Decisions lead to consequences, and at every echelon of leadership, the consequences grow. A flight commander worries about today’s mission; a squadron commander’s concerns might stretch to a deployment; the wing commander looks out 18 to 24 months; and so on. The higher you go, the longer the outlook.
For service chiefs and secretaries peering into the future a decade or more, the risk calculus gets evermore difficult. Blind spots, whether self-imposed or not, can lead to disasters. Misreading the future is like misplaying a move in chess: Once the move is made, there is no going back.
News that the Air Force has begun to draw down its two F-15 squadrons at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, shows the cascading effect of decisions made years ago. Now approaching 40 years of age and restricted from the most extreme maneuvers, these once mighty airplanes have outlasted their anticipated lifetimes. The Air Force has already stopped training new F—15C/D pilots, so there is no longer a supply of new talent to fly those planes.
F-22s and F-16s from the other side of the globe will fill the gaps until new F-15EX aircraft and crews are available in sufficient number to move into place. That will take many years. Rotating units through Kadena means other combatant commands will have to gap fighter presence in their regions for long periods of time. This is a zero-sum game; when airplanes are removed from service and new airplanes aren’t there to replace them, there’s no escaping the shortfall. The trouble is, the Air Force has been doing this for years now and the problem will get worse before it gets better.
Misreading the future is like misplaying a move in chess: Once the move is made, there is no going back.
The Air Force still wants to retire 33 F-22A aircraft. These are not the latest F-22s, but the ones used for training. Regardless, they are more capable than any other fighter in the world. The A models lack the full combat capabilities of the front-line F-22s. Link 16 and other capabilities would need to be added. The Air Force should have upgraded those airplanes to a full-up combat configuration years ago, but never did. Now the price tag and time to completion have gone through the roof. Estimates of the cost extend to $100 million per airplane—more than a brand-new F-35.
All of this dates back to a bad judgment call. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates famously accused the Air Force leadership of “next-war-it is” for its unwavering commitment to building F-22s. He lambasted the service for betting the farm on “exquisite capability,” setting up today’s ugly irony: The U.S. now sees the People’s Republic of China as America’s pacing challenge, yet it no longer has the forces to keep two squadrons of front-line fighters in Okinawa.
The Air Force is working on regaining lost capacity, betting heavily that uncrewed Collaborative Combat Aircraft can become a new kind of force multiplier, enabling a single pilot to command a formation. These stealthy, autonomous aircraft would become extensions of a crewed fifth-generation fighter, expanding the portfolio of weapons and tactics available to each pilot. Once operational, this combination will complicate the sight picture for an adversary, putting fewer lives at risk and more warbirds in the air.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall seems encouraged, suggesting last month that these weapons programs are maturing fast enough that the Air Force will commit substantial funds for the concept in its fiscal 2024 budget request. That’s a good sign. Kendall has set a standard requirement—delivering meaningful operational capability to the warfighter—and the fact that he’s ready to commit substantial funds means he sees the merit and a realistic shot at delivery.
Delivering meaningful capability from space is also the focus of Space Systems Command and Lt. Gen. Michael A. Guetlein. He is working to find new ways to take advantage of existing capabilities, whether military or commercial, before forging ahead with major new investment. The Space Force can do more with what it has, he argues. On the SSC campus in Los Angeles, threat briefings are now monthly. Banners on walkways declare “The Threat Is Real.”
The need for such messaging is indicative of the challenge Guetlein faced. Was the former Space and Missile Command so out of touch that threats were not perceived? Perhaps. Guetlein says threat briefs were delivered only annually and success was measured by contract execution rather than capability delivered to warfighters. Now reformed as Space Systems Command, Guetlein is making clear his intent: “Exploit what we have, buy what we can, build what we must.”
The concept is applicable to any military organization. Exploiting the untapped potential of existing capability is like prescribing medication off-label—finding a new way to use capabilities already available rather than buying or creating something new. It’s efficient and fast. Buying what we need is a standard military operating procedure, but it’s only recently that such a thing was possible in the space domain.
The Air Force’s adoption of Agile Combat Employment is built on that same model. Developing multi-capable Airmen so that smaller units can operate from distributed locations and flying tankers with extra crews to maximize tanker availability apply the same exploit what you have mentality. It’s not always about getting more new airplanes or other new hardware. Sometimes it’s about making better use of the systems at hand.
In its own way, this is also a metaphor for the entire Space Force. Standing up a new military service offers not a blank slate, but an array of existing capabilities to be exploited, a market of commercial services that can be purchased and integrated, and a long list of known and still developing requirements that will have to be built for the unique circumstances of 21st century space operations.
The new Chief of Space Operations, Gen. B. Chance “Salty” Saltzman is on a mission to ensure his Guardians are not just capable space technicians, but warriors employing their tools and capabilities to stay a step ahead of their rivals in the domain, able at once to exploit their advantages for the benefit of joint force operations and also to deprive adversaries of those same kinds of capabilities. The decision to establish a distinct and separate Space Force three years ago was one of those consequential, no-turning-back moves that change the course of history. Enabling each service, the Air Force and the Space Force, to specialize benefits both. But it cannot and will not be enough to simply divide the pie. For these two services to attain the domination in their respective domains that will deter adversaries and win wars when they must be fought, that pie has got to grow.
If the pie does not grow—if the nation gains a dominant Space Force without at the same time empowering the Air Force to achieve its obligation to achieve air dominance—we as a nation will have failed the test. What good is it to gain the heavens if we cannot dominate the skies?