The Future of Air Superiority, Part III: Defeating A2/AD
Over the last decade, would-be adversaries have been busy acquiring and fielding capabilities to preclude U.S. and allied forces from freely operating around the world. This buildup of military capabilities in the Pacific, Europe, and even in Syria and Iran, poses a complex operational problem for U.S. and allied forces across a range of missions, including in the fight for control of the air. Losing the ability to operate freely at the tactical and operational level has strategic-level impacts. If we do not respond to this trend, we will ultimately lose the ability to deter and, if necessary, defeat our adversaries in conventional conflicts. Having a credible ability to attack an enemy – especially those enemy capabilities that threaten our homeland or our deployed forces – is essential to regaining and retaining the ability to achieve strategic success.
The second installment of this series explained how the Air Superiority 2030 Enterprise Capability Collaboration Team (ECCT) attempted to solve this problem and bridge the air superiority gaps facing the U.S. Air Force in 2030. While none of our original four frameworks would suffice in the face of expected future threats, we did learn several key lessons from our analysis. We learned that while modernization of current forces alone could not solve the 2030 problem, key upgrades could keep this force relevant at the operational level and increase its overall fighting capacity. We learned that increased reliance on stand-off weapons would be technically feasible if we could figure out how to provide the right degree of targeting information. We learned that capabilities with persistence, range, and survivability were key. And, perhaps most instructively, we learned that the Air Force needs to move from an air domain-centric perspective to one that complements our air assets with cyberspace- and space-based capabilities.
As we continued our work, these lessons led us to develop a vision for an integrated and networked family of air superiority capabilities comprised of both stand-off and stand-in assets. Stand-in assets are those that seek to operate inside the threat range of enemy defenses, such as penetrating bombers or fighters equipped with short-range weapons. By contrast, stand-off assets remain outside those defenses, sending only longer-range weapons like missiles or other effects such as jamming into the most contested areas. The pairing of both stand-in and stand-off capabilities proved absolutely critical to defeating a future adversary’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy. Anti-access capabilities are those that threaten bases and logistical lines into a theater, denying access to basing or to the theater. Area denial capabilities aim to create an impenetrable bubble over key assets, denying a force the ability to operate in the protected area once it gains access to the theater. A key feature of the A2/AD strategy is the defense of high-value anti-access capabilities under the protective bubble provided by area denial assets. This puts attacking forces on the horns of a dilemma. They cannot attack an adversary’s area denial threats because anti-access capabilities prevent them from projecting power into a theater. They cannot attack the anti-access threats because they are heavily protected by area denial capabilities.
As the chief of naval operations recently pointed out, there is nothing new about A2/AD as a strategic approach. It is merely an extension of the long battle for supremacy between offense and defense over the course of military history. In today’s context, anti-access threats aim to force our capabilities to operate from beyond their effective range — whether in air, space, cyberspace, on land, or at sea. These threats include long-range aviation assets with long-range weapons, such as bombers with advanced air-launched cruise missiles. They might also include short or intermediate range ballistic missiles. Together, these weapons increase the risk to friendly forces operating across a wide swath of geography and could even prevent U.S., allied, or partner operations for at least a period of time.
Importantly, anti-access threats are not limited to the air domain or even to the physical domains. Anti-satellite (ASAT) systems are one clear example. A ground-based ASAT capability typically has the range and power (whether kinetic or non-kinetic) to wreak havoc above the atmosphere and deny the exploitation of the space domain for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), communications, or other purposes. Similarly, cyberspace capabilities might be used against air or space capabilities or against friendly cyber forces. Such threats might preclude logistics in forward areas for aircraft or force cyber operators to shift to a defensive focus — the virtual equivalent of denied battlespace in the physical domains.
As noted, an effective A2/AD strategy protects anti-access capabilities with area denial threats. In the air, this is often accomplished using an integrated air defense system (IADS) comprised of radars, aircraft, and surface-to-air missile systems. In space, this might be accomplished by rendering an orbit unusable by spreading debris. In cyberspace, firewalls and other protective systems prevent friendly actions in a similar manner throughout the virtual battlespace. Collectively, these area denial capabilities present a robust defense across air, space, and cyberspace.
Many defense analysts have focused on ways to tackle anti-access systems. Their ideas include longer-range aircraft, missiles, and weapons that allow U.S. forces to stand off beyond the range of threat systems. Others have discussed short-range defensive capabilities to provide the last line of defense at U.S. forward bases, including both active measures (e.g., short-range missile or gun systems) and passive measures (e.g., camouflage and hardening). Other useful solution proposals include advanced air refueling capabilities, robust theater- and base-level logistical systems, and new concepts for fighting from our bases. To these ideas, our team added a few others. For example, instead of always trying to go through the anti-access environment, the U.S. Air Force could and should improve our ability to go above it (in air or space) or below it (on the ground, in air at low altitude, or in cyberspace).
