Nearly 20 years after the US invaded the Middle East in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, discussions about the future of air warfare are turning away from the persistent counterinsurgency missions and regional conflict that have defined modern combat.
Military publications and speeches now focus on “great power competition” and looming conflict with Russia and China. They worry that US technology is falling behind, concerned that two decades of focus on the Middle East has weakened the Pentagon’s ability to do much other than play whack-a-mole with the likes of the Islamic State group, al-Qaeda, and al-Shabab.
Yet, not only will insurgency persist in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere, but it will also evolve as insurgents adopt new technologies for their own purposes. Just as ISIS learned to employ small drones for surveillance and strike missions and has entered the world of cyber warfare, the Air Force should anticipate that terror groups will continue to use technology in new ways, and change how they wage war as a result.
“Robots, artificial intelligence, cyberwar, 3D printing, bio-enhancements, and a new geopolitical competition” are among the many emerging technologies that will shape 21st Century warfare, writes Peter W. Singer, a strategist and senior fellow at New America, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “We should also expect them to shape the worlds of insurgency and terrorism.”
To prepare, the Air Force must rethink how it wields airpower both in US Central Command and US Africa Command. With airstrikes winding down in Iraq and Syria, the service wants to withdraw its most advanced fighter jets from the counterinsurgency fight to focus them on potential peer conflicts. It is also pulling out B-1 bombers and E-8C Joint STARS aircraft from CENTCOM now that ISIS is weakened.
But what kind of aircraft should be in the counterinsurgency, or COIN, fight? At the center of Air Force considerations are unmanned aircraft and light attack planes. But defense experts differ over whether the Air Force is making the right investments.
Singer, a futurist who has researched what insurgency could look like in the 2030s, told Air Force Magazine that the Air Force’s drone portfolio needs to expand because remotely piloted aircraft don’t put pilots’ lives at risk—and are cheaper to replace when lost. While unmanned aircraft may not equal manned aircraft in many aspects, the risks are much lower when things go wrong, as when an AFRICOM drone went down over Libya in November or when Iran felled a Navy RQ-4 variant last June.
John F. Lehman, vice president of strategy and corporate development at Fincantieri Marine Group and a former Senate Armed Services Committee staffer who focused on Air Force issues, said inexpensive, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles are needed for persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and that the Air Force should also explore cheap, small drones for tactical ISR and strike missions.
“We do not need large numbers of exquisite platforms, such as the MQ-9 and RQ-4, to deliver the ISR and strike needs of counterinsurgency,” Lehman said. “Additionally, the development and integration of artificial intelligence and machine learning will be essential.”
Foreign Policy recently reported the Pentagon is considering cutting the majority of the Air Force’s RQ-4 Global Hawk fleet as it postures against countries with advanced air defenses, fearing the remotely piloted aircraft is too easy a target for surface-to-air missiles.
The MQ-9 Reaper rose to prominence in the post-9/11 era, but now its future is under debate. Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Air Force could add air-to-air missiles or longer-range air-to-ground weapons to the Reaper to make it more useful in future fights.
Reapers are also spreading across Africa, including a growing presence in Niger, which military officials see as a hub from which to gather intelligence on and attack terror groups like al-Shabab.
But it’s how others use drones that could shape the Air Force’s tactics and decisions. Tasking one operator to control multiple aircraft at once may not be an option in a contested environment; instead, USAF could allow aircraft to execute certain tasks on their own.
Singer envisions counterinsurgency involving more people operating a growing number of commercially available autonomous aircraft in new roles. A September 2019 report titled “The Drone Databook” by Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone found that of the 101 nations it analyzed, 95 have an active inventory of unmanned systems. That’s up 58 percent since 2010.
“We will continue to see commercially available RPAs modified for military missions,” Harrison added. “As more civilians own and operate these aircraft, it may become increasingly difficult to differentiate hostile RPAs from civilian RPAs—especially in densely populated areas—which will make force protection a major challenge.”
Swarms of UAVs may also play a part in COIN, as commercial or homemade drones are already spurring a growing market for defensive systems designed to take out encroaching small aircraft. The US will also need to watch out for adversaries that reap the benefits of drone automation.
