As the Pentagon heads into its next Quadrennial Defense Review, the role of airpower in American military strategy has become a subject of heated debate. Hailed in the late 1990s as the linchpin of "defense transformation"—the perfect illustration of how the U.S. military could leverage revolutionary advances in technology while minimizing the risk of casualties—the conventional wisdom about air power has since been challenged by the ongoing counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, with their emphasis on "boots on the ground."
What is the role of airpower in the global war on terror and beyond? How will the evolving understanding of airpower affect the Quadrennial Defense Review and the Pentagon's defense spending? What will be the impact of transformational technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles and the military use of space on the American way of war?
These and other questions will be the subject of an AEI panel discussion. Participants include Christopher Bowie, deputy director of Air Force Strategic Planning at U.S. Air Force headquarters; Major General Ron Henderson, U.S. Air Force (Retired), vice president for national security issues at SAIC Strategies Business Unit; and Barry Watts, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Thomas Donnelly, AEI resident fellow in defense and security policy, will moderate.
|11:45 a.m.|| |
|12:00 noon||Discussants:||Christopher Bowie, U.S. Air Force Strategic Planning|
|Major General Ron Henderson, U.S. Air Force (Retired)|
|Barry Watts, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments|
|Moderator:||Thomas Donnelly, AEI|
|1:30 p.m.|| |
Air Power, Iraq, and the Future American Way of WarAs the Pentagon heads into its next Quadrennial Defense Review, the role of air power in American military strategy has become a subject of heated debate. Hailed in the late 1990s as the linchpin of “defense transformation”--the perfect illustration of how the U.S. military could leverage revolutionary advances in technology while minimizing the risk of casualties--the conventional wisdom about air power has since been challenged by the ongoing counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, with their emphasis on “boots on the ground.” At a February 24 AEI panel discussion, defense experts considered the following questions: What is the role of air power in the global war on terror and beyond? How will the evolving understanding of air power affect the Quadrennial Defense Review and the Pentagon’s defense spending? What will be the impact of transformational technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles and the military use of space on the American way of war?
U.S. Air Force Strategic Planning
The U.S. Air Force has received guidance from the secretary of defense to plan for four broad categories of operations--irregular, catastrophic, disruptive, and traditional--and, specifically, to shift its emphasis from the traditional toward the other three. As regards the Air Force’s key strategic capabilities, the emphasis is likewise shifting toward persistent C4ISR and global mobility--so-called joint enablers--at the expense of rapid strike.
These changes are reflected in the U.S. Air Force’s budgets. Four decades ago, for instance, the Air Force spent 36 percent of its budget on personnel and facilities; today, it spends 30 percent. Shooter forces have decreased from 31 percent to 25 percent in this period, with plans to shrink it even further to 20 percent. C4ISR and global mobility, meanwhile, has grown, increasing from one-third of the Air Force budget to 45 percent.
There has been unprecedented integration of C4ISR into joint force operations, as demonstrated to great effect in Iraq and Afghanistan. Global mobility has similarly proven of immense strategic value in these conflicts; in Iraq, for instance, the Air Force airlifts sufficient materiel to keep 1,200 trucks off the roads.
The Air Force’s third key strategic capability--rapid strike--is the ability to control air and space to deliver a precisely tailored punch anywhere on the planet. Although some analysts suggest that U.S. air and space dominance can be taken for granted, the Israeli experience in the 1973 war--in which roughly 25 percent of its air force’s operational inventory was lost in four days--illustrates the risks of complacency.
Rapid strike has been revolutionized by advances in precision, as exemplified by the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), a $20,000 kit that attaches to an existing bomb. A single JDAM dropped by a single B-2 can achieve what typically required 1,000 B-17s in World War II. Another important attribute of precision munitions is that they are all-weather, lowering the quantity of heavy weapons that ground forces need to carry and thus allowing them to be lighter and more agile. Weapons that take advantage of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology also require less explosive blast, facilitating more precise operations such as urban close air support.
