August 1, 2019
By Lt. Gen. Bruce “Orville” Wright, USAF (Ret.)
For the past 75 years, the United States has been the world’s premier air power, dominating the skies in every conflict in which it participated. American air dominance has arguably been America’s most effective deterrent against aggressors seeking to challenge U.S. interests.
This air dominance is often attributed to technological prowess, and there is little doubt US aviation engineers and the industrial giants that employ them are the best in the world. They’ve helped ensure the US Air Force fielded the world’s greatest combat aircraft. Yet planes alone do not make a dominant Air Force. Airmen do. Their ingenuity and creativity are the reason the US has a dominant Air Force, rather than just a very good one.
Now America is at a crossroads. The question we must answer is whether we want a dominant Air Force in the future, or will be satisfied with being merely good. The United States faces increasing challenges from peer rivals Russia and China, each of which has invested mightily to catch up technologically and challenge American air superiority now and in the future. Their aim is to reduce the US Air Force’s ability to dominate the skies and diminish our ability to influence international affairs.
China and Russia aim to capitalize on American cut backs that have reduced the capacity of our Air Forces today and threaten our dominant capability tomorrow. As Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein has said repeatedly over the past year, the Air Force we have is not the Air Force we need. It is too small to answer the requirements of our National Defense Strategy.
How we respond as a nation in rebuilding our air combat capacity and improving our combat capability will say a lot about what kind of a world power America will be in the future.
The National Defense Strategy published in 2018 recognizes the rising threats posed by China and Russia and their efforts to harness emerging technologies and increased investments to close the capability gap between their forces and ours. These resurgent powers have benefitted from America’s extended counterinsurgency fights in the Middle East, which have drained our resources, distracted our attention, and given China and Russia a front-row seat to see just how U.S. forces operate. Those insights into tactics, strategies and procedures have helped them focus their investments in every domain: air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace.
The Air Force is arguably America’s most agile, lethal and capable force. It provides backbone communications and reconnaissance capabilities the other services depend upon as well as the nation’s most flexible and lethal capacity to strike any target anyplace within hours. Our Air Force has been dominant for so long, in fact, that it is easily taken for granted. This does our nation—and our Airmen—a grave disservice.
For much of the past year two issues have dominated discussions about our Air Force. The first focused on whether the US should buy new F-15EX aircraft to complement our aging fighter force while we wait for full production volumes of fifth-generation F-35s to fill out the service’s fighter squadrons. The other has focused attention on whether the time has come for a Space Force to be carved out of the world’s greatest Air Force. These are worthwhile debates, but they have distracted attention from other pressing issues. Indeed, while these dominated the headlines, hardly anyone noticed as the House of Representatives voted to cut $500 million from the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance program—a 50 percent cut to a vital effort designed to ensure Airmen maintain a strategic and tactical fighting edge for decades to come.
Too often in Washington we think of military forces as chess pieces on a gameboard, rather than people putting their lives on the line to protect our nation’s interests whenever and wherever they might be needed. These debates breed parochial thinking that distracts us from the real threats faced by our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines all around the globe.
We must do better.
Air dominance is not just about airframes. It is about achieving critical advantages in intelligence, speed, and decision-making, in order to overwhelm and confuse adversaries. This ramping up of risk reduces adversaries’ willingness to challenge our dominant Air Force. Sophisticated platforms are critical elements to air dominance, but so are the weapons with which we arm those platforms and the training we give to the Airmen who operated them.
Adding capacity with the F-15EX, with its advanced electronic warfare capability, is one part of our response. So is accelerating purchases of F-35As, which will add to the Air Force’s ability to penetrate increasingly sophisticated air defenses. Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, is critical to adding capability—and forcing our adversaries to continue to play catch-up for another generation.
In the six months since I became president of the Air Force Association (following more than 34 years in the Air Force and 9 in industry), I have had a unique opportunity to engage at the highest levels with Air Force leaders, lawmakers on Capitol Hill and Airmen and AFA members nationwide. It’s clear to me support for a dominant US Air Force is unquestioned. But achieving that dominance will be elusive unless our nation puts its money where its heart is to ensure our Airmen will always fight to win.
Next Generation Air Dominance program is not about building another combat aircraft. It will be a system of systems and could include autonomous and remotely piloted aircraft, improved sensors and communications to enable a resilient combat cloud and maneuverable extended-range missiles. Most critically, it will be operated by Airmen trained to take the fight to adversaries and hold them under threat, enabling the US to set the pace and conditions of battle.
We owe it to those Airmen and their families to equip them with the best possible weapons and systems, not aging equipment left over from the last war—to send them into battle with the Air Force we need, not the Air Force we have.
We are making progress. Advancing the F-35 into full-rate production, updating our aerial refueling capability with the much-needed KC-46 tanker, and now investing in critical new technologies for the future are major improvements. So is the plan to grow the Air Force from 312 to 386 operational squadrons.
But much more must be done. Slowing down on NGAD may save $500 million in 2020, but it will set back development by three years, according to the Office of Management and Budget. With China increasing its military investment by 7.5 percent or more each year, closing capability gaps with the United States, this is no time to cut such investment.
China will always have an advantage over the United States in scale. But the US has advantages too: Our innovative spirit founded on freedom and opportunity, plus our commitment to partnerships with allies remain the world standard. No nation on Earth can match the quality of our Airmen and no other nation can match American ingenuity and the creative application of new technologies to ensure our Airmen will always fight and win in every contested domain. They bring the same innovative spirit to preparing to fight as America’s ingenious engineers.
Our obligation, as a nation, is to ensure that these two great strengths feed off of one another, ensuring that America retains the world’s best trained, best equipped, most lethal and capable Air Force.
There is no better way to ensure peace.