The service has too long delayed the hard choices that would prepare it to deter China.
When Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown becomes the U.S. Air Force’s 22nd Chief of Staff later this summer, he will take charge of a force at a precarious time.
The service is grappling with its own racial prejudice, systemic discrimination, and unconscious bias; Brown, the first African American to lead a service branch, has already issued a powerful statement on racial issues. He must also navigate the Air Force through a pandemic whose infections and economic disruptions are complicating recruitment, training, acquisition, and operations. And though either of these towering challenges might consume any leader, General Brown must not squander the opportunity to make progress on the primary geopolitical problem confronting the U.S. military: China.
The Defense Department has identified geopolitical rivalry with China as its principal challenge for nearly a decade; Beijing’s military modernization and propensity for coercing regional states puts in jeopardy the Asia-Pacific balance of power. But the Department has made only slow progress toward a more modern and capable military that can meet this threat. Its strategy execution is chronically hampered by near-term events, from budget sequestration to Middle East instability to domestic policy dynamics that, for example, place military forces on the southern border; COVID-19 is just the latest crisis to draw attention and resources to today’s challenges at the expense of tomorrow’s. The problem is that China is no longer a future challenge; the future has arrived, and already come to pass even as the rivalry is set to grow more intense over the coming decades. The military, and the Air Force in particular, must change to credibly deter Chinese aggression and keep the geopolitical competition from escalating into war.
To do so most effectively, we recommend General Brown first look to the Marine Corps as a model. Those who haven’t followed the service’s transformation since General David Berger became Commandant last summer are missing a sea change in the making. Just days into the job, General Berger released new planning guidance that declared, “We cannot afford to continue to admire problems or fail to take the necessary decisive actions.” He has followed it up with implementation guidance, including details of the new force design that explicitly highlights areas of investment and divestment. And he has communicated his priorities in a masterfully strategic communications campaign — reiterating his priorities in podcasts, around Washington and in the field, and even listing them on Twitter. Simply put, General Berger has offered a justifiably stark diagnosis of the Marine Corps’ challenges and is pitching thoughtful, serious prescriptions to solve them. While his provocative ideas are sparking numerous debates about the future contours of the Marine Corps, General Berger is right to press for a sharp shift that better positions the Corps for the China challenge.
General Brown would do well to follow General Berger’s lead. The Air Force is in need of a similarly fundamental recalibration. As Chief, General Goldfein made important progress in a wide range of issues. He spearheaded development of the Joint All-Domain Command and Control, or JADC2, an innovative approach that could alter the character of warfare by establishing interoperability between any sensor and any shooter. He prioritized readiness, which had plummeted across the force. He also pushed difficult decisions on leadership, including dramatic changes to the promotion system to make it both more transparent and more bespoke, although its ultimate impact is not yet clear. He stood up the Air Force Integrated Warfighting Capability, or AFWIC, to push the Air Force’s focus and resources in increasingly innovative and sophisticated ways that prioritize future fights—which, as the latest budget proposal shows, has made some important, albeit incomplete, improvements. He further surged AFWIC’s work by naming its deputy director as the new deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration, and requirements—and by promoting him from one to three stars within days. And perhaps above all, his extraordinary leadership in tandem with Chief Wright has reminded the force that issues of racism and inclusion are not political—they are instead critical to righting social injustices that undercut the vision we must aspire to.
But several trends that long predate the current chief have the Air Force in a dire position. Even more than its sister services, whose operations tempo in the Middle East surged in the post-9/11 wars, the Air Force’s inventory is worn by regional combat operations that began a decade earlier in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. That inventory has shrunk considerably over the ensuing decades, yet taking a page out of the Navy’s book to focus on regrowing the number of squadrons is misguided and will be similarly ineffectual. While Air Force leaders publicly praise the creation of the Space Force, they surely must also recognize that the bureaucratic and resource competition has just gotten fiercer. As Todd Harrison wrote last October, the Air Force is in a historically anomalous position with “a budget that is near an all-time high and a force structure that is near an all-time low.” Yet the service is not clearly equipped to make the necessary political arguments; at least, it has long failed to tell a compelling and realistic story about what it brings to the Joint Force. Nor has it made the hard choices to prepare itself for an inescapable characteristic of future battlefields: with challenges to air dominance growing and indeed worsening, the Air Force will only find it harder and harder to “own the air” against a sophisticated adversary and will need to increasingly accept air contestation.
Such a dire situation requires serious leadership to tackle a new set of problems that move beyond admiration and toward necessary decisive actions.
Three Key Decisions
Air Force initiatives to sustain the U.S. military advantage over China hinge on three foundational questions that remain unanswered. If General Brown resolves these, he would be well on his way to making the meaningful and lasting change the Air Force sorely needs. Coming from Pacific Air Forces, General Brown is already seized with the China challenge; the dilemma now is how to push the rest of the Air Force accordingly.
