Future Security Environment Challenges for the US Air Force and the US Navy

By Owen R. Coté, Jr.

Modern military technology can make fixed, non-hardened land targets essentially indefensible from conventional attack. US forces have already exploited this revolution by embracing standoff weapons with guidance that integrates signals from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites and miniaturized inertial navigation systems (INS). China is emulating this development with the mobile missiles of its Second Artillery Force deployed along the littoral of its Inner Seas. More recently, spurred on by the demands of the War on Terror, US forces have also greatly increased their ability to detect, identify, and locate a variety of land-mobile targets by creating networks of persistent sensors that can cue attacks by precision weapons. Today, these networks depend on non-stealthy, air breathing sensor platforms and relatively insecure communication links, and debate has already begun regarding how, if at all, to replicate these capabilities in a peer competition with an opponent that possesses modern air defenses and electronic warfare capabilities. At the same time, China, like the Soviet Union before it, is taking the first serious steps toward a mobile target capability of its own, albeit one that is focused on anti-ship attacks to deny access by US naval forces to the Western Pacific.

Beginning from a very low base in the mid-1990s, China’s rapid military modernization has consistently been informed by the realization that fixed targets have become terminally vulnerable. By contrast, much US force structure, and particularly land-based tactical aviation, is a legacy of an era when alliances and geography enabled the construction of many hardened and dispersed bases near the opponent, and in which precision, conventional attack by weapons like Tomahawk were not a threat. Neither condition applies in the Western Pacific today or will apply in the future.

Two significant but different doctrinal challenges result, one for the Air Force and one for the Navy. The Air Force is in the midst of a phase where it’s internal organizational hierarchy, and therefore resource allocation, is out of synch with the demands of the future military competition. Fighter pilots, and particularly those who specialize in air-to-air combat, still dominate the Air Force, while longer range bombers and surveillance platforms, whose pilots and operators have much lower status in the organization, are under-funded relative to demand. As Thomas Ehrhard has shown, these hierarchies within the Air Force tend to be more pronounced and self-sustaining than in the other services. Thus, the bomber community retained control of the Air Force long after the switch from Massive Retaliation to Flexible Response made the fighters of Tactical Air Command its most important contribution, and the reverse is happening now when long range strike and persistence surveillance are central to answering the A2/AD challenge.

The Navy’s challenge is different. The Navy needs to make the transition back to a force equipped and trained first and foremost to gain command of the sea from a force that has been able to take command for granted for almost 25 years. Contrary to much current debate, this does not threaten the continued viability and relevance of aircraft carriers, surface ships, or submarines. Rather, it requires that those platforms adopt new sensors and weapons, and more intensely combine their arms in order to achieve traditional ends under modern conditions. One example of the type of doctrinal innovation envisaged would be for the submarine community to embrace the destruction of enemy air defenses (DEAD) mission.  This would require two sets of developments.  First, submarines would need to possess and deploy organic networks of electronic intelligence (ELINT) sensors to identify and precisely locate the mobile radars necessary to the functioning of modern air defenses. Second, they would need to deploy tactical ballistic missiles (TBMs) that can quickly strike those radars after the briefest emissions and before they relocate (for more on this particular concept, see http://www.informationdissemination.net/2012/06/how-will-new-submarine-sensors-and.html). Together with cruise missile strikes against discrete ocean surveillance systems such as over-the-horizon (OTH) radars, submarines could create the conditions needed for carriers and their air wings to operate safely within the outer rings of an advanced A2/AD network.

In general, the emerging Air Sea battle concept will likely involve intensifying combined arms operations across different domains.  (This will certainly be an aspect of future anti-submarine warfare operations – see http://web.mit.edu/ssp/publications/working_papers/Undersea%20Balance%20WP11-1.pdf.) New cross-domain combined arms operations will require innovation in both technology and doctrine, and it is the obstacles to doctrinal innovation that likely will pose the largest challenge.

Owen R. Coté, Jr. is Associate Director of the Security Studies Program at MIT.

By jacquelinedeal Posted in GT2030

4 comments on “Future Security Environment Challenges for the US Air Force and the US Navy

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  4. It might have been better if the author, a long-time writer on naval affairs, had stuck to comments about Navy challenges in the coming A2/AD environment. The doctrinal challenge he imagines for the Air Force have been long overcome by events and will have even less salience in 2030. The current Chief of Staff is an airlift pilot, and the F-22 is no longer being produced. The primary acquisition programs for the Air Force by cost are the F-35 (a fighter optimized for bombing, not air-to-air); the KC-46, an aerial refueling tanker that is critical to long-range power projection and one the Navy relies on to operate at ranges inside the A2 kill zone yet still outside carrier air wing range; and the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), a stealthy penetrating bomber critical to suppressing growing anti-navy forces. None of the three would be expected if the author’s alleged cultural predilection were in force. Furthermore, since he references my work, it is hardly the case (nor did I ever make the case) that Air Force subcultures are “more pronounced and self-sustaining” than the other services–almost every other major service subculture I can name has persisted longer than bomber/fighter/airlift, to include SWO/aviator/submariner in the Navy; and artillery/armor/infantry in the land forces.
    In his zeal to puff up naval forces at the expense of the Air Force, a motivation out of sync with the Air-Sea Battle initiative that demands greater interdependence and integration, he states that “Beginning from a very low base in the mid-1990s, China’s rapid military modernization has consistently been informed by the realization that fixed targets have become terminally vulnerable.” The PLA’s rise started in the 1980s, but beyond that, their own extensive use of land bases stands in stark contrast to this assertion–and they stand against the world leaders in precision attack. So does their fixation on hitting moving naval targets, which they are pursuing on a number of levels. It is even more revealing that US naval forces have been and will remain at the mercy of US and allied land base resiliency in the coming decades, something that will require the navy’s habitual rejection of efforts to reduce supporting air and naval base vulnerabilities.
    It stands to reason that against modern, emerging strike forces, land and sea bases share significant complementarities and vulnerabilities that should be addressed cooperatively and in an integrated fashion when thinking about global power projection. Ships move, but are slow, low-yield airbases–from a missile’s hyper- or supersonic point of view, they are as slow as land bases–and can be put permanently or effectively out of operation for a long time if hit. Land bases are stationary yet offer high aircraft sortie rates and heavy aircraft operations, and are very difficult to put out of operation–they can be fixed rapidly and effectively given modern airfield damage repair capabilities, hardening, and active defenses. In short, land and sea bases can be mutually reinforcing if used in an integrated fashion.
    Old-style parochialism of this type seems antiquated and out of sync in the face of the substantive threats to power projection we see emerging today, let alone that which we are likely to see in 2030. That is the same conclusion reached by the Chiefs of the Navy and the Air Force. In fact, the CNO recently published a strong, historic advocacy piece for the LRS-B and KC-46 (http://cno.navylive.dodlive.mil/2012/05/10/projecting-power-assuring-access/) and the Air Force Chief of Staff publically supported the acquisition of an additional SSN-774. That is the spirit required to overcome the rising A2/AD threat, not the old-school, parochial “revolt of the admirals redux” style of imagining one-service solutions to a lethal, complex problem.

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