Airmen to deepen their understanding of China, Russia, and other potential adversaries. Wei Jinxin/China Ministry of Defense
Photo Caption & Credits

Know Thy Enemy

Feb. 19, 2021

USAF wants Airmen to develop a deeper understanding of China and other adversaries.

Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. has a challenge for the force: Understand your enemy.

It’s not enough to count the aircraft in China’s air force. Brown wants Airmen to know what “makes them tick—what drives their intent?” That, he has said, is the only way the U.S. can come out on top in a high-end fight with China, where air superiority is not a given, but must be earned.

Brown’s admonition to the force to “Accelerate Change, or Lose,” issued shortly after he took the helm as the Air Force’s top uniformed officer, calls on the service to “develop and build [a] deep institutional understanding of China and Russia, and reward and retain those Airmen who foster the personal attributes necessary for success in the challenging future ahead.”

The Chief is harkening back to the Cold War, when the Air Force developed experts in all things Soviet, from learning the language to understanding the strategic military structure to how they made decisions. Brown wants all Airmen, regardless of rank or Air Force Specialty Code, to understand their role in the great power competition with Russia and China.

“The Air Force must improve its understanding of competitors’ ambitions and ways of war to inform how it organizes, trains, and equips Airmen,” he wrote in new action orders released Dec. 4, 2020.

If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

He seeks to lay a foundation as early as the recruitment process and through Basic Military Training (BMT), and to continue to build on that throughout an Airman’s career so Airmen of every rank have deep knowledge of peer adversaries. Air Education and Training Command boss Lt. Gen. Marshall B. Webb said the service will touch on great power competition in BMT, but the focus there will remain on orienting new Airmen and Guardians to combat skills, weapons, and physical fitness. Air University will be the first major area to fully take on Brown’s challenge, where the academic curriculum will include a “heavy flavor” of great power competition, he said.

“You can expect to see inside the various colleges, exercises, wargames, a focus on strategic and military leadership, decision-making, etc.,” Webb said.

A Strategic Shift

Ever since the National Defense Strategy was released in 2018, Air Force schools and those across the joint force have been adjusting their curricula from a focus on counterinsurgency operations and combat with violent non-state actors to an increased focus on peer competitors, Russia and China. But the Chief’s directive accelerated the shift, said Mark Conversino, chief academic officer at Air University.

In July, then-Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper directed that 50 percent of military academic curricula be focused on great power competition, but the Air Force upped the ante with then-Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen W. Wilson promising the Air Force will aim for 60 percent.

Understanding how Russia employes its S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems is critical to being prepared to confront Russia, if necessary, Air Force leaders say. Russian Federation Ministry of Defense

In response, Air University stood up a Curriculum Task Force to conduct a “lesson-level review” of the Air War College, Air Command and Staff College, and the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS), as well as squadron officer school and the entire enlisted professional military education (PME) program.

The task force focused on measurable lesson outcomes, so if a lesson did not come with study questions and supported readings, for example, it didn’t count toward the 60 percent benchmark. The goal was to ensure consistency across all Air Force Specialty Codes, he added.

“Obviously, both in the enlisted PME and squadron officer school, the emphasis is on leadership and developing them as leaders,” Conversino said. “These are much shorter courses, roughly five to six weeks in length, compared to the 10- to 11-months-long officer PME resident courses. So the expectation there was not … to create a senior Airman or a staff sergeant that endeavored to be an expert in China or Russia, but to provide them, through their PME, a firmer understanding of the environment in which they were operating.”

Regardless of any individual’s assignment and specialty code, “in the officer schools … we are striving more for a full understanding of [China and Russia’s] strategies, their internal politics, the means in which they employ all the tools at their disposal to enhance their influence and reach around the world,” Conversino added.

Airmen must learn not only how to defeat an anti-access, area-denial network erected by the Russians in Eastern Europe or by the Chinese in the South China Sea, but also what they can do to avoid war with both powers, and understanding intent is a vital component. He wants to ensure students know where red lines lie, how to gauge intent, and the difference between deterring and provoking.

Conversino acknowledged that as a military historian, it’s easy for him to look back in time and see what the U.S. could have done differently to avoid being strategically surprised. But future Airmen won’t have that luxury.

“We want to keep this as competition and not as conflict,” he said. “To me that is the tougher of the two things.”

USAF engineers can look at a Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system and figure out how it works and what needs to be done to physically defeat it, he said. “The harder issue is, ‘If I’m going into the Baltics, and I’m going to take down a Russian SAM system, and I am now kinetically engaging targets on Russian soil—I’m killing Russians on Russian soil—am I not, in essence, mounting the escalatory ladder?’ … There [is]…a big difference between engaging with Russians in Syria and engaging with them on their own territory.”

Airmen will have to learn how to defeat the anti-access, area-denial threat without provoking a war with nuclear-armed rivals. “Those are the kinds of things that I see at the War College, at SAASS, and at Air Command and Staff College, that pose the bigger problems,” he said, as opposed to, “You know, the Su-35 is a pretty cool airplane. … How do we deal with it?”

