Chapter 6—
The Air Force:
The Next Round

David A. Ochmanek

Air forces and space-based assets are playing increasingly important roles in U.S. military operations, due in part to the fairly rapid evolution of their capabilities. As the technologies, systems, and procedures associated with air and space operations have developed and matured, so has their ability to support the needs of combatant commanders. But there seems as well to be an increasingly good fit between the characteristics and capabilities of air and space forces on the one hand and the demands of U.S. military strategy and operations on the other.

Operation Desert Storm awakened many to the fact that modern air forces, properly employed, can quickly and dramatically transform the operational situation in many theater conflicts by stripping the enemy of its air defenses, dismantling key elements of national infrastructure, and isolating, immobilizing, and attriting fielded forces. Since then, U.S. leaders have relied on airpower to carry most of the burden of combat operations in the Balkans, the Gulf region, and Afghanistan, while contributing in numerous other ways to U.S. national security. The question facing the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) more broadly is whether, in the face of looming new threats and persistent resource constraints, airpower will be able to retain and perhaps even expand the degree of dominance it currently enjoys over adversaries.

This chapter begins by outlining the basic demands of U.S. military strategy: the missions that U.S. forces, especially air forces, must be prepared to accomplish, and the sorts of conditions and constraints that often apply to those missions. The chapter then briefly reviews capabilities provided by the U.S. Air Force (and the air arms of the other services) that have undergone particularly rapid evolution over the past two decades or so, identifying some key technological developments that enabled these changes. The chapter then looks ahead to the types of operational capabilities that the leaders of today’s Air Force seek to provide in the future, and the systems and operational concepts they envisage as necessary for providing these capabilities. Finally, several fundamental choices that the Air Force may face in shaping its capabilities and concepts for the future are considered.

Joint Missions

As the leading economic and military power in the world and the guarantor of many other states’ security, the United States has adopted an ambitious national security strategy that seeks to defend and advance important U.S. interests and to shape the international security environment in positive directions. This strategy calls for the active involvement of U.S. military forces in multiple regions and directs that they must be prepared to conduct a wide range of missions in peacetime, crisis, and wartime. Chapter 1 of this volume describes the missions of the Armed Forces of the United States. They can be summarized as follows:

  • Projecting stability and influence abroad in peacetime, which calls for stationing and deploying military forces overseas, conducting training with allied and friendly forces, and providing security assistance. Such activities are the glue that binds alliances together, underwriting deterrence and enhancing interoperability among friendly forces.
  • Deterring and defeating large-scale aggression, which calls for rapid projection of military power over long distances—a demanding task, particularly because the United States has important interests in multiple regions and must guard against the possibility that military challenges to those interests could arise concurrently in more than one location.
  • Protecting and advancing U.S. interests through smaller-scale operations, which include providing humanitarian assistance, conducting peacekeeping operations and disaster relief, enforcing exclusion zones, reinforcing allies, and conducting limited strikes and interventions.
  • Deterring and defeating the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against the U.S. homeland, against U.S. forces abroad, and against the territory and assets of allies.
  • Deterring and defeating terrorist attacks by neutralizing terrorist groups abroad (through capture or destruction) and by dissuading governments from harboring or supporting terrorists.

The Air Force contributes important capabilities to the accomplishment of each of these missions. These capabilities include essential supporting activities, such as airlift, surveillance, and communications, as well as forces for conducting combat. But the centerpiece of the Air Force planning is and should remain preparation to prevail in large-scale power-projection operations, which entail the deployment of sizable numbers of forces over long distances, and the conduct of high-tempo operations against a capable foe. Only the United States has the capability to project large-scale military power today, and it is this capability that sustains favorable balances of power in key regions of the world. As such, it is also essential to the viability of the strategic alliances that form the heart of the Nation’s security strategy. Because forces provided by the Air Force constitute a large and growing portion of the combat power available to joint force commanders in the critical opening phases of most conflicts, it is especially important that the United States sustain the ability of those forces to dominate combat operations against the forces of potential adversaries around the world. That will be a demanding task in a world of evolving threats and challenges.

The U.S. Armed Forces also serve purposes that go beyond these specific missions. Perhaps chief among these broader purposes is what DOD calls dissuasion: discouraging potential competitors or adversaries from seeking the military capabilities that would be required to challenge the United States successfully. The Air Force plays a particularly important role in this regard because of the superiority that the Armed Forces enjoy in air- and space-based capabilities and because of the important roles played by those forces in U.S. military operations. In Operations Desert Storm, Deliberate Force (which helped to bring peace to Bosnia), Allied Force (the effort to dislodge Serbian forces from Kosovo), and Enduring Freedom (which led to the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan), the United States showed that its air forces can destroy selected elements of the power bases of enemy regimes with precision and with virtual impunity. If this capability can be maintained, it should help convince those opposed to U.S. interests that aggressive policies backed by military threats are likely to prove costly and futile if they lead to overt conflict with the United States.

Constraints and Conditions

As important as an enumeration of missions is an understanding of the conditions under which those missions are likely to be carried out and the constraints that may be placed upon forces during operations. For conflicts involving all but the most important of national interests, U.S. military operations will be constrained by the need to hold down the number of casualties to U.S. and allied forces, to minimize the suffering of innocent civilians, and to act in concert with allies. U.S. threats to employ military power—be they implicit or explicit—can only be effective to the extent that potential adversaries believe they will be carried out. Adversaries understand the constraints on U.S. military actions and are more likely to view military threats as credible if the United States fields forces that can achieve national objectives despite these constraints. For defense planners, these considerations mean that they must continue to offer the Nation’s leaders military options that can be exercised with confidence that the risk of friendly and civilian casualties can be held to a level consistent with the interests the Nation has at stake.

Planners should also anticipate that future U.S. military operations would most often be coalition affairs rather than unilateral campaigns. By sustaining a network of security partnerships in key regions, U.S. forces can have some confidence of access to airspace, ports, airbases, and other assets near regions of conflict when they need them. By the end of Operation Allied Force, for example, U.S. aircraft were able to operate from bases in eight countries, effectively surrounding Serbia. U.S. forces will also have the opportunity (and the obligation) to operate in concert with allies. Although operating within a coalition can add friction and inefficiencies to the planning and execution of an operation, political leaders almost always will prefer to have partners when they go to war. Thus U.S. forces and operational concepts should incorporate features that enhance interoperability across national lines.

Other conditions are especially pertinent to large power-projection operations. If an enemy is going to challenge U.S. interests through overt aggression (such as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 or a hypothetical North Korean invasion of the South), prudence demands that we assume that the attack will be undertaken so as to maximize the attacker’s inherent advantages. Thus, U.S. defense planners must expect to be surprised. Our opponents are not eager for a fight with U.S. military forces; they would prefer to achieve their objectives without having to resort to force at all or, failing that, by a coup de main that succeeds before large-scale U.S. forces can be brought to the theater. Advanced surveillance systems, including sensors on board satellites and airborne platforms, make it harder for enemy forces to prepare for an attack without being noticed, but these systems do not, by themselves, guarantee that U.S. forces will be deployed promptly. Some adversaries, such as the North Koreans, can routinely posture their forces in such a way that little further overt preparation is needed before attacking. Information about a possible attack is, moreover, a necessary but not sufficient condition for reinforcement. Decisions to act must be made in Washington and in other capitals before forces can move, and this takes time.

Therefore, U.S. forces must be postured to respond rapidly to aggression that occurs with little warning. They do this in two ways: first, by having some of the most critical components of a defensive force (forces themselves, munitions, other supplies) stationed or routinely deployed abroad close to potential regions of conflict; and second, by being able to deploy rapidly over long distances.

