The Future of Air Superiority Part II: The 2030 Problem
Editor’s Note: Do not miss the first article in this series, “The Imperative.”
In early 2015, the U.S. Air Force was about to begin work on its next-generation air-to-air fighter, commonly known as F-X. When beginning such a program, military services usually start with an “analysis of alternatives” to help them define the desired attributes of new systems. The objective of this analysis is to determine the most rational investment decisions prior to committing taxpayer dollars. Key funding decisions typically follow shortly on the heels of this analytic effort. As the Air Force approached these decisions, it had to decide how much of its topline budget authority it was willing to allocate to the emerging F-X program. Out of this came a cost estimate for the F-X program based on trends from similar programs in the past. The result was not pretty.
The two most recent examples analysts had available were the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II. As has been written extensively elsewhere, both programs experienced cost issues throughout development. Such issues eventually drove Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to truncate the F-22 program at 187 aircraft and also led to a re-baselining of the F-35 program in 2010. Comparing the expense of these fifth-generation aircraft programs to fourth-generation F-16 and F-15 programs, experts predicted F-X would cost substantially more than any prior fighter program in history. Additionally, Air Force planners evaluated the development timelines experienced during fifth-generation aircraft development. The combination of historically poor schedule performance with historically high costs led planners to conclude the earliest the Air Force could expect and afford to field F-X would be around the year 2040.
Many Air Force leaders felt 2040 would be too late to field the next tranche of air superiority capability. The F-22 reached initial operational capability (IOC) in 2005, and while the F-35 recently entered service in 2016, it is optimized for air-to-ground employment rather than air superiority. This means we are facing a 35-year gap between fielding air superiority platforms if forced to wait until 2040. This would have been an eternity during industrial-age aircraft development; it’s even worse in the fast-paced world of aircraft development in the information age.
This acute challenge led Air Force leadership to look for a different approach to the F-X problem. They decided the time had come to reexamine their assumptions and reframe the Air Force’s approach to air superiority. The team I led for slightly more than a year, the Air Superiority 2030 Enterprise Capability Collaboration Team (ECCT), was the result of this decision. Crucially, the Air Force chief of staff tasked the team with taking a multi-domain approach to air superiority, which in Air Force parlance meant we were to consider solutions that might not necessarily come from the air. Perhaps, the thinking went, cyberspace or space-based capabilities would be able to produce air superiority effects and move the Air Force to an entirely new cost curve. The Air Force had done this before during the 1950s, when a fundamental reframing of how to provide nuclear combat power led to the advent of the intercontinental ballistic missile, moving the Air Force off a bomber-only cost and capability model.
Air Force leaders were equally concerned with cost and our intellectual approach to capability development. To some, F-X looked like a standard recapitalization program to replace an aging platform with a newer, more capable platform. While this approach sometimes works, leaders were concerned that Air Force processes were not built to ask whether a platform was the right solution or not — they simply assumed it was. A similar assumption had been made by the Polish military between the two world wars. On the eve of World War II, they had refitted their cavalry units with entirely new equipment. Based on the lessons of World War I, they not only procured new weapons for their cavalrymen, but also gas masks for both men and horses. In effect, they had recapitalized their cavalry without ever challenging the assumption that such cavalry was relevant in modern warfare.
To help ensure the Air Force did not make that same mistake, the ECCT adopted a comprehensive analytical framework. As all military planners appreciate, the first step in solving a complex problem is to make sure you truly understand it. Therefore, our team dedicated the first 90 days of our effort to not only outlining our methodology, but also to deconstructing the air superiority problem from every possible angle. We started with ensuring our intellectual understanding of air superiority was correct. As mentioned in my first article in this series, our team knew control of the air was needed not as an end in and of itself. It was needed so friendly forces could exploit that control for ISR, strike, mobility, or even space launch — and to preclude the enemy from doing the same. Thus, we developed an appreciation for the time and geographical requirements for air superiority in various scenarios. Additionally, as we examined Air Force and joint counter-air thinking, we expanded on the doctrinal definition of air superiority. Traditionally, air superiority doctrine focused on neutralizing air and missile threats. We added other threat vectors that might preclude our control of the air, including cyberspace-based attacks and other non-traditional and unconventional threats.
