The “Little Friends” of 2030?: The Future of Air Superiority

By: Dr. Heather Venable

Estimated Reading Time: 4 Minutes

At the beginning of World War II, the Army Air Forces had not prepared adequately for an air superiority campaign against Germany. For one, it did not have the right ideas in place. It sought to take shortcuts to achieve air superiority, focused as it was until 1943 on stopping aircraft production more than the attrition of the fighters that had made German skies so dangerous. It also did not have the right technology. It lacked long-range escort fighters, or “little friends,” as bomber pilots came to lovingly describe them. The Army Air Forces ultimately did achieve air superiority, in part because of the sheer numbers of little and big friends the United States could produce. By the end of the war, the US commonly launched devastating 1000-plane raids over German cities.

In the early 1990s, by contrast, Dave Deptula celebrated how airpower had redefined traditional conceptions of mass. With the development of new platforms like the B-2, one aircraft could do what 1000 of aircraft had done in World War II. These changes were so revolutionary, Deptula argued, that they remade war’s very nature, a bold statement indeed.

Now he is singing a slightly different tune. In a recent Forbes article, he insists that the Air Force has anemic amounts of aircraft. He bolsters this claim with a reference to a 2018 study guaranteed to keep away insomnia in light of its depressing suggestion that the United States sits on the verge of “strategic insolvency.”

Deptula wants more aircraft for several important reasons: 1) air superiority 2) strategic attack and 3) deterrence. These are all excellent justifications for more aircraft if the assumptions they rest on are equally sound.  

A fundamental question of supreme importance for the Air Force is how one achieves air superiority in a peer conflict. Deptula appears to assume that airplanes are the key enablers of air superiority. But it is imperative to consider how much an air superiority campaign in 2030 will have in common with Operation Desert Storm much less World War II. In other words, one must take a calculated risk on whether or not airplanes will provide the most essential effects. If they look more alike than not, the Air Force clearly needs more airplanes. Unfortunately, it is questionable as to how long current stealth capabilities will be sufficient in a peer conflict, although advantages in electronic warfare help mitigate improvements in radar.  

Fortunately, Airpower consists of more than airplanes. The Air Force defines Airpower as the “the ability to project military power or influence through the control and exploitation of air, space, and cyberspace to achieve strategic, operational, or tactical objectives.” It is worth exploring, however, how much the Air Force and airpower advocates hold to this definition that they are not doing enough to provide cyber with a starring role in an air superiority campaign.  Cyber capabilities have been used to help achieve air superiority since Operation Allied Force. The US could spoof Serbian radars, but Air Force officers could not bring themselves to believe in these capabilities.

If the Air Force’s cyber capabilities are robust enough that one need not invest so heavily in aircraft, then that brings us to the second reason Deptula believes the Air Force needs more airpower: strategic attack, or “destroying the centers of gravity that allow an adversary to sustain an attack.” If the Air Force should pursue the “baseline” option of –as proposed by its own office for future thinking offers as one of four proposals for the Air Force’s future direction–then Deptula correctly asserts that the Air Force needs more airplanes. By contrast, a more “revolutionary” alternative to the “baseline” option relies far more on stand-off capabilities for strategic attack. This vision sees F-35s and B-21s as something more akin to very expensive skeet-shooting targets. Others insist, however, that stand-off capabilities must be balanced with “penetrating” ones.  

How does the Air Force “build” itself to meet Chinese and Russian threats? Deptula’s vision rests on traditional thinking in which airpower essentially means airplanes, albeit supported by cyberspace and space capabilities. In other words, airplanes achieve air superiority with some help from their “little friends,” including 0s and 1s. But in a world where the Air Force takes its own definition of Airpower more seriously, 0s and 1s and space capabilities can be equal partners. The Air Force needs to determine which path it wants to take forward and then build the right force to enable it to achieve air superiority in 2030. Deptula claims to have overseen a revolution in airpower during Operation Desert Storm, but he does not seem to want one now.  

Dr. Heather Venable is an Assistant Professor of Military and Security Studies in the Department of Airpower at the United States Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College. She graduated with a B.A. in History from Texas A&M University and a M.A. in American History from the University of Hawai’i. She received her PhD in military history from Duke University. She also has attended the Space Operations Course as well as the Joint Firepower Course. The author may be reached at: heather.venable@us.af.mil

Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other US government agency.

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