Related to this is the need for what might be called high leverage early in a conflict. U.S. forces arriving in a theater in the opening days of a major conflict are likely to be greatly outnumbered. Yet if they are to prevent the enemy from achieving its objectives, they must be able to wrest the initiative away from the enemy and defeat its attack quickly. This means that those early-arriving U.S. forces must have great qualitative superiority over the forces they are confronting if they are to succeed in their mission.1

Given the inherently demanding nature of power-projection operations and the potential for challenges to arise in many regions, it becomes clearer why the United States today spends so much more on military forces than any other nation: its forces are called upon to perform a uniquely demanding set of missions.

Roles of Air and Space Forces

The missions outlined above apply to all elements of the U.S. military establishment. Their implications for air and space forces turn on what those forces are likely to be called upon to do within joint campaigns.

Since the earliest days of military aviation, commanders have relied on aircraft to conduct reconnaissance to gain information about the location and disposition of enemy forces. Early in World War I, as aircraft became more capable in this role, they began to be used to contest control of operations in the air. Soon thereafter, military air forces were also being called upon to haul cargo and to attack enemy land and naval forces and other assets on the surface. They were also brought to bear against other elements of national power, such as military-related industries, lines of communication, national infrastructure, and the means of political control, both to reduce enemy ability to conduct military operations and to attempt to coerce enemy leadership into surrendering. As the technologies associated with powered flight matured, so did the capabilities of military aircraft.

Over the last two decades or so, the capabilities of U.S. military aviation in most of these areas—reconnaissance, dominating operations in the air, engaging and destroying forces on the surface, and attacking fixed installations—have grown dramatically, both in absolute terms and relative to those of their adversaries. Indeed, if transformation is defined in terms of a profound change in the character or capabilities of a force, over this period we have witnessed a transformation in certain portions of the military capabilities wielded by the Armed Forces.

Reconnaissance and Surveillance

New types of sensors, including moving target indicator (MTI) radars and synthetic aperture radars (SAR), enable airborne platforms today to locate and often identify targets, day or night and in all types of weather. The Air Force is also fielding new platforms that increase the utility of these and other sensors to joint force commanders. For example, the Predator and Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) permit U.S. forces to observe closely parts of the battlefield for an extended time without fear of losing aircrews to ground fire. Today, with the sensors carried aboard such aircraft as the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), a division-sized or larger mechanized force could hardly hope to move undetected, assuming that U.S. reconnaissance assets are deployed to the region and that they are free to operate. As sensors and platforms improve and proliferate, U.S. forces will be able to detect and, in some cases, identify smaller formations of surface forces, even in mountainous or densely foliated terrain.

Dominating Air Operations

Americans have come to expect heavily lopsided results from air combat involving U.S. forces. In historical terms, this is a fairly new development. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) air forces in Operation Allied Force experienced a loss rate of just one aircraft shot down for every 10,000 sorties flown.2 This compares favorably with the U.S. experience in Operation Desert Storm, when four to five aircraft were lost for every 10,000 combat sorties. The loss rates in Desert Storm were, in turn, approximately one-tenth those experienced in Vietnam (3.5 losses in 10,000 sorties) and less than one-hundredth those of World War II (51 losses in 10,000 sorties).

These improvements were achieved in the face of capable adversaries. Both the Iraqi and Yugoslav air defense systems consisted, at the beginning of each conflict, of sizable numbers of modern interceptor aircraft; capable radar, surface-to-air missile (SAM), and antiaircraft artillery systems; hardened and redundant command and control facilities; and trained operators. The SAMs employed by both countries were of 1970s-era design, but they were not used sparingly: Coalition aircrews were subjected to more than 700 SAM launches in Operation Desert Storm and more than 650 SAM launches in Operation Allied Force. Yet the combination of stealth, standoff, dominant fighters, dedicated SAM-suppression aircraft, jamming, information operations, adaptive tactics, and skilled orchestration of air operations effectively neutralized these defenses.

The ability of U.S. forces to suppress enemy air defenses so comprehensively has had important implications for U.S. military strategy. Although the persistence of SAM threats can still restrict U.S. air operations to some degree (for example, compelling aircrews to operate at medium altitudes or higher and for non-stealthy aircraft to avoid certain areas), the ability to dominate air operations provides the basis for unparalleled leverage over enemy forces and nations. Air campaigns involving U.S. forces have become increasingly one-sided. Enemy inability to inflict losses on attacking aircraft can have a profoundly demoralizing effect on enemy forces, populations, and leaders.3 Dominance of operations in the air also has granted U.S. ground and naval forces sanctuary from enemy air attacks. The effective immunity from air attack of rear-area ports, airfields, logistics bases, and transportation and command and control infrastructures used by U.S. forces has greatly facilitated successful operations.

Attacking light infantry or insurgent forces presents a qualitatively different set of challenges, as shown by the opening weeks of the operations against Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Such forces are not highly dependent on large-scale, easily targeted logistic trains, and they can disperse and take cover underground or in residential areas. Even so, when accurate information regarding the location of such forces can be provided to attacking aircraft and a nearly constant air presence can be maintained, air attacks can make vitally important contributions to friendly ground forces seeking to engage and defeat light infantry.

Delaying, Damaging, and Destroying Moving Ground Forces

Over the past 50 years, U.S. air forces have improved by a factor of 8 or more their lethality against moving armored columns (see figure 6-1). From the earliest days of military aviation, destroying a single armored vehicle required multiple sorties. However, with the fielding of the sensor fuzed weapon in the 1990s, air forces became capable of destroying multiple armored vehicles with a single sortie.4 Like the sensors that guide sorties to their targets, these weapons remain effective at night and in conditions of overcast, fog, and precipitation.

The implications for joint operations are profound. Airpower has long been valued as a means of disrupting and delaying the movement of mechanized forces. For example, massive numbers of fighter-bombers flying “armed reconnaissance” missions were instrumental in isolating the beachheads at Normandy from German divisions in the surrounding regions during World War II. However, the job of actually destroying enemy armored forces traditionally has been left to armor. This is changing: today, airpower not only can delay and disrupt moving armored forces; in many conditions, it also can damage or destroy their vehicles at such a rate as to render continued operations difficult if not impossible.

Destroying Critical Infrastructures

Even greater improvements have been realized in capabilities to destroy fixed targets. With today’s laser-guided bombs, a single fighter-bomber sortie is highly likely to be able to destroy a fixed target such as a bridge span, an aircraft shelter, or a small building. Destroying a similar target using unguided weapons required, on average, 50 times as many bombs in Vietnam and 60 times as many in World War II.5 With the advent of weapons such as the joint direct attack munition (JDAM) guided by signals from the global positioning system (GPS), such accurate attacks are now possible in all types of weather. Because each weapon need not be steered all the way to its target by the aircrew, individual aircraft using JDAM weapons can attack several targets simultaneously. Of course, no weapon always performs perfectly, and countermeasures to precision, such as GPS jamming, must be anticipated. But U.S. air forces’ capabilities to attack fixed targets with precision have increased dramatically and have become more robust.

The implications for joint operations are profound. Accurate, large-scale attacks on enemy infrastructure contribute to victory in many ways.

They can:

  • disrupt the ability of enemy leaders to plan, control, and carry out military operations
  • interrupt the production and distribution within a country of such vital war matériel as munitions; petroleum, oil, and lubricants; spare parts; and replacement weapons
  • interdict the flow of crucial matériel from outside the country
  • put coercive pressure on the enemy leadership by raising the cost of aggression and by eroding morale and support for the regime within the enemy country’s population.

