A 21st-Century Concept of Air and Military Operations

By Laird, Robbin F. | Defense Horizons, March 2009 | Go to article overview

A 21st-Century Concept of Air and Military Operations


Laird, Robbin F., Defense Horizons


Toward a New Concept

Air operations are a significant component of 21st-century U.S. and allied joint and coalition operations. As fifth-generation aircraft enter service in larger numbers, they will generate not only greater firepower, but also significantly greater integrated capability for the nonkinetic use of aircraft (1) and an expanded use of connectivity, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), communications, and computational capabilities built around a man-machine interface that will, in turn, shape the robotics and precision revolutions already under way. The capability of air assets to connect air, ground, and maritime forces throughout the battlespace can support the decisionmaking of ground and maritime command elements. Indeed, the command, control, communications, computers ([C.sup.4]) and ISR envisaged in networked operations is becoming reshaped into [C.sup.4] and ISRD, whereby decisionmaking (D) is shared across the battlespace. Distributed information and decisionmaking will be enhanced as air operations become much more capable of providing information in support of the deployed decisionmaker, and kinetic and nonkinetic support elements can be cued in support of air, ground, and maritime combat requirements.

A RAND Corporation brief on air combat issued in August 2008 generated debate about U.S. air capabilities in difficult future combat scenarios. (2) In particular, the F-35 came under scrutiny in much of the political and analytical coverage. The RAND brief and the reactions to it are a good starting point for discussion of the changing nature of air operations induced by the introduction of the new manned aircraft.

The RAND analysts focused on a core challenge facing the Air Force in the 21st century, namely, the evolving capabilities of competitors' air systems and counterair capabilities. In particular, the RAND study focused on a 2020 scenario over the Taiwan Strait in which Chinese forces sought to deny air superiority to the United States. The study addressed three key elements of U.S. air superiority--the use of nearby bases or seas, exploitation of stealth advantages, and employment of beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles--applied against Chinese forces. The study argued that all three U.S. advantages could be countered by a Chinese strategy that combined a significant numerical advantage, antiaccess denial strategies, counterstealth innovations, and countermeasures and operations to defeat BVR missiles. In the RAND scenario, the Chinese innovated, but the United States did not.

The study underscored reasonable concerns. Numbers do matter, antiaccess technologies and strategies are evolving rapidly, and defensive measures against stealth and BVR missiles are improving--and Chinese defenses are proliferating. Simply building a small number of highly capable platforms will not enable the Air Force or the U.S. military to prevail in combat.

That is the bad news. The good news is that by leveraging the capabilities of new systems, crafting a 21st-century approach to air operations, more effectively integrating legacy and new air and naval forces, and evolving combined and allied operations, the United States can counter the evolution of a competitor like China. The proliferation of capabilities being developed by China and Russia globally to U.S. and allied competitors is enhancing the need for a rapidly evolving concept of operations (CONOPS) for U.S. and allied forces shaped by the forcing function (3) of fifth-generation aircraft and associated air and naval systems.

Before returning to the analysis of the RAND brief, I want to develop an understanding of 21st-century air operations and the role of fifth-generation aircraft and unmanned systems within the CONOPS. I will then apply the 21st-century CONOPS to the RAND analysis and suggest how the outcome might look quite different.

Connectivity and Battle Management

Air operations in the 21st century are characterized by an increasing ability to connect air, ground, and maritime forces, whereby air assets can support the decisionmaking of ground and maritime command elements. …

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