Revolution by Adaptation

Feb. 1, 2004

James G. Roche, Secretary of the Air Force, has been the service’s top civilian leader since mid-2001. On Dec. 4, 2003, he addressed the United States of America Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Conference in Washington, D.C., where he presented a broad portrait of USAF transformation efforts. What follows are excerpts of his remarks.

“Serious Error”

“There are some who mistakenly equate modernization with transformation. This is a serious error. New systems can just as easily serve obsolete strategies or operational concepts. If they do, they will be as irrelevant to the realities of the 21st century as the Curtiss JN-4 Jenny was to General Arnold in World War II or the P-51 Mustang was to General Horner in the Persian Gulf War. This is not to say that our legacy systems are condemned to irrelevance. … The imperatives of this era demand that we modify our legacy systems, as well as the systems currently under development, and ensure that, when employed, we use them in ways that are suitable to the strategies we must support and the missions we must perform.”

The Catalysts

“Advances in GPS-aided munitions, low observable technologies, space-based systems, manipulation of information, joint integration and communications, and smart weapons have revolutionized the way in which we conduct war. Many of these programs bridge the gap from the Cold War to the era of asymmetric war and still fit nicely into our concept of transformational systems.”


“It is entirely appropriate for us to suggest that the B-1, as we employ it today, is transformational—certainly not because it is a new system but because we are using it in ways never conceived of previously and gauging our success in terms of battlefield capability. With intercontinental range, duration over a target area measured in hours, and the new tactic of stacking aircraft for execution of time sensitive or emerging targets, the ability to carry 24 GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions or 24 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles—and in the future, 24 JASSM-Extended Range weapons—we have made this aircraft much more than relevant to the new era.”

Battlefield Air Operations

“In Operation Enduring Freedom, [USAF employed] a variety of systems that enabled us to convert ‘Battlefield Air Operations’ from a concept into a reality. A decade ago, we were concerned with the relevance of the B-52. Who would ever have predicted we’d employ B-52s from 39,000 feet in a close air support role? Combining technology such as the Global Positioning System and the Joint Direct Attack Munition with the expert skill of airmen on the ground using new technology, B-1s and B-52s successfully neutralized and destroyed Taliban forces in Afghanistan, even those in close proximity to friendly forces. We now have to deal with B-52 crews who think they are F-16CJ crews!”

Dawn of an Era

“While the Predator and Global Hawk often get the headlines, we know there were—and are—a broad range of UAV platforms and capabilities employed by other services in Operation Iraqi Freedom. We have shown that less expensive, limited-capability UAVs can [gain] leverage [from] the power of network operations to accomplish complex and demanding missions. They have shown promise in a variety of missions, from traditional ISR functions and battle damage assessment to interdiction under certain circumstances. They offer expanding opportunities for new and unique capabilities, for persistence and digital acuity, and they offer an invaluable advantage—the ability to perform needed missions without putting our warfighters into harm’s way.”

“New Form of Airpower”

“General Jumper and I believe that we should look at the development of unmanned vehicles and remotely piloted aircraft as a new form of airpower, not as a means of giving us capabilities we already possess but without the onboard pilots. We need to develop new capabilities that complement the advantages that manned systems bring to the fight, and we need to develop capabilities for UAVs without restricting our ideas to the limitations imposed by manned aircraft systems, such as G-force restrictions and environmental controls designed for humans.”

Done That

“The Air Force has always adapted its strategies, organizations, and technology to the realities of the present and the future. The decade of the 1990s, often referred to as the ‘post-Cold War era,’ in retrospect, now looks more like an entire era of transformation. We restructured and reorganized our force to meet a variety of threats [rather than] a single threat, and we developed new ways of delivering capability. Our evolution from Cold War organizational models to the composite wing construct, followed by our introduction of the AEF concept, and our reorganization into the combat wing organization demonstrates how we’ve engaged in a continuous process of adjusting to a new era of new threats.”

“Transition Force”

“Today’s force—while capable and flexible and possessing unmatched speed, range, and precision—is a transition force. Our legacy aircraft and satellite systems were built with specialized roles and for a threat that has long since disappeared. Over the past decade, we’ve made marvelous advances in fielding a new generation of weapons that have enabled us to shift our focus from the number of airplanes it takes to destroy a single target, to the number of targets we can destroy with a single aircraft. Yet, our aircraft have limited networking, limited all-weather delivery, and limited standoff, and our sensors—whether airborne or spaceborne—are not yet fully integrated.”

The Vision Force

“Our force of the future will be much different. We will employ multimission aircraft systems, with multispectral, fused sensors, and robust, all-weather weapons delivery with increased standoff capability. We’ll deploy with reduced logistics tails, and we’ll attack with vastly improved range, payload, speed, maneuverability, and precision. We’ll launch new generations of satellites into orbit with more operationally responsive launch systems. Our vision is one of a fully integrated force of manned, unmanned, and space assets that communicate at the machine-to-machine level and deliver a capability to conduct near-instantaneous global attack against a range of threats and targets. We are developing a variety of systems that fulfill these objectives: the multimission command and control constellation, the smart tanker, an entire generation of unmanned vehicles, small diameter weapons, and the airborne laser—to name just a few.”

The Great Adaptation

“Technology is creating dynamic asymmetric advances in information systems, communications, and weapon systems, enabling us to identify targets, employ forces, and deliver more precise effects faster than ever before. Our airmen are more educated, more motivated, and better trained and equipped than at any time in our past, creating advantages for our service and delivering capability to our nation. … We are in the midst of a truly revolutionary adaptation of our organizations, equipment, and operational concepts.”