Amid worries about upcoming military budget cuts, U.S. Air Force strategists are becoming increasingly concerned about how the service will afford to build next-generation weapons for conflicts against well-armed enemies.
There is a lot of discussion inside the Pentagon about how to maintain the ability to operate in “anti-access” environments, Lt. Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle, deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements, said Sept. 29 at an Air Force Association breakfast meeting in Arlington, Va.
Countering sophisticated adversaries will require air-sea, joint operations led by the Air Force and Navy that involve the coordinated use of everything from hard-to-detect submarines to F-22 fighter jets, he said.
“My 16 ships with 18 strikers behind me can’t get into the target area until some surface combatant or subsurface combatant does something that opens an avenue for me to get that flight in,” Carlisle said. It’s about “what you can bring to the fight from the subsurface all the way up to what the air power can bring.”
These assets are necessary not only to deter countries such as China, North Korea and Iran, the general said, but also to show allies in the Pacific region that the United States, if it had to, could still dominate, he said.
“We’re assuring our allies that, if we had to, we could get into any environment we want to at anytime,” Carlisle said.
Air Force and Navy leaders are conducting “air-sea battle” studies and analyses in order to come up with options for how to integrate current and future weapon systems. Officials want to know, for instance, how stealthy submarines can impact an air campaign and how aircraft can assist surface and subsurface fighters.
“What can you do with F-22s, F-35s and submarines to open it up to get a carrier in?” Carlisle asked.
As the Defense Department faces up to $450 billion in cuts over the next decade, there will be heated discussions about investments and future threats, he said. Regardless, the Air Force wants to maintain the ability to penetrate and move around areas defended by a high-end adversary, he said.
The budget crunch requires that leaders look at existing technologies, as new programs will be few and far between, Carlisle said.
“As we know, the adversary that has the most capability is [China], and the proliferation of that capability is probably going to come from [China],” Carlisle said. “Will we ever fight China? It doesn’t really matter. Hopefully not. We pray that we won’t. But we’ll probably fight their stuff.”
But the acquisition community already is experiencing the tightening belt.
“Most programmers go home, poke themselves in the eye and chew on tin foil because it’s better than being at work,” Carlisle said.
As the Air Force cuts back, the goal is to provide the same capability but at less cost, the general said. The service probably won’t be able to stretch itself to so many theaters at once like it did in March this year in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Japan.
And if the cuts rise significantly above $450 billion, then the Air Force will have to rethink everything, Carlisle said, including those air-sea battle plans.