Assessing the Threat

The 60-percent benchmark measures input, so what percentage of the overall lesson plan can be directly tied to great power competition. However, the directive came just as Air University was transitioning to an outcome-based model of learning, in other words, students are assessed on total knowledge gleaned from a course. For example, students might be asked to discern the threat China poses to American interests across the spectrum of a specific military power. Students would then be assessed, by means of an exam or wargame, on their ability to work through the problem.

AETC is infusing emerging technologies into its exercises and wargames now to home in on the way artificial intelligence, 5G connectivity, and other cutting edge tech will be applied in great power competition.

“I’ve had captains … come up to me and say, ‘You know, we scrambled to intercept Russian bombers, but we’ve never been given this kind of background into what the Russians are really doing,’” Conversino said. Recalling his own days serving as a maintenance officer in Strategic Air Command during the Cold War, he added, “Even our maintenance briefings began every day with the status of Soviet nuclear forces, the location of Soviet nuclear submarines, all manner of things. And the Air Force at the time had an ongoing education effort, where we would get these annual publications on Soviet military power.”

Peer Threats

The last time a U.S. service member was killed on the ground by enemy air power was April 1953. The attack occurred on an island off the Korean Peninsula’s west coast—in what is now part of North Korea. The United States has maintained air dominance almost universally since then. Brown wants Airmen to see great power competition as more than a buzzword and to recognize that U.S. air dominance is never guaranteed.

“What we don’t want to do is … just think that it’s an American birthright that we have air dominance,” Brown said in a late-October virtual talk at the Hoover Institution. “We have to actually think about it from an aspect of not the way you’ve been operating in the past, but how we will operate in the future.”

Reforge, Air Combat Command’s experiment to develop new pilots and orient them more quickly with fifth-generation fighters, is one way the service is breaking the mold and rethinking traditional models for training, Webb said. ACC and AETC are working “in concert with each other,” he said, to ensure new pilots make a seamless and successful transition from initial pilot training to the operational force.

Air Education and Training Command’s new T-7 A trainer will be critical to preparing new pilots for the operational training that follows at Air Combat Command. Boeing

“We’re still kind of figuring out … where the line is,” Webb said. “What work does AETC do before it hands [pilots] off to ACC? And of course, the T-7 will be fundamental to that. That’s why we’re so excited to get that aircraft on board.” The T-7A, digitally engineered, and built by a Boeing-Saab team, is the Air Force’s new training jet. The Air Force will begin taking deliveries of the first simulators at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, in 2023, and initial operational capability is slated for the end of fiscal 2024.

More than a Buzzword

In December, as Conversino was preparing to give a somber zoom lecture on Russia at one of the noncommissioned officer academies at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., he noted that students also would receive a similar lecture on China. The objective of such lessons is to help Airmen really understand the current threat environment.

“I would argue that … these two countries can literally destroy us,” he said. “They can inflict casualties on us in an afternoon that we haven’t seen in a good long time. And that’s not even going to the nuclear threshold.”

Competition with Russia and China is global, taking place in the Arctic, in Europe, in the Pacific, and in Africa. It encompasses economic competition in technology, strategic international investments in infrastructure and medicine, international arms sales, and also diplomacy. As in the Cold War, competition is not limited to the borders, but takes place in other parts of the world, as well. But unlike the Cold War, potential adversaries now have the ability to attack in surreptitious ways through cyberattacks and social media influence campaigns. “Literally, our opponents can reach inside of [Airmen’s] pockets and mess with their heads,” Conversino said. “They need to be educated about that, as well, because that’s 24-seven, regardless of wherever they are.” Significant culture change often takes time to root, but Brown says that’s one thing the service doesn’t have. The Air Force must move fast to adapt to this new information-age warfare and adjust its policies and practices to address great power competition.

“Our peer competitors … are challenging us in different ways and challenging how we are able to generate combat power now and into the future,” he said during an Oct. 21 virtual Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event. “We’re in contested space right now when you think about cyber. We need to be thinking about how we deal in the homeland, as well as … [thinking] about how we might fight what I call an ‘away game.’”

Like Brown, Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. Raymond has released his own planning guidance calling for speed, saying the new service will be built as the Defense Department’s first “digital service,” with the goal of accelerating innovation. “The return of peer, great power competitors has dramatically changed the global security environment and space is central to that change,” wrote Raymond in the document.

U.S. space assets are more at risk today than ever before. In December, Russia once again tested a direct-ascent, anti-satellite missile in violation of space security norms. China, too, has conducted similar tests, famously blowing up its own satellite in 2007, creating a pile of debris.

Despite these threats, Raymond has acknowledged his job is slightly easier than Brown’s because he gets to build a new service from scratch and is not weighed down by decades of history, traditions, policies, and bureaucracy.

“We get an opportunity to start with a clean sheet of paper in the United States Space Force, and to be bold in our efforts, and to start fresh on everything,” said Raymond in August at the National Guard Association of the United States’ conference. He added, “We’re going to increase our accountability and increase our speed, so we’re excited about that going forward.”