Stratfor: “The U.S. Air Force and the Next War”

A few comments about this report by George Friedman of Stratfor

(1) This is the type of analysis Stratfor does best, and they do it well.

(2)  The desire to see reform at DoD burns in many of us.  Unfortunately, it leads many folks to over-enthusiasm at trivial (Gates’ speeches) or conjectural reform efforts.  Gates’ replacing elements of the USAF leadership might be the first steps of a serious effort.  Or not.  We do not know.

(3)  Most (almost all) initiatives to reform DoD burn out, while DoD continues on its merry way.  They out-muscle or outlast the forces of reform.  Gates will soon be gone, replaced by someone appointed by President Obama — who will spend time settling in, building influence, and establishing his (or her) own agenda.  (Gates might be reappointed by McCain, or even Obama (the latter I consider unlikely).

(4)  The debate about our defense policy is constrained — even determined — by our Grand Strategy.  IMO that is the key, indeed vital, starting point.  But too “big picture” for the operational folks running our government.  In this we are like the Prussian military, burning their nation to the ground in two world wars while attempting to win by overcoming flawed strategies with operational excellence. 

(5)  Friedman resorts to a standard, almost mindless criticism of 4GW theory:  there have always been 4GWs.  In his words, “It is just resistance … faced by everyone from Alexander to Hitler.”  This is the General Zeno answer:  motion (progress) in the military arts is impossible — only technology changes.  While nothing in 4GW is unique, like many forms of human society it has developed over time.  America’s republican government is in many ways more sophisticated than that the Roundheads fought the Cavaliers about.  Similarly, Mao brought 4GW to a level of operational power greater than anything Alexander faced.

The U.S. Air Force and the Next War“, George Friedman, Stratfor (11 June 2008)

Re-posted with permission; see notice at the end.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has fired the secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force chief of staff. The official reason given for the firings was the mishandling of nuclear weapons and equipment related to nuclear weapons, which included allowing an aircraft to fly within the United States with six armed nuclear weapons on board and accidentally shipping nuclear triggers to Taiwan. An investigation conducted by a Navy admiral concluded that Air Force expertise in handling nuclear weapons had declined.

Focusing on Present Conflicts

While Gates insisted that this was the immediate reason for the firings, he has sharply criticized the Air Force for failing to reorient itself to the types of conflict in which the United States is currently engaged. Where the Air Force leadership wanted to focus on deploying a new generation of fighter aircraft, Gates wanted them deploying additional unmanned aircraft able to provide reconnaissance and carry out airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These are not trivial issues, but they are the tip of the iceberg in a much more fundamental strategic debate going on in the U.S. defense community. Gates put the issue succinctly when he recently said that “I have noticed too much of a tendency toward what might be called ‘next-war-itis’ — the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict.” This is what the firings were about.

Naturally, as soon as the firings were announced, there were people who assumed they occurred because these two were unwilling to go along with plans to bomb Iran. At this point, the urban legend of an imminent war with Iran has permeated the culture. But the Air Force is the one place where calls for an air attack would find little resistance, particularly at the top, because it would give the Air Force the kind of mission it really knows how to do and is good at. The whole issue in these firings is whether what the Air Force is good at is what the United States needs.

There is a neat alignment of the issues involved in the firings. Nuclear arms were the quintessential weapons of the Cold War, the last generation. Predators and similar unmanned aircraft are part of this generation’s warfare. The Air Force sees F-22s and other conventional technologyas the key weapons of the next generation. The Air Force leadership, facing decades-long timelines in fielding new weapons systems, feels it must focus on the next war now. Gates, responsible for fighting this generation’s war, sees the Air Force as neglecting current requirements. He also views it as essentially having lost interest and expertise in the last generation’s weapons, which are still important — not to mention extremely dangerous.

