Expeditionary Aerospace Power

Nov. 1, 1998

Every major study of US defense requirements in recent years has led to a recurring set of core conclusions.

  • The United States has global interests and responsibilities from which we cannot and do not wish to retreat.
  • The nation needs military capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict, but the emphasis for the foreseeable future will be on response to regional crises or conflicts.
  • A Revolution in Military Affairs–the primary elements of which are information technology and long-range precision strike capability–has changed the nature of warfare, taking us beyond the inevitability of massive, force-on-force engagements.
  • The cornerstone of our strength is the capability to project combat power rapidly and effectively to any point on the globe.
  • When US forces engage in combat, our objective will be to win quickly, decisively, and with as few casualties as possible.
  • The United States must dominate both air and space in wartime. We must have access to space and be able to operate freely there while denying those capabilities to an adversary.

Unfortunately, the national defense program as presently constituted is at odds with this body of conclusions. It does not provide the resources or the forces actually required. It does not capitalize on the full potential of either the Revolution in Military Affairs or aerospace power.

Technology development and force modernization have been shortchanged as money is reprogrammed away to cover readiness and daily operations. Although air and space capabilities are deemed critical to the future, aerospace power is undervalued in budgets and planning. Furthermore, joint doctrine still tends to portray airpower as principally a supporting element for ground operations.

National security demands that we fund the defense budget to actual requirements, not to wishful thinking. The Air Force Association believes it has become imperative that the Department of Defense and service leaders ensure that the Administration and Congress hear and understand the needs of the force.

The Effectiveness of Airpower. The nation’s top defense leaders were right in 1991 when they said that airpower had been the decisive element in the Gulf War. As impressive as airpower was in that conflict, though, it has improved enormously since then, and today attains a much higher standard than it did in the Gulf.

The capabilities of airpower, especially in precision attack, were further demonstrated in “Deliberate Force,” the three-week air campaign in Bosnia in 1995 that was the decisive factor in bringing the recalcitrant Serbs to the peace talks in Dayton. It was another example of what airpower can accomplish when properly employed.

The Quadrennial Defense Review recognized the prime operational requirement to halt an enemy force rapidly, short of its objective, perhaps avoiding the need for a costly ground campaign to evict the enemy from captured territory. Achieving such a strategic halt is primarily a job for airpower.

Airpower can now strike directly and with great accuracy at critical parts of the enemy’s infrastructure and order of battle. Military effectiveness is no longer measured by local perspectives and battle lines on the ground.

The National Defense Panel produced a template of critical capabilities-mobility, stealth, speed, increased range, precision strike, and a small logistics footprint-that will rise in importance between 2010 and 2020. These capabilities are hallmarks of aerospace power. The Berlin Airlift–the 50th anniversary of which we observe this year–exemplified the versatility of airpower as an instrument of national power.

It is by means of aerospace power that the nation will best measure up to the objective of Joint Vision 2010 to accomplish the effects of mass, concentrating combat power at the decisive time and place, with less need than in the past to assemble a massed force in the battle area.

It has become popular to disparage airpower and to argue that it is not “decisive” in war. We do not claim that aerospace power will be decisive alone in every instance, but it is the hardest-hitting, longest-reaching, and most flexible force that the nation possesses. It is difficult to imagine a future conflict of any major scope in which land power or sea power could survive–much less be decisive–without aerospace power.

Transformation to the Aerospace Force. After the Cold War, the US Air Force reduced active duty strength by a third and cut forces stationed abroad by half. Meanwhile, its contingency deployments have increased by a factor of four.

The Air Force is no longer a forward-based Cold War garrison force, focused on containment. It has become an expeditionary force, concentrating on global reach and the projection of global power, geared to a rapid and tailored response. The force is also in transition from airpower to the larger regime of aerospace power, incorporating the integrated capabilities of the full aerospace medium from air superiority to space control.

The aerospace force retains, and in fact, has enhanced substantially, the traditional ability to support other forces in a joint campaign. Less recognized but of equal or greater importance, aerospace forces have an unprecedented capability to achieve strategic, operational, and tactical results on their own or with land or sea forces in support.

Aerospace forces operate decisively and accurately, over long range, on short notice, while putting as few Americans in harm’s way as possible. Platforms in air and space also make major contributions to information dominance and battle management for US forces and coalition allies.

Space. We are currently seeing the first wave of a massive migration into space of military, civilian, and commercial functions and dependencies. Space is an area of vital national interest, from which we can no more isolate ourselves than we can from our interests in Europe or Asia.

