While the U.S. Air Force would certainly never turn away an opportunity to add more new high-tech bombers, fighters, tankers and drones to its aging fleet, senior service leaders are realizing the unprecedented combat gains attainable through the development of new technologies. These advances include networking, sensing and multi-function platforms able to match or exceed the combat effect of simply adding more planes.
Following a detailed analysis several years ago, which likely included close examination of threats, mission requirements and dangerous emerging technologies, the service laid out a request to grow from 312 operational squadrons up to 386. The largest needed increases, according to the Air Force plan, included a request for twenty-two new ISR Command and Control squadrons, seven more fighter squadrons and five more bomber squadrons.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies that, although the study is still relevant and important as a very worthwhile goal, there may be ways to maximize combat effectiveness with a slightly smaller fleet, should budget constraints impede the service’s wish to reach 386 squadrons.
The previous Air Force assessment said the analysis supporting the 386 squadrons needed to support the National Defense Strategy was based on estimates of the expected threat by 2025 to 2030.
At the end of the Cold War, the Air Force had 401 operational squadrons. By any cursory estimation, it does not take much to notice an uptick in mission demands for the Air Force, coming on the heels of more than fifteen-years of counterinsurgency air support missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now, confronting the threat of major warfare, the service is facing substantial requests from combatant commanders. Other findings from the study include five more search and rescue squadrons, twenty-two more command and control reconnaissance squadrons, fourteen more tanker squadrons, seven more fighter squadrons and seven more space squadrons.
Brown’s point, therefore, was not so much to dispute this assessment that greater numbers of new platforms were needed, but rather to embrace the realistic prospect that there simply may not be enough money to bring this vision fully to fruition. What is both interesting and significant, however, is Brown’s point that advanced networking and technology could very well help compensate for a lower number of platforms.
A smaller number of actual platforms may be sufficient to match or even exceed a larger force should it be engineered with the most advanced technology available and be capable of dispersed, yet well-networked combat assets functioning as sensor nodes and attack platforms simultaneously.
Referring to this concept as increasing “cognitive space,” Brown cited fifth-generation attack platforms in this context, explaining that an F-22 or F-35 stealth fighter can operate as a long-range sensor as well as a warfighting machine. He added that both of these aircrafts’ high powered computing can “bring you information at the speed of relevance.”
The more multi-functional, technically capable platforms you have, the fewer you need to achieve the same combat impact, a reality underscoring Brown’s point that information itself is increasingly going to be a weapon of war as much if not more than anything else.
“It may be just information that helps increase our capability,” Brown said.
Regardless of the scope or sphere of an Air Force size increase, any modernization steps will need to address the fast-approaching and concerning reality that the U.S. Air Force will fall behind Russia and China by 2025 unless the service quickly embarks upon a sizeable expansion of its fighting technologies, weapons arsenal and major attack platforms.
This means new bombers, fighters, drones, rescue helicopters and, as Brown emphasized, more multi-functional combat platforms operating as “nodes” within a dispersed, yet highly lethal combat network.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.