Welsh: U.S. Air Superiority in Jeopardy

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

As more countries around the world invest in their military, the United States’ air dominance is being challenged, said the Air Force chief of staff Dec. 1.

“The capability gap that we’ve enjoyed here in the United States for years is closing and it’s closing fast,” said Gen. Mark Welsh. “If we don’t pay attention to this, air power will no longer by an asymmetric advantage for the U.S. military. The impact of that could be catastrophic.”

Without air superiority, the “U.S. way of war will have to be adjusted,” he said during a speech at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. It would affect both ground troops and sea forces.

The world is changing rapidly, he said. There are demographic, environmental, technological and ideological shifts. “Everything is changing faster, except our ability to adjust,” he said.

In order to be successful in the future, the service must do a better job of modernizing its equipment, he added.

“We must stay ahead of the technology curve or we will fail,” he said. “It’s going to require very difficult decisions that have to be made because we don’t have the resources to keep everything we have. We don’t have the expectation that we can ask for more money to modernize — we’re going to have to do that out of our top line, which means we have to make decisions to divest things to create the resources to invest in the future.”

While Welsh did not mention specific programs that would be cut, the A-10 Warthog has been a point of contention among the service and Congress. The Air Force has sought to retire the aging platform while lawmakers have blocked such efforts.

The service must also be agile, reinvest in infrastructure and operationalize its space organizations to stay ahead, Welsh said. If the United States does not think of space as a war-fighting domain “we could have our ability to operate there completely destroyed” by an adversary, he noted.

The Air Force is embarking on a new decision making and strategic planning process that will be critical to the success of the service’s future, Welsh said. 

Years ago, Air Force Systems Command led a developmental planning initiative that helped shape the service’s future. But when Systems Command was shuttered in the 1990s, “we lost the process and we lost the people who knew how to make it work,” Welsh said.

The Air Force intends to conduct such a study again, first annually and then biannually, he noted. “It starts with a way to feed information, ideas and options into that strategic planning process that we have now gotten in place and have fairly well institutionalized,” he said.

The study will be led by a senior group of advisors that includes industry, academia, the intelligence community and Air Force personnel, he said.

“The idea is to look at the 20- or 30-year tableau of the future and determine when new technologies may prove themselves, if they could be useful in a military context; when new threats seem to be arising and when they will affect our ability to do things that we are asked to do around the world; when do existing capabilities in our Air Force start to degrade and when will we lose the capability if we don’t take some action to refresh it, recapitalize it or just choose to divest it,” he said.

“If we can get into this 20-year-look down the road we will quit chasing that moth around the flame of the POM [program objective memorandum],” he said.

For example, such a study could tell Air Force leaders when directed energy or quantum computing technology is mature enough to be used, he said. It also could signal when a potential country — such as Russia — may acquire a certain capability.

Additionally, it will give the service a clear strategic plan to present to Congress and the office of the secretary of defense that is consistent, credible, defendable, affordable and executable, he said.

“If we don’t get to that point we have no credibility on Capitol Hill, in OSD, even within the Air Force,” he said. “We’ve got to be wiser about every dollar we spend, about the way we use every airmen and we’ve got to become more efficient and more effective in the way we use our force.”

Topics: Aviation, Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Policy

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