As these improved capabilities have been fielded, U.S. military operations and planning have gradually adapted. U.S. air forces demonstrated in Operation Desert Storm that, in favorable terrain, they could dominate operations not only in the air but also on the surface. While airpower was not by itself able to compel the withdrawal of Iraqi ground forces from Kuwait, 38 days of nearly incessant air attacks shattered the fighting abilities of
a large, combat-tested mechanized army.6 Eight years later, in Operation
Allied Force, airpower was unable to curtail the operations of the Serbian forces in Kosovo. However, it did provide the force needed to coerce Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to accede to NATO demands that Serbian forces evacuate Kosovo and allow a NATO-led force to secure the province.7

U.S. political leaders and combatant commanders have come to rely heavily on the ability of the Nation’s air forces to gain information about enemy military forces, to dominate operations in the air while incurring few losses, and to destroy enemy forces and infrastructure targets on the surface. The overwhelmingly favorable outcomes achieved by airpower in Operations Desert Storm and Allied Force simply would not have been possible with the airpower capabilities of a generation ago.

Enablers of Transformation

The transformation in the capabilities of modern airpower springs from several related developments. The most obvious are new technologies and systems that enable new operational concepts. Broadly defined, the technology aggregates most responsible for the breakthroughs already described (and, presumably, those to come in the near future) are precision guidance, information management and communications, and stealth.

Precision Guidance

More than anything else, the ability to hit what one is aiming at is transforming military operations. The quantum increases in accuracy experienced by air-delivered weapons are due primarily to the application of miniaturized electronic components to the tasks of positioning, target location, and guidance (steering weapons to their desired aimpoints). The GPS satellite constellation, which is playing growing roles in nearly every dimension of precision attack, relies on accurate timekeeping so that minute differences in the arrival time of signals from the constellation’s satellites can be measured. By comparing these differences, a GPS receiver can locate itself in terms of latitude, longitude, and altitude within 10 meters or so.


Applying accurate firepower effectively depends on the identification of targets. Major advances in sensor technology have helped U.S. forces keep pace with advances in lethality by enabling them to locate and identify large numbers of targets quickly; increasingly they can do so under all sorts of atmospheric conditions. Currently fielded reconnaissance systems employ sensors that can collect electronic signals, passively detect electro-optical and infrared signatures, and develop images of targets using active radar signals.

Information Management, Decision Aids, Communications

If commanders are to make the best use of the forces available to them, they must have a clear and accurate picture of the status of not only enemy forces but also their own forces. Bringing together massive amounts of perishable information, synthesizing it, and displaying it for commanders and their staffs pose an enormous challenge that has to date been only partially met. The next step is to help commanders use this enhanced information to make better decisions faster. DOD has invested heavily in the capacity to analyze and understand target complexes in
potentially hostile countries. Tools are being developed to help future commanders more accurately anticipate the results of alternative courses of action. Similarly, passing information among many users and communicating decisions in a timely fashion has led to an explosion in the demand for communications bandwidth. “Assured connectivity” among large numbers of agents, including individual aircrews, will be essential if future operations are to be dynamically controlled.


Each of the services in the Department of Defense has pursued technologies that reduce the detectability of their platforms, particularly from radars, but the Air Force has made the most progress in fielding operational forces exploiting stealth. Its F-117 and B-2 aircraft, in particular, have played important roles in attacking the most threatening elements of enemy integrated air defenses, allowing the rest of the force to operate more effectively and with less risk. A growing portion of the Air Force fleet of combat aircraft will be stealthy.

Doctrine, Training, and Other Intangibles

Military capabilities are not simply the product of hardware. They also depend heavily on the training, doctrine, and personal qualities of the people who wield the hardware and command operations. While no single initiative can account for the superb performance of USAF units over the past 20 years, investments in training at all levels have clearly paid off. The Air Force Red Flag series of exercises, begun in the mid-1970s, are the best known example of efforts to give aircrews exposure to the stresses of combat prior to engaging in the real thing.8 Operational Air Force units train to high standards in their normal daily training as well. Large-scale instrumented ranges and realistic cockpit simulators are available to most USAF fighter and bomber units. With approximately 20 hours of flight training per month, the average USAF fighter pilot gets 2 to 10 times as much time in the cockpit as his or her counterpart in most adversary air forces. The Air Force has also paid increasing attention to the importance of training senior and mid-level officers in the skills required to command and control complex air operations. Continued innovation in the areas of sensors, platforms, weapons, and munitions will likely result in an acceleration of the trend of the past two decades in which air operations have increased in complexity and accelerated in tempo. This will require commensurate increases in the training of operators as well as command staffs.

The Air Force Vision of the Future

The Air Force has sought to guide its development in part by articulating a vision of its future roles and capabilities, in a document entitled America’s Air Force, Vision 2020.9 That vision calls on the Air Force of the future to be able to conduct and integrate operations in three domains—air, space, and cyberspace. It also proposes that future USAF forces should be able to:

  • monitor military situations worldwide and support the ability to act on this information. The vision sets as an explicit goal the ability to “find, fix, assess, track, target, and engage anything of military significance anywhere.”
  • deploy rapidly and sustain forces by modernizing the airlift fleet, reducing the logistics footprint—the mass and volume of equipment and supplies—associated with deploying units, and pursuing novel support concepts such as “reach-back” to command and control facilities in the United States and “just-in-time” delivery of supplies.
  • achieve strategic and operational effects. Primary objectives for USAF forces in combat operations are to provide friendly forces with freedom from attack, freedom to maneuver, and freedom to attack, while denying these to the enemy. Achieving these goals will require capabilities to defeat enemy attacks on rear areas and to observe and strike enemy forces and facilities “wherever and whenever necessary.” Precision weapons, nonlethal weapons, and directed energy weapons are all mentioned as part of the future Air Force arsenal.

The Air Force vision statement takes note of the need to cope with emerging threats, including advanced aircraft, SAMs, ballistic and cruise missiles, and threats to spacecraft. It mentions the potential need for capabilities to “control space,” that is, to ensure that the United States can operate military and civilian-owned assets in space and, perhaps, to deny enemies the same access. It also calls for enhanced capabilities for command and control of air and space operations.

The Vision 2020 document is intended for public information and as such is not a definitive guide to force development or planning, but rather a set of general aspirations, informed by a broad appreciation of future operational needs and technical possibilities. The document does not provide a sense of how Air Force leadership might address choices and tradeoffs that will arise in light of resource constraints. Nor does it grapple seriously with the problems posed by emerging threats such as advanced air defenses, ballistic and cruise missiles, or WMD.

For all of the ambition inherent in the goals articulated in the Vision 2020 document, the overall impression it gives of the leadership’s approach is of an essentially evolutionary path to the future, rather than a break with established ways of doing things. On the other hand, the Air Force is committed to an extensive modernization of its platforms for air combat, airlift, surveillance, and other key functions. As such, the service’s approach to transformation, like that advocated in chapter 3, falls between a “leap ahead” program and a “steady-as-you-go” approach.

The Vision 2020 document shows no evidence that the leadership of the Air Force envisages the abandonment of any of its traditional product lines such as fighter aircraft, bomber aircraft, transport aircraft, intercontinental ballistic missiles, space launch capabilities, or satellites. Since demand for these items has been robust, this is a reasonable position. Fielding new capabilities, then, will involve either adapting existing product lines or adding new ones. For example, the airborne laser or new units dedicated to conducting information operations would be added to existing capabilities. Fighters deployed for more traditional combat missions could be fitted with missiles that could shoot down satellites in low Earth orbit. This approach has the advantage of not giving up proven capabilities until new ones are well in hand. It can also be expensive, however, as the cost to operate and maintain large existing forces consumes the bulk of the service’s resources.

Looming Challenges and Potential New Concepts

To add specificity to the broad content of Vision 2020, the operational challenges that U.S. joint forces might face in the coming 20 years or more must be considered, with a particular focus on those challenges that air forces might be best suited to meeting. We can also identify new operational concepts and associated systems that may allow future air forces to deal with these challenges. The focus is primarily on challenges that might arise in the context of combat operations against the forces of regional adversaries.