When our interests in space are challenged–and they will be–the nation will expect the US armed forces to be ready to protect them. We should be preparing now against that day. For political and budgetary reasons, we are not preparing adequately to fulfill those responsibilities.

The nation is nominally committed to space control, the ability of US and allies to reach space and operate freely there while denying those capabilities to an adversary. In actuality, our commitment is hedged by various policies, treaties, and commitments that restrict military operations in space. Treaties designed to protect US and Soviet populations in the Cold War now increase their vulnerabilities as weapons of mass destruction proliferate. It is time to change our national policies and plans to ensure the capabilities to defend our interests in space.

The Commitment of Force. The Air Force Association repeats its concern that the United States has progressively lowered the threshold for engaging in combat. The nation has become increasingly willing to employ the armed forces in situations where the military purposes are vague or undefined. In the confrontation with Iraq in early 1998, for example, our objectives kept shifting. Our commitment was weak and tentative, leaving both adversaries and allies uncertain about our intentions. Our approach was to use the armed forces to “send signals,” but we were not prepared to take serious, relevant, and sustained action if our warnings failed.

Strategy must be based on objectives that can be specified clearly and which we have the means and the will to accomplish. We should not commit our armed forces to combat if we do not know what our objectives are or if we are lacking in either capability or will.

Falling Short. According to the national defense strategy, US armed forces are supposed to be ready to fight and win, almost simultaneously, two major theater wars. Our present forces, weakened by one reduction after another over the years, are in no shape to carry out that strategy. They would be pressed to sustain a single conflict on the scale of the Persian Gulf War of 1991.

The defense budget is critically underfunded. The diminished force structure and resources it provides are not sufficient to cover all of the “engagement and enlargement” actions around the world, much less support wartime requirements.

The Air Force Association does not accept the assumption, prevalent in the Pentagon and elsewhere, that the best we can hope for is a “stable defense topline,” meaning that it may be necessary for the armed forces to absorb further reductions but that the defense budget can never be increased.

Defense outlays have not only fallen as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product–down by more than half from the Cold War peak–but also have decreased as a percentage of total federal outlays and net public spending. To a considerable extent, then, the decline is a matter of priorities.

The Air Force Association regards the 3.0 percent of GDP presently allocated for defense as inadequate and the 2.7 percent level projected for 2003 as irresponsible and dangerous. We believe the defense budget can be and should be increased.

Threats Old and New. The policy of sizing the armed services to fight two regional conflicts–adopted in 1993 as a rationale for reducing the defense budget from “Base Force” levels–is now coming under attack as excessive and unaffordable.

It would be a considerable risk to fall below the two-conflict standard for sizing the armed forces. The nation has a consistent history of underestimating in peacetime the forces that it will require in wartime. The Gulf War, for example, ultimately required a third more fighter forces than forecast by the strategy. Nor have we done well in anticipating the outbreak and escalation of conflict.

The standard for sizing the force must obviously be set higher than a single regional conflict. There must be a reasonable force held in reserve and some hedge against simultaneous trouble elsewhere. Provision must also be made for the missions other than regional conflict for which the force is concurrently responsible. The two-conflict standard serves all of these necessary considerations.

We urge caution in the increasing emphasis on Military Operations Other Than War. Peacekeeping and constabulary functions are legitimate parts of the national security program, but it must be clear that they are subordinate to the assured capability to fight and win the nation’s wars.

The threats are diverse and evolving. Challenges arise from more sources than in the past, and the locations are less predictable. Weapons of mass destruction are proliferating, along with the means of employing them. Much sooner than our intelligence agencies had expected, the United States will be vulnerable to attack by ballistic missiles in the hands of rogue nations. Fighter aircraft sold on the world market approach parity with the best in operational service with the US Air Force. Information from space, much of it of strategic value, is commonly available.

New regimes of conflict are emerging. Among the most important of these is the power to obtain, exploit, defend, and attack information. In the near future, information warfare will upset traditional concepts about conflict and national defense. Aerospace forces will be deeply involved and compelled to deal with both the vulnerabilities and the opportunities.

Nuclear Weapons. As the explosion of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan reminded us, the goal of nuclear non-proliferation is idealistic and probably impossible. This example also underscores our need for national missile defense. A major obstruction to that capability, however, is the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, an agreement struck under circumstances of the past with the Soviet Union, a nation that no longer exists. It is time for the United States to withdraw from the ABM Treaty and accelerate the development of a national defense against ballistic missiles.

Contrary to the rising clamor from the nuclear abolition movement, we believe that the United States must retain sufficient nuclear weapons to enforce nuclear deterrence. Their value in deterring aggression and pressures from potential adversaries has been demonstrated amply, and we should not give up on nuclear deterrence until we find something better to replace it.

