Airpower at Center Stage

Oct. 1, 1993

This article is adapted from “Long-Range Airpower: A Report of the AFA Advisory Group on Military Roles & Missions.” Principal authors were Gen. Russell E. Dougherty, USAF (Ret.), Gen. Charles A. Gabriel, USAF (Ret.), Gen. Michael J. Dugan, USAF (Ret.), and Maj. Gen. John R. Alison, USAF (Ret.).

The main contributor to the environment of the current military “Roles, Missions, and Functions” debate is the defense budget. For all the talk among the critics and zealots, the main issue here is the claim on priorities in the shrinking defense budget-not doctrinal purity.

We think it fair to say that, at the center of the roles and missions debate-and the budgetary debate that underlies it-is airpower, and that the crux of it is long-range airpower. For our purpose in this report, we define long-range airpower as bounded on one end by the capability of air forces based in the United States and on the other end by air forces operating from bases abroad in the roles of deep attack and interdiction.

The key issue, as framed by Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (and by others), is how the landbased capability of the Air Force and the seabased capability of the Navy and the Marine Corps should contribute to power projection.

There is no real question about the value of airpower or whether it can be held to some precise, absolute, and unique standard of “decisiveness.” All of the services respect and emphasize airpower. Across the spectrum of conflict, the nation now looks to airpower as the initial, and possibly (given the circumstances) the primary, instrument of US force application. Airpower is widely recognized for the rapid results that it can now achieve, with minimum exposure, casualties, and force attrition.

US airpower is highly respected outside the domain of the defense resources debate. This is reflected, certainly, in the recent formulation by Les Aspin, the Secretary of Defense, of a principal requirement he foresees for the armed forces in the post-Cold War era: the capability to stop attacks quickly in multiple contingencies in locations we will not know until trouble starts and where we will not have adequate force already in place.

That capability, Mr. Aspin says, will derive largely from four factors: sufficient airlift; prepositioning of war materiel; precision guided antiarmor weapons, delivered mainly by bomber and fighter aircraft; and airborne electronic surveillance of the battlefield. The main ingredient in this prescription is clearly airpower.

The only real questions about military airpower are: How do you base it? Who procures and mans it? Who controls it? Beyond that, the issue is how much of it and what kind.

Four Airpower Developments

One-dimensional strategies-built solely around airpower or any other weapon category-are misguided. The nation needs a balance of land, sea, air, and space forces. We should approach any potential engagement with the optimum mix and optimum timing of application of forces to achieve best results with fewest casualties.

Nevertheless, it is shortsighted not to recognize that careful, timely use of airpower has emerged as a principal element in any multidimensional strategy-not necessarily the principal element (that depends on the circumstances), but certainly a principal element.

This is attributable to the basic characteristics of airpower-speed, range, flexibility, and the ability to transcend natural boundaries. Also, four comparatively recent developments have combined to make airpower a more potent force:

• Stealth. Stealthy platforms can pass through an enemy’s airspace with low probability of being effectively engaged by radar-directed or -assisted air defenses. This is an important shift in advantage for the offensive force. A relatively small strike force may now be able to reach and destroy critical targets in the early rounds of war.

• Accuracy. Not long ago, such terms as “surgical strike” and “pinpoint accuracy” were not to be taken literally. With the precision weapons now becoming available, surgical strikes have become a fact, and pinpoint accuracy may not be far away.

• Battle management. As the 1991 Persian Gulf War demonstrated, military information-and effective use of it-ranks alongside firepower and maneuver in military importance. Airborne and aerospace sensors are capable of looking deep into enemy territory with stunning resolution, enabling commanders to manage the air and ground battles in ways not possible before.

• Assistance from space. We are just beginning to see the leverage that space systems can provide to forces engaged in terrestrial conflict. This trend will intensify as operational commanders learn how to make full use of spacebased assets for communications, intelligence, navigation, command and control, and other purposes, some of which have yet to emerge.

These developments have been accompanied by a realization-brought home by the Gulf War-that airlifters and aerial refueling are absolutely crucial, especially to a shrinking military force that will henceforth be operating principally in an expeditionary mode, requiring deployment of forces worldwide from bases in the US.

The Air Force has no claim to a monopoly on airpower or the air-attack role. Carrier-based Navy aircraft provide useful options, and in some situations such forces may be best suited to the theater commander’s needs. On the other hand, the rapidly available deep reach, the penetration capability, and the sustained, heavily concentrated firepower of longer-range, landbased aircraft will make them the force of choice.

Thus, it is to our national advantage to view long-range landbased and shorter-range seabased airpower as complementary rather than competitive. We need them both. Our national task, and the best direction for the roles and missions debate, is to concentrate on the capabilities the nation requires for future years and to consider the extent to which long-range airpower can best provide these capabilities in crisis or conflict. Only where such landbased airpower cannot meet these requirements should we resort to more expensive and more vulnerable sea basing.

The Yardstick of Capability

There is constant talk about “threat-based” planning. This of course is not new; evaluation of specific threats and planning forces to counter them has always been a cornerstone of strategy. We cannot, however, plan exclusively on the basis of threats and dangers that are clear and manifest. We just cannot see things that clearly.