In his “Insurgency in 2030” report, Singer notes that ISIS has a “self-made air force of drones” that surveil US and allied forces and have conducted “several hundred airstrikes.”
“It may be ad hoc, but it still achieved their goals at a minimal cost,” he wrote. For ISIS, drones indicate “a change in the overall story of airpower and insurgency,” according to Singer. “Now, as exemplified everywhere from Yemen to Ukraine, the insurgents can fly and fight back.”
Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for sending 10 drones to strike two oil facilities in Saudi Arabia that process the majority of the country’s crude oil output.
Singer believes the Air Force will ultimately be tasked with defending against UAV swarms from above.
The close air support replacement to the A-10 Thunderbolt could be unmanned, as well. The Air Force has long struggled with its view of the A-10 and has repeatedly sought to retire the airplane from the fleet.
Michael E. O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of foreign policy research at the Brookings Institution, argues that the Air Force’s past opposition to the A-10 is a sign that it’s not making the right investments for the future of counterinsurgency. (The service kept the Warthog in the inventory after Congress pushed back on its retirement.)
“Something like it makes sense—or we can perhaps just keep re-engining and rewinging that very plane for a while to come,” O’Hanlon said.
That gets at the heart of the Air Force’s main ongoing, COIN-focused procurement debate: What kind of light attack aircraft should it develop? The propeller-driven light attack aircraft it’s looked at so far would not be a direct replacement for the A-10. They lack its armor and its heavy cannon. Rather, they would be light attack aircraft that Air Force Special Operations Command could use to train foreign militaries to go after insurgents.
It’s a polarizing issue.
“In a world where … insurgents possess not just unmanned systems but surface-to-air missiles, it is not just dangerous, but fallacy to put pilots in planes that even World War II anti-aircraft defense would feast on,” Singer said. “That money could be far better spent elsewhere.”
Lehman disagrees. He says a low-cost, light attack plane would bolster the COIN fight and free up higher-end jets for other missions. The cost of the airframes, training, and upkeep would pale in comparison to cost of maintaining F-22s and F-35s, which are pure overkill in COIN missions, he argues.
“A fleet of light attack aircraft would be able to prosecute the same targets with the same weapons at a fraction of the operations cost,” Lehman said. Another benefit: “A light attack aircraft would create many more opportunities to engage with allies and potential allies that do not and will not operate jet fighter/attack aircraft.”
Light attack could be a crucial part of any air component kept in the Middle East in the wake of ISIS’s collapse.
According to a 2017 Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments report, US air and special forces will still need to continue training and equipping partner forces in the Middle East while providing the occasional “reprisal raids and strikes.”
As part of a “persistent counterterrorism campaign” against the group’s lingering nodes, a limited US military presence would likely require “more air combat missions enabled by special operations forces with joint terminal attack controllers, as well as looser rules of engagement for both airstrikes and to enable US troops advising Iraqi forces to accompany them into combat,” the report noted.
“The United States will need to maintain and manage the international coalition that it has put together to fight ISIS” CSBA experts Eric Edelman and Whitney McNamara wrote. That means supporting both “nations participating in airstrikes, as well as training and equipping local security forces and special forces operations in both Iraq and Syria.” In January, the US-led coalition fighting ISIS paused its operations as tensions peaked between the US, Iran, and Iraq.
Cyber and Electronic Warfare
The most challenging aspect of counterinsurgency will not be so plain to see, however. The ability of insurgents to attack digitally and to confuse the populace with disinformation is a greater threat. Such “gray zone” conflict is a murky mix of political and digital influence campaigns, backed by cyber, electronic warfare, and other nonkinetic means. It does not quite rise to outright armed combat, but it can be even more disruptive.
Cyber operations fall under US Cyber Command, but the Air Force contributes forces to that fight. The new 16th Air Force, which stood up in the fall, includes an information operations organization designed to walk that blurry line between offense and defense in the digital world.
As Harrison notes, the cost of entry to the world of cyber ops is low. Nonstate actors can acquire hacking services on the Dark Web, as when in 2015 hackers claiming ties to the ISIS co-opted CENTCOM social media accounts and posted threatening messages and propaganda.
“Cyber capabilities will become easier and easier to acquire and utilize,” Lehman said. “For groups like ISIS that seek to cause destruction and chaos in the societies of their foes, their target sets will grow exponentially. Willingness to preempt known threats and timely attribution of attacks will be increasingly important to successful US counters.”
