New US Air Force Chief of Staff, General Charles Brown, has identified key priorities as the US Air Force transitions from the Cold War-era legacy force structure to “have the force required for a future high-end fight”, with great power competition once again on the cards.
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; and command and control capabilities, provides an integrated force structure capable of responding to a range of tactical and strategic imperatives.
The US Air Force emerged from the Cold War as the world's single most powerful air combat force in the world, capable of almost unilaterally enforcing its will against near-peer and peer competitors alike, leveraging a synthesis of technology, intelligence, reconnaissance, command and control and human decision makers to maintain the post-Second World War order.
In an effort to always stay ahead of potential adversaries, the US Air Force has embarked on a wide-spread and costly modernisation process to transform the force into a 'fifth-generation' air combat force, combining a suite of next-generation technologies ranging from low observable aircraft, hypersonics, artificial intelligence and quantum computing.
However, the newly appointed Air Force Chief of Staff, General Charles Brown jnr has expressed a growing desire to overhaul the way in which the branch approaches capability development, platform acquisition and its force structure as the Air Force shifts its focus from supporting counter insurgency operations throughout the Middle East toward directly confronting peer competitors.
Gen Brown explained in the CSAF '22 Strategic Approach', titled 'Accelerate Change or Lose', "We can’t predict the future, but we can definitely shape the future, and [we] must accelerate the transition from the force we have to the force required for a future high-end fight.
"So I think we have a window of opportunity to accelerate some of those changes. And personally, I’d rather drive than ride. I’d rather try to help shape what’s going on versus sitting back observing and being impacted by what’s going on."
Funding focuses on old order thinking
This costly modernisation is encapsulated in the 2020 National Defense Autorization Act, which 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 its 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 (GBSD) Minuteman III recapitalisation programs.
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, 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.
Off the back of this, Gen Brown adds, "Our Air Force must accelerate change to control and exploit the air domain to the standard the nation expects and requires from us. If we don’t change – if we fail to adapt – we risk losing the certainty with which we have defended our national interests for decades."
Collaboration the key to the future
For Gen Brown, the relationships between the Air Force and industry need to evolve in order to respond to the challenges established in the Strategic Approach document and the challenges of peer competitors increasingly committed and capable of narrowing the technological gap long enjoyed by the US and to a lesser extent its allies.
This level of collaboration also extends to the political decision makers in the US as the discourse continues to devolve, something Gen Brown explains in great detail, stating: "Only through collaboration within and throughout will we succeed. The Air Force must work differently with other Department of Defense stakeholders, Congress and both traditional and emerging industry partners to streamline processes and incentivise intelligent risk-taking.
"Most importantly, we must empower our incredible Airmen to solve any problem. We must place value in multi-capable and adaptable team builders, and courageous problem solvers that demonstrate value in diversity of thought, ingenuity and initiative," he says.
Adding to this, GEN Brown says, "We must candidly assess ourselves and address our own internal impediments to change."
The driving force behind this shift in thinking is the increasingly contested environment the US and its allies find themselves in, particularly as both Russia and China continue to flex their military muscle around the world.
"Tomorrow’s Airmen are more likely to fight in highly contested environments, and must be prepared to fight through combat attrition rates and risks to the nation that are more akin to the World War II era than the uncontested environment to which we have since become accustomed. The forces and operational concepts we need must be different. Our approach to deterrence must adapt to the changes in the security environment," Gen Brown explained.
In order to respond to these existing and emerging challenges, he highlights the growing need for "ruthless capability prioritisation", a major departure from the traditional platform-centric model of US defence capability development.
Gen Brown explains, "We must design our capabilities and concepts to defeat our adversaries, exploit their vulnerabilities and play to our strengths. And we must be able to frame decisions and trade-offs with both a near and long-term view of what value our capabilities provide throughout the life-cycle of performance."
Further to this, Gen Brown expresses targeted insight regarding the traditional acquisition and development processes which have seen extraordinary cost blow outs resulting in short production cycles for key USAF platforms, namely key strategic force multipliers like the B-2 Spirit and the F-22 Raptor.
"In doing so, we must acknowledge the realities of the fiscal environment to ensure that the US Air Force is gaining the most value and being good stewards of taxpayer dollars," he explains.
"To be successful, the US Air Force must continue its future design work and accelerate the evolution and application of its operational concepts and force structure to optimise its contribution to Joint All Domain Operations."
No time to rest on one's laurels
For Gen Brown, the rapidly evolving and deteriorating global economic, political and geo-strategic environment that will directly impact national and global security should serve as a driving force to establish a fresh strategic approach and shaping the Air Force's response directly.
Doing so requires an understanding that the current success is built on the shoulders of the past, something Gen Brown's strategic approach is particularly pointed in highlighting:
"Today’s US Air Force, and its assumed dominance, was shaped by highly innovative and courageous Airmen throughout our storied history. Seeing the need for change, they forged new technologically-advanced force structures and developed novel operational concepts that paved the way for the many successes we have achieved. We can do it again."
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.
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.