Future Wars: A Look at the Air Force’s Ability in a 21st Century Fight

By: Lin Haack

Read Time: 10 Minutes

Editor’s Note: Today we present part two 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. Part one can be found here.

The United States Air Force is not ready to deter or prevail against a growing near-peer hegemony determined to disrupt the international order. Since World War II (WWII), a common touchstone in US strategic-level documents emphasizes a symbiotic relationship between US interests and a robust international order. Therefore, any asymmetric disturbance to the established order will directly affect US interests, necessitating a whole-of-government solution that must incorporate multiple instruments of national power into the overall strategy. This article, however, will examine the military aspect of that response, specifically focusing on Air Force readiness to deter or prevail against a near-peer adversary or growing hegemon.

As stated above, the Air Force is not currently ready to deter or prevail against a “four-plus-one” challenger. According to General Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “four-plus-one” framework refers to four near-peer nation states: Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, in addition to the US’s enduring fight against Islamic extremists. The Air Force’s inability to deter an adversary stem from two related factors:

  • Slow recognition and adaptation to the evolving “grey-zone” environment
  • The subsequent paralytic effects from this new environment

Moreover, the Air Force is not ready to prevail against a near-peer threat due to

  • An antiquated acquisition system, unable to keep pace with peers’ rapid military modernization efforts

Deterrence for a New Threat
Since the 1960s, one could argue that deterrence has had a primary connotation—nuclear deterrence. Viewing deterrence through the lens of a pre and post-Cold War nuclear age provides numerous theories on the effectiveness of deterrence’s escalatory and reprisal pillars. Part One of this article argued that the US Air Force, as a two-thirds provider of the nuclear triad, is actively and effectively deterring near-peer adversaries. The elusive dependent variable notwithstanding, the Air Force’s nuclear credibility is not in jeopardy, but the adversary has learned to maneuver around our traditional views of deterrence.

Near-peer adversaries are blurring the line between what constitutes classic “war” and “peacetime” engagements and senior Air Force leaders are slowly becoming aware that the battlespace is changing. Peer opponents such as China and Russia commonly use competitive measures across the instruments of power that promise war-like results, yet fall short of military provocation; otherwise known as acting in a grey-zone environment. This concept of adversaries operating in a “grey-zone” has become increasingly popular since 2015 and its commonplace usage provides a prevalent addition to the strategic lexicon as US leaders contemplate countermoves.

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment

China for example has taken this approach, leveraging an asymmetric advantage to assert territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, which they claim dates back to the “nine-dash-line.” China’s insidious actions regarding the various island chains hold short from traditional wartime maneuvers. This strategy is prominently featured in Robert Haddick’s book, Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific, emphasizing China’s “patience [and] the slow accumulation of incremental gains [of land], and the avoidance of overt conflict.” US Navy and Air Force assets are located throughout the Pacific and yet both services are currently unable to deter China’s passive-aggressive land grabs in the East and South China Seas. Haddick refers to China’s strategy, as “salami-slicing,” but at the time of publication in 2014, the US had not coined a term for the larger grand strategy paradigm shift facing the Air Force and the military writ large.

Likewise, Russia uses grey-zone tactics in addition to “hybrid warfare,” another recently minted term referring to the lethal adaptability of guerilla warfare with the resources of a conventional state. To illustrate this point, consider the Russia and Ukraine conflicts of 2014 where Russia blended the hybrid battlespace and paralyzed US recognition, response, and subsequent deterrence efforts. Currently, the Air Force is not able to effectively deter adversaries employing grey-zone tactics from achieving their political objectives.

The Air Force’s history is rich with the inability to recognize that the future war will be different from the previous wartime environment. Author Robert Pape more eloquently proves this point in his book The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe, 1940-1945, highlighting neglected airpower lessons that cascade from WWII to the Korean War, and on into the Vietnam War. Presently, information-overload from threats spanning four combatant theaters is inducing latency and stalling US adaptability, causing a continuous loop of observing and orienting that has a paralyzing effect on US military leadership’s ability to decide and act at a speed necessary for victory. The pinnacle of grey-zone paralysis reveals itself in a risk-adverse micro-culture where both action and inaction yield unpleasant outcomes. This grey-zone paradigm shift and the continuous cycle of observing and orienting shapes the current Air Force approach to a four-plus-one threat, namely in its new focus on multi-domain operations.

The Air Force Response
“Multi-domain” is the in vogue term for US military leaders. The current Air Force Chief of Staff, General David Goldfein, highlighted it as one of his key focus areas for the Air Force. While the Air Force touts an unapologetic air, space, and cyberspace-focused mantra in its approach to deter and prevail, they are slowly realizing that success necessitates interoperability across all six domains. Not just conducting operations in each domain. Multi-domain must include air, land, maritime, space, the electromagnetic spectrum (which encompasses cyber) and the human domain with the overarching goal of synchronizing the five domains to influence the human domain. The concept of the human cognitive reach has only recently gained prevalence in open forum senior leader discussions to Airmen. The most recent example is a publication in Joint Forces Quarterly September 2018 edition, where General O’Shaughnessy, US Air Force Pacific Commander, gives credence to near-peer adversary beliefs and perceptions (cognitive domain) that govern their grey-zone tactics as part of overall strategic shaping.