Overcoming Antiaccess Capabilities

The first challenge is to maintain the freedom to operate forces (land, maritime, and air) in the presence of attacks by enemy ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and aircraft, including those delivering chemical or biological agents. Overcoming counteraccess capabilities constitutes one of the most important challenges facing U.S. military forces in the coming years. For land-based forces—aircraft as well as ground forces—the threats posed by ballistic missiles and air attacks constitute the most acute challenge.

The Air Force is taking several complementary approaches to this set of challenges. First, it is developing the airborne laser (ABL), which has the potential to contribute to the defense of joint and combined forces throughout a theater. The ABL will be the first operational system capable of intercepting ballistic missiles in their boost phase.10 An advantage of this technique is that remnants of successfully intercepted missiles and their payloads are more likely to fall on enemy than friendly territory. Concepts for boost-phase intercept also help to provide defense-in-depth, complementing other theater missile defense programs, which generally operate in the terminal or mid-course phases. Another feature of the ABL is its ability (like ship-borne systems) to deploy to theater without consuming large amounts of airlift or tanker capacity.

The Air Force is also cognizant of the need to make its forces on the ground less vulnerable to attacks by enemy air and missile forces. In Operation Desert Storm and subsequent conflicts, U.S. land-based air forces have been able to operate from bases in theater without much concern about survivability. Images of large numbers of aircraft parked in the open attest to the permissive threat environment that these forces have enjoyed since the end of the Cold War. That environment is changing: aircraft in open areas will be lucrative targets for regional adversaries equipped with increasingly accurate ballistic and cruise missiles. Thus, it will be essential that the United States take steps to prepare for conflicts in certain theaters by ensuring that hardened facilities are available for deploying fighters and by enhancing the capabilities and versatility of its fleet of long-range bombers and support aircraft.

Finally, an examination of the forces of potential future adversaries suggests that U.S. expeditionary forces could find themselves struggling to deal with enemy air attacks, at least in certain scenarios. China, in particular, has the potential to field combat aircraft as well as air-to-air missiles of high quality and in large enough numbers that U.S. air forces trying to defend against concerted air attacks on an allied country could suffer substantial losses. If U.S. and allied air defenses are unable to handle the fighters that might escort Chinese bombers, and if those bombers deliver precision guided weapons against their targets, serious damage could result. The key to defeating such attacks is to ensure that future U.S. forces are equipped with highly capable fighters in sizable numbers. The F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter, both of which will be stealthy and therefore difficult to engage from long range, provide a substantial qualitative edge over projected enemy fighters. Other important enhancements to U.S. air defenses include upgrades to the E-3/airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft and other sensor platforms that can provide warning of impending attacks by aircraft and cruise missiles.

Destroying Small Mobile Targets

A second challenge is to be able to rapidly locate, identify, and neutralize small mobile targets, including ballistic or cruise missiles on transporter/erector/launchers (TELs), SAM batteries, and small ground force units. Hiders have always had inherent advantages over seekers, and adversaries such as Iraq and Serbia have exploited this to preserve important elements of their military power in the presence of U.S. air superiority. The importance of destroying ballistic missiles before they are launched (as opposed to killing the TEL after launch) and of damaging SAM batteries, even when they are not emitting electromagnetic radiation, makes this set of tasks particularly important. As adversary forces gain access to ever more capable missiles and other weapons, it will become increasingly important that U.S. air forces find better ways to find and engage small mobile targets.

No single new system or concept is on the horizon that will yield a major breakthrough in U.S. capabilities for this demanding task. But a number of promising developments can, in concert, yield substantial improvements. Chief among these are the ability to correlate rapidly among data from electronic intelligence and imagery sensors; sensors that operate in multiple spectrums and that can penetrate foliage; automated imagery processing and change analysis software; procedures to facilitate the exchange of information among analysts, controllers, and shooters; all-weather engagement systems on attack aircraft; and weapons that can search autonomously for particular targets.

Operating Despite Advanced Air Defenses

A third challenge is to maintain the ability to operate in the presence of advanced and integrated air defenses, especially advanced SAMs. Hunting down SAM batteries is only one of the required elements of the ability to operate in the air against adversaries equipped with advanced air defense systems. Stealthy platforms, concepts for standoff reconnaissance and attack, capable jammers, decoys that resemble attacking aircraft on enemy radars, and dedicated SAM-suppression aircraft are also important. As capable SAM systems such as the SA-10 and SA-20 proliferate, virtually every element of the U.S. SAM-suppression kit will have to be modernized. Given the importance to U.S. strategy of being able to establish dominance in air operations quickly and managing the risk of casualties, these are among the highest priority investments DOD can make.

Destroying Deeply Buried Facilities

A fourth challenge is to locate and destroy deeply buried facilities and their contents, including command posts and production and storage facilities for WMD, with minimal collateral damage. U.S. adversaries are increasingly protecting their most valued strategic assets from air attack. Following the example set by the North Koreans, they are using dirt, rock, and reinforced concrete to complement their investments in active air defenses. For U.S. forces to hold at risk the full range of an enemy’s military assets, they must have better capabilities to neutralize and, if possible, destroy deeply buried facilities.

Methods are being sought to boost the useful kinetic energy available to precision guided conventional munitions so that they can dig deeper. There has also been discussion of the desirability of developing very low-yield nuclear weapons optimized for destroying deeply buried facilities and their contents. The potential importance of destroying the WMD of a rogue state or a terrorist group could well warrant such a development.

Assuring Continuity of Space Operations

A fifth challenge is to ensure that U.S. military forces and civilian users can conduct uninterrupted operations in space in the face of enemy attacks on U.S. military and commercial satellites and associated infrastructure. The prospect of threats to U.S. military and commercial space assets has already been mentioned, as have some of the possible Air Force responses. (See chapter 12 in this volume.) Besides pursuing antisatellite (ASAT) capabilities, the Air Force can hedge against the consequences of possible attacks on satellites by investing in readily deployable replacement satellites and in responsive launch capabilities. Of course, developing the capability to launch satellites within days, let alone hours, of a decision to do so would require substantial investments by a community that is accustomed to thinking in terms of months and years when scheduling launches. The capability to attack fixed targets deep in defended airspace will also help address this challenge, since much of the infrastructure associated with enemy ASAT operations (for example, launch complexes and ground-based directed energy weapons) will be vulnerable to such attacks.

Halting Invasions

A sixth challenge is to halt invasions by mechanized ground forces rapidly. Modern air forces have made great strides in their ability to locate, engage, damage, and destroy moving mechanized forces. Improved capabilities to halt invasions rapidly, however, merit continued emphasis for three reasons. First, U.S. defense planners have postured their forces in ways that depend on the ability of early-arriving air forces to destroy enemy armored forces quickly. In Southwest Asia in particular, U.S. joint forces could deploy upwards of 700 combat aircraft but only two or three brigades of ground forces in the opening phases of a future conflict. Therefore, much depends on the antiarmor capability of U.S. air forces, so the capability had better be robust.

This leads to the second rationale: while highly effective systems and concepts for finding and destroying moving armor are being fielded—such as JSTARS, the sensor fuzed weapon, the joint standoff weapon, and the Army tactical missile system (ATACMS) Block II—resource constraints have prevented the services, including the Air Force, from investing aggressively in these systems to obtain them in great numbers. Actual inventories of the most capable antiarmor weapons remain very limited, and for the most part, because of their small numbers, such weapons are not forward deployed where they would be most needed.