Force Modernization. The Department of Defense continues to postpone force modernization, which is long overdue and now becoming a major problem. At projected budget levels, there is little chance of realizing the Administration’s own procurement funding goal.

Of special concern to the Air Force Association is the absence of any plan for long-range airpower except for upgrades and improvements to the existing bomber fleet. Time has run out on the proposal to build more B-2s. That production line is closed, and neither the Department of Defense or the Air Force has given sufficient thought to what comes next. We urge a maximum effort on the long-term bomber force structure plan that Congress has directed the Air Force to prepare and present by March 1, 1999. The bomber upgrade programs are also vital–especially the enhancement of the B-2 to its full potential–as are precision-guided munitions to arm these systems.

Among development and procurement programs on our priority list are the F-22 fighter, the Joint Strike Fighter, the Joint STARS surveillance system (a minimum of 19 aircraft), the Airborne Laser, the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle for space access, the Space Based Infrared System, and an additional squadron of C-17 airlifters for the Special Operations mission.

Problems in the Force. Deterioration of the force is showing up in readiness and mission capable rates as well as in morale and retention problems. The wear and tear is taking its toll on the aging fleet of aircraft and on the people who are obliged to operate and maintain them.

Too few people with too few resources are trying to cover too many deployments to operating locations in Southwest Asia and elsewhere. The difficulties affect both those who deploy and those at their home stations who cope with the suddenly increased workload left behind.

The force is overextended and strung out. Operational units miss the training they need to remain proficient. Personal problems, caused by repeated family separations and other factors, are multiplying. Hardships are compounded when the force’s sense of purpose is undercut by tenuous objectives and the open-ended nature of the deployments.

The ruinous operational tempo is a big reason why the Air Force is losing some of its best people. It is not only pilots who are leaving in alarming numbers but also middle-grade airmen with valuable experience and know-how.

We congratulate the Air Force on its initiative to regroup operational and support units to cover unplanned peacetime expeditionary operations in a way that redistributes the impact on units and people.

However, the force’s underlying problem is that it has been cut too much. What it needs is more people, more resources, and more force structure.

People. The government is systematically destroying the vital relationship of trust between military members and the nation. People in uniform accept the hardships and dangers of the military profession; in return, the nation is expected to take care of military members and their families and provide them a reasonable compensation and quality of life. In recent years, however, the government has defaulted on its promises, cut back on programs that directly affect people, and sought cheap solutions to cover its obligations.

Concern about health care is Issue No.1 for veterans and retirees. In the most recent opinion survey of the active force, less than half of the members found the medical care program satisfactory. The Air Force Association believes the government should face its responsibility and make a variety of options for affordable, portable, and accessible health care available to active duty and retired members and their families.

Military pay has dropped even further behind than before. It now trails compensation in the private sector by 14 percent. Pay inequity is a rising source of dissatisfaction, especially among enlisted members of the force. We believe that Congress should approve a special increase in military pay to establish closer comparability with earnings in the private sector.

On these issues and others, the government should act now to restore the bond of confidence between the nation and the force, not only because it is the right thing to do but also because failure to act is harmful to retention and morale.

Guard and Reserve. Wherever the US Air Force is engaged–in the Balkans, Southwest Asia, or elsewhere–the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve components are there, demonstrating continuously their ability to deploy, operate, and fight alongside the active duty component. The Air Force has made Total Force a partnership, not a competition, and in so doing has set the model to which the other services aspire.

As the Expeditionary Aerospace Force evolves and new missions emerge, we trust that the Air Guard and Reserve will take appropriate roles in them. In view of their contribution to Air Force performance, training and equipment modernization standards for the Guard and Reserve must be on a par with those of the active duty force.

The Air Force Association expresses its appreciation and regard for the support of employers of Guard and Reserve members. Without their cooperation, the strong and extended Total Force operation would not be possible.

A Force for the Strategy. We agree with the National Defense Panel Report that “there is a high premium on forces that can deploy rapidly, seize the initiative, and achieve our objectives with minimal risk of heavy casualties.” The Expeditionary Aerospace Force and long range airpower fit that prescription with remarkable fidelity.

Aerospace power is the force component more likely than any of the others to amplify our advantage in theater battle and to provide the global awareness essential to the joint force in peace and war.

We believe that the nation needs a balanced force of air, land, and sea capabilities–but we are the world’s leading military power primarily because of our strength in air and space. The United States is an aerospace nation, and the US Air Force is its Aerospace Force.