Fighting the Last War

The classic charge against generals is that they always want to fight the last war again. In charging the Air Force with wanting to fight the next war now, Gates is saying the Air Force has replaced the old problem with a new one. The Air Force’s view of the situation is that if all resources are poured into fighting this war, the United States will emerge from it unprepared to fight the next war. Underneath this discussion of past and future wars is a more important and defining set of questions. First, can the United States afford to fight this war while simultaneously preparing for the next one? Second, what will the next war look like; will it be different from this one?

There is a school of thought in the military that argues that we have now entered the fourth generation of warfare. The first generation of war, according to this theory, involved columns and lines of troops firing muzzle-loaded weapons in volleys. The second generation consisted of warfare involving indirect fire (artillery) and massed movement, as seen in World War I. Third-generation warfare comprised mobile warfare, focused on outmaneuvering the enemy, penetrating enemy lines and encircling them, as was done with armor during World War II. The first three generations of warfare involved large numbers of troops, equipment and logistics. Large territorial organizations — namely, nation-states — were required to carry them out.

Fourth-generation warfare is warfare carried out by nonstate actors using small, decentralized units and individuals to strike at enemy forces and, more important, create political support among the population. The classic example of fourth-generation warfare would be the intifadas carried out by Palestinians against Israel. They involved everything from rioters throwing rocks to kidnappings to suicide bombings. The Palestinians could not defeat the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), a classic third-generation force, in any conventional sense — but neither could the IDF vanquish the intifadas, since the battlefield was the Palestinians themselves. So long as the Palestinians were prepared to support their fourth-generation warriors, they could extract an ongoing price against Israeli civilians and soldiers. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict thus became one of morale rather than materiel. This was the model, of course, the United States encountered in Iraq.

Fourth-generation warfare has always existed. Imperial Britain faced it in Afghanistan. The United States faced it at the turn of the last century in the Philippines. King David waged fourth-generation warfare in Galilee. It has been a constant mode of warfare. The theorists of fourth-generational warfare are not arguing that the United States will face this type of war along with others, but that going forward, this type of warfare will dominate — that the wars of the future will be fourth-generation wars.

Nation-States and Fourth-Generation Warfare

Implicit in this argument is the view that the nation-state, which has dominated warfare since the invention of firearms, is no longer the primary agent of wars. Each of the previous three generations of warfare required manpower and resources on a very large scale that only a nation-state could provide. Fidel Castro in the Cuban mountains, for example, could not field an armored division, an infantry brigade or a rifle regiment; it took a nation to fight the first three generations of warfare.

The argument now is that nations are not the agents of wars but its victims. Wars will not be fought between nations, but between nations and subnational groups that are decentralized, sparse, dispersed and primarily conducting war to attack their target’s morale. The very size of the forces dispersed by a nation-state makes them vulnerable to subnational groups by providing a target-rich environment. Being sparse and politically capable, the insurgent groups blend into the population and are difficult to ferret out and defeat.

In such a war, the nation-state’s primary mission is to identify the enemy, separate him from the population and destroy him. It is critical to be surgical in attacking the enemy, since the enemy wins whenever an attack by the nation-state hits the noncombatant population, even if its own forces are destroyed — this is political warfare. Therefore, the key to success — if success is possible — is intelligence. It is necessary to know the enemy’s whereabouts, and strike him when he is not near the noncombatant population.

The Air Force and UAVs

In fourth-generation warfare, therefore, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are one of the keys to defeating the substate actor. They gather intelligence, wait until the target is not surrounded by noncombatants and strike suddenly and without warning. It is the quintessential warfare for a technologically advanced nation fighting a subnational insurgent group embedded in the population. It is not surprising that Gates, charged with prosecuting a fourth-generation war, is furious at the Air Force for focusing on fighter planes when what it needs are more and better UAVs.

The Air Force, which was built around the concept of air superiority and strategic bombing, has a visceral objection to unmanned aircraft. From its inception, the Air Force (and the Army Air Corps before it) argued that modern warfare would be fought between nation-states, and that the defining weapon in this kind of war would be the manned bomber attacking targets with precision. When it became apparent that the manned bomber was highly vulnerable to enemy fighters and anti-aircraft systems, the doctrine was modified with the argument that the Air Force’s task was to establish air superiority using fighter aircraft to sweep the skies of the enemy and strike aircraft to take out anti-aircraft systems — clearing the way for bombers or, later, the attack aircraft.