Terror groups use social media to recruit new members but can also use it to sow dissent and confusion. Fake news and false narratives can be planted about situations on the ground, fueled by apps, livestreams, hashtags, and the rise of deepfake technology.
Despite the ability to conduct outreach and disinformation campaigns, ISIS’s “cyber caliphate” has not waged effective cyber warfare with consequential hacks. But time and increased connectedness could change the nature of US and allied attack surfaces. The growing Internet of Things could be an easier target and could put physical consequences on the line as more systems, from highways to drones, are added to advanced networks. The Air Force will have to take those threats as seriously as it does other cyber targets, Singer said.
“The cybersecurity of every system we weave into the IoT has to be reconsidered,” he said. “We are baking in vulnerabilities now that we will regret years from now.”
The Air Force’s EC-130H Compass Call electronic attack platform and other electronic warfare assets must also be factored into the COIN fight. A CENTCOM document that acknowledged the potential crossover between EW and cyber operations was uncovered in a 2017 report by the news site The War Zone. It reported a CENTCOM strategy that could use cyber tools to “force an adversary from wired to wireless networks,” which the US could then exploit.
As terror groups increasingly rely on digital means, “EW may be used to set favorable conditions for cyberspace operations by stimulating networked sensors, denying wireless networks, or other related actions,” the document states. “In the defensive environment, EW systems may detect and defeat attacks across wireless access points.”
That could, in turn, push insurgents to either upgrade their technology or retreat to new low-tech ideas similar to those that have kept the US on its toes for years.
The space revolution and advent of an independent Space Force will also have ripple effects on COIN. For one, the growth of satellites and sensors for missions such as communications and navigation will continue to provide the backbone of global operations, including COIN. Satellites guide GPS-enabled weapons to their targets and pass location and intelligence data from user to user.
“The barriers to entry for having organic space capabilities remain high, but terrorist and insurgent groups can still access commercial space capabilities for ISR and communications,” Harrison said. “As these commercial capabilities increase, especially the proliferation of nearly continuous commercial space-based imagery, US forces will have to adapt to this new reality.”
In September, Lt. Gen. Joseph T. Guastella Jr., commander of US Air Forces Central Command, told Air Force Magazine that nonstate actors like ISIS and al-Qaeda are unable to cause problems for American space assets because they lack the funding, research strength, and organizational structure of a national government.
“They’re just not in that game yet,” he said.
But Harrison said insurgents can already access counter-space capabilities, and their use of jammers, spoofers, and more will increasingly disrupt and degrade US space functions.
“The No. 1 job of the Space Force will be to improve the defense of our existing space assets to make them more resistant to these threats,” he said.
That means more jam-proof satellite communications systems and full deployment of multi-Global Navigation Satellite System GPS receivers, which boost navigation signal availability and accuracy.
While insurgent groups may lack the wherewithal to interfere with space assets, nation-states could assist, either with funding or access to their own platforms.
“Iran is definitely funding proxies to try to do us and the coalition harm in any way they can,” Guastella said. “Space will be affected. … We’re staying ahead of them.”
Organize, Train, and Equip
As the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan enter another, less overt era of conflict, and as counterinsurgency operations ramp up in Africa, should the Air Force organize and train its people differently?
Harrison says COIN requires different skills than high-end combat operations, but suggests training for COIN might not be worth the service’s time, given the emphasis the 2018 National Defense Strategy puts on competing with Russia and China.
O’Hanlon agreed, noting that while targeting insurgents is still important, it doesn’t need to be at the center of training and doctrine.
Lehman takes a different view. Great power competition is prompting a need for service members to specialize, he said, so perhaps the Air Force needs to develop its own COIN specialists.
“A cadre of light attack, dedicated intel, SOF, and other support personnel could be Air Force’s COIN Center of Excellence that maintains the COIN expertise, as in the way the Warthog community maintains the service’s close air support expertise,” he said.
Lehman pointed to a recent experiment where the Air Force practiced temporarily running the Combined Air Operations Center for the Middle East out of Shaw AFB, S.C., instead of Al Udeid AB, Qatar. The exercise demonstrated that airmen could manage aircraft just as well from the other side of the world should the CAOC ever be threatened, and they said that practicing for such contingencies would become part of regular operations.
