The Air Force Isn't Dominant Anymore ... Says Air Force Chief of Staff

Kyle Mizokami
·4 min read

From Popular Mechanics

  • General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., the new head of the U.S. Air Force, warned casualties will be heavy in a future war.

  • Brown believes the U.S. will face World War II-level losses against an advanced adversary like Russia or China.

  • The general believes his service must “accelerate change or lose” the next war.

The new U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff is warning his service it faces stiff competition in a future war, involving aircraft and personnel losses not seen for 80 years. General Charles Q. Brown, Jr. believes the Air Force must work to accelerate change, adapting to new technologies faster than its potential adversaries. Brown warns that “good enough today will fail tomorrow,” with grave implications for the entire country.

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In his first new statement as Air Force Chief of Staff, Brown warns the Air Force, its ability to maintain air dominance, and the success of any future war is in serious jeopardy. Writing in Accelerate Change or Lose, Brown dumps a cold bucket of water on his service, saying the Air Force can longer count on the dominance it has enjoyed since the early 1990s, and that threats to the nation won't always be faced thousands of miles from the country’s borders. Brown also notes U.S. adversaries are equipping themselves with new tech as quickly as the Pentagon is, if not sooner.

The Air Force has essentially been the supreme air force on the planet since 1991. The destruction of the Yugoslav Air Force in 1999 marked the beginning of more than 20 years of virtually uncontested air operations for the service lasting to this day. Since then, combat operations over Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and elsewhere have largely been uncontested.

Photo credit: Anadolu Agency - Getty Images
Photo credit: Anadolu Agency - Getty Images

Air Force fighters, bombers, attack aircraft, tankers, and surveillance planes fly wherever they want and bomb whoever they want, largely without concern of being shot down. With the exception of a handful of several uncrewed drones, most aircraft losses during this time period were due to pilot error or mechanical issues.

Photo credit: TASS - Getty Images
Photo credit: TASS - Getty Images

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Brown believes a future war will require airmen to think differently about how to fly, fight, and win. Russia and China, with their large air forces and capable air defenses, are a world away from land power-only forces like the Afghan Taliban and the fighters of ISIS. These fully modern air forces, armed with weapons on par with those used by the U.S. Air Force itself, will inflict serious losses. Brown writes:

"Airmen are more likely to fight in highly contested environments, and must be prepared to fight through combat attrition rates and risks to the Nation that are more akin to the World War II era than the uncontested environment to which we have since become accustomed. The forces and operational concepts we need must be different. Our approach to deterrence must adapt to the changes in the security."

The U.S. Army Air Force lost over 40,000 aircraft in World War II, a number greater than the total number of planes in the current U.S. Air Force many times over.

Photo credit: Ethan Miller - Getty Images
Photo credit: Ethan Miller - Getty Images

How will the Air Force do this? Drones, drones, and more drones.

Manned military aviation has been in a death spiral for some time. Technological complexity leads to increasingly sophisticated aircraft that require more time and money to develop. As a result, planes like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter require two decades to develop, cost $90 million each, and require months to build. The result is a smaller air force where even brand-new fighter jets feature 20-year-old technology, which isn't capable of making up for World War II-style losses.

Photo credit: Kratos Defense
Photo credit: Kratos Defense

Drones, on the other hand, promise to break this death spiral. Uncrewed drones are easier and faster to develop, cost less, and can be built faster than crewed aircraft. Drones can also be stockpiled in larger numbers to quickly replace wartime losses. A shorter development time means new technology can be more quickly integrated into an uncrewed platform, and a modular capability means a single drone can be adapted to a multitude of tasks simply by swapping out the drone's payload.

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