First, whether to prioritize China and Russia equally. The National Defense Strategy prioritizes China and Russia as a class above North Korea, Iran, terrorism, and other security challenges. Following the strategy, the Air Force has harvested resources from lower priorities to accelerate development of the force for great power rivals. The Air Force had to make some hard choices in doing so, such as cutting older aerial refuelers to free up resources for new ones. However, its hard choices are about to get harder. The Air Force, along with the rest of the Department, is likely to see its budget flatline or dip in the wake of the COVID-19 stimulus spending. The growing costs of personnel and operations and maintenance may crowd out funding for modernization. Having already shifted resources to face China and Russia, future tradeoffs may increasingly be between China and Russia.
If faced with this choice, the Air Force should ensure it is pacing off of the China challenge—even if that accretes risk relative to Russia. The stakes in the China competition are simply higher, given China’s greater geopolitical standing and the larger economic interests at play. The Air Force needs to recognize that Chinese and Russian contested environments vary, so how and in what ways it penetrates Chinese and Russian air defenses must as well. And making this recommendation a reality will require smarter decisions for sustainably dealing with the other threats. For example, investing in light attack aircraft for counterterrorism and stability operations in the Middle East and South Asia is long overdue. While it cannot ultimately extract itself from long-term operational requirements, the Air Force can take a smarter approach in doing so.
Second, how to posture forces to fight China within a contested environment. Any plausible war against China will confront the Air Force with China’s anti-access / area-denial capability and put in question the operational viability of its Western Pacific bases and forces. The Defense Department has publicly recognized this since 2012, when it started calling for a more operationally resilient posture in the Asia-Pacific. Despite reiterating the importance of resilience in its basing network ever since, the Air Force has not committed the funds to sufficiently do so. The Air Force’s hesitance is largely driven by the cost. Its force structure and operations were designed for efficiency, massing numerous fighters at a few main operating bases to benefit from economies of scale in maintenance and logistics. It would cost tens of billions to shift from efficiency to resilience by investing in deployable airfields, better regional infrastructure, and combat-capable fuel and logistics supplies. For years, INDOPACOM leaders and multiple chairmen of the Congressional Armed Services Committees have registered their concerns with this lack of resourcing but have been unable to redress it, although the Pacific Deterrence Initiative is a step in the right direction.
The longer the Air Force waits to invest in an operationally resilient forward posture, the more aggravated the problem becomes. This is because the service continues to orient its force structure around fighter planes, and fighter planes depend on operationally viable forward bases or extremely long and tenuous chains of aerial refueling tankers to reach their targets during conflict. There are ways for the Air Force to fight in a contested environment without heavy reliance on fighters, such as using relatively low-cost and attritable unmanned systems. Alternatively, the Air Force can plan to lean more heavily on long-range bombers and standoff missiles to strike inside Chinese air defenses. The answer is unlikely to be one option exclusively over the others but in finding the right balance among them. The Air Force should define this balance, describe the basing network it requires, and commit the resources to build it.
Third, whether to embrace the fact that the future character of warfare is uncertain. Of course it is, thanks to emerging technologies — artificial intelligence, quantum computing, advanced materials, hypersonic missiles — and an economically powerful rival that is at least as good as the United States at turning them into military capabilities. Yet the Air Force is of two minds on whether to accept this fact. One school of thought does so by channeling capability development through rapid prototyping, rapid fielding, and open system design. This allows the Air Force to experiment and fail fast before committing to a set of capabilities to develop, while also keeping those capabilities open for subsequent spirals in design changes and technological upgrades. Another essentially ignores this uncertainty by adhering to a singular prediction of the future, one with a clear vision of not only the capabilities the Air Force requires but in what quantity: 386 operational squadrons as the “Air Force We Need.”
Putting forth an inflexible number may help protect the Air Force’s budget; it may not. More to the point, it is analytically bunk. What might make good politics makes for bad policy. The Air Force’s analysis is at times muddled as it aims to substantiate the need for exactly 386 squadrons while also trying to explore novel concepts and capabilities to defeat China in war. In his confirmation hearing, General Brown reiterated the squadron target but started to deemphasize it, noting that “if we do not achieve 386, we may be a little bit smaller than 386, but we will be more capable.” He should continue this approach and, given the Air Force’s inability to foresee the future, completely abandon the hard target.
The time has come to make the hard decisions that will reorient the Air Force for a new era of competition with China, but so far, calls for change lack the sense of urgency that make many complex and controversial decisions feasible. Those leaders and entities inside the Air Force who want to answer these three foundational questions will need the vocal support of the new chief of staff. Absent such backing, they will fall to pressure from the Air Force’s old guard. General Brown’s mandate is a difficult one, yet he understands it better than most. If he can fulfill it, the United States may retain the upper hand over China.
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