The U.S. Air Force celebrated the 75th anniversary of its founding last week. There is much to celebrate about the accomplishments of our Air Force over the past three quarters of a century, but today, as China is increasingly bellicose and Russia is waging a brutal war against Ukraine, American air power is no longer the dominant force we need it to be.
Our Air Force is smaller, older and less ready than at any point in its 75-year history. America did not protect its strategic edge with continued investment and technological advancement in recent years, and it is not getting its pilots the flight hours they need to maximize proficiency; meanwhile, China and others invested with a vengeance to catch up to our enviable capabilities.
Gen. CQ Brown has called on airmen to “accelerate change” ever since becoming the 22nd Air Force chief of staff in two years ago. His blunt warning, delivered again at last week’s Air & Space Forces Association’s biggest ever Air, Space & Cyber conference, has been that the service must embrace new ways to accomplish the mission or risk losing in the future.
“We have done this before,” he said. “And we will do it again.”
The stakes in this context go to the root of protecting freedom and democracy and political self-determination for all the nations of the world. As Brown noted in his keynote address at the conference, Gen. Henry H. Arnold, the World War II leader of the Army Air Forces, which would become our U.S. Air Force in 1947, wrote in his final war report that without “a modern, autonomous, and thoroughly trained Air Force … there can be no national security.”
Today, our Air Force’s tactical skills are sharp, and its equipment is still as good or better than any. But our edge is shrinking, and the aggression of our adversaries is growing. America can no longer afford to put off the modernization of this force, to argue that less is more. Without strategic overmatch, less is really less.
Brown outlined an overarching strategy essential to ensure American air superiority. It requires the U.S. armed forces be “integrated by design.”
Our nation’s military alone may not be big enough to overwhelm the likes of China. But in a world where we have more friends and allies, we can have a decisive advantage. Integrating with our partners, as we have with the development of the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet, is a case in point.
At the same time, Brown says, we must also accelerate the development of new operational concepts and make those concepts “part of our DNA — part of our culture.”
- Mission command. Objectives must be clear and unambiguous.
- Force generation. A clearer explanation of how the Air Force rotates and deploys its forces can help combatant commands around the world and Pentagon leaders better understand the implications of their decisions on future readiness.
- Agile combat employment. The Air Force cannot expect that large forward bases will be available in a peer fight; instead, it must be ready to disperse and fight from more remote locations.
- Multi-capable airmen. The military training model dates to the industrial age, narrowing job descriptions to minimize training. Unfortunately, that leads to overspecialization. Brown wants airmen to be jacks of all trades to generate a “more agile and lethal force.”
- Looking like the joint force. The Air Force will adopt an organizational construct down to the wing level that is more consistent with the way the other forces are organized.
The rest of our nation has its own to-do list to ensure the United States has the dominant Air and Space forces we need to avoid war in the future, and to win one if we must fight:
- We must restore balance to our nation’s defenses by ensuring we are investing at least as much in air and space power as we are in land and naval might. That is not the case today, when 20% of Department of the Air Force spending is siphoned off as a “pass-through” to fund other agencies.
- We must ensure our airmen not only have the advanced capability to defeat rivals, but also the capacity to present an overwhelming threat. If you have the greatest plane in the world, but have too few of them, you can still lose. We must demonstrate both superior capability and sufficient capacity to deter future war.
- We must train like we fight. That means getting our pilots the flying time they need to be the best in the business. In recent years, flying hours have been curtailed and pilots haven’t gotten the flying time they need.
The best defense is a good offense. The credible capacity to fight is the No. 1 deterrent to war. Our job is to ensure those odds are always in our favor. We do that by developing the best technology in the world; by investing in the fighting capacity to sustain operations when necessary; and by ensuring our forces have the training and practice they need to be prepared for any eventuality.
As Brown said, we have done this before. We must do it again.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright is president of the Air & Space Forces Association. He spent more than three decades in the Air Force, including serving as commander of 5th Air Force and U.S. Forces Japan.