The response to the Air Force position is that the United States is no longer fighting the first three types of war, and that the only wars the United States will fight now will be fourth-generation wars where command of the air is both a given and irrelevant. The Air Force’s mission would thus be obsolete. Only nation-states have the resources to resist U.S. airpower, and the United States isn’t going to be fighting one of them again.

This should be the key point of contention for the Air Force, which should argue that there is no such thing as fourth-generation warfare. There have always been guerrillas, assassins and other forms of politico-military operatives. With the invention of explosives, they have been able to kill more people than before, but there is nothing new in this. What is called fourth-generation warfare is simply a type of war faced by everyone from Alexander to Hitler. It is just resistance. This has not superseded third-generation warfare; it merely happens to be the type of warfare the United States has faced recently.

Wars between nation-states, such as World War I and World War II, are rare in the sense that the United States fought many more wars like the Huk rising in the Philippines or the Vietnam War in its guerrilla phase than it did world wars. Nevertheless, it was the two world wars that determined the future of the world and threatened fundamental U.S. interests. The United States can lose a dozen Vietnams or Iraqs and not have its interests harmed. But losing a war with a nation-state could be catastrophic.

The Next War vs. the War That Matters

The response to Gates, therefore, is that the Air Force is not preparing for the next war. It is preparing for the war that really matters rather than focusing on an insurgency that ultimately cannot threaten fundamental U.S. interests. Gates, of course, would answer that the Air Force is cavalier with the lives of troops who are fighting the current war as it prepares to fight some notional war. The Air Force would counter that the notional war it is preparing to fight could decide the survival of the United States, while the war being fought by Gates won’t. At this point, the argument would deadlock, and the president and Congress would decide where to place their bets.

But the argument is not quite over at this point. The Air Force’s point about preparing for the decisive wars is, in our mind, well-taken. It is hard for us to accept the idea that the nation-state is helpless in front of determined subnational groups. More important, it is hard for us to accept the idea that international warfare is at an end. There have been long periods in the past of relative tranquility between nation-states — such as, for example, the period between the fall of Napoleon and World War I. Wars between nations were sparse, and the European powers focused on fourth-generational resistance in their colonies. But when war came in 1914, it came with a vengeance.

Our question regards the weapons the Air Force wants to procure. It wants to build the F-22 fighter at enormous cost, which is designed to penetrate enemy airspace, defeat enemy fighter aircraft and deliver ordnance with precision to a particular point on the map. Why would one use a manned aircraft for that mission? The evolution of cruise missiles with greater range and speed permits the delivery of the same ordnance to the same target without having a pilot in the cockpit. Indeed, cruise missiles can engage in evasive maneuvers at g-forces that would kill a pilot. And cruise missiles exist that could serve as unmanned aircraft, flying to the target, releasing submunitions and returning home. The combination of space-based reconnaissance and the unmanned cruise missile — in particular, next-generation systems able to move at hypersonic speeds (in excess of five times the speed of sound) — would appear a much more efficient and effective solution to the problem of the next generation of warfare.

We could argue that both Gates and the Air Force are missing the point. Gates is right that the Air Force should focus on unmanned aircraft; technology has simply moved beyond the piloted aircraft as a model. But this does not mean the Air Force should not be preparing for the next war. Just as the military should have been preparing for the U.S.-jihadist war while also waging the Cold War, so too, the military should be preparing for the next conflict while fighting this war. For a country that spends as much time in wars as the United States (about 17 percent of the 20th century in major wars, almost all of the 21st century), Gates’ wish to focus so narrowly on this war seems reckless.

