This monograph discusses the current state of the United States Air Force and how it can better align its institutional identity and force posture to the future security environment. It offers a fiscally-constrained menu of recommendations for how that realignment might be realized over the next twenty years, with a larger force posture in mind. This paper suggests change mechanisms that will foster a break from the incrementalism that has plagued the entire national security establishment since the end of the Cold War. The change of presidential administrations and the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) present an opportunity for Air Force leaders to inject fresh, strategic thinking into their planning to better posture their Service for existing and emerging challenges.
Chapter 1 begins with a review of the command, planning, and decision-making structures of the Air Force, and then highlights key operational constructs, especially the very useful Air and Space Expeditionary Force (AEF) concept. Force structure is examined, with emphasis on the handicaps of aging assets, diminished foreign basing, and costly excess domestic base structure. Fiscal constraints, including budget pressure and rising costs of fuel and healthcare, are discussed as serious budgetary and operational constraints that are unlikely to diminish. Above all, two daunting challenges are posed: the urgency of recapitalization and modernization despite severe fiscal constraints; and the crisis of institutional confidence that has affected the Service’s internal dynamics and influence.
Chapter 2 examines the future security environment and highlights emerging challenges including the rise of China, the protracted conflict against Islamic extremist groups, and the growing risk of nuclear proliferation. China, in particular, poses a pacing challenge to the Air Force. Not only is the China’s military aggressively pursuing anti-access/area denial capabilities, it is also taking steps to deny free use of the global commons, encompassing international airspace, international waters, space, and cyberspace. The effects of China’s military buildup are not limited to potential combat scenarios. In fact, the impact on US diplomatic leverage might be more important, as Beijing’s buildup weakens two important pillars of Pacific regional security: deterrence and crisis stability. To bolster these pillars, the Air Force urgently needs to improve its strategic reach and force survivability, to include constructing more and harder bases.
The report’s most significant finding in measuring current plans against future challenges is that the Air Force is building a “middle-weight” force structure that is much too sophisticated and expensive for relatively low-end or irregular conflicts, while simultaneously lacking needed capabilities and capacities to address challenges at the high-end of the military competition. By way of example, the F-35 Lightning II—by far the Service’s most expensive modernization effort—represents a classic “middle” capability that lacks critical performance characteristics (e.g., range) needed to meet high-end challenges, while it is over-specified and overpriced for low-end challenges.