This month marks 18 years since the United States launched its first counterstrikes after 9/11. The generation of recruits now joining the Air Force was born after that worst-ever terrorist attack on US soil; America has been at war for their entire lives.
In that time, our Air Force has developed and fielded new weapons, such as the MQ-9 Reaper and F-35 fighter, and found new ways to employ old ones, such as using B-1 and B-52 bombers for close air support. Improved intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems and better computer analysis tools have likewise enhanced commanders’ ability to gather and unify intelligence and to operate effectively with joint force and coalition partners.
Yet the US military has honed its 21st century warfighting skills not against peer competitors, but rather insurgent targets in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Rivals are eating away at its advantages in both low- and high-end fights. Today, forces are vulnerable in multiple areas:
- Iran and its Houthi rebel proxies in Yemen have each demonstrated an ability to knock down slow-moving American drones.
- Russia has enhanced its ability to identify and strike incoming targets with its next-generation S-400 mobile anti-aircraft system, the most advanced of its kind, with a range of 400 km, 30 percent greater than the S-300. It is already working on an S-500, “and that range is just going to get longer and longer,” says a senior analyst and integrated air defense systems expert with the Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC).
- China is developing counter-stealth stealth technology by integrating multiple types of radars, operating in different frequency bands and modes, along with infrared, electro-optical, and acoustic sensors, making America’s low-observable aircraft easier to spot and track.
Age and wear, meanwhile, are catching up with US forces, especially the US Air Force: F-16s average over 28 years old; F-15Cs average 35; and even F-22s, new by comparative standards, are already averaging 12 years of age. Given a year to raise mission capable rates above 80 percent for its top-line fighters, USAF couldn’t deliver.
The bomber force is even older. The Air Force has just 20 B-2 bombers, aircraft that are already in their third decade, and their planned successor, the B-21, is still more than a year away from its first flight. Meanwhile, the venerable B-52, the workhorse of the bomber fleet, is about 58—uncharted territory. The plan is to keep them around for decades more. For today’s young airmen, this is not your father’s Air Force. Oh, no. This is your grandfather’s Air Force.
China’s interests are global. With a population of 1.4 billion people to feed, an insatiable appetite for energy and raw materials, and a robust requirement for global markets in order to sustain its fast-growing, manufacturing-based export economy, China sees itself at the center of the universe. More than a benign trade rival, it is ideologically opposed to American influence and the Western freedoms we take for granted: freedom of speech and religion, freedom of movement, intellectual property rights. China wants others to follow its model and hopes to supplant the US as the world’s greatest economic and military power.
“They’re dumping so much money into research,” the NASIC analyst said, that China is rapidly closing the gap with the US military. Watching what works for the US military, it is incorporating computers, networking, and other advanced technologies. One example: Integrated air defenses that used to rely on point-to-point data links, making them vulnerable to disruption, now employ robust, automated, and more survivable networks.
China and Russia have used these past 18 years to study the American way of war, emulating what they see as useful and identifying weaknesses they can seek to exploit in the future. Like a football coach with access to his rival’s playbook, China now knows how to read America’s offense and defense and to anticipate what plays will be called and when.
In a new report produced for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies starts from the premise that America is losing its competitive edge and that the greatest Air Force ever built is now so dependent on a small number of sophisticated weapons that it can no longer afford to take operational risk.
“China is developing their own theory of system conflict,” says Heather Penney, a senior resident fellow at Mitchell and a co-author of the study. That system targets “our data links and information networks to disrupt our information flows” and aims to dismantle “key nodes of our operational system, specifically our command and control to get inside of our decision cycles and induce even further confusion.”
The study offers a vision for how to turn things around. Its report, “Restoring America’s Military Competitiveness: Mosaic Warfare,” introduces a game-changing, force design concept that could help rewrite the US playbook to create a perpetually changing, unpredictable puzzle to adversaries.
To seize back the initiative, DARPA’s Mosaic concept would gradually trade today’s platform-centric force design and its small number of highly integrated and extremely expensive systems in favor of a highly disaggregated web of lower-cost, more specialized assets, none of which can be deemed a critical point of risk. Like an artist’s colored tiles or a child’s Lego bricks, these pieces could be assembled, disassembled, and reassembled in an infinite number of ways, creating a widely dispersed web of weapons and sensors to confound adversaries with a constantly changing and overwhelming set of threats.
It’s not all new. The concept builds on ideas already being investigated by the Air Force: swarming drones, loyal wingman, and Next-Generation Air Dominance, which like Mosaic, has been described as a system of systems, rather than a platform. It is encouraging to see DARPA and the Air Force so closely aligned.
The risk now is not that leaders rush ahead and experiment—that is essential. Rather, it is that they not put off near-term modernization while waiting for future concepts to mature. That is a risk the Air Force cannot afford—now or ever.