Our record of anticipating conflicts and crises has been extremely poor. The most recent example–Bosnia–did not show up on anyone’s scenario list for planning. While we must continue to study specific threats and to estimate the force packages required for envisioned scenarios, we would do well to remember that war seldom follows anyone’s plans. If we can accurately estimate capabilities and develop forces adequate to counter such capabilities, we can ameliorate the lack of precise scenarios.

The more appropriate criterion for weapon systems planning-especially for a strategy keyed to major regional contingencies rather than global war-is capability. If our technology can counter any capability of the adversary, then our problem is reduced to training and force sizing and is not constrained by weapon systems development.

Another key step in planning is to reckon with the objectives for which US forces are fielded and for which they might be employed. We have deliberately used a compound construction because armed forces serve an important function short of actual employment and conflict. By their very existence and capabilities, they deter conflict and serve notice that aggression will not be profitable.

Limited Objectives

Secretary Aspin, both in his Cabinet role and in his earlier position as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has served notice that he anticipates US forces to be employed increasingly in “limited objectives” modes-for sending signals, performing ad hoc air strikes, etc.

While we would urge caution in employing this concept, military forces certainly have the capability to perform such limited tasks. The hazard, of course, is that while our armed forces must make provision for limited actions, such objectives cannot be the planning standards. Otherwise, limited actions will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and will become the measure of our forces.

For some aspects of our force structure, “limited objectives” involve more operational activity than the term might suggest. Since the end of Operation Desert Storm, for example, the Air Force has flown more than 155,000 sorties in Iraq, Somalia, and the Balkans. The fighter and airlift fleets and other components of the force have continued to operate at an arduous tempo.

When the task is one of limited objectives and includes the delivery of firepower, the capability to employ airpower rapidly over intercontinental distances is important. It should not be dependent on forward positioning and the delays that go with it.

Unless deliberately constrained (by shortsighted decisions), long-range combat aircraft can always be used for limited objectives. Range is not a limitation when tankers are available. The delivery of firepower is not token; eight B-2 bombers, for example, can match the ordnance load of an entire aircraft carrier complement. A limited-objectives strike force with stealth characteristics can enter hostile airspace alone and unsupported, restricting the danger to a few aircraft launched from distant bases and only a few aircrew members, not thousands of personnel and fleet assets.

Forces and Capabilities

There is a curious paradox in the economic pressures and national priorities that drive the present debate on military roles and missions. Despite the recognized importance of modern, long-range airpower to national and defense strategy, four tactical aircraft developments, spread over twenty-five years, are seen by many as excessive and unaffordable.

Today we have 201 operational bombers. By early next year, we will have 184. Nevertheless, we as a nation are uncertain if we can maintain a fleet of that size and whether we should invest in a full capability for those we keep. Between 1986 and 1994, the Air Force will have lost about half of its active fighter force structure. By some estimates, the number of planes in the fighter force will drop below 800 before the turn of the century.

The other services are making large-scale reductions as well. It is a testimonial to the caliber of modern forces and to the nation’s military planners that they may actually be able to provide a credible defense posture within such constraints. There is little room for miscalculation, though, and the price of failure may be great.

Except for those of extreme persuasions, it is now generally agreed that the nation has one Air Force-the US Air Force-but that all of the services have, and should have, aviation capabilities when they are integral to their primary mission. We think it will be conceded also that the responsibility to provide and prepare forces for sustained aerial warfare will remain with the Air Force.

Carrier-based airpower and the sea basing of forces are valuable options, but they should not be seen as a substitute for landbased airpower or for the comprehensive capability, flexibility, and deep striking power of the US Air Force.

The contributions of carrier-based and seabased forces are primarily (1) in functions that are an extension of the Navy’s mission at sea, (2) in exploiting the particular advantages of seabased forces, e.g., the positioning of several squadron equivalents of aircraft in geographic areas where the US has not established a presence on land, and (3) in closely integrated joint operations with landbased long-range airpower.

The Most Effective Use of Airpower

The air-to an equal degree with land and sea-has been established as a discrete medium for military operations. It has also been established (again, except to those of extreme persuasions) that airpower is most effective when employed as a whole, across a complete spectrum of combat situations.

Aside from special circumstances, or when the role clearly is an extension of land or sea operations, the preparation of forces for aerial warfare should be the responsibility of the service that specializes in the strategy and conduct of aerial warfare. In any conflict of significant scope or duration-and in many applications of limited force as well–the preponderance of the air effort will be and should be performed by forces of the US Air Force.

A fundamental part of that air effort is establishing air superiority, which is an absolute requirement for land, sea, and air operations. Seabased forces may contribute, but we must expect that the Navy’s counterair assets will be allocated primarily to fleet defense. It will be the task of landbased airpower to establish and maintain air superiority in the broad battle area, including hostile territory and sea approaches. The capability to perform this role must not be just marginally better but overwhelmingly better than that of potential adversaries.

