In today’s rapidly evolving global security landscape, maintaining a competitive edge is vital for the United States Air Force. As adversaries develop strategies to counter traditional military tactics, the Air Force must adapt and enhance its defense capabilities to preserve kill chain superiority. The kill chain, also known as the “find, fix, track, target, engage, and assess” (F2T2EA) process, is essential for achieving desired battlefield effects.
In an era where military competition intensifies, the United States Air Force finds itself facing new challenges posed by China’s strategic approach to disrupt the “kill chain” process—the vital sequence of steps needed to identify and neutralize targets. As China meticulously studies the Air Force’s effective use of the kill chain, it actively seeks ways to obstruct or disable it.
The Air Force’s kill chain is a system of systems that allows it to identify, track, engage, and defeat targets. The kill chain is constantly evolving as new technologies emerge, and the Air Force is constantly working to enhance its capabilities. The Air Force must adapt its strategies, invest in advanced platforms, and fortify its networks to maintain an agile and resilient kill chain. This article explores the importance of the kill chain, China’s disruptive tactics, and the Air Force’s efforts to revolutionize its defense capabilities
China’s Strategic Challenge:
China, in particular, has structured its military to counter the U.S. kill chain. Through a comprehensive warfighting strategy, China aims to exploit vulnerabilities and disrupt the sequence of steps required to identify and neutralize specific targets.
The Air Force’s long-standing kill chain advantage is now at risk, as China has developed means to jam networks, disable sensors, and thwart weapons systems at various stages of the kill chain process. This strategic challenge requires the Air Force to reevaluate its current approach and invest in new platforms and networks to maintain its agility and resilience.
Since the 1991 Gulf War, China has been studying the Air Force’s effective use of the kill chain and working at ways to block or disable it, said Heather Penney, senior resident fellow at the Mitchell Institute and author of the new study.
Adapting to the Future Battlefield:
The Air Force acknowledges that its existing capabilities and equipment are not sufficient for future defense needs. To counter China’s disruptive tactics, the Air Force must adapt its kill chain strategy to ensure future superiority.
This adaptation entails increasing the number of nodes within the kill chain and expanding its scope to cover larger regional scales. Furthermore, the process must be executed with greater speed to minimize the adversary’s interference, while also ensuring its survivability, even when individual nodes are compromised. This means reducing the time in which adversaries can interfere and ensuring the kill chain’s integrity and effectiveness even when some nodes are lost or blocked.
Map out and connect the right sensors, platforms, and weapons in the kill chain. Penney noted that “not all sensors and shooters need to be connected,” and too much information being moved to the wrong places can tax bandwidth and decision-making speed.
Here are some specific examples of how the Air Force is advancing its kill chain capabilities:
- AI-Powered Systems: The Air Force recognizes the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) in revolutionizing warfare. By leveraging AI technologies, the Air Force is developing advanced systems that can autonomously identify, track, and engage targets. These AI-powered systems have the ability to process vast amounts of data in real-time, enabling faster decision-making and more efficient utilization of resources.
- Enhanced Sensors: To improve the accuracy and timeliness of target information, the Air Force is investing in cutting-edge sensor technologies. These sensors can gather critical data from various sources, including terrestrial, airborne, and space-based platforms. By utilizing advanced sensors, the Air Force can acquire a comprehensive and real-time understanding of the battlespace, enabling commanders to make more informed decisions.
- Next-Generation Weapons: The Air Force is actively developing and deploying next-generation weapons systems that possess enhanced precision and lethality. These advanced weapons can deliver devastating strikes with remarkable accuracy, minimizing collateral damage and maximizing operational effectiveness. These weapons can include precision-guided munitions (PGMs) and hypersonic weapons. PGMs can be used to strike targets with a high degree of accuracy, while hypersonic weapons can travel at speeds of Mach 5 or more, making them difficult for adversaries to defend against. By leveraging the latest advancements in technology, the Air Force aims to ensure that its weapons remain at the forefront of modern warfare.
- Training and Education: Recognizing that technological advancements alone are not sufficient, the Air Force is investing in training programs to equip airmen with the necessary skills to operate in complex and contested environments. Airmen receive comprehensive training on utilizing new technologies, understanding the intricacies of the kill chain, and adapting to evolving tactics employed by adversaries. By fostering a highly skilled and adaptable workforce, the Air Force enhances its overall kill chain effectiveness.
- Evolving Doctrine: The Air Force understands the importance of adapting its doctrine to reflect the changing nature of warfare and the evolving challenges posed by adversaries. To ensure optimal utilization of the kill chain in future conflicts, the Air Force is developing new doctrine that guides its strategic and operational decision-making processes. This includes integrating emerging technologies, addressing novel threats, and optimizing the coordination and synchronization of assets along the kill chain. The Air Force is also developing new doctrine that will guide its use of the kill chain in future conflicts. This doctrine will address issues such as how the Air Force will use AI-powered systems, new sensors, and new weapons in future conflicts. It will also address issues such as how the Air Force will operate in a complex and contested environment.
Investing in Advanced Platforms:
One crucial aspect of preserving kill chain superiority lies in the development and deployment of advanced platforms. The Air Force is focusing on fifth- and sixth-generation platforms such as the F-22, F-35, B-21, and Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) system. These platforms possess high stealth capabilities, advanced sensing and communication technologies, and exceptional speed. They can independently close kill chains for assigned targets while providing critical battlespace information to the rest of the force. By investing heavily in these platforms, the Air Force aims to bridge the gap until a reliable and resilient network, known as Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2), is fully matured.
Empowering the Kill Chain:
To enhance kill chain superiority, the Air Force is pursuing several near-term and long-term recommendations. In the near-to-mid-term, accelerating the procurement of F-35 and B-21 platforms and modernizing fifth-generation platforms like the F-35 and F-22 are crucial steps. Additionally, the development of smaller yet more advanced weapons in large numbers can increase the number of targets each platform can engage and generate more battlespace information.
In the mid-to-long term, the Air Force should prioritize the development and fielding of Collaborative Combat Aircraft, uncrewed drones that complement crewed platforms. These drones carry more weapons and multiply the sensors in the battlespace, accelerating campaign speed and expanding the number of targets engaged per sortie.
Develop smaller but more advanced weapons in large numbers. This will increase the number of targets each highly-survivable platform can kill per sortie, and the weapons can also generate more battlespace information. Increasing the targets per sortie “can have a major, potentially decisive impact on the timing and outcome of a campaign,” she said.
The deployment of a space-based sensing and data transport layer in low-Earth orbit is also essential for boosting the scale, scope, speed, and survivability of air-based kill chains.
Preserving kill chain superiority against adversaries like China will require significant resources. The Air Force needs increased funding to develop and deploy these new capabilities effectively. It is crucial to prevent a reduction in defense spending that may compromise these advancements, as the consequences of losing a war to a near-peer adversary could be devastating for the U.S. and its allies.
As the United States Air Force races to enhance its defense capabilities, preserving kill chain superiority emerges as a critical objective. Adapting to evolving threats, investing in advanced platforms, and prioritizing the development of networked systems like JADC2 are essential steps in this race. By remaining proactive and agile, the Air Force can ensure its ability to counter emerging challenges and maintain a dominant position in future conflicts. Preserving kill chain superiority is not only crucial for the Air Force but also for the overall national security and global stability.
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