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The Military of the Future

Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr.

The Air Force at a Crossroads

To meet emerging threats, it should deemphasize manned aircraft and move toward space systems and unmanned aerial vehicles.

On the night of January 16-17, 1991, the United States launched an air war against Iraq after diplomatic efforts to end that country's invasion of Kuwait had failed. U.S. air and naval forces employed stealth aircraft, long-range cruise missiles, and precision-guided "smart" munitions (PGMs) for the first time together in substantial numbers. The results were devastating. The Iraqi air defense network was quickly disabled, and the Iraqi leadership's command and control of its forces was ruptured. Iraqi aircraft could not survive in the air or even in hardened shelters on the ground; many simply abandoned the fight and flew to safety in Iran. Although the effectiveness of U.S. PGMs was not as great as originally believed, the overall accuracy of the weapons was a vast improvement over their "dumb" ancestors.

This lopsided air war led some experts to conclude that a military revolution had occurred and that air power had led the way. Italian military theorist Gulio Douhet's 70-year-old vision of air power's ability to win wars seemed a reality at last. Other experts, however, including some U.S. Air Force leaders, viewed the war's outcome in an entirely different way: Instead of the culmination of a military revolution, the Gulf War represented only the beginning of a period of increasingly rapid technological and geopolitical change that will confront the Air Force with challenges far different from, and far more formidable than, those that were faced in the skies over Iraq. If this latter vision is correct, as I will argue it is, in the relatively short span of 20 years, the U.S. Air Force will need to dramatically transform itself from its current reliance on manned aircraft to a new emphasis on, among other things, space operations and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

What kind of Air Force the United States will require a generation from now is a critical question that needs to be examined today. With the Cold War's end, the Air Force is facing greater uncertainty than it has ever known. Although the world is a far less threatening place than it was during the Cold War, the challenges to national security will almost certainly increase substantially over the next 10 to 20 years as new and improving technologies make possible dramatic changes in all aspects of military planning and operations. In addition, the Air Force is now entering a period of modernization and will need to invest increasingly scarce defense resources wisely. It takes years to develop and field new military systems. If the Air Force chooses poorly now, it may be difficult, if not impossible (and certainly very expensive), to create a different kind of force on short notice later. Thus, the Air Force needs to examine whether its planned purchases of up to $133 billion in new combat aircraft will displace investments in military equipment and systems that may be equally or even more crucial for future needs.

Forging a vision

To prepare for a world 20 years hence, the Air Force first needs a vision of its future operating environment and the challenges it will pose. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration has thus far succumbed to the temptation to view future conflicts simply as linear extensions of more recent ones. Its 1993 bottom-up review (BUR) assumes future enemies with forces and operations similar to Iraq's in 1991. Yet the Pentagon's toughest future competitors are not likely to be updated versions of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Rather, the greatest challenges that could emerge would result from the erosion of great-power relationships, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the diffusion of information-based military technologies. Indeed, for potential competitors, the cardinal lesson of the Gulf War is to avoid confronting the Air Force as the Iraqis did. Competitors will probably be unable to match the U.S. military by pursuing a symmetrical competitive path-by copying the U.S. Air Force, for example-but they may not need to, given asymmetries in security objectives, mission requirements, geography, and strategic culture.

There are indications that the Pentagon is beginning to come to grips with its vision problem. A congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review has been initiated to assess a broader array of challenges than were addressed in the BUR; and General John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has published Joint Vision 2010, his view of the long-term challenges facing the U.S. military. In Global Engagement, a report released in November 1996, Air Force leaders state that a major transformation will be needed if the service is to retain its current relative advantages. The report says that the Air Force will have to transform itself from an air force to an air and space force and finally to a space and air force. But will the Air Force act on its vision? History is replete with examples of military organizations that were witness to discontinuous change and yet continued to rely on the rapidly declining effectiveness of the tried-and-true methods that had brought them success in the past.