As for very-long-range aircraft, they will not be the answer in every instance when military force is required. However, the advantage of having the assured capability to put a high-payload combat platform over any point on Earth from Stateside locations in hours is obvious, and this option must be developed, available, and recognized by decision-makers in all circumstances.

When ground operations are in progress, there will be a great requirement for airpower to assault the flanks, stop breakthroughs and plug holes, disrupt the enemy’s second echelon, and strengthen the combat power of the assault (or the defense). Air Force attack aircraft, in coordination with Army attack helicopters and Navy and Marine airpower, must provide direct support to ground troops in contact with the enemy force.

Deep Attack and Interdiction

Armed conflicts vary, but the strategic heart of a theater air campaign usually will be deep attack and interdiction, used rapidly to deny enemy control of forces and events and reduce the enemy’s assets and capabilities–which include forces, direct war-supporting materiel, essential war-supporting infrastructure, and lines of communication.

In all but the smallest conflicts, accomplishing these initial attacks with conventional weapons will require hundreds of aircraft flying thousands of sorties. The force performing this task will have to be of appreciable size.

Deep attack and interdiction forces must be survivable (to save lives and minimize attrition), accurate (to hit the targets and avoid collateral damage), and lethal (to destroy hardened and sheltered targets). The tactical intelligence must be timely–almost immediate–and the aircraft and weapons must be capable of identifying, locating, attacking, and destroying difficult targets, including mobile missiles.

Requirements for planning and successfully prosecuting regional conflicts include:

• A significant force of stealth aircraft, essential to planning with limited assets and important objectives. It is difficult to stipulate in advance the precise number of aircraft in the fleet that must be stealthy, but it is surely more than twenty B-2s and fifty-six F-117s.

• Precision guided weapons (some of them stealthy). They are expensive and not required for every target, but nothing else delivers the same results with the same economy of force. The Air Force says that destruction of a typical hard target that took thousands of bombs dropped from B-17s in World War II and hundreds of bombs dropped from F-4s in Vietnam was accomplished by a single laser-guided weapon delivered by an F-117 in Desert Storm.

• Highly reliable systems to sustain the number of sorties required with a smaller force and to minimize extensive field maintenance.

• Intelligence from air and space, which enables a commander to put his striking power where it counts. In most cases, it also denies the enemy the advantage of surprise. We are still learning how to use and exploit this capability.

• Rapid, all-weather target acquisition and identification. This is the sine qua non of effective attack planning; nothing is truer than the old adage that “you can’t hit it if you don’t know where it is.”

• A full complement of modern airlifters and tankers to provide force flexibility and versatility.

• High-quality electronic warfare systems for defense, offense, and battle management, integrated with other forces.

Expectations and Tradeoffs

One must not forget that the US Air Force that waged the air campaign in the Gulf War drew combat units from a service at least a third larger than the Air Force of the next few years. It operated modern aircraft–some of them state-of-the-art. Until something new is operational, these aircraft will remain state-of-the-art. These are the aircraft (in reduced numbers) on which we must rely to fight the next conflict.

Iraq was not the most demanding scenario for regional conflict, yet operations in the highest-threat areas were restricted to a fraction of the force, principally the F-117s. The Gulf War occupied a large portion of what was then known as the tactical air forces. Very high percentages of the aircraft capable of deep precision strike–F-111s, F-117s, and F-15Es–were employed. Even with extraordinary sortie and turnaround rates, the air campaign in the Gulf War took six weeks (after a five-month buildup). The Air Force understands the imperative for economy, but the nation should not expect undersized forces with obsolescing equipment to ensure success in demanding regional conflicts of the future.

The trend is to seek aircraft modernization solutions in commonality, compromise, and the performance of specialized roles by general-purpose platforms. Such approaches seldom (if ever) enhance effectiveness. The rationale for them is economy; there is nearly always a tradeoff in capability and effectiveness.

A totally specialized force is neither feasible or desirable. We agree that a large percentage of the Air Force fleet should be multirole fighters, capable in both air-to-ground and air-to-air roles. The versatile F-16, for example, has been a mainstay of the force in such a dual role. Our point here is that the nation should take care not to cut too many corners or accept too many solutions of convenience in force modernization. If we are going to field only three or four new aircraft in the next twenty-five years, they need to be the best we can develop.

We are not merely building to the threat of today but also building to provide capabilities that, with upgrades and modifications, can handle all foreseeable threats-a margin of capability to ensure we are not second-best well into the 2020s and beyond. Force planning is inherently a long-term proposition. Old threats recede and evolve, and new threats emerge. Technology creates new options. As the nation redefines its interests and its place in the world, new requirements will appear.

The theater commander charged with responsibility for engagement and resolution of a conflict must be able to draw upon a full and flexible set of options to apply the optimum force to the situation that he faces–not to be forced to use second-best.

With genuine respect and regard for the contribution of other force components, we believe that any response to conflicts of the future will be heavily dependent on first-class, landbased airpower and that our planning should be directed to that end.

No other military instrument can project power so rapidly and flexibly or with comparable weight to any point on Earth. “Global Reach, Global Power” is more than an Air Force slogan. It is a primary ingredient of our national security.