Wild Blue Yonder!
It’s 2035, and US Air Force pilots are flying “D” model Joint Strike Fighters. This afterburning F-35D controls an uninhabited long-range strike bomber in tandem with a team of cyber operators. Using line-of-sight data links, the fighter pilot of 2035 can control the drone bomber, if the enemy cuts out the link to the drone pilot back in the United States, while a cyber team constantly updates the level of autonomy the unmanned bomber are able to perform. The upgraded Joint Strike Fighter can also launch clustered, expendable micro-satellites on-demand to complicate targeting for the enemy and allow for rapid reconstitution of U.S. space capabilities.
The Air Force’s new Future Operating Concept envisions a future dominated by agility, adaptability, and partnerships between man and machine. While other recent service documents have discussed why the Air Force needs to adapt in light of new threats, the futuristic new concept deals with questions of how and with what the future Air Force will fight. Tomorrow’s Air Force plans to adapt the concept of mission command from commander, subordinate to subordinate, machine to enhance autonomous decision making and, as a result, change how conflicts are fought and won. This is critical as America’s military technological superiority continues to vanish.
In the high-tech and fast-paced war of 2035, there are no more Top Gun dogfights or manned refueling missions in defended enemy airspace. Pilots of this future—some of which have not yet been born—will think of air, space, and cyberspace as one big playground.
Bigger than the man-to-machine relationship shift or the development of highly skilled multi-domain operators is the dramatic change in Air Force acquisition priorities embedded in the new concept. Gone are the luxurious days when the Air Force could take 20 years to build a fifth-generation fighter jet only, to see second movers in this market come online internationally in a fraction of that time and with superior products.
Tomorrow’s Air Force will field a high-low mix of capabilities in which the new platforms or airframes are considered low-end capabilities and the weapons or payloads as the high-end capabilities. This inversion of purchasing priorities means Air Force budgets will soon look very different than those of the past quarter-century. The Air Force has no plans to develop and buy any more new expensive, high-end platforms over such periods of time that the software is out of date by the time it’s fielded. For example, a more integrated high-low mix means the Air Force will focus future investments on swarms of simple, modular, low-cost drones carrying sensors, jammers, munitions or decoys to complicate life for the enemy.
In the war of 2035, an F-35 could use its radar-enabled offensive cyber weapons to win without firing any missiles; an F-15 might be reassigned from an attack mission to launch micro-satellites to preserve communications; an F-22 or bomber might find itself redirected from suppressing enemy air defenses to striking enemy cyber operations centers. Down the food chain, the Air Force also wants to use Big Data analytics and automated processing to help decision makers at all levels to home in on the most relevant intelligence so that decisions are made much faster.
The real emphasis in the new operating concept is not about what the Air Force might buy in the future but rather on how it will attract and train future airmen. As Pentagon leaders are set to unveil specific legislative and executive branch proposals to better recruit and retain the “Force of the Future,” the Air Force is one step ahead. Commanders of the future will have extensive experience in air warfare, space control, and cyber operations. Pilots of the future will have a far broader set of proficiencies and responsibilities that in the past.
Highly intelligent artificial intelligence programs will help rapidly narrow down the choices available to pilots so that they can concentrate on decision making—a project well underway with the F-35’s unique sensor fusion abilities. This reduced mental workload will presumably allow pilots to control swarms of drones—even autonomous air refueling tankers. To harden these critical data pathways, the Air Force plans on maintain space control through maneuvering satellites (X-37B), decoy spacecraft, and the rapid launch of microsatellites from fighter or cargo aircraft during war.
Air Force global logistics in 2035 will expand to include operating more global logistical nodes, rapid satellite launching, and coordination of cyber access points. This will be accomplished in austere and denied environments, mostly by using drones, 3-D printers, and advanced fuels. The Air Force expands the concept of mobility by providing assured access to engineering data and envisions precision airdrops of polycarbonate blocks to Special Operations Forces for 3-D printing. The Air Force sees manned cargo planes leading packs of cargo drones and new hybrid airships for low-cost shipping to low-risk environments. Lastly, the Air Force wants a fleet of stealthy unmanned aerial refuelers—perhaps a derivative of the yet-to-be-built new bomber or X-47B/UCLASS—so that manned tankers can control fleets of drone tankers and send them into dangerous airspace.
Even the Air Force strike mission will change fundamentally. The Air Force wants to expand the idea of precision-guided munitions to both cyberspace and space itself by developing payloads with precise, predictable effects to give commanders confidence that they can control collateral damage and political fallout the same way they can in basic air-to-ground combat. In that vein, the service wants to deliver cyber payloads through all means—traditional intelligence agencies’ network operations, insertion through micro-drone or cruise missile, or even by directed energy weapons.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Air Force delivers a full-throated commitment to its hypersonic and high-altitude development programs for aircraft (X-37B) and weapons (tactical boost-glide and high-speed air-breathing weapons concept). Smartly, the Air Force also envisions the eventual winner of the T-X trainer competition building an attack variant capable of leading packs of uninhabited “missile trucks” to replace the A-10 and F-35 in the close-air support mission.
In the sixth year of a decade-long defense spending cut, it is immensely refreshing to read Air Force leadership once again unleashed to consider how they plan to dominate the adversary and achieve operational victory over a much tougher enemy than those of the recent past. Since the end of the Cold War, the Air Force has essentially made incremental improvements on existing operating concepts and capabilities. With the exception of the F-22, America has not developed a new combat aircraft since the late 1980s. The hardest job in tomorrow’s Air Force will not be buying a revolutionary new aircraft; it will be integrating and adapting better and more quickly than the adversary.