During the next 20 years, the Air Force may well find itself confronting challenges with a far greater scale and level of diversity than those envisioned in the BUR. Strong historical patterns suggest that, without inspired diplomacy supported in part by a well-crafted defense program, a resumption of military competition among great powers will occur. Put another way, it seems unlikely that we will enjoy a Pax Americana. Periods of protracted military dominance and peace, such as the Pax Britannica or Pax Romana, generally coincided with a single power's economic dominance, and even those relatively peaceful eras saw periods of large-scale conflict. Yet the United States' economic edge is nowhere near as great as was Britain's during its period of dominance; indeed, in some important regions, especially East Asia, the U.S. advantage is progressively eroding.

Moreover, neither the Pax Romana nor the Pax Britannica lasted indefinitely. Today, new great powers such as China seem poised to emerge. Russia will likely recover from recent setbacks. Added to the mix is the growing danger to the United States that is posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The Pentagon estimates that more than 25 countries, including North Korea, Iran, and Libya, either have chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons or are actively attempting to develop them. Although a strong U.S. military can help avoid a resumption of great-power competition and stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the military services must also hedge against the possibility of failure.

Geopolitical change is occurring at the same time as a military revolution is emerging. Military revolutions are characterized by major, discontinuous leaps in the effectiveness of military organizations within a relatively short period of time, typically a few decades, and usually comprise four elements. First, rapidly emerging technologies make new military systems possible. When accumulated in sufficient numbers, these systems then provide a commander with new tools to solve strategic and operational problems. Next, new concepts are created for applying these tools. Finally, military organizations are restructured, creating new organizations to execute the new concepts using the new tools. The combination of these elements can provide an explosive growth in military capabilities.

The emerging military revolution appears to be driven by rapid advances in information and information-related technologies. These technologies have already triggered revolutionary changes in business corporations and seem poised to have a comparable effect on military organizations. The emerging military revolution will likely see the Air Force rethinking basic concepts in at least the following five areas:

Information superiority. Joint Vision 2010 notes that "the emerging importance of information superiority will dramatically impact on how well our Armed Forces can perform its [sic] duties in 2010." Correspondingly, the Air Force has declared information superiority to be one of its core competencies. Information warfare is concerned with attacking, defending, and exploiting information and information systems to establish information superiority; that is, a pronounced gap or advantage over one's adversary in terms of information pertaining to friendly and enemy military forces, political leadership, and social and economic structures. Information superiority is likely to play a crucial role in determining the effectiveness of military forces by reducing the fog of war for friendly forces while increasing it for the enemy.

The struggle for information superiority is likely to produce two principal areas of competition. One will be a competition between "hiders" and "finders." Information technologies are fueling a rapidly growing potential to detect, identify, and track a far greater number of targets over a far greater area and for much longer periods of time, as well as to order and move that information far more effectively than ever before. Military leaders are now talking about the development of reconnaissance architectures that link numerous systems-satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles, remote sensors, and individual soldiers-into an information web that makes it possible to "see" all aspects of a battle. At least this is the goal of Joint Vision 2010, which discusses "full-spectrum dominance" and "dominant battlespace awareness."

The Air Force should vigorously experiment with, test, and evaluate a wide range of new systems including methods for controlling space.

Of the four military services, the Air Force will likely be first among equals in the effort to establish information superiority and reap its benefits. However, this will probably not be a one-sided competition. In many instances, the "hiders" among potential adversaries are likely to make information superiority an illusory goal. To avoid detection, they will disperse forces and equipment; build more facilities deep underground and make them more difficult to penetrate; and rely on greater mobility, deception, and stealth. In short, the future battle for information superiority may resemble the long-term hide-and-seek competition between convoys and submarines that characterized the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II.

Indeed, although the U.S. military seemed to have a decisive information advantage during the Gulf War, the fog of war persisted. Despite prodigious efforts by U.S. forces to locate Iraqi Scud mobile missile launchers, the great Scud hunt failed to produce a single confirmed kill. Attempts to locate Iraqi facilities housing weapons of mass destruction were only partially successful. And the Iraqi leadership itself proved to be a fleeting target; the U.S. military was never able to bring the war directly home to Saddam Hussein. Finally, efforts to assess the damage inflicted on Iraq from the air were far from precise, leading to spirited debates on the eve of the ground offensive over how many Iraqi tanks had been disabled by air strikes. If the Air Force is to play a dominant role in the U.S. military's efforts to achieve information superiority, it will have to improve substantially on its Gulf War performance.

