Airpower: Past, Present, and Future

July 1, 1997

President Bush

Former President George Bush gave the keynote address at the Air Force Fifty celebration, held in April in Las Vegas, Nev., using it to express appreciation to Persian Gulf War veterans who achieved such a rapid and decisive victory in that conflict.

Bush said that being commander in chief “at what I believe was perhaps the Air Force’s finest hour in its 50 years” was among his “greatest privileges” in office. The recipe for success in the Gulf, he said, was a clearly defined mission, coalition-building, and readiness.

Bush said he resolved early in the crisis to work hard for a peaceful, diplomatic solution but if that failed to stand back and “let the military do the fighting . . . free of undue influence from the politicians.”

Heavy investment in defense long before the crisis helped carry the day in Operation Desert Storm, Bush said. He described readiness of the armed forces as “in total disarray” in 1981, at the start of the Reagan buildup, but only nine years later, “the ‘smart’ weapons, which had not distinguished themselves in Vietnam, were now at their sophisticated best,” and the US possessed “weaponry on the cutting edge of technology.”

Confessing to some skepticism that airpower could indeed deliver a preemptive knockout, Bush said he would never forget “the relief I felt as our pilots and weapons lived up to their promise. The skill of our coalition pilots and the amazing accuracy with which those weapons performed spared an awful lot of civilian life.”

He told the Gulf War vets in attendance, “Thanks to your determination and skill, we owned the sky from the start,” a fact “crucial . . . to our ultimate victory.”

Bush observed that the Air Force’s capabilities “showcased” in the war “will, in the future, help to deter war, for don’t lose sight of the fact that the credibility of our fighting forces achieved new heights around the world. . . . Few were left doubting the will or the capability of the United States.”

In the absence of a Cold War, “our policy priorities have shifted to getting our domestic and economic house in order. That is fine, but it should not be done at the expense of our military strength and preparedness.”

Prime Minister Thatcher

Margaret H. Thatcher, Britain’s Prime Minister during the Reagan and Bush years, echoed Bush’s warnings against the rising threat of weapons of mass destruction. She emphasized that USAF had a “vital” role to play in countering this menace, especially in defense against the threat of ballistic missiles.

“The Gulf War was a vivid reminder that evil will always be with us and that dictators will not suddenly become an extinct species,” Thatcher warned. “Your effectiveness wields enormous influence on world events.”

She credited USAF’s “strength and foresight,” as well as “astonishing” technological achievements during the Cold War, as major factors in the collapse of Soviet Communism but said that “now, your role extends beyond the bounds of the Cold War world.”

The technological advances of the past half-century, she said, “have transformed the scope of military operations” around the world. “No part of the globe is now beyond the reach of the power and precision of the United States Air Force.”

In wishing a “joyous birthday” to USAF, Thatcher expressed her pride in the “great Anglo-American alliance, the greatest force for liberty the world has ever known,” and offered that “My generation will never forget the courage and selflessness of young Americans who risked—and in many cases gave—their lives that liberty should prevail.”

Though the youngest of the US armed services, the Air Force has “already established a great tradition,” Thatcher said.

Secretary Perry

William J. Perry, the “father of stealth,” told attendees that “battlefield dominance,” achieved for the first time in the Gulf War, is worth a heavy investment because it pays major dividends—shorter wars and dramatically lower casualties.

“We liked it, and we want to keep it,” said the former Defense Secretary.

Perry, when serving as the Pentagon’s research and engineering chief in the Carter Administration, perceived the value of stealth and cruise missile research and laid the groundwork for today’s high-technology weaponry.

The decisiveness of the Gulf War victory was a benefit of the “offset” strategy of the Cold War, Perry explained. Rather than “bankrupt” the US by trying to match the Soviet Union one-for-one in airplanes, tanks, and troops, the US adopted a strategy of offsetting Moscow’s numerical advantage with more sophisticated systems.

The strategy of overmatching potential enemies is one that should be continued, he said, because adversaries will think twice about aggression if they know that the consequences will be swift and devastating.

Perry said the nation has made a smooth and successful transition from the strategy of “containment” of a single nation—the USSR—to one of more generalized “preventive defense.”

Through the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, the US has helped its former enemies destroy 4,000 nuclear warheads and 800 launchers “previously aimed at targets in the United States,” Perry noted. Three nations with formidable nuclear arsenals have become “nonnuclear” under the program, he observed, asserting that the money directed into such efforts paid back “enormous dividends” in a “real reduction” of the nuclear threat to the US. It is a program that deserves continued funding, given its success, he said.

Perry noted that, in the old days, defense investments spurred commercial breakthroughs, but changes in the economy have reversed that situation, and today “the military must now rest on the shoulders of the commercial world.”

It will be necessary, he said, for the military to make greater use of off-the-shelf commercial products if it hopes to afford high technology and stay “in sync” with the pace of technological progress, which far outstrips the ability of the defense bureaucracy to keep up.

