The Air Force of the Future: Thoughts from the Future Capabilities War Game of 2004

By Searle, Thomas R. | Air & Space Power Journal, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

The Air Force of the Future: Thoughts from the Future Capabilities War Game of 2004


Searle, Thomas R., Air & Space Power Journal


At the rate science proceeds, rockets and missiles will one day seem like buffalo-slow, endangered grazers in the black pasture of outer space.

-Bernard Cooper, physicist

MANY OF THE strengths and weaknesses we see in the US Air Force today reflect decisions made decades ago during the Cold War to meet the Soviet challenge. For example, to stop huge, fast-moving Soviet ground forces protected by state-of-the-art aircraft and air-defense systems before they overran Western Europe, the Air Force knew it would have to gain air superiority immediately and then rapidly destroy an enormous number of ground targets, all the while suffering severe attrition. Toward that end, the Air Force built an impressive fleet of F-15C air-superiority fighters and a very large force of strike assets (A-10s, F-16s, and F-15Es). Because Soviet offensive doctrine sacrificed concealment for speed and mass, making Soviet forces easy to find, the Air Force did not invest so heavily in tactical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). Since the end of the Cold War, however, the actual foes attacked by the Air Force have neither seriously contested US air superiority nor tried to overwhelm US forces rapidly with an enormous number of armored vehicles; instead, they have attempted to conceal themselves from us. As a result, the Air Force has entered recent conflicts with a surplus of strike assets-both air-to-air and ground-but a shortage of ISR assets.

Just as decisions made 20 or more years ago shape our current forces, so will the decisions we make today shape the Air Force for decades to come. In an effort to help us build the Air Force we will need, the recently completed Future Capabilities War Game of 2004 looked at alternative, hypothetical force structures in conflict with a notional adversary in the year 2020. The game players came away with clearer questions but not necessarily with clear answers to all of them-and that was by design. Without discussing any classified research or detailed risk-versus-reward calculations on investment options for weapons development, this article raises certain fundamental questions about the future of the Air Force that all Airmen need to consider.

How Will Our Sister Services Transform Themselves in the Coming Decades?

The Air Force will fight as a member of a joint, combined, and interagency team in the future. Therefore, to achieve the maximum possible synergy, we must stay abreast of thinking in the other services. The single most striking aspect of how the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps plan to transform themselves is that they all intend to dramatically change the way they get to the fight. The Army's future combat systems and its shift to smaller, more carefully task-organized units of employment and units of action are driven by the belief that these changes will insert effective and sustainable land power into the fight faster. Similarly, the sea services have embraced concepts of "sea basing" and "ship-to-objective maneuver" that will transform the way they fight by radically changing their means of getting to and sustaining the fight. The Air Force, on the other hand, got a head start on these sorts of reforms with the expeditionary air and space force and related efforts to make the force more expeditionary, dating back to the late 1990s. The Air Force is currently less focused on changing the way it reaches the fight than the other services are.

All of the other services also have become heavily involved in developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The ground services in particular are looking at using a large number of very small, cheap UAVs swarming over the battlefield in support of the tactical and operational surface fight. If these systems are in fact inexpensive, the enemy will likely field significant numbers of them as well. Consequently, the Air Force will have to figure out how to sort friend from foe in this cloud of small UAVs, tap into the intelligence provided by the friendly ones, and manage the airspace. …

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