All of these ideas are a necessary part of the solution to the air superiority problem of 2030. Unfortunately, they are not sufficient. All the capabilities mentioned above only address the anti-access portion of the problem, ignoring the area denial portion. Paired with a sophisticated operational approach, these anti-access counters might be able to achieve limited effects over a short duration — a raid or reprisal action — but our analysis showed the adversary would still retain a significant advantage. In more complex scenarios, we found the adversary will likely still be able to mass decisive power at the time and place of its choosing. Through wargaming, our team saw the impact this had on diplomacy, access to the global commons, and a host of other national-level issues. In effect, conventional deterrence failed, increasing the danger that skirmishes or other minor conflicts would quickly escalate.
To regain the ability to deter and decisively win conventional conflicts, we must also build capabilities and concepts to attack the area denial side of the A2/AD strategy. In short, we found we needed a credible ability to attack the anti-access threats where they lived, rather than just protect ourselves against their effects. This concept is not a new one for airmen. Airpower strategists have long known that gaining air superiority by destroying aircraft in the air is necessary, but not sufficient. It is much more efficient and effective to destroy those capabilities on the ground by striking airfields, aircraft, fuel farms, and the like.
This logic still holds in a multi-domain environment. The adage that “sometimes offense is the best defense” still applies in the combined arms fight of the 21st century. For instance, making our on-orbit assets more resilient is again necessary, but not sufficient. We must also protect our spacecraft by eliminating terrestrial threats to them. Just as it is reasonable to strike airfields and aircraft before they leave the ground laden with cruise missiles, it also makes sense to defend our space assets by striking (or threatening to strike) an adversary’s ground-based ASAT capabilities left-of-launch. These strikes need not be kinetic. Similarly, cyberspace anti-access capabilities striking U.S. forces within cyberspace or elsewhere could be targeted either from cyberspace, from the air, or from space. Thus, the air superiority forces necessary to defeat the A2/AD strategy in 2030 require a combination of capabilities across the air, space, and cyberspace domains. Our analysis revealed four main considerations for such a force.
First, this force must be able to operate over long distances. Operating from range allows friendly forces to base beyond the reach of most anti-access threats while still maintaining the ability to strike them where they live, under the area denial umbrella. If forces attempt to fight from close proximity to an adversary employing the A2/AD strategy, thousands of attacks on their position will quickly overwhelm base defenses. These attacks might be ballistic or cruise missiles, ASAT weapons, or cyberspace-based attacks. Generating combat power becomes untenable under such persistent attack. If forces are instead able to operate from range — or from a different orbit, or from behind a firewall — the number of threats able to reach their position is more manageable. Similarly, generating combat power becomes more realistic, whether that’s aircraft sortie generation, space-based effects, or employment of cyberspace weapons. Military history is replete with examples of the benefits of striking from increased range, including moving from lances to pistols, from smoothbore to rifled muskets, and from fighter guns to air-to-air missiles. This concept still applies in the multi-domain air superiority battle of 2030.
Second, our 2030 air superiority force requires a robust logistical backbone capable of delivering key commodities — fuel, spare parts, weapons — even while under attack. Even while operating from range, hundreds of weapons could still harass friendly forces from the air or cyberspace domains. Mobility and logistics capabilities must be able to deliver and support the force in a world in which deploying into theater is a movement to contact and bases are no longer conceived of as sanctuaries, but instead as fighting positions. Concepts and capabilities critical to air superiority in 2030 include passive and active base defensives, logistical networks capable of supporting dispersed forces, and the ability to rapidly reconstitute, recover, and regenerate combat power after a successful adversary attack. The KC-46 tanker will be a critical backbone of that force, along with follow-on advanced air refueling capabilities and new tactics, techniques, and procedures appropriate for deploying and employing a long range force.
Third, to defeat the A2/AD strategy, the 2030 force must include both stand-off and stand-in capabilities. Stand-in capabilities include platforms such as the B-21, a penetrating counterair (PCA) platform, and space and cyberspace capabilities able to operate in or over adversary systems. Long-range strike assets such as the B-21 will provide the ability to neutralize airfields and logistics targets, while the PCA will maintain air superiority for other forces operating within the adversary IADS. Space systems overhead will provide ISR, navigation, and communications support to penetrating capabilities, enabled by a space mission force ready and able to fight through any adversary actions. Outside the IADS, stand-off forces will increase the tempo of friendly operations by providing the necessary volume of weapons and effects to keep the pressure on the adversary system. While able to affect targets at the outskirts of an IADS by themselves, stand-off forces will receive guidance and cueing from stand-in forces on deeper targets. This significantly increases the effectiveness of the stand-off force, improving its accuracy and making it a more viable option for employment. This effectively increases the amount of ordnance and the effects a commander can bring to bear. F-22s and F-35s will remain critical to the fight, providing air superiority for stand-off forces and over friendly bases.