Secretary Widnall

From the beginning, the Air Force has embraced new technology and evolved to adapt to new conditions, opportunities, and requirements and is on the verge of doing so again, said USAF’s civilian leader, Dr. Sheila E. Widnall

“We have been an institution in transformation pretty much continually throughout our existence,” said the Secretary of the Air Force. Such a heritage, she added, will serve USAF well as it moves “into a new era: the era of the ‘space and air force’ of the next century.”

Important changes are often imperceptible, Widnall continued, and almost without realizing it, the service has built itself into a force “in which our spacebased capabilities are integral to every operation we conduct.” These systems are “the glue that holds our joint team together” and affords the “information dominance and global awareness that we have come to take for granted.”

Remove the navigation, communication, weather, and intelligence satellites from the Air Force picture, and virtually all other capabilities would “collapse,” she said. Spacebased systems are “pumping the blood of information through the body of our combat forces.”

Their importance will grow in the years to come, Widnall continued, as satellites pipe up-to-the-minute information directly to the cockpits of fighter planes and the sensors on weapons, well after the mission is under way. Soon, such a scenario will be “routine,” she said.

In fact, the Air Force is on its way to becoming “one enormous network of sensors, command centers, and shooters,” she said. “Already, we are nearing the ability to find, fix, track, and target from space anything of consequence on the face of the Earth” and soon will be able to do so in “near–real time.”

Once that happens, “the face of warfare will be forever changed,” with consequences likely not even imaginable today.

General Fogleman

Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, the USAF Chief of Staff, said the gathering of global air chiefs, 81 of whom conferred in conjunction with Air Force Fifty, had succeeded “far beyond” expectations.

The point of the conference, he said, was to make and renew the interpersonal relationships among the air chiefs, “because, in the end, everything happens because of people-to-people relationships.” Being familiar with each others’ counterparts, Fogleman said, can help cut through the red tape in a crisis when minutes count. He cited such personal diplomacy as instrumental in obtaining Switzerland’s permission to fly through its airspace to maintain relief flights to Bosnia-Hercegovina and in securing Kenya’s assistance in staging relief missions to Somalia and Rwanda.

Fellow airmen “made the case for us” in those circumstances, the General added.

“Many of our successes” in the last decade “were quietly worked” on a personal basis, Fogleman said, and while the benefits of such contacts are hard to quantify immediately, the payoff in the long run should be substantial.

Another benefit of the conference was to provide the assembled air chiefs with a chance to see US aerospace hardware up close and make contact with industry representatives.

“Our number one export in this country is aerospace products,” Fogleman said, noting that some of the air chiefs are also the heads of national airlines or civil aeronautics boards in their own countries and in a position to make or influence infrastructure decisions.

Fogleman said he expects that unmanned aerial vehicles will begin to pick up additional missions in reconnaissance, surveillance, and intelligence but that “probably the next area that we will see UAVs move into will be the radio relay business.”

Long-loiter UAVs will be able to perform the same tasks as such aircraft as the EC-130, freeing crews to work in command posts and reducing the need for support personnel. Beyond the radio relay task, Fogleman next sees UAVs adopting part of the defense-suppression mission. The emergence of fighter-attack UAVs is “out there” about 25 years into the future, he predicted.

General Deynekin

The head of the Russian air force, Gen. Col. Peter S. Deynekin, emphasized the emergence of a new camaraderie between US and Russian air services, once deadly enemies. He also won extended applause from the attendees when he congratulated the Air Force for having “liberated itself from the command of the Army” in 1947 and obtaining the right to “flourish independently.”

The Russian air chief harked back to Russo-American cooperation in World War II and expressed the “heartfelt” thanks of Russia for American lend-lease assistance, when Washington sent P-39 Airacobras to help equip Russian air forces.

He dramatized the double turnaround in relations since then by recalling a hostile—though nonviolent—encounter between a Soviet Tu-95 “Bear” bomber, flown by him as a young captain, and an intercepting F-4 Phantom II fighter, flown by then-Maj. Merrill A. McPeak, later to become USAF Chief of Staff.

“We once again met in the American skies in May of 1992,” said the Russian General, “now-General McPeak in an F-16 and myself in a B-1B. But this flight was different. This was a flight of friends and not enemies. And where once pilots flew wing-to-wing, the astronauts now fly shoulder-to-shoulder in space,” aboard the Russian Mir space station.

General Estes

Gen. Howell M. Estes III, the nation’s top officer for space, opened his remarks with a pointed request that any such gathering in the future be entitled “International Air- and Spacepower Symposium” to recognize the medium’s growing importance.

He is commander in chief of US Space Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command and commander of Air Force Space Command.

Estes enumerated the many facets of current and planned responsibilities of Space Command, from providing intelligence, targeting, and navigational aids for combat aircraft, to pursuing a new expendable launch vehicle, to orchestrating a future theater and strategic ballistic missile defense.

He predicted that air traffic control operations will move into space and that an orbital radar system will be developed to provide “a real-time picture of things moving on and just above the Earth.” Despite the expense of the venture, he said, “I believe it is only a matter of time . . . and money” before it appears.