The Air Force budget has remained steady on average since the Korean War, even as the individual elements of its capabilities have grown more expensive, with the predictable consequence of a substantially smaller force. This reduction has been made possible through adapting technology, adjusting internal organization, and dropping certain missions. Nonetheless, it has also meant that the U.S. Air Force has not bought anything other than C-17s for a decade and a half. Sixty percent of the fighter force, for instance, was purchased before 1990. As a result, the Air Force today faces a simultaneous recapitalization of almost every element of its force posture.
Major General Ron Henderson
U.S. Air Force (Ret.)
Air power providers have a history of transforming existing and emerging platforms to deal with changing security environments. A decade ago, for instance, the Air Force decreased the size of its B-1 fleet but retained and modified the platform with a new suite of weapons, including JDAMs. This visionary but controversial decision paid enormous dividends in Operation Iraq Freedom, in which B-1s have served as a critical enabler for ground operations--a function entirely different from that for which the plane was originally envisioned. This kind of adaptation is made possible, however, only when platforms are available to assimilate short-term technological advancements.
Since the 1990s, the preponderance of air and space power investment has been designed to support joint force commanders in a regional theater context in either limited or traditional operations. The resulting advancements have helped to create an extraordinary joint fighting force--exactly what defense leaders a decade ago imagined. Today, however, because of a radically different threat environment, irregular, disruptive, and catastrophic challenges can no longer be treated as “lesser-included” contingencies. Instead, the Air Force must focus on creatively tailoring the air power advancements achieved over the past decade, and initially conceived in terms of large-scale conventional conflicts, toward other kinds of operations.
In particular, air power providers should develop unique niche capabilities that would help to prevent extremists from acquiring and employing weapons of mass destruction. This is, in fact, the intellectual centerpiece of the newly assigned mission for U.S. Strategic Command. These niche capabilities do not currently exist and will be difficult to create, in part because they are torn by competing sets of requirements. In addition, the services have been historically reluctant to invest in niche capabilities, precisely because they are unlikely to be used repeatedly over time. Nonetheless, it is extremely vital that they begin to do so.
Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments
As the accuracy and reliability of guided munitions technology has improved, Albert Wohlstetter’s vision during the mid-1970s of near-zero-miss weapons has largely been realized. The major outstanding issue is the need for precision information to match precision weapons; this problem, however, is unlikely to be solved by any single piece of hardware. Simply put, it is extremely difficult to detect and quickly reach fleeting, time-sensitive targets as they emerge.
Since the late 1990s, moreover, the United States has not sufficiently prioritized its acquisition of long-range strike capabilities--reusable platforms that can traverse 3,000 nautical miles and back. From 1999 through 2006, the investment for short-range strike versus long-range strike has been twenty to one. In March 1999, the Air Force published its last comprehensive, substantive bomber road map, which held that current platforms could be used until the late 2030s. Since then, the Air Force has been studying this problem ad nauseam, investigating a range of solutions, from another B-2 to an upgraded B-1 to hypersonic reentry vehicles. It now appears that the FB-22 regional bomber--at best a mid-range system--is the favored interim solution, despite the possibility that this aircraft may not be available for several decades. Although it is extremely controversial to say so, part of the explanation for the Air Force’s inattention to long-range strike capability may lie in the fact that the service leadership is dominated by fighter pilots.
As regards space, the United States has grown increasingly dependent on its military use--while still remaining a step well short of actually putting weapons in orbit. Part of the explanation for this is that access to near-earth orbit remains a risky, expensive venture--far more so than access to the oceans in the early 1600s, when the first frigates were built and long-range operations across the seas became possible. The weaponization of space presumes that there will be sufficient economic value in orbit to create incentives for its attack and defense. Yet the development of fiber optic cable networks since the early 1990s has deeply cut into the commercial use of communication satellites.
That said, the weaponization of space is moving forward in a number of respects--for instance, in the development of ground-based lasers that can render satellites inoperable. In addition, it is easy to imagine that a rising peer competitor such as China would be strongly tempted, in the event of a military confrontation with the United States, to detonate a nuclear weapon in space in order to damage the satellites on which the Pentagon is so increasingly dependent.
AEI research associate Vance Serchuk prepared this event summary.