The Future of Air Superiority, Part I: The Imperative
While the American ability to control the air is often taken for granted, the United States risks losing this advantage over the next decade and a half. Budget pressures have delayed key investments, while others continue to develop advanced technologies that will surpass U.S. capabilities if we fail to move forward. Sensing this challenge, from mid-2015 to mid-2016, the Air Force afforded me the privilege of leading a team of experts studying how the Air Force would provide air superiority for the U.S. military in 2030 and beyond. Air superiority, often thought of as a mission, is more correctly conceived of as a condition. At its most basic, that condition is achieved when a force possesses the degree of control of the air required for joint operations succeed. Air superiority not only allows the joint force to exploit the air domain, but also grants it freedom from attack on the surface. Without air superiority, results can be devastating — witness the rout of the Republican Guard as it tried to escape from Kuwait along the “Highway of Death,” or the devastating losses suffered by the Taliban in 2001 on the Shomali plain. With this in mind, the team I led — composed of air, space, cyber, logistics, and support experts— challenged every assumption and conducted an exhaustive review of options to gain and maintain continued control of the air.
As I briefed the results of this study to various groups, some challenged our most basic assertion that air superiority matters. Some even went so far as to say they didn’t think the United States would need air superiority in 2030. In such cases, I always asked how they predicted conflict would unfold in the future. Often they’d reply that hybrid warfare would dominate, with irregular and regular forces operating in the gray zone between war and peace. In this kind of warfare, attribution and intent are challenging if not impossible for friendly forces to ascertain. Because of this, some argue that ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), tactical lift, and on-call strike assets are the most valuable airpower capabilities in these conflicts.
I agree that hybrid and gray zone conflict are likely attributes of future warfare; we’ve already seen trends in this direction, such as the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. I also agree that the airpower missions of ISR, lift, and persistent strike remain essential in many conflicts, including those in the gray zone. Where I take issue is when someone takes these first two points and then concludes that they don’t need air superiority. Indeed, if ISR, lift and strike missions are essential in gray zone conflicts, air superiority is doubly so. Simply put, you cannot fly ISR, lift, or strike missions — or ensure the adversary doesn’t fly them — without it. Ukraine again provides an instructive example, where a lack of air superiority resulted in multiple losses of Ukrainian Air Force Su-25 ground attack aircraft.
We in the U.S. military — particularly the U.S. Air Force — are victims of our own success. Many can no longer conceive of a world in which U.S. air superiority is not a given, where we must fight for it. Many also view air superiority only as a theater-wide condition, reminiscent of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s dramatic declarations during the First Gulf War.
Unfortunately, the world has changed. Middle powers possess the resources, technology, and know-how to challenge control of the air, and by 2030, many of those capabilities will have proliferated around the globe. As a result, although theater-wide air superiority provides important strategic, operational, and tactical advantages, it may be extremely difficult to obtain. We may no longer be able to prevent adversaries from operating within their own integrated air defenses. Instead, we will control their airspace for a discrete time and over a limited area, as defined by the needs of the joint force team. Control of the air is not an end in and of itself — we set the air superiority condition only so we may then exploit the air domain to maximum effect and preclude an adversary from doing the same.
Attaining air superiority when and where we need it in 2030 will not be easy. The Air Force must develop capabilities that not only target and engage air and missile threats, as doctrine has long suggested, but also counter threats to the space assets we depend on in the air battle. Likewise, adversary use of cyberspace to deliver effects against our air, space, and logistics assets could prevent joint forces from controlling air and space. Air superiority in 2030 must account for a multi-domain battlespace where air, space, and cyberspace converge. We must ensure we give weight not just to necessary advances in raw combat power across those domains, but also to equally critical basing and logistics, ISR, and command and control capabilities. We must exploit third offset technologies to provide an information, knowledge, and decision advantage, and then use that advantage to gain control of the air at the time and place of our choosing.
Achieving air superiority in 2030 will require an integrated and networked family of both penetrating and standoff capabilities. Some argue that this is unobtainable and charge that the Air Force always talks about fielding a “family of systems,” but then reverts to developing single platforms. Not true. We always field a family of capabilities —we go to combat today with fighters, bombers, unmanned aircraft, and command and control platforms like AWACS all integrated in the battlespace. Sometimes this family works well together, and sometimes there is friction, as different datalinks, communication nodes, and capabilities are cobbled together into a force package. We can minimize the friction and cost of the 2030 family of capabilities if we start thinking today about how it fits together.
Over the next several weeks, I’ll share some of the background behind our Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan at War on the Rocks. In the next installment, I’ll discuss how our team defined the air superiority problem and how that led us to our Flight Plan recommendations. Then I’ll discuss how Air Superiority 2030 counters the A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) strategy of our adversaries, including how it exploits third offset technologies and ideas. Finally, I will discuss some of the key attributes of the actual Air Superiority family of systems, as well as the need to change acquisition paradigms in order to develop these attributes.
This does not mean air superiority in 2030 will be cheap or easy. Indeed, we are already far overdue in several key investment areas across platforms, weapons, and sensors — such are the devastating effects of sequestration at home and rapid technological advances by others abroad. But with sustained commitment, discipline in requirements, and an acquisition game plan that takes full advantage of experimentation and prototyping, we can still recover.
And recover we must. Air superiority is not an optional capability. Without it, you lose.
Alex Grynkewich is a Brigadier General in the U.S. Air Force and an F-16 and F-22 fighter pilot. He most recently served as the Chief of Strategic Planning Integration at Headquarters Air Force and as the Air Superiority 2030 Enterprise Capabilities Collaboration Team lead. The opinions expressed above of those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Air Force.
Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dennis Hoffman