April 1, 2011  

2030 vision

Air Force strategy study looks to long-term critical capabilities

With the end of the Cold War, the Air Force, like its sister services, faced a fundamental challenge to its raison d’être. While a period of reflection would typically follow such a significant change, the Air Force was embarked on two decades of continuous operations that began with Desert Shield/Desert Storm and continued to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. These operations occurred simultaneously with dramatic personnel, platform and infrastructure reductions and reorganization. The lack of “downtime” for introspection left airmen with little opportunity to contemplate the longer-term strategic imperatives shaping the Air Force’s future.

With Operation Iraqi Freedom recently ended and troop reductions in Afghanistan scheduled to begin this year, a renaissance of strategic thinking has begun within the Air Force. To spur broader strategic discussion, this article discusses findings of the Air Force Research Institute’s recent Air Force Strategy Study 2020-2030, which addresses a single question: What critical capabilities will the nation require of the Air Force by 2030? Current trends (drivers) suggest that the Air Force should focus its efforts and resources on five critical capabilities in coming decades: power projection; freedom of action in air, space and cyber; global situational awareness; air diplomacy; and military support to civil authorities (MSCA). Air Force success in these areas will depend on the service’s ability to integrate capabilities across air, space and cyber domains. Airmen will succeed or fail based on their ability to achieve a combatant commander’s desired effects through each operational domain.

U.S. interests are shifting to Asia. This will place increasing demand on long-range power projection — the Air Force’s single most important contribution. Defending increasing interests in Asia will double the distances the military must travel to reach bases and targets. In the Asia-centered world of the coming decades, the U.S. will neither employ large ground forces nor will its Navy be able to operate close to the shores of some potential adversaries. Preparing for this future will place significant demand on an Air Force largely designed for current conflicts. Thus, a shift in focus is required.


In a global security environment marked by proliferation of advanced anti-access and area-denial systems, American forces will find it increasingly difficult to establish secure bases within striking distance of adversaries, increasing the demand for long-range power projection — principally long-range strike.

The key challenge for potential adversaries is to deny the U.S. access to bases and targets. Most cannot compete with U.S. technological advantages in the near term; however, this advantage is declining. Battlefields of the future may more resemble the recent cyber-centric Russian-Georgian conflict than Iraq or Afghanistan, which means the first salvos may not be detected until second- and third-order effects of initial strikes are manifest.

According to the Quadrennial Defense Review report, “The future operational landscape could also portend significant long-duration air and maritime campaigns.” To meet these challenges, the Air Force must prevail in environments where adversaries have an unprecedented ability to deny American land and naval forces access. Four recommendations may assist in meeting future power-projection requirements.

First, the Air Force must begin fusing air, space and cyber capabilities into current and future platforms and systems. For example, aircraft rely on GPS — a space asset — and a range of cyber systems, but much more is possible.

Second, the service must refine its power-projection flexibility. Options must be scalable from the high end (F-35) to the low end (light attack). Therefore, it should develop “general purpose” forces to operate with allies beyond conventional power-projection roles — preserving necessary combat capabilities for major contingencies. As recently demonstrated, the most capable aircraft are not always necessary in irregular conflicts.

Third, developing unmanned platforms enhanced by artificial intelligence will support the conventional power-projection mission. Such systems may prove critical psychological tools in peer competition, where an adversary views his employment as a reason to cooperate with the U.S.

Fourth, offensive and defensive cyber capabilities must be fused into air and space platforms. Cyber capabilities may soon become the greatest power-projection tools in the Air Force arsenal, serving as force multipliers. Several nations clearly equal or lead the U.S. in their ability to launch cyber attacks. Despite Air Force attempts to organize, train and equip to meet cyber requirements, the service’s ability to conduct cyber operations remains unassured.


Freedom of action across all domains of air, space and cyber is necessary to project power. This point is worth noting as the discussion turns to the continuing importance of air superiority.

With the F-22 and F-35 likely to serve as the nation’s principal air superiority platforms until at least 2030, relatively inexpensive force multipliers such as autonomous unmanned platforms, human-computer enhancements and cyber-attack capabilities are key to improving Air Force capabilities. With advances in autonomous systems, cyber attack and human performance augmentation possible, three recommendations are relevant.

First, stealthy, high-performance, autonomous aircraft can augment the numbers and capabilities of fifth-generation fighters, replacing the lost contribution of legacy fighters relegated to supporting roles before they are phased out.

Second, augmenting human performance can “achieve capability increases and cost savings via increased manpower efficiencies and reduced manpower needs,” according to the Office of the Air Force Chief Scientist’s “Report on Technology Horizons.” This will prove useful as weapon systems become increasingly complex and dependent on advanced man-machine interfaces.