The next step in our process was to examine the 2030 timeframe and the expected operational environment. Leveraging a vast array of intelligence and analysis, our team developed as much understanding as possible about that environment, dividing expected threats into two categories. The first category contained evolutionary and traditional threat capabilities, such as airplanes, air-to-air missiles, and surface-to-air weapons systems. For the most part, we think we have a reasonable idea how these technologies will evolve and proliferate over the next 15 years, as these technological cycles are relatively well-understood. The second category, however, contained a more revolutionary set of comprehensive threats, including advanced and highly accurate ballistic missiles, cyberspace threats, and threats to our space assets. While we know these threats will exist (many already do), it is more difficult to predict how they will evolve and proliferate. In the end, what we do know is that in 2030 our forces will face a combination of threats from both categories in a variety of places around the world.
It is worth noting here that our effort was not about preparing for conflict against so-called near-peer adversaries. Rather, it was about being prepared for the kind of technologies we see spreading around the world and the expected operational environments created by such technological advancements and proliferation. Indeed, such proliferation of advanced technology is already occurring, as evidenced by the advanced missiles systems found in Syria or recently acquired by Iran.
The next step for our team was to assess our planned force structure against the backdrop of the expected threat environment. Air Force analysis over the past several years had suggested numerous capability gaps existed, and we were able to validate many of these. In the end, however, only one gap mattered to our team: the Air Force’s lack of ability to gain and maintain air superiority in 2030. This gap was rooted in a number of critical shortfalls across both the proficiency and sufficiency of our planned forces. In terms of proficiency, the team assessed that we would not only lack many of the raw capabilities needed in the expected threat environment, but that we would also lack trained and ready airmen to maintain and operate these capabilities. We also assessed a lack of sufficiency. This meant that even in areas where our capability was technologically adequate and proficient, the planned quantity of those capabilities in the 2030 inventory will be insufficient in many scenarios to attain operational- and strategic-level effects and outcomes.
Our team found two main causes of this expected gap. First, the Air Force broadly (but not entirely) failed to rapidly develop and field capabilities over the last two decades. Second, even with programs the Air Force had fielded, many were focused on operations in a single function or domain without enough forethought given to interactions with other functions and domains. As an example, even the F-22 — the most advanced air superiority platform on the planet — stills fails to meet its full potential owing to its communications limitations. These shortfalls limit the speed at which F-22 pilots can pass data from their fifth-generation sensors to other forces in the battlespace or to our intelligence enterprise. (The Air Force recognized this long before our team’s effort, and it is working on enhancements that will significantly magnify the impact of F-22s on the effectiveness of other forces through improved connectivity).
Having deconstructed doctrine, threats, and the problem, we next turned our attention to solutions. We reached into every corner of the Air Force, across the other services, into agencies such as DARPA and our national labs, and across academia and industry. We wanted to leave no stone unturned in our search for creative ideas to address the air superiority capability gap. This effort led to the submission of over 1,500 different ideas, both materiel (e.g., modernization, acquisition programs) and non-materiel (e.g., improved tactics or training). We assessed each of these ideas against four criteria: effectiveness, technological maturity, expected cost, and the number and complexity of any dependencies required for the idea to be effective.
The knowledge generated from this assessment proved foundational to the remainder of our effort. We learned many ideas that sounded promising upfront were in reality either ineffective, technologically immature, too expensive, or highly dependent on consecutive miracles to succeed. As just one example, at one of our analytical events we evaluated a recommendation for a hypersonic, highly maneuverable, optionally-manned aircraft with intercontinental range and equipped with exquisite sensors and directed-energy weapons. Unfortunately, while such a platform would be highly effective, the technologies required to actually create such a capability simply did not and will not exist by 2030.
Other concepts submitted to our team included words such as “3D printing,” “hypersonic,” “swarming,” or “autonomous.” Many such concepts showed promise: 3D printing could revolutionize logistics, hypersonics could enable prompt long-range strike, swarming has been a favored tactic of fighter pilots for a century, and autonomy may drastically reduce the human workload when executing complex tasks. Consequently, our team recommended pursing these technological and tactical innovations. At the same time, we caution those who would consider any one or two such concepts “silver bullets” that would by themselves solve the air superiority problem. Furthermore, such innovations must be paired with valid concepts of operation to make them effective in the expected operational environment. A concept based on tactics or technology is interesting, but only when paired with a concept of operations can it become compelling.
