After more than 20 years of focusing on the Middle East, the U.S. Air Force must evolve to remain relevant to near-peer adversaries such as China and Russia on the battlefield of the future, a senior U.S. Air Force official acknowledged Wednesday.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. said he started thinking about the Air Force’s new mission even when he was commander of air forces at U.S. Central Command. The abrupt end of the Afghan mission marks nearly two decades of symbolic focus on the global war on terror against small nations and stateless terrorist movements.
“The fight we’re in is not going to be the fight we’re going to be in in the future,” General Brown said Wednesday at a discussion hosted by the Hudson Institute.
The U.S. military is facing challenges it has not faced since the end of the Cold War. China is a rising economic powerhouse with ambitious control over a large swathe of the Indo-Pacific. Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine was the largest such operation since the end of World War II. At the same time, countries like Iran and North Korea launched attacks on their neighbors and developed sophisticated missiles capable of hitting targets thousands of miles away.
The renewed focus on traditional “great power” conflict has sparked a rethink across the U.S. military, with the Navy, Marine Corps, Army, and new Space Force all being forced to reposition and resize to deal with a very different mission. The Air Force’s culture shock can be particularly strong.
For years, the U.S. owned skies over countries like Iraq and Afghanistan and could launch air missions against targets with almost total impunity. This is unlikely to be the case for a country like China, which has rapidly expanded and improved its offensive and defensive aviation assets in recent years.
“You actually have to win air superiority. You don’t just walk in and have it,” General Brown said.
General Brown is trying to steer the Air Force through generational change while tackling challenges such as an aging fighter fleet and persuading potential recruits to sign on the dotted line. The service also wants to offload aging Cold War-era systems like the A-10 Thunderbolt tank killer.
“It forces us to think hard about how to make these changes,” he said. “We really have to think differently about how we approach things. We have to act differently and get resources and capabilities to fight different battles.”
U.S. troops sent to Iraq and Afghanistan are often assigned to bases with amenities such as well-stocked gyms, cafeterias and regular Wi-Fi. General Brown said that was unlikely to be repeated in future conflicts.
“We’re going to some places in the future where you might have to start from scratch in some cases,” he said. “You may not stay in that position because of the dynamic nature of the threat.”
Air Force leaders should also be willing to provide more information to their forces, General Brown said, calling it “about trusting and empowering our airmen.” They’ll also need solid working relationships with the defense industry — including mainline contractors and smaller tech companies that provide products usable by the military.
“We had to break some of these bureaucratic processes to adapt ourselves and move fast,” General Brown said.
He remains a staunch proponent of the Air Force’s “agile combat employment” doctrine, which is designed to improve survivability while still producing combat effectiveness. Future Air Force missions may see a fleet of F-22 fighter jets operating in different regions, with a small amount of logistical support to support them.
“Having the right mix of capabilities and the right mix of pilots doesn’t require you to bring everything,” General Brown said. “We often find that our pilots can do a lot more than we ask them to do.”