Third, aircraft-mounted, cyber attack systems capable of penetrating and disrupting the software of adversary aircraft, radar and other systems can serve as a key force multiplier for a smaller fleet of air-superiority aircraft. Cyber is no magic bullet but certainly an area in which investments may pay significant dividends.

Adversaries of the U.S. continuously develop new means of challenging American air superiority. Denying their success requires continually improving systems and changing tactics, techniques and procedures.


The Air Force must achieve space superiority. The principal objective over the next 20 years must be to exert control over space to make the concept of space superiority a reality. While space is unlikely to become a domain through which kinetic effects are delivered in the near term, challenges to American pre-eminence may eventually lead to space-based weapons. Denial of space would significantly degrade U.S. civil and military operations in all domains. An attack on U.S. communication, navigation or detection constellations could drive the public to support space weapons. A successful strategy to delay such an act and maintain freedom of action in space will require that the U.S. use its diplomatic, information, military and economic capabilities to develop a multilayered construct for space operations. Multinational partnering will lay the foundation for international negotiation, regulation and governance. With the U.S. already party to international regulations governing land, sea, air and space, a new round of international agreements banning space-based weapons and providing for verification may prove attractive to many nations. Alone, this vision of cooperation and engagement is insufficient.

Four recommendations will assist the service in developing sustainable space superiority. First, the Air Force must continue to improve space surveillance. One step in this direction was the 2010 launch of Pathfinder, first in a planned constellation known as the Space Based Space Surveillance system. Its mission is to improve the Defense Department’s ability to detect and track objects in orbit.

Second, the Air Force must guarantee access to space while achieving lower production and operating costs. The primary space-launch vehicles in use today are Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV) — Boeing’s Delta IV and Lockheed Martin’s Atlas V. The EELV was designed to standardize and improve space-launch operability, reduce government involvement in launch processing and save a projected 25 percent over legacy launch systems. However, further cost reductions are required.

Third, increased partnering with industry will assist in reaching the goal of space superiority. The Obama administration’s most recent decisions on space operations, shifting spending from government to commercial endeavors, point to potentially dramatic changes in American space policy.

Finally, to mitigate vulnerability in space, the U.S. must establish greater resiliency in its satellite constellations. Space systems must become more responsive and less vulnerable to meet the war fighter’s needs as competition in space evolves.


With activation of the 24th Air Force, the service clearly signaled the importance of cyberspace. The transformation of communications and information career fields into the cyberspace operations and support career fields, and the initiation of undergraduate cyberspace training, illustrate this point. The challenge for the Air Force lies in remaining on the leading edge of cyber technology.

Cyber superiority will become more difficult to achieve and maintain if cyber remains a leveler among nations, groups and individuals. Thus, the Air Force must move to the leading edge. Unfortunately, the number of American computer science and engineering graduates is shrinking while foreign graduates increase. With Air Force cyber training falling far short of providing sufficient cyber experts, highly trained and motivated attackers present a real threat. The U.S. has rarely faced a situation in which military success depends on a domain that it does not dominate. This is the case with cyber.

Cyber will continue to evolve into a weapon of preference, replacing many kinetic choices in today’s arsenal. Fewer aircraft and greater ranges, particularly in the Pacific, will drive cyberspace to the forefront of Air Force operations. The ability of adversaries to corrupt the software of our aircraft and suppress our air defenses will become a reality, not just science fiction.

Preparing for this future requires an unprecedented shift in the service’s approach to cyber. Building firewalls around the network is not enough. The Air Force should undertake a more aggressive approach to developing cyber as a critical operational capability. This will require it to undertake two principal efforts.

First, the Air Force must assume the mantle of responsibility for cyber activities related to its Title 10 responsibilities. As the most cyber-dependent service, it must develop cyber self-reliance. Accomplishing this requires a cyberspace operation that can conduct offensive and defensive cyber operations, has a sound legal framework, and is interoperable and joint.

Second, the Air Force must develop a large cadre of educated experts in computer science and computer engineering. Without the right people, the Air Force’s ability to maintain a cyber-proficient work force will be undermined, and every Air Force mission threatened.


Operating principally from the continental U.S., situational awareness will become a long-distance endeavor requiring long transit and loiter times to perform surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Greater distances will also place a premium on space and cyber assets, which are likely to play increasingly important roles in building situational awareness across far-flung regions. The Air Force intelligence community must become a tightly organized and dynamic force that can be realigned for global and regional coverage.

First, Air Force space capabilities must be planned and executed in closer coordination with the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). With space-based surveillance becoming increasingly important, the Air Force must exert greater influence over NRO’s asset requirements process. Currently, it does not always fill existing billets at the NRO, giving it, as end user, insufficient say in design and development.

Second, it is time to plan for a post-Afghanistan and Iraq surveillance and reconnaissance structure that prepares the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) for a global mission. Serious thought must be given to doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures as the DCGS’s role in any future fight is shifted from tactical missions to processing and disseminating national and allied intelligence products.

