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The Future of Air Superiority Part II: The 2030 Problem

January 5, 2017

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

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12 thoughts on “The Future of Air Superiority Part II: The 2030 Problem

  1. Gen. Grynkewich, I note you’re a fighter pilot. With all due respect to the service you’ve given to the country, and knowing no more than that about you, here would be my suggestion in regard to carrying forward your work on this evaluative project.

    That is, reconstitute the “Air Superiority 2030 Enterprise Capability Collaboration Team” (or set up an offshoot of it or subgroup within it) such that no member of it is an aircraft pilot (UAV drivers OK).

    Then have them run through the same overall evaluative process again, but without any input or direction from any aircraft pilots. Compare and contrast the two final reports. My guess is, you will be amazed.

    1. that’s a really good point.

      there will come a time when there is no technical reason to have a pilot in a fighter or attack aircraft. we could probably do it now. the logic required for air-to-air is all spacial – perfect for machines. the pilot just adds weight (ejection seat, OBOGS, pilot’s weight), drag (cockpit canopy), and limits the Gs the aircraft can pull due to human physiological frailty.

      the logic for ground operations is much harder to automate – how do you teach an artificial intelligence to distinguish between a terrorist and an innocent?

    2. Or you might not. You’re implicitly assuming a bias towards a manned aircraft without seeing the results. And explicitly projecting a bias towards an unmanned aircraft (since you’ll include UAV pilots). Last, you’re assuming all the pilot brings to the table are the skills to operate the aircraft and fight it tactically. That’s like conducting a ground superiority study without including any infantry, armor, or artillery folks. There’s more to air warfare than just flying airplanes, and while pilots aren’t the only ones who can play, we do value their opinion from time to time.

    3. Ty–you are right, of course. We did exactly what you suggested, bring together groups of cyber and space experts to tackle to problem as well. We found that when you paired those who had fought and flown with those who were masters of the cyber and space domains, we had the most success in coming up with concepts that held promise.

  2. Interestng article. However, there is a questionable premise up front: “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.”

    I find that unpersuasive for two reasons. First, we’ve done just fine so far with air superiority platforms orignally designed over 40 years ago (f-15s and f-16s). They have been upgraded and are still world-class today. Second, the most rapid advances in the “information age” are the easiest to retrofit to existing systems – faster processors, better sensors. Materials don’t advance at anywhere near the rate of computing power. Look how well the US has done by upgrading not just fighter jets, but also tanks with new computers and sights, upgrading Apaches with greater processors, millimeter wave radars, new comms, and new sights, for example.

    1. In that case, we can stop all research into other than software…except hardware matters. While our 4th generation fighters have served very well, we have next to no meaningful combat results against contemporary fighters – a handful of victories against Iraqi and Yugoslav MiG-29s in few vs few engagements, and where the opposing pilots put up a fight, it was far from a walkover. Results against modern ground-based weapons is non-existent, unless you count a few friendly-fire incidents…no one has encountered Russian-produced “double-digit” SAMs in combat other than MANPADS.

      Moreover, faster processors and more computing power aren’t independent of hardware. New processors aren’t necessarily compatible with older systems they must talk to. Processor activity isn’t completely disconnected from the physical world, either — more powerful computers generate more heat, so physical cooling systems have to be upgraded…non-trivial engineering in a tightly-packed combat aircraft.

      It’s somewhat amazing that modern combat aircraft now remain operationally viable for a half-century or more…but part of that is because no one’s seriously contested us in the sky with like equipment since the early ’70s.

      1. Now there’s a thing…..why do you think no one has contested U.S Air supremacy since the 70’s or since the demise of Communist ideology?
        It might be , that no other country on this planet…harbours the desires to ever invade the USA!!

  3. A very good article, and a very good approach to identify the best path to an uncertain future. Had the Missile Defense Agency used a similar method, it is unlikely that billions would have been wasted on the ABL and other MDA programs that failed to mature. Which brings up a point, possibly considered by the ECCT, that ballistic missile defense is really just another subset of the air superiority mission.

  4. The “battle network” that Gen. Grynkewich is outlining seems to be what some other senior officers have refereed to as the “cloud”. A pool of constant information/intelligence being received and collected from all possible linked sensors on all possible integrated platforms. It does not matter where they are located or operating or even what their mission or function is, just all of their data is capture and processed and sorted in a way that is continuously updated. This information has to be readable and usable in a seamless and automated, almost organic way by all of the various platforms and weapons systems linked in. This creates the ‘sensor-shooter cloud’ where everyone can use anyone’s data to employ their systems or vice versa. Such as a SAR picture uploaded from a reconnaissance drone into the cloud that’s instantly recognized by the shooter-sensor interface of a linked in combat system on board a ship that;s hundreds of miles away, and downloaded by that combat system and used as targeting data for a Tomahawk missile launch.

