New US Defence Strategy: Implications for the United States Air Force

President Obama's new defence strategy with its reorientation towards the Pacific is good news for airpower and the US Air Force. Despite proposed budget cuts, there will be a continued reliance on strategic air assets.

By Elizabeth Quintana, Senior Research Fellow, Air Power and Technology, RUSI

Generally speaking, the Defence Strategic Guidance - outlining President Obama's overall plan to refocus the US military - has been good news for the US Air Force and US Navy. Personnel reductions will be focused on the US Army and US Marine Corps as stabilisation operations in Afghanistan draw down and there is increased emphasis on rapid interventions and that will deter or disrupt uncooperative regimes.

The reorientation towards of US Forces towards the Pacific region does not come as any great surprise. The deployment of US forces to Australia last year and discussions about reducing the footprint of US forces in Europe  have been rumbling for a couple of years.

Few Forward Operating Bases in Europe

However, while Europe was always likely to become less of a priority, the experiences of the NATO air/maritime campaign in Libya have shown the value of rapid intervention (which their forces offer) and in particular of forward operating bases in Europe. Indeed, military commanders in Washington DC were so sure that the US would not intervene that they did not make any forces available in time.

Had EUCOM not been combat capable, the US would not have been able to contribute to the operation at the outset. European bases will therefore continue to be of benefit as the United States maintains its focus on the Middle East, not least because it allows continued engagement with its principal allies. Nonetheless, the US has made it very clear that it will not continue to underwrite European security in the long term and expects European partners to take responsibility for security in their own neighbourhood. The extra funding allocated by Congress to the long range global strike bomber programme for 2012-2013 indicates that the US may well look to operate more from its home soil in the future.

Focus on Space Assets and Drones

Given the continued focus on counterterrorism, it is safe to assume that the US unmanned platforms will continue to be of use and that we will see the fleet expand within the United States Air Force (USAF), Special Operations Command and the CIA. Such platforms are also likely to form the bedrock of 'low cost' engagements in Africa and Latin America in the same way that the US has engaged in Pakistan and Yemen, indeed there are already examples of such deployments to African nations.

The increased use of space by nations around the world - particularly India and China, who have very ambitious space exploration programmes - will mean the US will have to fight to maintain its superiority in this domain. Space also represents an Achilles Heel to the US as it is the bedrock of the US Network Centric Warfare and essential for long range remotely piloted air systems such as Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk.

Indeed programmes such as the X-37B already show that the US is thinking more innovatively in this area. The evolution of cyber espionage is also a major challenge for a nation that is critically dependent on C4ISTAR systems to maintain its military edge. While both space and cyber are relevant to all branches of the US Military, it is the US Air Force that has traditionally provided the expertise in both domains and looks set to benefit from a renewed focus in these areas.

Proposed Cuts

Air forces are expensive, and US Air Force will expect to shoulder its share of the proposed cuts when the 2013 budget appears in February. Combat aircraft platforms are always an easy target and speculation has already started on a reduction of numbers of joint strike fighter or at least introducing a delay in the production line. Further reductions in the numbers of platforms to be bought by US forces, however, are unlikely as they will lead to spiralling costs per platform which could jeopardise the entire programme. International partners have already made it very clear that they will not be able to afford significant rises in costs and are already examining other options. The Boeing F-18 looks to be the favourite for most nations.

Personnel numbers have already been identified as a rising cost so United States Air Force numbers will also come down. The USAF has already extended the period for voluntary redundancies and a number of personnel will likely be decommissioned as the USAF withdraw from Europe.

Finally, Ashton Carter, Deputy Secretary of Defence, indicated on Thursday 5 January 2012 that Research and Technology (R&T) budgets will reduce. This is a surprise move for a country which tends to spend more on R&T in times of austerity. These cuts will also undoubtedly affect the air force, which specialises in high risk projects such as the hypersonic test vehicle and the airborne laser programme.

But for the moment the USAF does not feel duly threatened with the cuts proposed; the real fight will begin if and when sequestration kicks in. If the Department of Defense is expected to find another $500billion savings, there will be blood on the carpet for all five services.



Elizabeth Quintana

Associate Fellow

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