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DSB: U.S. military must trade in air dominance expectations for 'on-demand air superiority'

Jason Sherman
April 18, 2017
Inside Defense SITREP

The U.S. military, which for a generation has wielded the world's preeminent air power capability, needs to prepare to trade in expectations for air dominance -- control of the entire battlespace at all times -- for something new: "on-demand air superiority," a shift due to increasing technological prowess of potential adversaries that will render U.S. air dominance unaffordable.

That is a key finding of a Defense Science Board Task Force on Air Dominance that focused on science, technologies, capabilities and systems for maintaining U.S. control of the skies in the face of projected threats beyond the next decade, an effort that also recommends options to ensure U.S. resilience in increasingly competitive, congested and contested operational environments.

"To achieve 'on-demand air superiority,' the U.S. must pursue a cross-domain strategy to counter proliferating anti-access and area-denial environments," Mark Maybury and David Whelan, study co-chairs, wrote in a December 2016 memo accompanying the report. Maybury is vice president and chief technology officer for the Mitre Corp., and Whelan, chief scientist for Boeing's Defense Space and Security until January.

The full report of the DSB task force is classified; an unclassified executive summary of the report was recently published by the Pentagon.

"This strategy should include elements to both maintain the 5th generation aircraft edge and to enhance the 4th generation aircraft improvements, starting with F/A18-E/F," Maybury and Whelan wrote.

The panel, commissioned in 2014 by then-Pentagon acquisition executive Frank Kendall, also recommends the Pentagon "aim to create an integrated and resilient, high-capacity battle management command, control and communications network to address asymmetries in long-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance," the memo states.

The unclassified summary argues that nations investing in anti-access, area-denial capabilities -- such as Russia and China -- will enjoy "asymmetries" that pose a strategic challenge to U.S. national security policy.

"One of the most significant implications of the threat's asymmetries is the conclusion that to establish and sustain air dominance, the U.S. will require incredibly high levels of fiscal commitment, perhaps for decades, to build the capabilities as well as sustain the appropriate force capacity and readiness levels," according to the summary. "This commitment will require the U.S. government to reorder its national defense and domestic strategies."

The task force concludes that, given the current budget outlook, maintaining air dominance through any large-scale war "may not be fiscally possible."

"An alternative is to ensure superiority at particular places and for limited windows," according to the summary. "The requirement exists, and will continue to exist, for U.S. air forces to establish air superiority when U.S. leadership chooses to impose it. By sustaining the capacity to do so, the U.S. will also establish a highly credible level of deterrence."

While the task force was directed to focus on U.S. air power in the 2030s, the panel raised the indelicate question of the adequacy of today's force.

"[D]oes the U.S. have sufficient capacity in its current air power force structure for future or even near-term sustained air combat operations," the executive summary asks. "Unfortunately, the short answer is not for long."

The panel argues that the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force face large -- "or soon to be large" -- strike fighter shortfalls.

The capacity gap, according to the summary, is "aggravated" by a number of factors, including delays in production rates and cost growth of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency missions since 2003 that exceed assumed aircraft utilization rates that is resulting in combat aircraft being pulled out of service earlier than planned.

"Air dominance implies sufficient force capacity and capability to reign supreme against the defined threat," according to the executive summary. "This DSB task force's mission of guiding progress towards air dominance inside a well-formed [anti-access, area-denial] threat is unachievable within the current fiscal means," according to the report's summary.

The task force, according to the summary, recommends the Pentagon "develop a paradigm and fiscal strategy" to allow the U.S. military to "align research and programming to meet the technical, operational and strategic gaps resident in the current state of U.S. air power capacity and capability."