National Security & Defense

The Air Force Faces the Future

Air Force F-35As with the 33rd Fighter Wing prepare to take off at Volk Field, Wisc., August 2016. (Photo: Senior Airman Stormy Archer)
New weapons and new enemies are transforming the battlespace.

Montgomery, Ala.

It is said that America’s armed forces have been stressed by 16 years of constant warfare, the longest such period in the nation’s history. For the Air Force, however, the high tempo of combat operations began 26 years ago, with enforcement of the no-fly zone in Iraq after Desert Storm. With an acute pilot shortage, particularly in the fighter-pilot community, and with a shortfall approaching 4,000 among maintenance and staffing personnel, the service is, as Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson says, “too small for what the nation expects of it.”

At the Air University here at Maxwell Air Force Base, officers are studying what expectations are reasonable. Technological sophistication — America’s and that of near-peer adversaries (Russia and China) — is changing capabilities. This and the political and military primitivism of some adversaries (e.g., the Islamic State) are reshaping the environment in which airpower operates, and the purposes of this power. The traditional U.S. approach to warfare — dominance achieved by mass of force produced by the nation’s industrial might — is of limited relevance.

General Steven L. Kwast, president of the Air University, recalls that General George Marshall, who in 1939 became Army chief of staff, asked a two-star general in the horse cavalry how he planned to adapt to the challenges of tanks and planes. The two-star, who replied that the horses should be carried to the front in trailers so they would arrive rested, was retired in 1942.

Kwast notes that in 1940 the Navy was preparing to devote most of its budget to building the sort of battleships that had been “kings of the sea” since President Theodore Roosevelt sent the Great White Fleet around the world. After Pearl Harbor, the Navy turned toward aircraft carriers and away from big battleships. Twenty years earlier, General Billy Mitchell had used an airplane to sink a battleship, but changing the trajectory of military thinking, and hence procurement, often requires changing a service’s viscous culture.

Kwast wonders: What are the horses and battleships of our age? Some say: Aircraft carriers, because they are too vulnerable to long-range weapons and too expensive for the budget constraints of America’s entitlement state. Also, some say, remotely piloted aircraft, a.k.a. drones, flown from, say, Nevada are many times cheaper than most manned aircraft, and are capable of loitering over a contested area to conduct “find, fix, finish” missions for up to 48 hours without refueling.

When military airpower was born a century ago, just before World War I, the hope was that it would save casualties by preventing what that war quickly became, a slog of attrition. But in World War II, airpower was used to attack civilians in order to destroy morale and damage the enemy’s capacity to wage industrial-era war. Now, says Kwast, war is shaped by the digital networked age, where power does not flow in industrial-age channels. U.S. forces can spend millions to kill one high-value target in Syria, where the enemy, for a few hundred dollars, can recruit ten men who flow up from entry-level positions.

Only the United States has the capacity to be, as retired admiral Gary Roughead and Kori Schake say in a Brookings Institution study, ‘guarantors of the global commons — the seaways and airways, and now the cyber conduits.’

Only the United States has the capacity to be, as retired admiral Gary Roughead and Kori Schake say in a Brookings Institution study, “guarantors of the global commons — the seaways and airways, and now the cyber conduits.” Nuclear weapons are still essentially a 70-year-old technology delivered by a 60-year-old technology, ballistic missiles. Before long there will be space-based sensors and directed energy (DE) weapons — war at the speed of light, 186,000 miles a second. It is preferable to shoot down an enemy’s cruise missiles, which cost a few hundred thousand dollars, with space-, ground- and sea-based DE weapons rather than with defensive missile interceptors costing up to $20 million apiece.

The Air University’s military intellectuals are impressive enough to be forgiven for using “architect” as a verb: Hitler was defeated using great violence, but it would be better to architect responses to threats by projecting power in ways that are less expensive and much more efficient than even today’s precision-guided weapons — never mind World War II gravity bombs, 80 percent of which fell at least 1,000 feet from their targets.

Viewed from the not-too-distant future, Kwast says, today’s Air Force, although it is a century distant from the Flanders trenches, might seem to have dug into the equivalent of trench warfare by operating below the altitude of 70,000 feet. Such thoughts are considered here at a university where “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” are serious matters.


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George Will — George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. His email address is

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