Guastella: Base Defense is the ‘Tax’ Other Services Should Pay for Airpower

The other military services should pick up the role of air base defense in order to preserve the many benefits that Air Force airpower provides for them, Lt. Gen. Joseph T. Guastella Jr., deputy chief of staff for operations, said Dec. 8.

Appearing on a streaming Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event, Guastella said air and space power “overlays” everything the Joint Force does, from providing air protection and close air support to airlift, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, command and control, navigation, and communications, and the other services need to step up and protect that contribution, particularly against modern threats.

Video: Mitchell Institute on YouTube

“We have to invest in technologies that will allow us a defense from the lowest-end threats,” such as small unmanned aerial systems, “to a more robust UAS that can fly a thousand kilometers, to regional ballistic missile or even an intercontinental ballistic missile. There are ways to defend against those things, but we have to pursue that as a Joint Force,” Guastella said.

“And I would argue, that’s the ‘tax.’ If you want airpower, if you want space power, then you have to be able to defend it.”

The Air Force is oversubscribed with missions because, whether ground and naval forces are engaged in an action or not, airpower always plays a role. Airpower is “disproportionately in demand for the full range of operations,” he said. This is not news to the other services, Guastella added, noting that the Joint Force is “the best advocate” for Air Force airpower, always saying “they want more, not less.”

The commitment of air forces tends not to be as scaleable as surface forces, he added. “It doesn’t matter if you have 1,000 troops or 100,000, … they need to be protected” Guastella said.

He specifically waved off saying the Air Force should get a bigger share of the defense budget because of its universal application across the spectrum of conflict, but argued, “We should allow demand to drive where the resources go.” The Air Force “needs to be resourced; we need to be right-sized” for the scope of missions it’s asked to do. The final version of the 2021 defense policy bill, which still must pass the Senate and be signed by the President, acknowledges the Air Force is too small.

“The conferees agree that the current quantity of Air Force combat-coded aircraft incurs a level of risk beyond moderate, and is not aligned with the National Defense Strategy,” according to language released by House and Senate conferees.

Guastella said he has waited in vain for any “relief” from the missions USAF performs—“anywhere we can do less, … but there’s nowhere we can take risk to reduce our size.” There are no opportunities for the Air Force to quit a mission, because the demand is so strong.

And though Guastella argued that field commanders welcome all kinds of fires that can be directed at an enemy, he said those fires have to be “cost-effective” for the Defense Department, and that may not be the case if the other services are attempting to duplicate capability in providing long-range fires.

“… The Air Force has a fantastic opportunity with our bomber fleet, with our robust fighter fleet, to provide a variety of platforms that long-range fires can be employed from. We have the infrastructure, the airfields, the munitions, the storage facilities. We already have the launchers, the airplanes, … that can hold any target at risk, with low observables and hypersonics for the full spectrum of fires,” Guastella said. “We’re the service of choice for that.”

Retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute, offered that major wars with potentially 100,000 aimpoints can’t be prosecuted with standoff missiles costing upwards of $1 million a shot, and must be fought with lower-cost munitions delivered by “re-usable” airplanes, such as bombers. The military must always use an “effects-based” approach to combat, Deptula said.

He added that the Air Force needs to advocate for the capabilities it brings, observing that the Navy “has no problem” arguing for a doubling of its size to fulfill the National Defense Strategy.

Guastella said the physical footprint is one area the Air Force can downsize, saying too many bases and facilities cost the service money that it could apply to buying next-generation capabilities. Deptula pushed “slightly back” on that assertion, saying if the Air Force is indeed undersized by 25 percent, “if we need to grow, where would we grow to?”

Although the Air Force wants to cut its MQ-9 Reaper killer scout fleet, Guastella said the real goal is to achieve a “balance” of non-stealthy MQ-9s with a capability that can operate within contested airspace. The Air Force recently requested information from industry on low-observable unmanned aircraft for this role.

The Air Force needs resources to modernize, he added. “We cannot continue to fly airplanes that are the equivalent of 80-year-olds on a football field. We need to be able to modernize, and put 20-year-old athletes out there that are capable against the high-end threats,” said Guastella.

In answering the question of “what is it that we need to actually accomplish the National Defense Strategy,” Deptula said the Air Force’s 386 combat squadrons goal is “the planning force” and not an “arbitrary, budget-driven” force.