USAF Future Air Combat Power

Picture: Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote

The Air Force’s mantra under Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. has been to “accelerate change or lose,” but the most recent wargaming indicates, so far, the latter, according to Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, the Air Force’s futurist. The corrective action is to speed up the deployment of large numbers of unmanned systems and to proliferate operating locations to complicate an enemy’s decision-making, he said.

“Äccelerate change or lose.”

The Air Force is now looking to large numbers of unmanned aircraft as one way to achieve the combat power needed without the expense of building every aeroplane with a seat, displays, and an escape system for a human operator. The profusion of airborne targets,  will make an adversary’s job harder and make it easier for USAF to achieve air superiority at the time and place of its choosing. Hinote did not mention the Next-Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, system as central to this mission.

The service will soon be doing experiments to examine “what does a unit of combat power look like?” he said. “If they’re flying all of these small unmanned aircraft around … to accomplish different things?” he continued. “I don’t know what that looks like, yet. … We need to experiment with that and exactly how to build those units.” However, he called the work “exciting … because we get a chance to shape that for the next generation of Airmen.”

Air superiority has become “much more challenging,” Hinote said, and “it will require us to think differently than we have in the past.” In fact, “I have a lot of trouble with” the idea of perpetual air dominance. For while total air control was a “prerequisite” to almost all military operations, but Hinote said, “I don’t see [that] as a viable thing to try to establish.” New thinking will be needed about “how we’re going to penetrate into those contested areas and how we’re going to create that effect of air superiority.”

The Air Force will have to put more thinking into defending the homeland from air attacks and projecting forces forward to protect allies, he said.

“We are going to have to … reimagine air superiority for the next 40 years,” he said. Hinote expounded on the need to multiply operating locations to complicate the enemy’s targeting problem, saying the Air Force will transition toward a force that increasingly will be “runway independent,” taking advantage of unmanned systems that can launch from a vehicle or patch of ground using “rocket-assisted takeoff” and recover by parachute, and aircraft that can take off and land either on a short runway or road, or vertically. He said the service must evolve from being concentrated on three or four bases to “tens … to thousands.”

“The best way of defending yourself, … given all the firepower an adversary like China could bring to a fight, is you’ve got to disperse; you’ve got to spread out; you’ve got to be able to take a punch to the point where they can’t concentrate on just a few targets.” That translates to more bases and more-smaller-formations, he said, where decision-making is in the hands of people on the scene applying commanders’ intent, especially if communications are interrupted, as they likely will be.

Adversaries have learned to make their crucial assets, such as air defences, mobile, and now the Air Force must adopt that mindset as well, Hinote said. “We want to create that same issue for them.”


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