Finally, highly robust antiarmor capabilities are one important means of offsetting the threat posed by enemy antiaccess capabilities. Enemies seek to keep U.S. expeditionary forces at arm’s length in order to create a window of opportunity within which to achieve other goals, such as overrunning adjacent territories. If every U.S. sortie that gets to the theater of a conflict is very effective, it reduces the chance that the enemy’s overall campaign plan will succeed.

Command and Control

A seventh challenge is to improve capabilities to command and control joint air operations. In addition to the threat-driven challenges addressed above, the leadership of the Air Force has recognized the importance of improving its mode of operations in several key dimensions. First among these are command—determining the best strategy of employment for air forces in a joint operation—and control—providing direction to forces. The prospects for substantial improvements in these areas are good. New computer-based computational tools are being developed that can allow commanders leading an operation to examine numerous alternative strategies and their probable outcomes before deciding how to employ available air assets. Computer-based tools are also helping to automate the laborious process of turning the commander’s guidance into concrete directions to participating units via the air tasking order.

The Air Force also aspires to improve the execution of air operations against fleeting targets, such as mobile missiles and small groups of enemy combatants. A key element of future concepts for this will be the creation of capabilities for dynamic control of air-to-surface engagements. Specifically, the Air Force is working out how to pass targeting information directly to aircraft that are conducting interdiction attacks in the minutes prior to their engagements. To be most useful, such information should feed digitally into the engagement and bombing systems on board the aircraft. In pursuing these and other improvements, the Air Force recognizes the importance of the human dimension of command and control. Perhaps the single most important lesson the Air Force learned from Operation Allied Force in Serbia was that the United States should not rely on ad-hoc “pick-up teams” to man air operations centers. Accordingly, efforts are under way within the Air Force to create standing teams that train together in peacetime to perform all of the essential functions of wartime air operations centers. The success enjoyed by U.S. fighter and bomber aircraft in engaging fleeting targets in Afghanistan shows that substantial progress has been made in dynamic control since Operation Allied Force.


A final challenge is to improve the deployability of USAF units. Aircraft that can self-deploy to distant theaters have long been the fastest means of sending reinforcements abroad. However, the Air Force is seeking further improvements in its ability to reinforce theaters rapidly and to sustain operations from deployed locations. First, it is modernizing its fleet of strategic airlift and tanker aircraft; it is replacing its fleet of C-141s, which first entered service in 1965, with C-17s, and it is upgrading its fleet of KC-135 tankers. Second, the Air Force is working to reduce the logistical footprint that its deploying units take with them. Such measures include expanded prepositioning of munitions, ground support equipment, and other items in theaters of potential conflict, and the use of intermediate support bases for maintenance that cannot be performed at main operating bases. The newest generation of USAF combat aircraft is also being designed for improved deployability. Built-in test equipment, on-board oxygen generators, and other features will allow F-22 squadrons, for example, to deploy and sustain operations with far less ground-support equipment than units with current-generation fighters.

Key Choices

As the Air Force develops new concepts for meeting the sorts of challenges outlined above, it will find itself repeatedly confronting the need to choose among competing approaches. How it decides these issues will do much to shape the Air Force of the future. Among these basic choices are whether to:

  • emphasize combat platforms that are theater-based over those that are longer range
  • continue to field platforms intended to penetrate contested airspace, or rather to rely much more heavily on standoff operations and weapons, such as cruise missiles
  • emphasize airborne platforms, or instead to press much more aggressively to move more operations into space.

Theater Basing versus Long-Range Operations

Today, the Air Force’s mix of combat platforms is weighted heavily toward aircraft that must be based forward in-theater in order to reach their targets efficiently. For every heavy bomber in the Air Force inventory of combat-coded aircraft, there are more than nine fighters.11 This strikes some observers as contrary to logic. In a world where adversaries are fielding greater numbers of ballistic missiles of longer range and greater accuracy, and where permission to use bases in forward theaters may not always be assured, the advantages of platforms that can strike from long range seem self-evident. Should, therefore, the Air Force invest more heavily in heavy bombers?

The answer is not straightforward. It is true that heavy bombers carry substantial payloads and can attack targets from great range, allowing them to be based beyond the range of the enemy’s most numerous attack means. During Operation Allied Force, for example, B-2 bombers flew repeated, nonstop round-trip missions between Missouri and Yugoslavia, delivering up to 16 GPS-guided 2,000-pound bombs per sortie. And because political sensitivities precluded the basing of most combat aircraft in countries around Afghanistan, bombers delivered most USAF ordnance during the crucial opening weeks of the conflict there. Long-range strike capabilities such as these could be invaluable in future conflicts should the risks of deploying forces at forward bases within the theater of conflict be judged too great. But is it reasonable to imagine that future adversaries will actually be able to prevent fighter aircraft from operating in their theaters? And if they could, would it be possible to achieve U.S. objectives using longer-range aircraft and other sources of standoff firepower alone?12

Without question, assuming that U.S. expeditionary air forces will be able to operate safely from forward bases that lack hardened aircraft shelters and other facilities is increasingly risky. As U.S. adversaries field ballistic and cruise missiles with GPS-like accuracy and conventional submunitions, aircraft parked in the open, as well as tent cities and lightly constructed living quarters and work centers, will become fairly easy targets.13 Missile defenses will not be a panacea for such threats, since several defensive layers would be required for highly effective defenses, and deploying these defenses can be time-consuming and place heavy demands on scarce strategic airlift capacity. However, extensive hardening of bases undertaken in advance of hostilities appears to be an effective and affordable countermeasure, in conjunction with active defenses and other steps. Only highly accurate missiles can effectively attack hardened facilities. Though it may be possible for ballistic and cruise missiles to crater runways and other operating surfaces, redundancy and rapid repair capabilities, coupled with some modest active defenses, can overcome the effects of such attacks under most circumstances.

Furthermore, whether or how a force made up purely of long-range assets could accomplish all of the tasks assigned to air forces today is unclear. First, U.S. forces engaged in large-scale conflicts may have to destroy thousands of targets, including large elements of fielded enemy forces. Doing so within a reasonable time span would necessitate a much larger fleet of heavy bombers than the United States now has. Second, even the most stealthy of bombers can, under some circumstances, be vulnerable to interception by fighter aircraft. Therefore, unless the bombers are to employ long-range standoff weapons exclusively (see below), they may need to be escorted or otherwise supported by fighters that can defeat the enemy’s fighters. Likewise, the platforms used to observe the enemy and to orchestrate air operations—AWACS, JSTARS, RC-135s, and others—must get fairly close to enemy airspace to function effectively. These aircraft require protection from enemy fighters and long-range SAMs as well. This synergy between high performance fighters and longer-range aircraft is an enduring reality of air operations that should not be overlooked.

Finally, it must be recognized that long-range bombers can also be vulnerable to airbase attacks. The Kosovo example notwithstanding, operations from the United States to Eurasia are extremely inefficient. To make best use of the heavy bombers, they should be forward-based in places such as Guam for operations in East Asia and southern Europe or Diego Garcia for operations in the Middle East. But as enemies acquire longer-range missiles, even these bases will fall within range of their threat, and it has proven impractical thus far to build hardened shelters for fleets of large aircraft such as bombers.

In short, large-scale air operations against capable adversaries should not be reduced to an either/or proposition. The questions to be addressed are: What is the right mix of longer-range and theater-based aircraft? What can be done to prepare potential theaters of operation in advance so as to mitigate threats to the full mix of platforms? Preliminary analysis suggests that fairly straightforward measures, such as hardening airbases in advance, will be satisfactory responses to most emerging threats to regional airbases. Forward-based forces also play invaluable roles in peacetime and crisis, forging links with regional allies and unambiguously signaling U.S. intentions to resist aggression. Even if accomplishing all the warfighting tasks assigned to air forces using long-range aircraft alone were economically and operationally feasible, it is far from clear that one would want a force comprised primarily of such aircraft. That said, heavy bombers with suitable munitions can make unique and valuable contributions to joint operations; they should be modernized and equipped accordingly.

