In modern military operations, achieving air superiority is a critical precondition for success. Air superiority provides freedom from attack, freedom to attack, freedom of action, freedom of access, and freedom of awareness. Importantly, it also precludes adversaries from exploiting similar advantage. However, Air superiority is only needed for the time and over the geographic area required to enable joint operations. US Airforce is worried about erosion of US Air superiority against its adversaries. According to Lt. Gen. Mike Holmes, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, the gap between the U.S. military’s air superiority capabilities and potential adversaries’ network of capabilities is closing at an accelerated rate.
US Airforce is giving thrust to new concept of multi-domain operations to regain its air superiority. Developing and delivering air superiority for the highly contested environment in 2030 requires a multi-domain focus on capabilities and capacity, according to the unclassified version of the Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan. “After 25 years of being the only great power out there, we’re returning to a world of great power competition,” said Lt. Gen. Mike Holmes. “We need to develop coordinated solutions that bring air, space, cyber, the electronic environment and surface capabilities together to solve our problems.”
Importantly, the rapidly changing operational environment means the Air Force can no longer afford to develop weapon systems on the linear acquisition and development timelines using traditional approaches. Air superiority capability development requires adaptable, affordable and agile processes with increasing collaboration between science & technology (S&T), acquisition, requirements and industry professionals.
The need for more resources in general and the desire to potentially share those burdens more broadly among the reasons why AFRL and the Air Force are looking to increase their partnerships with academic institutions and private industry. This desire for more cooperative research and development in order to speed up the process overall was a significant theme in Secretary of the Air Force Wilson’s remarks in September 2017.
Threat Scenario 2030
According to Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan, Air Force’s ability to provide air superiority at the times and places required in the highly contested operational environments of 2030 and beyond are threatened by emerging integrated and networked air-to-air, surface-to-air, space and cyberspace threats, as well as aging and shrinking fleets of US weapon systems.
“There are growing challenges from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, in addition to the ever present counter terrorism mission in the Middle East and around the world.” Adversaries are increasingly deploying integrated and networked capabilities as part of the Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy in highly contested environments.
Threat capabilities are likely to advance along two major vectors over the next 15 years Air superiority forces will face growing numbers of traditional threats across a wide range of locations and scenarios in 2030. Along this threat vector are advanced fighter aircraft, sensors, and weapon. These threats include advanced new enemy fighter aircraft like the Russian Sukhoi PAK-FA and the Chinese Chengdu J-20, new sensors and new weapon systems.
The second threat vector is a series of comprehensive capabilities with a less predictable impact on warfare. These include increased threat capabilities to negate our advantages in the space domain, increased quantity and sophistication of cyberspace threats, and air threats including hypersonic weapons, low observable cruise missiles, and sophisticated conventional ballistic missile systems.
“China’s impressive military buildup could soon challenge the United States across almost every domain,” U.S. Navy Admiral Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command told members of congress earlier in 2018. “We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a [hypersonic] weapon against us” by Russia or China, U.S. Air Force General John Hyten, head of U.S. Strategic Command, told legislators more recently in March 2018.
Integrated and Networked Multidomain capability and capacity
The ECCT looked to military experts, academia and industry for input and then conducted integrated planning, analysis and assessments. Eventually the team determined an integrated and networked family of capabilities operating across air, space and cyberspace was the most viable option for developing and delivering air superiority for the highly contested environment in 2030.
Instead of deploying squadrons of supersonic, manned jets to directly battle enemy planes with missiles and guns—the traditional approach to air superiority—in 2030 the Air Force will wage aerial warfare with a “family of capabilities,” according to the “Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan” strategy document.
“Air Force’s future dominance will rest not on a single platform, such as a sixth generation fighter jet, but on an integrated, networked family of systems,” said Brig. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, who led the Air Superiority 2030 enterprise capability collaboration team (ECCT). That combination of penetrating and stand-off capabilities includes a fighter plane, but also a number of space, cyber and electronic warfare assets. What that means is that the fighter jet of the future might look more like a sensor node than the dogfighters of the past, Grynkewich said.
The service “must reject thinking focused on ‘next generation’ platforms,” the air-superiority plan advises. “Such focus often creates a desire to push technology limits within the confines of a formal program… Pushing those limits in a formal program increases risk to unacceptable levels, resulting in cost growth and schedule slips.”
Implementing multi domain operations require is achieving MDC2. U.S. Air Force, under the direction of Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, has made multi-domain command and control a top priority. Broadly speaking, this will involve the seamless integration of air, space and cyber capabilities, providing commanders cross-domain options to make more rapid decisions in complex battle spaces. The Air Force is in the throes of a highly anticipated study on the issue lead by the multi-domain C2 enterprise capability collaboration team, or ECCT.
Capability Development Areas
To counter the rising threat, the Air Force will have to address everything from hardening bases against attacks, to aerial refueling tankers to developing a “cloud-based sensor networks”—what former Air Force intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, current dean of the Mitchell Institute, refers to as the “combat cloud.”