At the same time, building a new and fiendishly expensive version of the last generation’s weapons does not necessarily constitute preparing for the next war. The Air Force was built around the piloted combat aircraft. The Navy was built around sailing ships. Those who flew and those who sailed were necessary and courageous. But sailing ships don’t fit into the modern fleet, and it is not clear to us that manned aircraft will fit into high-intensity peer conflict in the future.

We do not agree that preparing for the next war is pathological. We should always be fighting this war and preparing for the next. But we don’t believe the Air Force is preparing for the next war. There will be wars between nations, fought with all the chips on the table. Gates is right that the Air Force should focus on unmanned aircraft. But not because of this war alone.

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12 thoughts on “Stratfor: “The U.S. Air Force and the Next War”

  1. “It wants to build the F-22 fighter at enormous cost, which is designed to penetrate enemy airspace, defeat enemy fighter aircraft and deliver ordnance with precision to a particular point on the map. Why would one use a manned aircraft for that mission? The evolution of cruise missiles with greater range and speed permits the delivery of the same ordnance to the same target without having a pilot in the cockpit.”

    Well, the rationale for the F-22 could probably be better summarized as air superiority (the “defeat enemy fighter aircraft” bit of the above) rather than tactical air support or close air support (the “deliver ordnance to a point on the map” bit). In fairness to the Air Force, Hellfire-armed Predators and other UAVs have begun to demonstrate the viability of UAVs in the ground attack role, but so far nobody has demonstrated (outside the realm of theory) a UAV that excels in the air-to-air role. So there is a rationale, however tenuous, for the F-22.

    Of course, given that UAVs can perform maneuvers that are impossible for manned aircraft (since, as you note, taking the man out of the vehicle allows higher G-loads), it’s probably only a matter of time until we see a “fighter” UAV that poses a credible threat to manned fighters. The Air Force, however, has resisted this conclusion because it has been run by fighter pilots, who (naturally) cannot bring themselves to think of the pilot as the most disposable component of the modern fighter. In this regard, Gates’ choice of General Norton Schwartz, whose background is in transport rather than fighter aviation, to be the new Air Force Chief of Staff is encouraging; perhaps he will bring some perspective to the issue that previous chiefs have lacked.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree. UAV’s have — or eventually will have — other advantages over manned fighters:

    (1) Smaller signature.
    (2) Lower costs, allowing construction and operation of more aircraft.
    (3) Lower cost and no crew allows taking more risks.

    The last might be the most important. The increasing cost of manned aircraft and the ever-lower willingness to take casualties perhaps limits the use of manned aircraft more than any other factor. Warcraft are useless unless they can be put in harms way. UAV’s can be expended like ammo, assuming the targets are cost-effective.

  2. The Air Force, which was built around the concept of air superiority and strategic bombing, has a visceral objection to unmanned aircraft.

    There is a poetic / psychological dimension to this. The fighter pilot is a mythic figure dating back to the Bloody Red Baron. As such, he captures one’s imagination.

    The trick is to find a poetic substitute. To me, the image of falconry works. The idea of sending birds of prey to swoop down upon one’s target jives with the UAV.

    Of course, there also are a host of technical issues; by far the most compelling of which will be that, in any future wars – for economic reasons discussed elsewhere in this blog – the United States will be facing severe cost constraints.

  3. Fabius —

    Thanks for publishing this. As always, Friedman’s analysis may be contested but cannot simply be dismissed. His description of 4GW accords well with the ongoing debate on the subject, in contrast to the simplistic critiques that one often sees today. This site, of course, has become a primary arena for that debate.

    Friedman, however, fails to mention two points that have an impact on future force structure. The first is the advent of nuclear weapons, as noted by theorists from Martin van Creveld to Tom Barnett as changing the nature of warfare more than anything since the invention of weapons themselves — ended it for developed states as Sir Rupert Smith noted at the start of his book.

    So the F-22 and other such weapons are irrelevant for fighting China, Russia, or any other substantial nuclear power, and they are superfluous for fighting states that have not advanced to the level of technology where they could develop such weapons. Against these, modern aircraft such as the F-15 and F-16 do just fine (how many F-15s or F-16s have been lost in air-to-air combat?)