Penetrating Platforms versus Standoff Weapons

Since the end of the Vietnam War, the Air Force has been stunningly successful in developing manned platforms and operational concepts for defeating enemy air defenses. The F-117 and the B-2 have shown that, with modest support, they can operate over even dense and integrated air defenses that would pose unacceptable risks to nonstealthy aircraft. Specialized aircraft and weapons, such as the F-16CJ with high-speed antiradiation missiles and the EA-6 standoff jammer, have effectively suppressed SAMs in combat over Iraq and Yugoslavia, allowing nonstealthy aircraft to operate over portions of enemy territory with acceptable risks. Concepts of operation that feature penetrating aircraft are attractive because they allow aircrews aboard attack aircraft to get close enough to their targets to observe them, evaluate the situation, and engage the target with fairly inexpensive weapons, such as laser-guided bombs and short-range missiles, such as the television-guided Maverick, that arrive on target within one minute of release.

However, air defense threats are evolving, and systems and concepts that have proven satisfactory in recent conflicts may not produce similar results as more capable air defenses are fielded. The latest generation of Russian-made, radar-guided surface-to-air missiles presents the most serious new challenges to U.S. and allied air operations. These SAM systems, including the SA-10 and SA-20, feature powerful phased-array radars that can be difficult to jam effectively. The missiles associated with these systems can engage aircraft at ranges of 100 kilometers or more. The entire system can be mobile, so that clever operators, by moving frequently between engagements, can complicate their location and targeting. Because of the long reach of these modern SAM systems, F-16CJs and other nonstealthy aircraft cannot safely get close enough to engage them with currently available antiradiation missiles. New concepts will therefore be needed to retain the ability to observe and attack the full range of targets even in territories defended by modern SAM systems.

One option is to rely more on standoff weapons, such as cruise missiles, that can allow manned platforms to engage targets from beyond the range of the most modern SAMs. Whether launched from aircraft, ships, or submarines, cruise missiles are the one way to strike targets with absolute assurance that no aircrews will be killed or captured by the enemy. Thus, they are ideally suited to small-scale strikes, such as the attack on terrorist training camps in Afghanistan in 1998, in which losses of aircrews would be unacceptable. In larger-scale operations, cruise missiles can be used to strike the best-defended targets and to open the way for manned aircraft by destroying key parts of the enemy’s air defenses. Of course, cruise missiles are not invulnerable to enemy air defenses. But they can be used in sizable numbers to overwhelm defenses, and they can be made stealthy as well. In any case, the consequences of losing a cruise missile are of far less magnitude than those associated with losing aircrews.

So why not simply abandon the effort to operate manned aircraft inside the range of enemy air defenses? If the Air Force reduced investments in stealthy aircraft, SAM suppression weapons, and jammers, it could apply those resources to building many thousands of cruise missiles and hauling them to their launch points using existing heavy bombers or new and fairly inexpensive aircraft, such as a variant of the Boeing 767. There are, however, several difficulties with this approach. First, cruise missiles with the range required to neutralize the most capable enemy SAMs are expensive. Arguably, this is true partly because we procure them in small numbers. But it is inherently costly—in terms of both dollars and aircraft payload—to put a turbofan engine, one or more guidance systems, and other devices on a weapon that will be used only once. The cost to deliver 1,000 pounds of high explosive to an aimpoint with a cruise missile will probably always be several times greater than the cost of getting it there via gravity. Even fairly small conflicts may call for attacks on many thousands of aimpoints.

One also pays a price for standoff in terms of time. Today’s cruise missiles operate at subsonic speeds; the time to target from an aircraft beyond the range of enemy air defenses might be 30 minutes or more. Such timelines often are not compatible with the need to provide fire support to troops in contact with an enemy. Equally significant is the fact that, thus far, concepts have not been devised to permit effective standoff attacks against all types of targets. Small, fleeting targets, such as missile TELs, isolated armored units, artillery pieces, and infantry, pose particularly hard problems for standoff weapons. Unless a person is in the loop to guide the weapon to its desired target, the target can easily move between the time of sensor observation and the arrival of a standoff weapon. Putting a terminal seeker on the cruise missile to locate the target adds to the cost of the weapon without greatly ameliorating the targeting problem because of the susceptibility of robotic sensors and automated target-recognition algorithms to countermeasures and the comparatively limited field of view of some seekers. Concepts that abandon efforts to operate within range of enemy air defenses raise questions about how the shooters are to find their targets. Most of the sensors used today to locate moving targets are on airborne platforms that must either fly into enemy airspace (such as the Predator UAV) or operate within a certain distance of it (for example, JSTARS and the U-2). Without the ability to suppress long-range air defenses, new ways would have to be found to conduct surveillance of enemy activities.

Of course, the man in the loop does not also have to be on the scene of the engagement. In most operations, the shooter—the aircrew—must also acquire and engage the target. But as sensors on dedicated reconnaissance and surveillance platforms proliferate, people on the ground (or even on a ship or in a large aircraft) with access to data from multiple sensors may well have a better picture of the tactical situation than aircrews in shooter aircraft. This will enable aerial vehicles—manned or unmanned—to‘haul payloads of guided weapons to target areas and deliver them against individual aimpoints as directed by a controller in a remote location.

One intriguing development that could help standoff weapons engage mobile targets effectively is the possibility of flying large numbers of autonomous munitions over the battlefield. If equipped with an appropriate sensor and the ability to sort out and identify potential targets, a munition that can loiter over a target area can compensate for uncertainty in the target’s location. The first generation of such large footprint weapons is the brilliant antiarmor munition developed by the Army for its ATACMS II missile. The Air Force also has been exploring a concept for a powered munition that would cover up to 100 miles while searching for any of several possible types of targets.14 The most daunting technical challenge for such weapons is the need for sensors and automatic target recognition capabilities that are inexpensive yet highly reliable so as to prevent attacks on civilian vehicles and remain robust against potential countermeasures.

One way to capitalize on some of the key advantages of cruise missiles while reducing the costs associated with one-way missions is to field unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs). Like the cruise missile, these vehicles take the aircrew out of the aircraft but allow the aircraft to release its weapons close to the target, then return to base, land, and be reused. This is an attractive concept for many reasons, and the Air Force is pursuing it.15 Among the major challenges is how best to assure the ability of operators to control the aircraft during demanding maneuvers. If UCAVs prove feasible, they may enable air forces to attack even fleeting mobile targets affordably without risking aircrews to loss or capture.

For the near- to mid-term, the right answer for the penetration-
versus-standoff question is one of finding the proper mix. The Air Force needs an inventory of munitions characterized by a graduated mix of direct attack and standoff weapons, covering long range (1,000 kilometers or more), medium range (several hundred kilometers), and short range (up to 100 kilometers). Given the state of current technologies relevant to standoff attack and the rate at which air defenses are evolving, the Air Force today (like the air arms of its sister services) has almost certainly underinvested in stocks of cruise missiles and other standoff weapons. Its fleets of B-1 and B-52 bombers are particularly dependent on standoff missiles if they are to play important roles in the critical early phases of most future conflicts. Adequately supplying just these platforms with cruise missiles for the first two weeks of two major theater wars would require doubling or tripling the currently programmed buys of the long-range conventional air-launched cruise missile and its successors, and of the medium-range joint air-to-surface standoff missile. Operation Allied Force and the efforts to enforce no-fly zones over Iraq have shown that stocks of shorter-range standoff missiles, such as the AGM-130 and the joint standoff weapon, are also in chronically short supply. Research and development efforts relating to concepts for standoff attack probably should focus on improving the affordability of expendable missiles (by developing less expensive propulsion systems, production enhancements, and the like), on munitions capable of seeking and identifying targets autonomously, and on the maturation of recoverable unmanned aerial vehicles.