Strategic strike. The second major area of competition will be between long-range precision-strike forces-strike platforms armed with PGMs and ballistic and cruise missiles incorporating precision-guidance accuracy-and active and passive defenses, including dispersion, stealth, and air and missile defenses. The emerging military revolution offers the potential to engage a far greater number of targets, over a far greater area, in far less time, and with far greater precision, lethality, and discrimination than ever before. Moreover, military revolutions typically give an advantage to the offense, at least initially. For the Air Force, this competition offers opportunities and challenges.

First, the Air Force will have the opportunity to exploit information superiority (assuming it can be achieved) by conducting a long-range precision-strike campaign against an adversary. The potential of such a campaign to provide an early low-cost victory could prove irresistible to military organizations capable of developing and integrating reconnaissance and strike systems architectures. Rapid strikes against an adversary could be mounted by using airborne and space information systems to provide real-time targeting information to long-range, precision-guided conventional munitions from land-, sea- and air-based sources. If the attacker can create an information gap (he knows more than the adversary does about the battle space), he may be able to destroy or disable the adversary's center of gravity (the set of targets whose disabling will break the enemy's ability or will to block friendly forces from achieving their military objectives) without engaging and defeating his military forces. However, it may not be possible to execute decisive strategic strikes, particularly if the defender can sustain enough information infrastructure to support an integrated defense.

A greater challenge may be the long shadow cast by nuclear weapons over strategic strike operations. The mere possession of even a modest nuclear arsenal may insulate a state against potential strategic strikes. Indeed, less competitive military organizations may be attracted to nuclear capabilities as a deterrent to nonnuclear precision-strike weaponry.

The Air Force needs to reconsider at least some of its planned $133 billion investment in new combat aircraft.

Power projection and air superiority. Joint Vision 2010 declares that "power projection, enabled by overseas presence, will likely remain the fundamental strategic concept of our future force." Yet power projection in the traditional sense may no longer apply as this military revolution matures. The U.S. military's long-range precision-strike monopoly has not been deeded to it in perpetuity. Other competitors are almost certain to try to exploit this new capability, given that they will have increasing access to space platforms for communications, imagery, and guidance purposes, as well as to ballistic and cruise missile technology and stealth technology. General Ronald Fogleman, the Air Force chief of staff, succinctly stated the challenge when he observed that in the not-too-distant future, "Saturation ballistic missile attacks against littoral forces, ports, airfields, storage facilities, and staging areas could make it extremely costly to project U.S. forces into a disputed . . . [region], much less carry out operations to defeat a well-armed aggressor. Simply the threat of such enemy missile attacks might deter the United States and coalition partners from responding to aggression in the first instance."

How would the Air Force respond to an enemy that chose to field a missile force in lieu of an air force? Denied unfettered use of ports and airfields by enemy ballistic- and cruise-missile forces, the U.S. military would have to restructure itself to maintain an effective power projection capability. The "spear tip" of this capability might be centered on submersible strike and amphibious assault ships, long-range stealth bombers or weaponized unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and stealth cargo aircraft capable of landing on less sophisticated air fields (so as to increase the number of potential targets an enemy would have to consider) or of conducting precision air drops of supplies instead of landing at all.

In this environment, future theater air operations will likely be characterized by an increased emphasis on long-range precision strikes, UAVs and weaponized UAVs, and electronic and information strikes. Moreover, establishing command of the air will be less a matter of clearing the skies of enemy manned aircraft and more of denying the enemy the use of his long-range precision assets, such as ballistic and cruise missiles, and suppressing his information, air, and missile defenses. A priority might be placed on achieving information superiority, in part through long-range precision strikes against the enemy's information systems. Similar attacks could be initiated against the enemy's long-range precision-strike architecture and air and missile defense networks. If U.S. air forces must be deployed forward before the enemy's missile forces can be neutralized, they will have to find ways to offset their vulnerability. These might include a combination of increased alert levels, hardened shelters for aircraft, decreased reliance on traditional tactical aviation, and tactical aircraft based on a theater's periphery. In sum, the U.S. military's long-term heavy reliance on tactical aviation may experience a profound transformation.