    On the other hand, 4GW, because it uses guerrilla warfare techniques in its early phases, is largely a political struggle. Better ways to kill people, such as UAVs (assuming one has the superlative intel needed to employ such devices) play at most a secondary role in such conflicts. It’s not clear how sate militaries could better prepare for 4GW because they figure so lightly in it.

  4. Chet, whenever power would be prepared if it decides to voluntarily risk and eventually fight a war against major Western powers. And preparation is easy. The current inventory is composed of 1980’s planes and 90’s missiles. The Russians have rather cheap air superiority fighter designs for sale that are superior to F-15’s, they also have TBMs that can bust bridges and long-range missiles that can kill AWACS/JSTARS. To prepare for a war might take only 2-4 years if the power already has a solid force.

  5. Sven,

    A lot of people accept the possibility of a major conventional war with Russia (less so China because getting there poses more of a problem), but I think it fits the category of a “just-so” story: IF the Russians decide to fight NATO, and IF they could pick a theater where NATO would fight them conventionally, and IF they could keep it from going nuclear, and IF their decimated military could somehow learn to fight, and IF airshow tactics (the only thing the new generation of Russian fighters are pretty good at) turned out to be decisive, yeah, then we could replay WWII. Even the Soviets weren’t that irresponsible, and when it came to Afghanistan, neither were we (which is why “picking where to fight” is so important). I mean Afghanistan 1980 – 1989 of course.

    Plus, you’ve have to believe that this chain of events were plausible enough to justify spending money, lots of money, on.

  6. “There will be wars between nations, fought with all the chips on the table.” Perhaps, but for this to happen there must be nations with chips. The reality of contemporary armament is the inexorable trend of smaller and smaller inventories of increasingly expensive weapon systems. A few decades ago we could afford to throw away thousands of helicopters and fighter-bombers in a peripheral war like Vietnam. Today that’s unthinkable — and not just for us.

    We have to overcome sentiment. As a retired USAF command pilot I loved being in the cockpit, but the military realist in me understands that this model for air combat is rapidly being marginalized. (And don’t get me started on the Navy!)

  7. “Warcraft are useless unless they can be put in harms way.”

    Are combat aircraft the Dreadnoughts of the 21st Century?

    Whenever I look at programs like the F-22 and the B-2 they remind me of looking back at the Dreadnoughts of the pre-WWI era — fantastically advanced weapons for their time that were so expensive that they became symbols of national pride, and thus impossible (both for fiscal and prestige reasons) for most powers to actually risk in combat.

    We justify the need for advanced combat aircraft by pointing to the risk of war with future “full-spectrum” opponents. But I wonder, if we ever did get into a war with such an opponent, would the Air Force risk its handful of B-2s in any circumstance short of full-scale nuclear exchange?
    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree! That was the analogy I had in mind.

    To take the analogy one step more: would an opponent likely challenge our air superiority, or find alternative ways to challenge us? As Germany did with aircraft and submarines, to leap over the UK’s command of the channel’s surface waters.

  8. “To take the analogy one step more: would an opponent likely challenge our air superiority, or find alternative ways to challenge us?”

    Oh, a wise opponent would seek alternative ways, to be sure. From a cost-benefit perspective it would be madness to try and confront us head-on in this arena.

    Here’s one alternative I’ve never heard anybody talk about that could be exploited. The weakness of the U.S. Air Force isn’t in its aircraft; it’s in its bases. All those high-tech combat aircraft require an absurdly large logistical footprint to operate, including long concrete runways. Since the bases tend to be far away from the front lines and teeming with civilians, their security tends to be less stringent. And the number of bases is quite limited; indeed, the entire B-2 force appears to be stationed at a single base, Whiteman AFB outside Knob Noster, Missouri.

    Back during the Cold War, I always believed the Soviets would have exploited this weakness by simply hitting the bases in Europe with WMDs on the outbreak of war, thereby eliminating the Air Force as a threat; even if they failed to catch the planes on the ground, those planes that survived would be effectively out of action since they could not operate independent of fixed bases. (The Brits, sensible to this threat, developed the Harrier in part so that they would have at least some air capacity that could be dispersed in the face of such an attack.)