There are five major Capability Development Areas directed in this Flight Plan. These include Basing and Logistics; Find, Fix, Track and Assess; Target and Engage; Command and Control; and Non-Materiel (Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Logistics, Personnel, Facilities, and Policy [DOTMLPF-P]).
Basing and logistics
The Air Force must pursue appropriate capability development efforts in concert with the joint force in order to project, defend, and sustain forces that are able to generate the combat power needed to conduct operations in non-permissive environments. Adaptive basing, forward air base operations, untethered operations, full spectrum resilient networked logistics, collaborative logistics and shared resources, performance-optimized logistics teams, and other related concepts enable these capability development efforts.
Capability development for mitigating attacks will include development of active and passive defensive capabilities against ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and hypersonic weapons, and will leverage partnerships with other services, agencies, and allies.
Find, Fix, Track, and Assess
Standoff ranges imposed by area denial capabilities degrade the effectiveness of long-range sensors in the highly contested environment. To overcome these limitations, the Air Force must build an integrated network of air, space, and cyberspace-based sensors, as well as leverage joint contributions from all domains. This integrated network and architecture will enable more rapid and effective decisions from the tactical to the operational level.
Data-to-Decision Campaign of Experiments will examine how to fuse data from cloud-based sensor networks into decision quality information for use from the tactical to the operational levels. Capability development efforts for ISR collection and persistent ISR capabilities will focus on multi-domain alternatives for placing the right sensor in the right place at the right time.
Capability development for agile communications will examine options for increasing the resiliency and adaptability of integrated networks. The focus of this capability development will be on responsive, adaptable network architectures with functionality across multiple platforms, weapons, apertures, and waveforms operating in the highly contested environment.
Target and Engage
Penetrating Counterair (PCA) Capability development efforts will focus on maximizing tradeoffs between range, payload, survivability, lethality, affordability, and supportability. While PCA capability will certainly have a role in targeting and engaging, it also has a significant role as a node in the network, providing data from its penetrating sensors to enable employment using either stand-off or stand-in weapons. The penetrating capabilities of PCA will allow the stand-in application of kinetic and non-kinetic effects from the air domain.
A mix of capabilities to penetrate the highly contested environment as well as deliver effects from stand-off ranges offers a balanced approach to counter the A2/AD strategy. Long-range strike against counterair targets is a critical part of gaining and maintaining air superiority. The penetrating capability of the B-21 will allow survivable and repeatable attack operations.
Directed Energy Weapons
USAF is pursuing electromagnetic and laser directed energy weapons.
Together with Boeing, AFRL has actually already demonstrated the first capability in tests of a weapon known as the Counter-electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP). This system used the body of an AGM-86 Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missile (CALCM) to carry a still classified payload that uses microwave pulses to disable electronic devices.
AFRL is leading a project to develop an experimental podded solid-state laser weapon for fighter jets under the Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) program. The main goal there is to demonstrate a system that would be able to shoot down incoming missiles.
Multi Domain Command and Control
U.S. Air Force, under the direction of Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, has made multi-domain command and control a top priority. Broadly speaking, this will involve the seamless integration of air, space and cyber capabilities, providing commanders cross-domain options to make more rapid decisions in complex battle spaces. The Air Force is in the throes of a highly anticipated study on the issue lead by the multi-domain C2 enterprise capability collaboration team, or ECCT.
“What we’re looking at doing is enabling the vision of linking assets that are space-based, in the air, in the sea and on the ground to create combined effects,” according to Jack O’Banion, vice president of strategy and customer requirements for Lockheed Martin Skunk Works. “[The] challenge is: How do you create a dynamic network that allows you to link things together to create effects inside the bubble and from outside the bubble to create collaborative engagements and multiple dilemmas for an adversary?”
The increasing lethality and reach of adversary weapons will significantly increase the risk to large BMC2 platforms like AWACS in 2030. This will limit their ability to see and manage activities in the contested and highly contested environments. To overcome these shortfalls, the Air Force should develop concepts that disaggregate this capability using multiple sensor platforms, including teamed manned and unmanned systems, a robust battlespace information architecture, and dispersed command and control.
Development of cyber capabilities and Airmen who can operationally employ those capabilities is essential to air superiority in 2030 and beyond. The Air Force should develop cyber forces tailored for air component missions and priorities, including the protection of mission critical systems
Increased contributions from space-based assets
The Air Force and the joint force will increasingly rely on advantages provided by on-orbit assets for air superiority. As such, ensuring survivable space assets is essential.
Invest in foundational infrastructure.
Creation of a robust modeling, simulation, and analysis (MS&A) infrastructure that enables accurate evaluation of multi-domain capabilities across all classification levels is critical for force development.
Continue to pursue “game-changing” technologies.
Directed energy, hypersonic weapons, and autonomy are potential game-changing technologies for air superiority.
Gaining and maintaining air superiority to enable joint force operations in 2030 and beyond requires a new approach. This approach requires strategic agility through experimentation, prototyping, and agile acquisition strategies. If successful, this strategic agility will provide future commanders with options through fielding of the integrated and networked family of capabilities in the AS 2030 force structure.