Estes explained how the Defense Department is pursuing the next generation of expendable launch vehicles while NASA is developing the next reusable launch vehicle to replace the space shuttle, with cooperation between the two agencies.

Regarding heavy launch, Estes said the US will “easily” achieve the required 25 to 50 percent reduction in the cost of launch. In fact, he believes the savings will be “greater than 50 percent.”

He went on to predict that by 2025, “we’ll be routinely operating spaceplanes,” given the state of technology today.

Noting that space control is one of the core competencies assigned to Space Command, Estes said, “We are going to have to prepare, as a nation, to deal with threats to our civil and military systems in space. Without question, we are going to be challenged at some point in the future.” Given the $100 billion worth of US military and commercial satellites on orbit, and the national dependence on their functioning properly and without interruption, space as a place has become “a national security interest, as other economic investments we have made around the world have been.” Inevitably, an enemy will attempt to strike at US satellites, Estes asserted.

Philip Condit

Representing industry at the symposium was Philip M. Condit, chairman and chief executive officer of Boeing. Condit praised the Air Force and AFA as being successful because of a willingness to gamble and to try radically new things.

“You . . . embody courage and commitment and vision,” he said. “You have often been pioneers. You are willing to take risks. You are willing to learn, and you have been willing to lead the way.”

Condit noted several episodes of quantum jumps in the progress of aviation, brought on by an unwillingness to settle for slow improvement.

Within three years of the end of World War II, said Condit, Boeing engineers translated German war research on sweptwing aircraft into the Air Force B-47 bomber. With thin wings swept back 35° and engines mounted under the wings in pods, the B-47 “was a radical departure from traditional aircraft design.”

The following year, Boeing managers went to Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, to submit a straightwing, propeller-driven design for a new, very-long-range bomber for Strategic Air Command. The design was rejected by the bomber program head, Col. Pete Warden. Warden, said Condit, “was convinced that the time for change had arrived and that Boeing should build a sweptwing bomber and not a turboprop.”

Retreating to a hotel room on a Thursday, a team of seven Boeing designers and managers did some calculations. Using some locally bought balsa wood and knives, they prepared a prototype model of what would later become the B-52 bomber. The following Monday, they submitted the design and won approval to build the airplane, still in service 45 years after first flight.

“From that five-day effort in a hotel room in Dayton, airpower changed dramatically,” Condit asserted. He chalked up the achievement to the designers’ knowledge and willingness to listen and learn. Condit said he believes “we are at one of those same points in history today,” where a dramatic technological leap is in the offing.

“Imagine . . . what it really means to be able to take data from satellites, from aircraft, to merge them to form a vivid picture . . . of everything that is going on,” said the Boeing executive. “Think about how that changes the fundamental view of warfare and potential warfare . . . I believe we can and will revolutionize the command and control of future battlespace.”

Toffler’s Future

Futurist Alvin Toffler shook up symposium attendees with a forecast of how the Air Force will have to configure itself to deal with the future.

The Air Force will soon find itself “in a world in which unmanned flight, nonlethal weaponry, and, above all, instantly available satellite intelligence, fused with human . . . and open-source intelligence, all become vitally important to maintaining peace. . . . It is a world in which spacebased sensors do a far better job of locating weapons of mass destruction, . . . a world in which airborne lasers can detonate enemy or rogue missiles before they do any damage.”

The world, Toffler said, is in the throes of profound changes “that go far deeper than just the end of the Cold War” and will radically affect how wars are fought and how security is measured in the coming decades.

According to Toffler, the world is no longer following the “rules” of international relations that have held for 300 years. It is impossible for any nation—especially the US—to “restructure its military, to maintain an appropriate industrial base, let alone imagine the next 50 years of airpower, if its model of global relations and its theories of conflict are obsolete,” said Toffler. He added, “We believe they are.”

In Toffler’s view, the agrarian-, machine-, and information-based economies and cultures of the world are now in constant collision, as evidenced by conflicts involving everything from religious fundamentalism to cyberwar.

To cope, the Air Force will have to rely increasingly on information- and intelligence-collection systems—not necessarily for use in precision targeting but to assist in what he called “antiwar” operations. These would be aimed at nipping conflict in the bud before it became uncontrollably destructive.

“The lesson of history,” he said, “is that massive change doesn’t happen without massive conflict, and our task is to prevent that conflict from reaching another level of violence.” He went on, “In such a world, anticipatory, preventive, ‘antiwar’ action becomes a survival necessity.”

Failure to take this approach is to invite attack from opponents up and down the scale of wealth, each of whom would have access to weapons of mass destruction and the means to “crash” major parts of the US communications system.

The future military will need to consist of “smaller, faster, smarter, instantly reconfigurable forces capable of pinpoint action with minimal bloodshed,” said Toffler, “a world of Sun Tzu technology in which the best victories are those that come without combat and in which information superiority can prevent or even win wars before they begin.”