Space control. Space-based systems are essential to the Air Force's future effectiveness, particularly for reconnaissance, surveillance and intelligence gathering, battle management, communications, position location, terminal guidance, and battle damage assessment. Indeed, space is becoming inextricably linked to war on land, at sea, and in the air. If historical patterns hold, advanced military organizations will try to establish control over space as an essential element for prevailing in the "hider-finder" and "offense-defense" competitions. Lesser competitors may settle for a space-denial capability. For example, they might employ a direct-ascent antisatellite weapon or perhaps detonate a nuclear weapon in space. A race to control space may well be followed by the use of weapons to deny access to space (such as antisatellite weaponry) and, thereby, information flows. This in turn could lead to putting weapons on satellites and other space vehicles for use against satellites and targets on land and at sea.

Commercial or neutral-country satellites could acquire special significance in a battle for control of space. Lesser powers might be able to move their precious cargoes of information along the electronic highways of space in these "neutral bottoms." If warring powers choose to wage unrestricted space warfare or establish an information blockade in space, they may risk provoking neutral powers into a state of belligerence. These challenges may be particularly profound for the Air Force, which expects to rely on commercial satellites, many of which will be operated by multinational consortia, for the bulk of its space communications.

The future Air Force

Although the Air Force has successfully proven its dominance of the current war-fighting regime, it must begin now to make the changes necessary to produce the very different kind of Air Force that will be needed 20 years from now. Given the reality of modest near-term threats, the long-term potential for a major threat, an emerging military revolution, and tight funding, the Air Force's best bet would be to adopt a smaller force structure and, for the moment, buy fewer new weapon systems than currently planned in order to free up funding for developing the capabilities emerging from the military revolution.

Modernizing the Air Force should not just be about producing a few new systems in large numbers to do current missions better. Rather, the modernization process should reflect the Air Force's emphasis on preparing for long-term threats, hedging against the real possibility that the Air Force's future vision could be wide of the mark, and developing a flexible organization that is ready to react to unforeseen challenges. Specifically, the Air Force should strongly consider the following:

Adopt a "hedging" approach: At a time when defense budgets are tight and the danger to U.S. security relatively low, a strategy that would better prepare the Air Force to face the future will require accepting some increase in near-term risks in order to hedge against the emergence of far greater longer-run challenges. This will require a new approach to managing the Air Force's "capital stock." The Air Force should focus on buying strategic "options" for new capabilities that support its future vision and can be exercised if future needs warrant. This implies minimizing serial production runs of new systems, except when the system solves what is perceived as a longer-run major operational or strategic problem or when the new system replaces old systems with capabilities that are essential to the Air Force of 20 years hence. A greater emphasis should be given to experimenting with limited numbers of emerging systems. The goal should be to avoid producing systems whose value may depreciate precipitously, while facilitating experimentation with capabilities that exploit rapidly emerging technologies.

Make selective divestments. The Air Force should shed assets that perform functions whose relative importance 20 years from now will be substantially lower than it is today or that can be performed by other services or allies. Above all, the Air Force should reduce its current heavy reliance on theater-based, manned tactical air systems. Indeed, the Air Force's ability to confront this issue is crucial to a successful transformation, not only because the bulk of the resources that could be freed up for new investments are here but also because success in this area would mean that the Air Force's dominant culture-its tactical air force-accepts the need for major change.

The Pentagon is now embarking on an ambitious, multidecade, tactical aircraft modernization program. In FY1997, the Navy will begin procurement of the F/A-18E/F fighter for its carrier fleet. Next year, the Air Force will start buying the F-22 fighter, the successor to the F-15. Finally, around FY2005, the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force plan to start procuring the Joint Strike Fighter. Between now and 2013, the services plan to buy as many as 4,416 of these three aircraft at a cost that may exceed $350 billion (in FY1997 dollars).