Third, the Air Force must exploit emerging automation technologies to improve data analysis so human analysts are used for the highest-order tasks. Accelerated development of translation software, artificial intelligence and electronic processing of raw data — signals and electronic intelligence — is the most practical approach to managing voluminous data and should become a funding priority.

Absent significant reforms focusing on the increasing globalized nature of strategic challenges, the Air Force’s contribution to global situational awareness will not reach its full potential. At a time when adversaries are chipping away at the nation’s strategic advantage, failure to understand an adversary is unacceptable.


Air Force history is replete with examples of diplomatic missions, including the Berlin airlift, Operations Provide Comfort/Northern Watch and ongoing training at the Inter-American Air Forces Academy. Air diplomacy, the nonkinetic employment of airpower in defense of national interests, is a complementary capability. Understood in these terms, air diplomacy incorporates a wide range of soft-power capabilities into broader national diplomacy. The Air Force conducts an array of diplomatic missions established in its Security Cooperation Strategy. While it employs airpower to achieve soft-power objectives, these efforts are not reaching their full promise. Fusing the service’s disparate soft-power missions into a unified air diplomacy strategy will enable it to employ these capabilities more effectively in the pursuit of national interests. Over the next two decades, air diplomacy has the potential to become increasingly important. Airpower’s range, speed and flexibility make it an attractive option for decision-makers facing a tough fiscal environment. If employed before kinetic operations become necessary, air diplomacy can assist in preventing more costly conflicts. This also avoids creating the anti-American sentiment that can accompany permanent overseas bases or large troop deployments. Admittedly, it will not always succeed.

While the Air Force Security Cooperation Strategy provides a useful foundation for an air diplomacy strategy, more is required. Such a strategy should focus on three central goals: coordination and enhancement of disparate diplomatic missions; proactive engagement of allies, neutrals and adversaries; and accomplishing strategic ends with existing means.

The Air Force should also build on existing strategic guidance and programs to simplify the process. Any strategy must create a set of guidelines for measuring its success or failure. An effective air diplomacy strategy backed by a credible power-projection capability helps protect national interests.

The proliferation of nuclear weapons technology, advanced missile technology and offensive cyber capabilities increases the importance of military support to civil authorities. Air Force Instruction 10-802, Military Support to Civil Authorities, states that Air National Guard forces have the “primary responsibility for providing military assistance to state and local governments in civil emergencies.” In short, the Guard not only can respond well ahead of any federal military effort but is also expected to do so by instruction. Short of a man-made catastrophe involving chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials, it is unlikely that active-duty resources will be called on. Nevertheless, if a disaster rises to the level of a catastrophe, state and local resources may be overwhelmed, requiring governors to ask for federal assistance.

If technological innovations continue to bring adversaries closer to America’s shores, the public will expect the military to focus on homeland defense and disaster relief. For the Air Force and Guard, this means providing civil-support capabilities in airlift, medical support and situational awareness.

Given the Air Force’s role in shaping the Guard, it is vital for service leaders to elevate civilian authority to a critical capability. Dual-designed operational capability statements, particularly for the Guard, will help establish the role of individual units in civil support and wartime.

Today’s total force approach may prove inadequate in a major domestic disaster — with speed of response the principal concern. Given the interconnected nature of the civilian authority support mission, three recommendations will enable the Air Force and the Guard to improve disaster response while maneuvering through a difficult legal, political and command-and-control environment.

First, transport aircraft should form the bulk of the Guard’s unit structure. First-response airlift is a key enabler and should come from the Guard. Embedded within each Guard airlift unit there must be aerial port capabilities to provide staging expertise for follow-on operations. Medical support units, often required before anything else and long after any disaster, are also a critical part of airlift.

Second, bed-down of Guard airlift units should be aligned among the 10 Federal Emergency Management Agency regions. This will allow them to exercise with state and local first responders in disaster scenarios and establish strong relationships before disasters occur.

Third, Guard imagery analysts should become the primary source of support, advice and imagery interpretation for state and local officials. Gaining situational awareness of a disaster’s dimensions is a crucial step in dealing with it. As part of this effort to improve for first responders, DCGS stations staffed by Guard analysts should be used to provide real-time imagery support in a disaster. Confronted by a future of uncertainty, stagnant defense budgets and threats at the high and low ends of the conflict spectrum, the Air Force must prepare for an increasingly complex array of variables. Success in this environment should not be taken for granted. Focusing on five critical capabilities simplifies the areas in which the Air Force should prioritize its time, resources and strategic thought. It also highlights a persistent problem: The Air Force must articulate a clear vision and rationale for investing in air, space and cyber power.

ADAM B. LOWTHER is a research professor at the Air Force Research Institute at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the institute or the Air Force.