Fully linking the capacity of the stand-off force with the superior capability of the stand-in force requires new concepts for multi-domain command and control (C2) and new multi-domain tactics. Thus, the fourth requirement of our 2030 air superiority force is that it be a truly networked and integrated family of capabilities. This force must be able to take data from the array of available sources and sensors and rapidly turn it into decision-quality information. Such a decision might be at the operational level, allowing a commander to apportion forces for desired effects, or it might be at the tactical level, providing operators with multi-domain situational awareness and targeting solutions.
To achieve this level of integration and networking, the 2030 air superiority force will need to leverage several of the technologies championed by Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work as part of the third offset. Work posits that the third offset will be enabled by technology and will likely include some combination of autonomous systems along with human-machine teaming and collaboration, all brought together into a battle network. In this battle network, he describes three layers, or grids: sensors, command and control, and effects. As our team looked that the multi-domain integration and networking requirements for air superiority in 2030, we independently came to many of the same conclusions that Work articulated. Foremost, our team developed a concept we referred to as data-to-decision (D2D). This emerged as we realized that in 2030 we would have a robust family of sensors across a number of traditional and non-traditional platforms. We saw a need to build an architecture that would make the most of this data and create decision-quality knowledge.
In D2D, our sensor grid is made up of a variety of assets. These include purpose-built airborne ISR assets, planes built solely for the purpose of gathering intelligence such as the U-2, RC-135, or RQ-4. It also includes other platforms that, while not built strictly for ISR, nonetheless have advanced sensors able to collect valuable data, such as the F-22, F-35, B-21, PCA, and others. It also includes cyberspace-based ISR systems that gather data from the virtual world, as well numerous Air Force satellite constellations. D2D takes the data from all of these sensors and deposits it into a cloud-based architecture, making the data accessible not only to the platform and sensor that collected it, but also to every other system in the family.
To make this happen, the family of capabilities will need an advanced communications architecture to tie this sensor grid together. Historically, the focus of such discussions has been on waveforms and datalinks. In the era of software definable radios, we will need instead to build self-healing networks that lean heavily on autonomous learning. Such an application of autonomy will allow the network to reconfigure on its own in real time in response to adversary jamming. Similar to how a smart phone can seamlessly transition from wi-fi to 4G or from 4G to 3G and all the way down to an analog operations, an autonomous, learning, self-healing network will ensure maximum performance of the sensor grid across a host of different operational environments. This does not mean it will always work at maximum capacity, just as a smart phone on 3G lacks the speed and performance it has when on wi-fi. But it does mean that the network will be able to adapt and reconfigure to its environment quickly, uninhibited by the slower pace of human assessment and action.
As we move to the command and control grid, the air superiority family of capabilities will rely on a series of applications that take the data from the sensor grid and turn it into meaningful information and knowledge. This portion of the D2D concept is similar to Work’s ideas on human-machine collaboration, in particular how machines can assist human decision-making. Machines will more rapidly turn the sensor data into information and knowledge to allow humans to make more and better decisions. This decision might be at a command and control center to reassign forces to new missions. For example, in a multi-domain combined arms fight, if an air commander loses a bomber mission due to weather or maintenance, she might reallocate that bomber’s targets to a cyberspace team. Conversely, if her cyberspace team runs into unexpected resistance due to a new software patch on an adversary system, she might reassign their target to an aircraft. Importantly, not all decisions supported by this grid will be at the operational or battle management levels. Applications resident on a B-21, PCA, or B-52 with stand-off weapons could also access and fuse sensor grid data to provide precise targeting information for kinetic or non-kinetic employment.
The concepts underlying D2D are foundational to the success of our air superiority 2030 family of capabilities. D2D is the connective tissue that ties our stand-off and stand-in forces together. This linkage is what allows for the precise application of kinetic or non-kinetic fires against the adversary system in mass. This, in turn, begins a virtuous cycle for friendly forces. Initially operating from range, as the anti-access threat is attrited, we can move our forces closer to the adversary, whether in physical or virtual space. This decrease in range translates into an increase in operational tempo, thereby facilitating the further dismantling of anti-access capabilities under the umbrella of area denial threats. This again allows forces to move closer to the adversary, allowing shorter-range and less-survivable capabilities to engage more effectively. Eventually, as tempo increases, the mass of effects brought to bear culminates the enemy force and defeats its A2/AD strategy. The adversary system is rendered ineffective, allowing the full range of joint operations.
Developing an air superiority force for 2030 capable of executing the concepts described above will require significant innovations in how the Air Force has traditionally developed and fielded systems. Not only must we link capabilities across functions (e.g., operations and logistics), but also across the domains of air, space, and cyber. The speed at which we adapt and field such capabilities must increase, as well. And we must develop airmen-leaders who are not only experts at the employment in their particular platform, domain, or function, but who can move fluidly and fluently across some of the traditional boundaries that define Air Force experiences and careers. These challenges and the solutions our team identified to overcome them will be covered in the final installment of this series.
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 Tech. Sgt. David Salanitri