    Today it would be harder for an opponent to exploit this weakness (unless they had a similarly large stockpile of WMDs handy), but not impossible. In a war with Iran, for instance, if the Iranians were to launch coordinated suicide attacks on regional air bases with the objective of disrupting operations, they could potentially put the USAF out of action at the moment when the Army would need them most.

    All of which is a long-winded way of saying that there’s probably lots more upside for an adversary to attack things the planes need to operate — things like bases, fuel supplies, and trained pilots — than there is to attack the planes directly in air-to-air combat.

  9. If the russians really are selling cheap fighers that are superior to the F15, then let’s buy those. Trading with them might even lower the chance of having to fight them. Hooray for outsourcing :P
    Fabuis Maximus replies: This is my nominee for most brilliant comment of the day!

  10. 4G warfare is certainly the governing paradigm these days — Freidman’s attempts to explain this away are unconvincing — but too many of 4G’s proponents have difficulty imagining what will happen next. If we’re to believe Lind’s disciples, nothing will happen next except more of the same; that’s because his articulation of 4G warfare in many ways amounts to a more sophisticated, more negative (and frankly more realistic) remix of Fukuyama’s “end of history” ideas. (The other difference is that Lind’s brilliant and Fukuyama’s a fool.)

    As to where all this is going — and I’m talking across the next several decades–space-based platforms combined with the maturation of speed-of-light weaponry (e.g., lasers, particle beams, etc.) will usher in what we may as well call 5G warfare. The governing attributes of this paradigm will be (a) the supremacy of the nation-state, (b) increased pressure on insurgents, and (c) the end of the nuclear age. I’ve begun publishing an essay that outlines this in detail on my site.

    I like Duncan’s falcon analogy, btw. And Fabius, thanks for reprinting the Freidman essay.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The future is lost in the fog until we get there. However, I suspect that the high-tech weapons you describe are far off. Not due to tech limitiations, but because they offer poor return on investment to State and non-state entities. They will not help control the border areas around the Rio Grande, as smugglers and other crime-networks struggle with each other and the US and Mexican governments. These are, I suspect, the most likely battlegrounds in the next generation.

  11. Anyone besides me notice the assertion that the US could afford a dozen Iraqs? Am I the only one who got a laugh out of that?
    Fabius Maximus replies: It is literally true, as we bore the expense in money and blood of WWII. The idea is, of course, pure insanity — considering that we have gained nothing from the Iraq War.

  12. Fabius asked

    “To take the analogy one step more: would an opponent likely challenge our air superiority, or find alternative ways to challenge us? As Germany did with aircraft and submarines, to leap over the UK’s command of the channel’s surface waters.”

    Well, I’d point out that what Germany did really didn’t work out all that well. But actually you’re already seeing both direct challenges in the form of advanced Russian and Chinese aircraft programs, and attempts to bypass out air superiority. Look, for example, at the number of ballistic missiles China is deploying, including missiles meant as carrier killers. Our F-22s can’t stop these, and it isn’t clear that our missile defenses can either.

    My guess is that attempts to bypass US air superiority will be more effective than direct challenges that play to our strength. Attacks on our space assets can degrade the accuracy of our smart bombs. Missile attacks on our airfields can ground our F-22s, even if the enemy cannot defeat them in dogfights. Missiles can penetrate our air defenses where enemy fighters cannot.

    On the other hand, advanced fighter aircraft can earn hard currency on the export market, and may be more useful as cash cows than as weapon systems.
    FM reply: I disagree. Germany’s war against the UK worked out well, until Hitler expanded the war to include the USSR and USA. As for “advanced foreign fighters — first, the foreign sales just lower the cost (no net benefit, not cash cows). Second, any accelleration in cost for the F-35 (as many expect) will likely result in massive cancellation of foreign orders.

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