The Air Force must adapt and transform now to keep pace with strategic competitors
Across its trailblazing 75-year history, the U.S. Air Force’s place as the world’s most capable and most respected source of airpower is well-established. The U.S. Air Force is undeniably proud of that history. Nevertheless, it is a fact that today the Air Force must accelerate change or lose. Current and emerging threats demand nothing less than a transformation that will integrate emerging technologies into new operational concepts, new organizations, and new families of systems designed to ensure the Air Force continues its proud history.
Consistent with the National Defense Strategy and as directed by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, significant steps forward are being taken to begin that transformation in the president’s fiscal year 2023 budget. The Air Force must not only change but accelerate change in order to meet pacing challenges today and defeat those certain to arrive in the future. Such a transformation can be uncomfortable — it demands pushing through technical and cultural boundaries while letting go of familiar systems and concepts. For Airmen, for Congress, and for the nation the Air Force serves, understanding why change is a must and what is beginning to change in this budget is critical. Active support of all the key stakeholders the Air Force depends upon is required to move confidently from the past to the future Air Force needed to win against a peer competitor.
The threats the U.S. and its allies and partners face today are changing dramatically, at unprecedented speed and with a strategic focus on denying the United States the ability to project power in defense of its interests, allies, and values. Indeed, the very character of war and therefore of deterrence itself is changing, driven by strategic competitors; especially the nation’s most pacing challenge, China, but also Russia, which remains an acute threat.
Notably, the Air Force’s investment approach significantly increases research and development. Programs like the Next Generation Air Dominance family of systems, the Joint Advanced Tactical Missile, and the Advanced Battle Management System are on the path to the future. There is also research and development funding to proceed with the acquisition of the Wedgetail surveillance aircraft to replace the venerable but increasingly unsupportable and out of date AWACS system. In other areas, we are speeding the acquisition of systems with specific mission capabilities needed in relatively small numbers, like the F-15E/X, so that resources will be available for development and then procurement of more modern systems.
There is only one path to the future Air Force the nation must have; aggressively moving forward to acquire the capabilities needed to accomplish the missions expected of the Air Force, while simultaneously letting go of legacy capabilities that have served the nation well for decades but will not do so in the future, or even in some cases the present. The Air Force’s approach to this challenge can be found threaded throughout the Air Force’s $194 billion budget request for the 2023 fiscal year. To be sure, balancing competing needs and recognizing difficult trade-offs is tough. This year’s budget proposal and policy decisions position the Air Force to meet current mission needs while also placing the service on the path to the future. However, as modernization efforts become better defined and accelerate, there will be more hard choices to come.
For the last several months the Air Force has been working to define the systems and investments needed to meet several power projection “operational imperatives” that cover the range of capabilities necessary to ensure the Air Force continues its 75 year legacy as a critical element of the Joint Force and the nation’s defense. Some of the results of that work are already reflected in this year’s budget request, but there is more to come. An element of the solution to those imperatives will be teaming crewed aircraft with un-crewed aircraft in a way that cost effectively expands choices in combat while presenting unacceptable choices to and instilling uncertainty among adversaries. The Air Force assesses that the relevant technology has advanced to the point where funding and fielding of meaningful un-crewed combat military capability can move forward. That journey has already begun.
The FY23 budget continues the effort to finance these and other investments in the future in part by divesting legacy aircraft. Some have raised concerns that the Air Force plan to modernize and invest funds in newer weapon systems at the expense of legacy aircraft will create a capability gap. Unfortunately, the capability gap already exists, and retaining older generation aircraft does nothing to close or avoid it. The gap is between today’s Air Force and the Air Force the nation needs to remain competitive against China and Russia. Continuing to expend money and manpower on legacy aircraft that are ill-suited or incapable of providing the war-winning capabilities required to tackle technological advances and future threats risks degrading America’s ability to deter, and if necessary, win in a future fight.
To sustain an enduring advantage, contribute to integrated deterrence, and assure victory for the Joint Force, the United States and the Department of the Air Force must adapt and transform now. History shows that America’s Airmen and the nation are up to the task. By working together and with the support of the Congress and the American people, the Air Force will accelerate change, modernize for the future, and continue to provide the U.S. and its allies with the unparalleled airpower advantage our nation expects. Change is hard; losing is unacceptable.
Mr. Kendall is secretary of the Air Force. Gen. Brown is chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force.