The six-domain concept is still in its infancy for the Air Force, both in concept and implementation, but it provides the lynchpin to the force readiness and maneuverability that the service seeks. As the Air Force continues to shape the narrative of multi-domain operations, it must focus on more than just the eradication of single service solutions that hark back to the foundations of the Goldwater-Nichols Act. It must shift its entire approach to operational-level design, which at its core should facilitate the leaders’ decision-making ability. The future of multi-domain is more than building a JP 5-0 approved campaign that encompasses air, land, and maritime assets—it provides the bedrock for pre-planned decision points and decision analysis that can earn back the latency instilled by a modern four-plus-one military.

Prevailing in the Future
OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environmentIn contrast, effective deterrence of our adversaries is different from prevailing against them in a military conflict. Prevailing against a near-peer threat inherently assumes military action, which alleviates some of the finer complications of the new grey-zone environment and paralytic effects. Regrettably, the Air Force’s ability to field innovative technology at the speed required for victory is absent. Dating back to WWII, the Air Force’s pride stems from technological supremacy and is arguably the root of its organizational culture. In modern times, the service’s acquisitions process is antiquated at best. At worst, it serves as a future causal factor for the US’ failure against a near-peer threat. Since its conception, the Air Force has been wedded to the research and development industry, and that relationship served a purpose in the 1940s when it helped win a world war and support the service’s independence. However, in its current form, the acquisition process hinders military progress through proprietary and stove-piped, service-specific products with fielding times that make most modern solutions irrelevant.

To illustrate, in 1954, General Schriever and his team fielded the Air Force’s Atlas Inter-continental Ballistic Missile system from conception to execution in approximately four years. In contrast, during a 2018 address to Air Command and Staff College students, General Raymond, Commander Air Force Space Command commented it would take the Air Force approximately six years to put an identical satellite-clone into space, not a new capability but something already in the US fleet. A more recent example is the advocacy and purchase of the F-22 Raptor, or more accurately the lack of purchase. In 2009, senior military officials, elected to pursue the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, halting F-22 production after only 187 aircraft made it off the line—just under 50 percent of the original proposal. Soon thereafter, those leaders quickly discovered that the F-35 lacked some of the 5th generation mission sets provided by their F-22 brother and ultimately put the US at a disadvantage against a four-plus-one adversary. The Air Force commissioned the RAND Corporation to analyze the cost to restart F-22 production. Their report in 2017 concluded it would cost almost $10 Billion in 2018 dollars or approximately 15 percent of their annual budget, making that 2009 decision quite costly to correct. The acquisition process is more than funding innovative technology, it is ensuring proper advocacy for projects that will keep the US relevant in a 21st Century fight.

In order to prevail at war, the Air Force must develop a modern-day acquisitions blueprint to solve the technology and timing dilemmas that will impede future victory. While this observation is not new and there are many voices offering probable solutions, it does need to be addressed—quickly. While multi-domain operations and its subsequent design will give commanders the decision advantage to distill clarity from chaos, it will not solve the dilemma of using archaic technology to fight a modern war. The pinnacle of cavalry strategy was no match to the introduction of the machine gun just as the invention of the airplane altered WWI trench warfare. If the Air Force and sister services are to prevail in a future war there must be an immediate acquisitions overhaul.

Closing Thoughts for the Future
The Air Force is not ready to deter or prevail against a growing near-peer adversary but it is possible that it has had a watershed moment with respect to the future of multi-domain operations and their advantages against hybrid warfare and a grey-zone environment. Unpacking a four-plus-one-threat will require a whole-of-government solution, and while it is not the sole responsibility of the Air Force to deter or prevail against that threat, the Air Force will be part of the US solution. The Air Force’s new awareness begins a shift in the service’s traditional views of warfare. The newfound focus on multi-domain operations and identification of acquisitions shortfalls confirms the Air Force is awakening. The next step is translating rhetoric into readiness that will ensure the return of a victorious warfighter and ultimately the security of the United States of America.

Lin Haack is a student in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration at the United States Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College. Lin has served the Air Force in a range of deployments, operating in the European and Pacific Theaters. Email: Lin.Haack.1@gmail.com

Disclaimer: 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 U.S. Government.

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2 thoughts on “Future Wars: A Look at the Air Force’s Ability in a 21st Century Fight

  • November 28, 2018 at 7:51 am

    In modern times, the service’s acquisitions process is antiquated at best ……… At worst, it has demonstrated itself to be corrupt and inept. The so called ” R&D labs” are ate up with nepotism, job security seeking civil service, quota hires, and drug users. The acquisition offices are run by ego maniacs and separated/retired military engineers that haven’t done a day’s worth of engineering since they graduated college.

    They are a great example of over confident, but incompetent.

    Pretty soon the USAF… will be the +1 to other nations.

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