Estimated Reading Time: 10 mins
By: Stephen J. Bressett
Editor’s Note: Today we present part one of a two-part series examining opposing viewpoints concerning the United States Air Force’s ability to deter and prevail against a growing near peer adversary.
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.
-R. Martin, The opposable mind: Winning through integrative thinking
Only air power can defeat air power. The actual elimination or even stalemating of an attacking air force can be achieved only by a superior air force.
-Major Alexander P. de Seversky
The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) paints a vivid picture of the current state of American strategic agility, proclaiming that, “We are emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding.” The U.S. has to become better and faster at adapting their strategy to meet existential threats. The United States Air Force (USAF) has proven its ability to anticipate, adapt, and respond to these threats by providing a credible nuclear deterrent, leveraging expeditionary skills and technologies, and fostering regional partnerships. This article provides evidence contending that the USAF has the ability to deter, and if necessary, prevail in a war against a hostile peer opponent.
The USAF is the delivery mechanism for two thirds of the nuclear triad. Since the emergence of nuclear weapons, the term deterrence is largely synonymous with nuclear deterrence, although conventional deterrence, coercive diplomacy, and compellence also represent key factors to a coherent strategy. Military deterrence is a strategy by which one power uses the threat of reprisal effectively to preclude an attack from an adversary power. A successful nuclear deterrence strategy relies on capability, credibility, and communication. The USAF’s deterrence posture directly secures second strike capability while being a visible, credible, and reliable force.
The USAF has proven and continues to prove its capability and credibility numerous times a year through nuclear exercises and weapon system evaluations. These programs bolster deterrence in a multifaceted manner. They are a public display of technical and operational competence, proving the safe, secure, and effective cradle-to-grave execution of a nuclear mission. Furthermore, increased funding on modernizing command and control is underway. The Department of Defense plans to spend $40.5 billion on these activities between 2017 and 2026. Further securing and hardening these systems promotes survivability and adds credibility to this strategy.
There is debate about whether a nuclear deterrence strategy prevents a classic Thucydides trap, wherein major powers are destined for war. Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have also adopted strategies of nuclear deterrence, promising mutually assured destruction. Today, nuclear proliferation has greatly decreased since the beginning of the Cold War, partly due to the START and New START treaties signed in 1991 and 2011, respectively. These arms treaties between the US and Russia numerically reduce and limit the quantity of operational weapons each nation can possess. However, proving whether or not a deterrence strategy actually works can be difficult. All we can say for certain is that major power warfare has been avoided for over 70 years, which the US attributes to a strategy of deterrence, provided largely by the deterrent value of our nuclear air service.
Technologies and Expeditionary Skills
Unmatched stealth and precision guided munition technology allow the USAF to use the principle of mass, without needing a numerically overwhelming force. The USAF reaps many military advantages derived from leveraging a third offset strategy. Low observable global strike assets act as a prominent justification for the USAF’s ability to effectively deter, and if confronted, prevail in a peer conflict. This unmatched tenant of air power allows diplomats to make credible threats knowing that military commanders can hold any target at ransom – anytime, anywhere.
Utilizing a gambit of highly organized and well-trained supporting players, the US has proven that global strike works to accomplish global combat objectives. Further emphasis on the research and development of low observable aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles underscores their perceived effectiveness by decision makers. Stealth technologies such as the B-2, F-22, F- 35 and RQ-170 shape the battlespace in a way that brings forward a credible deterrent. With the emergence of the B-21, America is strategically postured to dominate into the future. These platforms are far from fragile homeland defenders, but rather hardened warfighters. With the exception of the F-35, which recently deployed to the Gulf of Aden, the other platforms are proven in traditional and non-traditional functions. Perhaps most critical, is the expeditionary skills developed by the USAF that are unmatched by Russia or the PRC.
The USAF has gained invaluable insight through experience in expeditionary combat operations that have been nearly continuous since the 1990s. This first-hand experience has forged the USAF into a lean and lethal, highly-effective juggernaut. Complimenting skills of global strike, rapid global mobility, and air-to-air refueling allow the USAF to project power relatively quickly and efficiently. These skills are unmatched by peer opponents who have instead invested in homeland defense, complimenting their continental advantage. However, if confronted, the USAF’s combination of advanced technologies, and expeditionary skills will place a formidable burden on the enemy, causing them to determine whether an engagement is in their best interest. As alluded to, Russia and the PRC benefit from continental defenses. America’s longstanding diplomatic alliances with surrounding nations encroach on their ability to freely maneuver and fully take advantage of their perceived national security.
America’s strong global alliances present formidable capability to continental powers in Asia. The US, together with its military allies, presents a daunting global engagement threat for Russia or the PRC, ultimately providing an allied strategic advantage. Joint and coalition exercises have further honed the warfighter, and have proven to be a lethal layering and complimentary practice. Joint and coalition exercises are a proven dual-suited approach. They serve as a critical training mechanism to effectively integrate joint forces across multiple domains, as well as demonstrating on the world stage that such operations are possible.
Since World War II, the US has retained a strategy of gaining and maintaining allies across the Indo-Pacific. Alliances have provided the US military an opportunity to access territory within the region, encroaching on the PRC’s ability to have uncontested open water maneuver outside of the first island chain. Prominently, relationships with Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and Australia highlight positive examples of key alliances within close proximity to China’s mainland. These connections shape both military and diplomatic advantages. The ability for US diplomats to develop relationships and nurture expansion opportunities is a remarkable undertaking that the PRC has failed to produce. The PRC’s inability to gain legitimate partners in the region continues to create a complex problem for their economy and military, overall benefiting the USAF’s ability to fly, fight, and win in Asia.
The 21st century will be the Asian Century, characterized by a shift in the geopolitical center of the world from Europe to Asia, and an increasingly confident Russia and PRC. The 2018 NDS refocuses strategic priorities on existential threats, the likes of which the USAF is ready to meet head on, embracing a fight tonight posture. America’s nuclear deterrence strategy, primarily driven by the USAF’s preponderance of the nuclear triad, presents a credible, and capable force. Unmatched stealth and precision guided munition technology allow the USAF to use the principle of mass, without needing a numerically overwhelming force. Finally, America’s strong global alliances present daunting capability to continental powers in Asia. The USAF is poised to provide a credible, long-term deterrent to peer opponents, while also demonstrating exceptional capability to engage the enemy across a broad spectrum of multi-domain operations.
Maj Stephen J. Bressett is a student at the Air Command and Staff College in the Multi Domain Operations Strategists program and holds a doctorate degree in education. He is a senior pilot with more than 2,900 flight hours in the B-2, T-38 and T-6. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US Government.