In order to evaluate various innovations in an operational context, our team organized viable concepts into several conceptual frameworks for further analysis. The first conceptual framework included robust modernization of the planned force of 2030, but had few additional capabilities added to the mix. As such, this provided a base case for our analysis, showing us the maximum amount of capability we could extract from the force without starting major new acquisition programs. The force in this conceptual framework achieved control of the air the old-fashioned way, by rolling back an adversary’s integrated air defense system over time from the outside in until air superiority was attained over a desired geographical area.
Our second and third conceptual frameworks were a standoff force and attritable force, respectively. The standoff force broadly consisted of non-penetrating platforms delivering large volumes of weapons (including non-kinetic effects) from beyond the lethal range of threat systems. The attritable force consisted of a large number of platforms with modular payloads (either kinetic or non-kinetic) that could be reused multiple times, but that were also inexpensive enough that losing some in a high-threat environment was acceptable. Importantly, the attritable force we assessed in this conceptual framework did not just exist in the air domain, but in cyberspace and space as well.
Broadly speaking, we expected both the standoff and attritable forces to achieve air superiority through the high volume of weapons, effects, and/or attritable platforms swarming and converging in the desired space at the desired time to overwhelm enemy defenses. Yet deeper analysis revealed that neither force was able to generate enough awareness of targets much beyond the edge of an adversary’s defenses. Each could only achieve air superiority on the outskirts of an integrated air defense system. Over time, air superiority could extend deeper into the adversary system — but to get to that point the scheme of maneuver ended up resembling yet another traditional roll-back operation, albeit with cyberspace and space capabilities in play as well.
Our fourth conceptual framework centered on what many would describe as a sixth-generation fighter: a highly survivable, highly lethal platform supported by cyberspace and space capabilities. While our analysis showed this conceptual framework would be highly effective at the tactical level, it was hobbled at the operational level by an insufficient quantity of capability due to the high cost of the platform. Additionally, to achieve the effectiveness needed, the development program postulated for this program would carry a significant degree of technical risk, creating a very real possibility that this sixth-generation fighter would not field until well past 2030. In short, we concluded that the exquisite capabilities in this conceptual framework would cost too much and arrive late to need.
At this point in our study, the problem seemed intractable: we could not modernize our way out of the problem, multi-domain standoff weapons and attritable forces failed to achieve air superiority, and our only successful operational capability was unrealistic both in terms of cost and timeline. As we reviewed the analysis conducted on the conceptual frameworks in greater detail, however, several important insights came to light that would guide us as we developed courses of action.
First, we learned that modernization of some current platforms would allow them to perform some parts of the counter-air mission, including as defensive counter-air over friendly forces and suppression of enemy air defenses on the edge of the integrated air defense system. Second, we learned that we knew how to launch standoff weapons over long distances — the challenge would be giving them enough information to hit a target. We also learned that while we did not have access to the all information necessary to provide that targeting information today, we could significantly improve our ability in this area by fusing cyberspace intelligence with new space-based capabilities (such as using cubesat or nanosat technology to blanket an area of interest with overhead coverage).
If we could develop these capabilities and pair them with new and existing air-domain data sources, we would significantly improve the effectiveness of standoff weapons. Doing this, however, would require getting the right sensors in the right places, meaning sometimes deep in adversary territory. Attritable assets with the right sensor payloads provided one option, as did networking together current or upgraded airborne sensors, including fifth-generation aircraft and dedicated ISR platforms. Still, attritable assets lacked persistence, and fifth-generation assets could not go everywhere we needed them to go. We still would need a capability to penetrate and persist in the adversary air defense system. Such a capability was not just needed to employ weapons or project effects, but just as importantly to serve as a key node in what was emerging as a new conceptual multi-domain battle network.
In the next installment we will discuss this battle network in more detail. We will unpack the concept our team developed for going from “data to decision” in support of the counter-air mission, as well as how this concept relies on many of the third offset technologies Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work has been advocating for the Department. We will also discuss how we took lessons learned from the failures of our first four conceptual frameworks to develop a plan for building and developing a force capable of defeating the anti-access/area denial strategy and gaining and maintaining air superiority in support of joint force objectives in 2030.
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 United States Air Force.
Image: U.S. Air Force photo