Whether all of these tactical aircraft investments are the best way to invest the Pentagon's modernization funds is doubtful. As inferred in Joint Vision 2010, future asymmetic aggressors can be expected to shift away from combat aircraft and toward ballistic and cruise missiles of ever-increasing range, accuracy, and lethality. The effectiveness of this strategy will rest on its ability to deny U.S. tactical aircraft access to the forward bases they require to conduct operations. Although U.S. missile defenses may improve, they are unlikely to be able to withstand large-scale missile attacks against critical targets such as major air bases, particularly as stealthy cruise missile technology improves and becomes available to more countries.

The loitering and stealth capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles make them ideal strike platforms.

To meet the challenges of the emerging military-technological revolution and live within its increasingly tight budgets, the Air Force should strongly consider reducing its force structure while pursuing a selective modernization program that balances the need to maintain military capability today with the need to develop new systems for the future. For example, the Air Force could buy its planned force of advanced 438 F-22 fighters for about $10 billion less than a force of the same size divided evenly between F-22s and the less capable Joint Strike Fighter. A selective modernization program, especially with air platforms exploiting improved capabilities such as precision-guided munitions, offers a hedge against short-term risks.

Engage in vigorous experimentation, testing, and evaluation. As funds are freed up, the Air Force needs to experiment with new systems and operational concepts to determine those that it will require in 20 years. The initial priority should go to systems such as long-endurance stealthy reconnaissance and weaponized UAVs. The loitering and stealth capabilities of UAVs could make them ideal strike platforms, and their range may substantially reduce the Air Force's dependency on vulnerable theater bases. Moreover, removing the pilot would also enable aircraft designers to build far smaller, more maneuverable, and cheaper fighters (at perhaps 10 to 20 percent of the cost of a next-generation manned fighter). The Air Force should also increase funding for development of stealthy, long-range cargo aircraft for resupplying forward-deployed forces in instances where major bases are at risk of a missile attack by enemy forces.

Other candidates for development and experimentation would include small satellites, a rapid satellite-launch capability, and active and passive methods for controlling space in the event that an adversary tries to introduce weapons into space. The Air Force should also place increased emphasis on winning the battle for information superiority through improved information-based capabilities, such as enhanced stealth, electronic-strike, and defense capabilities. In addition, the Air Force should move toward integrating long-range precision-strike, command, control, communications, and intelligence systems into a systems architecture, and it should increase its emphasis on advanced precision-guided munitions.

This process of experimentation and innovation will be critically important, as military effectiveness is likely to depend on the ability to integrate, at high levels of proficiency, systems architectures comprising military systems from all services as well as allied forces. Moreover, it needs to begin now, since large-scale transformations typically take a decade or more to complete.

The experiments can also be done relatively cheaply, because simply demonstrating a capability does not have to lead to large-scale procurement of a major new system. In any event, unless a substantial threat to the United States emerges, no large buildup will likely be necessary. Further, because technology is changing so rapidly, it would be unwise to buy new systems that could quickly become obsolete. What is most important is that we have key new capabilities on hand that can be quickly fielded if the security environment changes for the worse.

Given its present budget difficulties, the Air Force will probably not be able to sustain its existing force structure and its recapitalization plans over the long term. But as its current program seems ill-suited for the competitive environment it will likely face in 20 years, this is not necessarily a problem. Fortunately, in its Global Engagement report, the Air Force appears to have recognized the scale of the changes that will be needed. But enunciating a vision is not the same as seizing it and undertaking an actual transformation. Moving forward will require the Air Force to surmount the temptation encountered by many highly successful organizations that dominated their competition: a belief that future success resides in uncritically applying the means and methods that ensured past success. Domination of the skies has been essential to the U.S. way of warfare for the past 50 years. The prospects for maintaining that dominance in the next 50 could well rest on the Air Force's embrace of a new age of air power, one that is likely to require a very different kind of Air Force. The challenge is as formidable as any the Air Force has ever faced.

Recommended reading

Department of the Air Force, Global Engagement: A Vision for the 21st Century. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Air Force, 1996.

Steven Kosiak, U.S. Tactical Aircraft Plans: Preparing for the Wrong Future? Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 1996.

Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., The Air Force of 2016. Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 1996.

Stephen Peter Rosen, Winning the Next War. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

General John Shalikashvili, Joint Vision 2010. Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, 1996.

Michael G. Vickers, Warfare in 2020: A Primer. Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 1996.


Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr. is the executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C.