For now, concepts for locating, identifying, and attacking mobile targets from standoff range are far from being mature enough that the Air Force could responsibly stop maintaining its ability to operate manned combat aircraft in defended airspace. The Air Force should continue to field stealthy high-performance aircraft, modernized defense-suppression assets (including a replacement for the EA-6 jamming aircraft), and accurate direct-attack munitions.

Airborne versus Space-Based Platforms

Some of the operational conundrums mentioned could be resolved by expanding the capabilities of assets that operate in space. For example, satellites could be used as platforms for SAR and MTI radars designed to detect vehicles on the surface of the earth. If this proved practical, a large constellation of satellites could substitute for JSTARS and other airborne platforms that provide this function today, reducing concerns about the need to deploy and sustain these platforms in theater and obviating the threat posed to them by SAMs and interceptors. Advocates of more ambitious military operations in space have also proposed that strike operations could be conducted from platforms in space. An enduring concept from the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative is the space-based laser, which would intercept missiles during boost phase. Others propose the possibility of striking targets on the surface from space. One approach would place in orbit satellites that carry guided projectiles. When needed, these weapons could be de-orbited and directed at tremendous velocity to a target such as a fixed installation on the earth. Another concept envisages the development of a space plane, manned or unmanned, that would launch from the United States, enter partial orbit, descend into the upper atmosphere at high speed to dispense several guided weapons, and then return to earth. Either concept could permit national leaders to strike targets anywhere with impunity within several hours of a decision to do so.

A major challenge facing all such concepts today is cost, the most daunting being that associated with placing objects in space. Today, it costs roughly $10,000 per pound to boost a payload into low Earth orbit. This means that even a very accurate weapon weighing 500 pounds would cost $5 million, or 5 times as much as the most expensive cruise missiles, just to be placed in orbit. The expense of developing and building the system would have to be included, and given the difficulties associated with surviving reentry, those costs would not be minor. Objects in low Earth orbit also do not stay over one spot on the earth’s surface, which poses a problem for sensors whose purpose is to monitor a particular installation or area, track vehicles, or otherwise develop detailed information about a theater of operations. Some types of sensors can be effective from higher geostationary orbits, but pending improvements in several areas of technology, the types of phenomena of greatest interest to military operations will remain best observed from low Earth orbit. This means that moving many military-related surveillance functions to space would demand large and very costly constellations of satellites.16 Nevertheless, if this move made it possible to monitor and track all of the militarily significant targets in a hostile nation (or in several nations), it might well be worth the investment.

Finally, satellites—especially those in low Earth orbit—can be attacked, either from the Earth or by other satellites. As the United States grows increasingly reliant on space-based assets to support its military operations, adversaries will perceive growing incentives to develop ways of attacking them, extending into space the competition between measure, countermeasure, and counter-countermeasure ad infinitum. For the foreseeable future, then, we should expect satellites mainly to perform a growing share of such key functions as surveillance, positioning, and communications. Someday, weapons delivered from space may prove practical for attacking selected high-value targets in limited numbers. But even with dramatic reductions in launch costs, weapons from space will not substitute for more prosaic means of delivering firepower in large or smaller-scale conflicts.

Directions for the Future

The Air Force’s vision of its future—and, by extension, its approach to modernizing or transforming—envisages an evolutionary path toward new capabilities. Some will involve new product lines or force elements such as information squadrons, and even new physical principles such as the airborne laser, while others will involve reequipping existing force elements with new platforms, munitions, or other systems. This approach seems consistent with the “purposeful and measured” strategy recommended in chapter 3 for transforming U.S. military capabilities. It features a gradual introduction of new concepts, systems, and capabilities, at a pace driven both by a determination to hold onto most of today’s force structure and by constraints on new resources for modernization. The Air Force’s planned approach to modernization recognizes the potential leverage inherent in more and better information, and so it emphasizes investments in new airborne and space-based sensors, as well as a host of new battle management capabilities. The Air Force plan also emphasizes forces that are highly adaptable. Both the F-22 and the joint strike fighter, for example, will be multimission aircraft.

This middle way seems appropriate for the Air Force for two major reasons. First, contrary to the views of those who regard the current period as one of strategic pause for the United States, the U.S. Armed Forces in general, and the Air Force in particular, have a full menu of strategically important tasks to accomplish. USAF assets form the backbone of the U.S. capability to deter and defeat large-scale aggression and would provide the bulk of the combat capabilities deployed by joint forces in the critical opening phase of most conflicts. These same assets have been called upon repeatedly to impose the will of the United States on recalcitrant leaders in smaller-scale operations in such places as the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan since the end of the Gulf War. The prospect that these and other demands will continue to be levied upon the Air Force militates against a strategy that would divest the service of substantial capabilities in the interests of accelerating the development of a host of new systems and concepts. Second, analysis of future challenges and operational concepts suggests that radical new approaches to conducting air operations are not warranted in the foreseeable future. While much has been made of the problems and risks that future enemies with antiaccess capabilities may pose for land-based air forces, the fact is that a wide range of countermeasures to these threats are available, and many are already programmed. Some adjustments to current resource allocation plans might well enhance the robustness of future forces in the face of antiaccess challenges. But for the most part, fairly straightforward improvements to the force—purchasing more standoff weapons or better gear for countering chemical weapons—or to theater infrastructures, such as hardening facilities at more airbases, probably offer more leverage than wholesale changes in force structure and operational concepts.

None of this should be taken to mean that complacency is appropriate. The U.S. strategy for advancing its interests in the world is ambitious and will continue to place great demands on the Nation’s military forces. Continued and, indeed, accelerated modernization of the Air Force is essential, focused on the challenges outlined in this chapter. As individual programs and initiatives are implemented, the broad outlines of the Air Force of the 21st century will emerge. The most likely trends over the coming two decades can be foreseen now. First, combat aircraft that lack sharply reduced signatures (stealth) will begin to disappear from the inventory, at least from that portion of the inventory intended to operate in or near airspace controlled by the enemy. Second, sensors will increasingly be borne by satellites and UAVs rather than manned aircraft. Satellites are especially attractive as platforms for sensors, such as radars, that emit signals, because it is difficult to hide these from enemy sensors. Stealthy, long-enduring UAVs may be best suited to carrying passive sensors, such as visual and infrared cameras. Survivability might also be achieved by proliferating sensors on large numbers of very small and inexpensive expendable UAVs.

Third, high-performance fighter aircraft will continue to play essential roles in air combat operations, but their roles will focus increasingly on enabling attacks by other means. Fighters operating from hardened forward bases will be responsible for defeating enemy air attacks and air defenses and for “blinding” the enemy by destroying airborne and possible space-based sensor platforms. Fourth, heavy bombers, based at some remove from the theater of conflict, will carry a growing share of the strike role. When confronting enemy forces that are reasonably well equipped and trained, U.S. forces will increasingly rely on long-range standoff weapons to attack most fixed targets; guided direct-attack and shorter-range standoff munitions will continue to bear the burden against fielded forces and other mobile targets. Fifth, aircraft equipped with high-powered electronic jammers will operate from distant bases and loiter outside the range of enemy SAMs. Finally, command and control and supporting analytical and staff functions will be provided by personnel located both within and outside of the theater, working from distributed “virtual facilities” connected by broadband secure communications.

