Esper Warns of Eroding Air Superiority Advantage

Defense Secretary Mark Esper delivers a Sept. 18, 2019, keynote at AFA's 2019 Air, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., near Washington, D.C. Staff photo by Mike Tsukamoto.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper, not even two months into the job as the leader of the Pentagon, made his first major appearance before airmen on Sept. 18 and reminded them the domination the service has enjoyed in the skies is coming to an end.

“Our military’s become very proficient at low-intensity conflict. For decades now the Air Force has dominated the skies. Air superiority has been relatively uncontested. Persistent ISR has become the norm. And precision airstrikes are now the weapons of choice,” Esper said during a keynote address at AFA’s Air, Space, & Cyber Conference. “But the conveniences of today’s battlefield will not be the realities of the future.”

The Defense Department, in its National Defense Strategy released in early 2018 under his predecessor, former defense secretary Jim Mattis, states that the resurgent power of China and Russia will threaten the US in all domains, especially air, space, and cyber. Under that strategy, Esper said he is leading two major reviews: one on the entire department’s budget, and another on the military’s force posture and major operational plans.

“Put simply, some of our long-held advantages have started to diminish. Great power competition has once again returned to the global stage,” Esper said. “If we are to remain the world’s pre-eminent military power, then we must change course away from the past and face the challenges of the future head on.”

The first review is taking a “microscope” to the Pentagon’s entire budget, first focusing on the department’s “fourth estate,” or administrative agencies. The review will then move on to the rest of the Pentagon, aimed at not just saving money but also to “give warfighters more of what we need to deter adversaries and, if necessary, fight and win,” he said.

The second review is focusing on the Pentagon’s force structure and operational plans, looking to ensure the department is not just doing things right, but is “doing the right things,” he said.

Esper, in response to a question from an information operations officer about how the military is structured for global threats from across a spectrum of operations, said “I don’t think we’re optimized from a force location perspective, [it’s] one of the things we’re looking at as we’ve begun this NDS review process. We need to think about how we position ourselves around the globe.”

For the Air Force specifically, Esper said the service needs to focus on how it can organize, train, and equip airmen to be prepared for a “full spectrum” of threats, both kinetic and non-kinetic, and in realms such as space and cyber.

These two steps to implement the strategy will help “better understand and balance the needs of today with the requirements of tomorrow” and address the “tradeoff of building readiness with consuming readiness,” Esper said.