelling capabilities.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will yield unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.
Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce also issued a challenge for Australia's political and strategic policy leaders, saying:
"If we observe that the level of debate among our leaders is characterised by mud-slinging, obfuscation and the deliberate misrepresentation of the views of others, why would the community behave differently ... Our failure to do so will leave a very damaging legacy for future generations."
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation's approach to our regional partners.