Of course, realizing these trends will take time, talent, and money, three factors essential to any transformation. If the requisite resources are not forthcoming to pursue concepts relevant to the full range of challenges looming in the future, innumerable painful trades will be necessary, inevitably delaying the availability of some important capabilities and threatening the long-term health of the institution. How might the Air Force adapt to prolonged and severe budget shortfalls? The institution’s strong inclination will be to make future warfighting capability its top priority. Today, this means primarily modernizing fighter platforms, at least in terms of budgetary demands. With F-15s approaching 30 years of age, investments in new fighters cannot be further postponed. The threat posed by today’s air defenses is reason enough to buy stealthy aircraft. When one considers that the next generation of fighters, like this one, will be in the inventory for many decades, it makes no sense to buy nonstealthy ones.

Without sizable and sustained increases in budget authority, however, the Air Force will have to maintain dangerously low levels of spending on a range of readiness accounts in order to free the funds needed to begin modernizing its fighter forces and other critical capabilities. It will also have to stretch out or forego investments in a number of promising areas, such as advanced airborne and space-based sensors, standoff and guided munitions, upgrades to avionics and data links, and airborne jammers that, individually and collectively, could greatly increase operational capabilities. Even at that, the rate of procurement of new fighter aircraft will lag far behind the 200 aircraft or so per year needed to begin reducing the average age of the current fleet.

There was a time when the Air Force showed a willingness to sacrifice force structure if required to finance essential modernization. However, that was before the peacetime operations tempo of much of the Air Force was kept close to its sustainable maximum in the 1990s.17 With the prospect of continued high demand for deployments of USAF combat and support units abroad in peacetime, cutting personnel from deployable units or eliminating entire units could place unacceptable burdens on those that remain, with consequent losses of trained personnel.

Treatises on “transformation,” extensive operations research and analysis, and related musings by defense intellectuals sometimes can obscure rather than illuminate the art and science of conducting and preparing for military operations. The heart of the matter is not very complicated. What commanders want most is the ability to strike enemy forces and infrastructure where they want and when they want, without allowing the enemy to strike their forces or their nation in return. Dominant air forces today offer a means for doing just that under many circumstances. Modern military aircraft, in conjunction with support from space-based assets, can deploy rapidly over long distances, protect rear areas against air attacks, provide the primary means for observing enemy activities, and conduct precise and effective attacks against a wide range of assets valued by enemy leaders and commanders, all while minimizing the exposure of friendly personnel to enemy fires.

For these reasons, the viability of future U.S. strategy for power projection will remain closely tied to the ability of the Air Force, and the air arms of other services, to innovate. The degree to which the Air Force is able to field new capabilities appropriate to emerging threats will have more to do with the overall level of resources available to it than with developments in any particular areas of technology. The basic elements of new operational concepts relevant to many of the needs of future commanders are already in place or are close to being demonstrated. What is needed is a commitment to sustained investments in the hardware, people, training, and support assets needed to make these new capabilities a reality. Absent such resources, some stark choices will be unavoidable, and the Nation may find itself short of critically important capabilities in future conflicts.


 1. Of course, there are limits in the extent to which superior quality can offset numerical inferiority. Lanchester suggests that under many circumstances, the capability of a force can be expressed by the equation B2b, where B is the number of weapons or units available and b is an expression of their quality relative to an opponent’s forces. Because the variable for quantity is squared, a force that is outnumbered 2 to 1 must have 4 times the quality of its opponent in order to be equal in capability. A force outnumbered 4 to 1 must be 16 times better in quality. This “Lanchester square equation” is a formal statement of what most commanders know instinctively, namely, that “quantity has a quality all its own.” [BACK]

 2. The pilots of the two U.S. aircraft that were shot down over Yugoslavia were rescued by U.S. combat search and rescue operations. Thus, the fatality/capture rate was zero. [BACK]

 3. Air attacks on infrastructure targets can sometimes prompt a temporary rise in support for enemy leaders as people “rally round the flag,” but air attacks that are sustained, intense, accurate, and one-sided can be devastatingly effective in reducing enemy morale. See Stephen T. Hosmer, Psychological Effects of U.S. Air Operations in Four Wars, 1946-1991, MR-576-AF (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1996). [BACK]

4. These levels of effectiveness apply to interdiction of armored units that are moving but not in contact with other ground forces. When friendly and enemy ground forces are in close proximity, concerns about fratricide constrain weapons, tactics, and rules of engagement in ways that can reduce the effectiveness of air attacks. [BACK]

5. To have 90 percent confidence of dropping a bridge span took, in 1944, 240 tons of bombs (B-17 with unguided bombs); in 1965, 200 tons (F4-D with unguided bombs); in 1972, 12.5 tons (F4-D with precision guided munitions [PGMs]); and in 1990, just 4 tons of PGMs (F-117). See Benjamin S. Lambeth, The Transformation of American Airpower (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000),160; and C.R. Anderegg, Sierra Hotel: Flying Air Force Fighters in the Decade after Vietnam (Washington, DC: U.S. Air Force, 2001),122-124. [BACK]

6. For example, an estimated 40 percent of the Iraqi soldiers in the Kuwait theater of operations deserted prior to the coalition’s ground attack in late February 1991. Many of those who remained offered only token resistance once the ground invasion began, as evinced by the surrender of more than 85,000 additional Iraqi officers and enlisted men during the 100-hour ground operation. Less than 20 percent of Iraqi tanks and 10 percent of their armored personnel carriers showed evidence of attempts to resist during the ground attack. See Hosmer, 152-170. [BACK]

7. For an analysis of the factors bearing on the outcome of Operation Allied Force, see Stephen T. Hosmer, Why Milosevic Decided to Settle When He Did, MR-1351-AF (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2001). See also Benjamin S. Lambeth, NATO’s Air War for Kosovo: A Strategic and Operational Assessment (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, forthcoming). [BACK]

8. Centered on a set of instrumental ranges outside of Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Red Flag exposes aircrews to a realistic simulated combat environment. Units are required to conduct air defense, sweep, defense suppression, interdiction, strategic attack, and other combat missions in the presence of air-to-air and surface-to-air defenses much like those they would encounter in a conflict involving a capable regional adversary. All missions are “scored” and critiqued daily. [BACK]

9. See America’s Air Force, Vision 2020, U.S. Air Force (undated), available at <>. [BACK]

10. Beyond addressing the ballistic missile threat, the airborne laser will provide an operational testbed for other potential applications of directed energy, perhaps to include defense against surface-to-air missiles, air-to-air missiles, and other aircraft. It might even prove useful in the antisatellite role. [BACK]

11. Combat-coded aircraft are those in operational fighter or bomber units. These do not include aircraft in training units or in long-term maintenance status. [BACK]

12. The terms long range and short range are, of course, relative. With help from the large USAF fleet of aerial refueling aircraft, fighter aircraft can operate routinely from bases 1,000 miles or more from their targets, as was demonstrated by the F-117 in Operation Desert Storm and the F-15E in Operation Allied Force. [BACK]

13. See John Stillion and David T. Orletsky, Airbase Vulnerability to Conventional Cruise-Missile and Ballistic-Missile Attacks (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1999). [BACK]

14. This project is called the low-cost autonomous attack system. [BACK]

15. Some Predator UAVs have been modified to carry and deliver Hellfire guided missiles. The Predator/Hellfire combination has been reportedly used successfully in Afghanistan. [BACK]

16. For example, it has been estimated that a constellation of SAR/MTI satellites capable of reliably tracking individual vehicles would have to consist of between 40 and 100 satellites, at $300 million to $500 million per satellite (including launch costs). [BACK]

17. For an assessment of the implications of ongoing deployments for USAF operations tempo and individual personnel, and the effects of potential force structure reductions on both, see David E. Thaler and Daniel M. Norton, Air Force Operations Overseas in Peacetime: Optempo and Force Structure Implications, DB-237-AF (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1998). [BACK]



Table of Contents  |  Chapter Seven