JUST IN: Air Force Must Embrace Risk to Counter China

By Sean Carberry

Boeing illustration

The combination of Beijing's ambition to be the world’s leading power and its military technology advancements requires the U.S. Air Force to accept more risk in developing and fielding technologies to deter China, according to the secretary of the Air Force.

The service is betting on uncrewed aircraft based on technologies such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Air Combat Evolution program and its Skyborg program, Secretary Frank Kendall said May 2 during a Brookings Institution web discussion on the future of American airpower.

“I want to go to directly to [engineering and development manufacturing] on that,” Kendall said.

“I feel that the technology is mature enough that we can gamble on that, take some risk there and move out quickly,” he added. Kendall said that rather than waiting on the results of risk-reduction experiments, those tests would be conducted in parallel with platform development to accelerate the fielding of the technology.

The goal is to create a “family of systems” around the Next Generation Air Dominance platform that will include weapons systems, connectivity and uncrewed aircraft that will likely carry a combination of sensors, weapons and countermeasures.

Related to that is greater deployment of autonomous behaviors and artificial intelligence decision support, which Kendall sees as more game-changing on the battlefield than other technologies such as directed energy or hypersonics.

“We’re going to open up a whole range of tactical behaviors,” Kendall said. "I think the technologies are there to support this now. I don’t think we need to wait for more development on that.”

The deployment of AI raises questions about how much autonomy to introduce into operations and the level of human control and accountability.

“The problem we’re going to have is that if we don’t go in that direction, we’re going to lose,” Kendall added, saying that adversaries will not be as constrained by questions about human control.

“We need to work those problems as we mature the capability in order field it,” he said.

Kendall said  the problem the United States has with China is not that the PRC develops and fields new technology faster than the United States does — in fact China sometimes takes longer — it’s that China started earlier, and therefore is ahead in emerging technologies.

That is one of the reasons Kendall has issued general guidance to acquisition personnel to get capability in the hands of warfighters as quickly as possible. That means sometimes not having a final product, but something that is functional and can be improved incrementally.

“We want to get in the game with something that makes a difference operationally, and then build on that going forward,” he said.

That approach has led to a bias in the Air Force budget toward developing future capability. Kendall said the 2023 Air Force budget request is “adequate” to deal with current threats while investing in modernization to keep pace with growing threats. He said the force had to make tradeoffs, such as divesting some platforms, to double the research-and-development budget.

Kendall also stated that the Air Force needs to focus more on survivability and resilience than lethality.

“We depend upon on a small number of high value assets … many of these are fixed or at least very predictable in terms of where they are going to be or are relatively easy to follow once they move across the surface of the oceans or the earth," Kendall said.

“It’s the threat to our current capabilities that is driving me more than anything else,” he said.

Topics: Air Force News

Comments (1)

Re: Air Force Must Embrace Risk to Counter China

I think in the future, global reach, survivability, and speed will be huge factors.

The US takes too long to respond to any crisis in the world. Sending CVN CSGs at 30 kTS max takes days to weeks. Sending bombers takes hours. Sending drones takes hours to days. Sending Tomahawk cruise missiles takes hours to impact.

What is needed is sustained supersonic or hypersonic speed, and that was the unarmed SR-71 that supercruised at Mach 3+ sustained. The USAF needs a new supersonic or hypersonic ISR bomber that is armed at least with a quartet of missiles to respond anywhere in the world and put out flash hotspots. It needs to be armed. Having a hypersonic unarmed SR-72 doesn't help besides fast ISR.

Perhaps it will be a kamikaze supersonic or hypersonic drone with a warhead. Perhaps it will be an unmanned supercruise bomber. The ability to fly subsonic is tried, tested, and true, but in future conflicts, I think the requirement to fly supersonic and hypersonic is necessary and so far the US DoD and USAF lack means to launch supersonic and hypersonic ordnance from launchers that fly above subsonic. Even the optimally-manned B-21 flies subsonic. If time is of the essence, then the US needs an Ace to muster and send force fast in hours, not days, weeks, or months and so far the only force that can do that is nuclear ICBMs. There was talk of non-nuclear ICBMs, but that was dismissed due to concerns that the missiles may be mistaken as nuclear ICBMs.

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