    However to be truly fluid and omnipresent and persistent/resilient/evolving, the “cloud” simultaneously would have to exist or be accessible on every interface, sensor, weapon or platform, and yet also not permanently exist or be stored in any one of them. The cloud has to be transient and able to move from host to host within the linked network so as long as there are operating nodes, it has a place to go and an ability to function. This is to protect the network and intelligence because the digital battlefield will make conventional stovepipe command and control methods very very difficult and cumbersome to practice. It will also make the medium and format and content of the data and information that commanders rely on vulnerable to damage, interruption or compromise.

    The decision time frame of the next advanced conflict will be measured in seconds and minutes. Situations will be dynamic and chaotic and even a slight delay in action or a false piece of information could mean the difference between a sunk aircraft carrier or successful counterattack. So in order for this concept to work the shooter sensor integration has to be more organic and built/programmed in from the ground up into all of the components of every system and platform under design.

    Everyone and everything must input in real time and everyone must have the ability to use in real time. So different platforms and their combat system can instantly and naturally tap into the same data pool and talk to one another and merge their battle space and capabilities and awareness into one common operation AND operating picture, so without me having to do any interpreting, my ship for example knows from talking to an AWACS via the cloud, that there are incoming cruise missiles which I am not detecting and I can now instantly use the data from the AWACS to display into my screens so I can see what is happening, and my combat system can target them with one of the on board long range anti-missile systems as smoothly as if this was just one platform operating instead of several linked together.

    And to return the favor, should the AWACS be threatened by an enemy aircraft or missile and any ship is within range to target the threat, they will know instantly that the AWACS is in danger and the AWACS integrated sensor shooter interface will select/request the best shooter (ship) available to fire an intercepting missile to defend it.

    You get the general idea, of course all of the hardware has to be developed and produced, fitted on everything, along with the corresponding software and the cloud concept has to be worked out and created so that is can exist and function in the complex and transparent, yet resilient and protected way that it will have to. But as a theory, and working plan it is promising, as it allows for full harnessing of every single platform and every single weapon into one connected sensor-shooter data web that can target anything within that web if there is a possible combination of ways to target it among the different players.

    1. “It will also make the medium and format and content of the data and information that commanders rely on vulnerable to damage, interruption or compromise.”

      Exactly. With linked data sharing becoming so much more important, methods of “remembering” and “projecting” the data has to built as an intelligence within each linked system. Say in the case of the AWACS that see’s an inbound missile threat that is shared with the shooter, but before the shooter fires, the link the the AWACS is severed. Does the system still know where the AWACS is, and where it is likely to be? Does it know where the missile, if it is indeed targeting the AWACS, is also likely to be? Can the Shooter shoot into darkness with only the flashlight on the weapon for guidance within a specific zone?

      Then you get to the problem of resyncing the data link. If your system remembers and projects, how quickly can it re-verify the projections, and make any corrections needed. In this case, the data link from the AWACS comes on and now there are two missiles inbound to the AWACS. Can the system figure out which was the first missile the AWACS saw, and provide new guidance to the weapon? Can it determine if it is possible the second missile came from the same source OR is another friendly SAM also trying to intercept the same incoming enemy weapon?

      These are smarts that have to be built directly into the system, I wonder if they are?

  5. Here’s a novel concept…..how about leaving other countries alone?
    Stop enforcing your values and your version of “Democracy” onto others…..then you wouldn’t need to own the Space of have Air Superiority!

    Think of the $trillions of dollars you could save….and instead invest in the rotting infrastructure in the U.S….like an improved education system, cheaper healthcare, effective energy grids, modernization of railway network, bridges and roads.

  6. Air Superiority is one thing and is measurable. Air supremacy (different def) is where we want to be. US ground troops or airbases have not been attacked on the ground from aircraft since Korea. Not in Vietnam, not in the Cold War, GW-1, OIF/OEF,etc, etc.; basically not since we won WW2 and built the USAF… In all of those years we held air superiority negating any ground attacks.

    Air supremacy negates even the idea they could get airborne… after so much success folks get used to that and begin to ASSume its the staus quo. Which leaves us where we are today…
    IMO, because we have had such seemingly inherent air supremacy all the “alternate idea geeks” come out, kill the purpose-built fighters vs attack etc. and the next thing you know we have F-35 hog too big to butcher and all the BS of today… Sorry General, these expensive machines really can’t guarantee air supremacy despite their electronics because we can’t afford enough of them…We haven’t yet figured out how to be in two places at the same time. Pesky laws of physics. Rather, we need numbers of platforms you can count on regardless of which fighter generation-4/5 or 6 that’s what will win……
    Basically we need more useful and operable stuff in larger numbers, and soon, that we can afford….

    Re drones and “clouds”- screw ’em, give me fighter and attack aircraft with “pilot warriors” not machines with artificial intelligence. There may be a place for them but only in a subordinate and supporting role.

    Look forward to 3rd installment.