“We will command and control airpower from distributed locations for a portion of every 24-hour air tasking order period,” 609th Air Operations Center Commander Col. Trey Coleman said in an Oct. 1, 2019, release.
This is an idea that transcends the COIN/great power debate and is part of a broader strategy to be less reliant on established bases that could be vulnerable to attack, and instead create flexible, pop-up sites as needed. The approach is most often discussed as a strategy for moving resources around the vast Indo-Pacific theater, but Lehman said the concept applies anywhere.
“The general concepts of being more flexible, agile, and unpredictable are essential whenever and wherever you are operating,” he said. “In the event of any conflict in the Mideast, having the ability to disperse agilely gives our commanders more options and greatly complicates the enemy’s plan of action.”
The New Proxy Wars
Just as happened in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, great power rivalry will continue to bleed into other regions through proxy wars and economic competition. In the 1970s, the Soviet Union and US competed for attention in Africa and Southeast Asia; today, China is the US’ principal foreign investment rival, while Russia seeks strategic partnerships wherever they can disrupt US advantages.
That is especially true in the fuzzy space between truth and fiction.
“The Russians have really learned a lot from this, and they are working all the time now in the gray zone, so the idea that we’re going to get to choose our next war, I think, is a fallacy,” said Barbara Leaf, a former US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 2014 to 2018 and deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq, at an April 2019 Foundation for Defense of Democracies event titled “Lessons Learned from the Iraq War.”
Russia is exerting its influence in myriad ways in Syria, where its ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are allowing it to fill the security vacuum left by the US withdrawal by establishing new bases and taking over Washington’s joint border patrols with Turkish troops. The US, promising to continue air patrols against ISIS as needed, must continue deconflicting operations with Russians in Syrian airspace.
In Afghanistan, too, Russia is acting as a broker between the US, regional warlords, and the Kabul government, negotiations that could finally bring an end to the nearly 20-year war there.
Great power competition is also in play in CENTCOM as the US sends fighters, bombers, and other aircraft to the Middle East as a warning to Iran.
“[DOD] needs to think about how proxy warfare and great state rivalry mean that COIN won’t go away,” Singer said. “Think of how much of the Cold War was about the two sides jousting back and forth via insurgencies they either fomented or fought.”
As the US stresses the importance of building joint air and space ventures with its allies, Russia is selling weapon systems to countries like NATO ally Turkey, while Chinese-made drones and fifth-generation wireless technology promise to spread across the globe.
“The United States could one day find itself fighting a guerrilla force that brings better technology to the fight,” Singer said.
O’Hanlon said the next National Defense Strategy should seek a more realistic balance between peer, near-peer, and asymmetric warfare than the 2018 version, which marked a dramatic departure from the Pentagon’s prior focus on counterinsurgency that had endured since 9/11.
“Overall the strategy has the right priorities, but it’s also important to remember that it is not a binary decision,” Harrison said. “DOD can focus more on preparing for great power competition and also maintain forces capable of COIN operations, albeit at a smaller scale.”
That means the military has to juggle growing long-range missile procurements with maintaining its urban warfare training, deterrence with close air support, and nuclear weapons advancements with the proliferation of weaponized commercial products.
At the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, Calif., in December 2018, then-Air Force Secretary Heather A. Wilson argued the service needed to invest fewer high-end resources in the Middle East in order to succeed in the Indo-Pacific.
“We cannot continue this high level of effort and get prepared for a high-level fight,” she said. “So the question is, are they going to reduce their level of demand?”
Now it appears demand is falling. But to avoid a resurgence of the groups the Air Force helped beat back, the service says it must be able to share its burdens with partners and to invest in a more demanding set of requirements in the future.
The only clear requirement is that the Air Force must ensure the ability and capacity to provide persistent ISR, resilient command and control, and the ability to fight both high-end and low-end threats in every domain.
“The blending and intertwining of insurgents and the local populace and the resulting need for extensive ISR and precision weapons will continue to endure,” Lehman said. “As information technology continues to become more and more ubiquitous, the information war and cyber threats will play a larger and larger role.”