The United States entered the 21st Century as the lone world superpower, having won the 45 year long Cold War with the USSR that marked the latter half of the previous century. Our nations military was the largest and most powerful it had been in the history of the United States prior to the defeat of Soviet Union. With the fall of such a powerful enemy, it was inevitable that all branches of our military would undergo restructuring. Our nations military and political leaders will be faced with unique challenges in the future when deploying forces to protect and sustain US interests. They will need to closely examine several questions regarding warfare in the future to determine how best to fight it.


What is the nature of future military engagements? Our future enemies will indeed be different. We are no longer preparing for an unlimited engagement that would have undoubtedly brought about immense casualties on both sides. The enemies of the future will be many and unpredictable. Our armed forces will be required to prepare for numerous conflicts of a smaller nature. The attacking force that can respond quickly and powerfully will prevail in the future. The commitment of our troops has and will continue to change. Our nation fears another Vietnam-style commitment of ground forces; therefore a new emphasis will be placed upon airpower because it seems safer to the American public. The nature of future combat will be such that ground forces will never again be committed without extensive aerial bombardment preceding troop insertion. In certain combat situations, airpower can and will serve as the only offensive force.

What are the capabilities of our nations air forces? The basis of United States airpower lies within powerful land based forces of the United States Air Force. The strength of the USAF is such that its use prior to ground troop insertion will result in annihilation of enemy defenses and incredibly low US ground casualties. Furthermore, defined US objectives can be attained through the use of airpower alone. This is made possible because of forward operating locations positioned throughout the globe where USAF forces are stationed permanently, or continuously deployed to from continental bases. Also, the USAF has the capability to deploy to a combat theatre rapidly on short notice because of unprecedented tanker and airlift capabilities. Air Force technology now dictates that the battle can be fought from home shores as a result of an unparalleled global reach capability found in US strategic bombers.

Can the strength of our nation’s airpower serve as a deterrent factor to known and unknown enemies? The present fighting capabilities of US airpower are such that just as the Air Force slogan says, “No One Comes Close.” Potential enemies will think twice before contesting the power of such an Air Force. Past engagements such as Operation Dessert Storm in Iraq and Operation Allied Force in Kosovo as well as Operation Northern Watch in Iraq serve as prime examples to our enemies what could become of them if they choose to engage US airpower. Furthermore, weapon systems currently slated for future service are designed specifically with the intention of deterring conflict from ever occurring.


In Risky Business for the President William Shneider plainly states the foreign policy the United States has held for the past ten years, “When it comes to U.S. military intervention abroad, the rule is: Drop bombs, don’t send troops.” The reason isn’t military, it’s political. He contends that the American public is entirely skeptical of committing ground troops, but is fairly comfortable with air strikes. The notions put forth by Schneider that Presidents of the future will take the safe route when it comes to the use of force, means that the commitment of ground troops are not likely because “deploying ground troops not only increases the risk of U.S. casualties, it also increases the risk that the United States will get involved in another country’s politics. Therefore, airpower will be the weapon of choice because “bombing seems safer, at least for Americans. Especially smart bombs that can blow up carefully selected military targets while minimizing civilian casualties.

In a detailed report for the USAF, the authors of The New Calculus diagram the importance of airpower in future conflicts. “In posturing its forces to deal with short notice theater conflicts, the United States must rely heavily upon airpower in the crucial initial stages of combat”. They further support the notion that airpower is the primary offensive force in future combat by asserting that “rapidly deployable land-based airpower emerges as the dominant element in the crucial stages of conflict”. They recognize that the nation is not inclined to support ground operations and point out that “air operations place at risk a much smaller number of U.S. personnel than large-scale ground operations”. The report concludes, “the results of our analysis do indicate that the calculus has changed and airpower’s ability to contribute to the joint battle has increased. Not only can modern airpower arrive quickly where needed, it has become far more lethal in conventional operations”.

Lawrence Freedman begins his article International Security: Changing Targets by diagramming the type of conflict the U.S. will be involved with in the future: “the impact of information technology on military affairs points to the growing potential for the West to use force discriminatingly, an awareness of the strategies that weak nations use to counter the offensive maneuvers of their stronger adversaries points to the emergence of unconventional threats such as nuclear terrorism. The United States will be fighting a different kind of war in the future, against a different kind of enemy. “The challenge for the United States, and its closest allies, is to find a level of engagement in international affairs that prevents small problems from becoming large ones without imposing unacceptable burdens at home.

In Relearning Intervention Charles Maynes discusses the use of military force in the future, “one of the most difficult questions in American foreign policy is the use of force-its legitimacy, its utility, its desirability. A run for the White House requires that a candidate address it, and a successful candidate is often not considered a successful President until he actually employs it.” Maynes focuses on when force is to be used, and leaves for further articles how it should be applied. He establishes a set of criteria for the use of force:

Seven Categories of Force

Today, there appear to be seven distinct categories for the possible use of force by the United States:

  • Meeting alliance obligations
  • Promoting counterproliferation
  • Protecting key allies threatened with internal disorder
  • Protecting individual Americans
  • Supporting democracies abroad
  • Interdicting drugs and countering terrorism
  • Assisting peacekeeping and peace enforcement

Andrew Krepinivich claims in Keeping Pace with Military-Technological Revolution that “the US should be prepared to exploit and deal with an emerging military-technological revolution, which promises to radically change methods of warfare. He contends that the way battle will be waged in the future requires the implementation of a new doctrine to fully utilize all of our military resources; “pentagon planners must reexamine all their systems, structures, and strategies to be ready for the battles of the future. Krepinivich claims that a smaller military force in the future will be able to accomplish the same missions of the larger forces of the past. The US Air Force will inevitably play a vital role in future military engagements as “long-range precision strikes will be a dominant military operation in future conflicts.”

General Colin Powell writes in US forces: Challenges Ahead that with the end of the cold war, the US military faces a new set of challenges, that will require new capabilities and goals. General Powell contends that the US now stands as the lone military power, and the central idea behind the new national military strategy “is the change from a focus on global war-fighting to a focus on regional contingencies.” The US faces enemies riddled by dispute in the former Soviet block, a still volatile enemy in the Middle East, rouge nations in Asia, as well as instability in Africa. The US can envision “peacekeeping and humanitarian missions; likewise our forward presence is a given-to signal our commitment to our allies and to give second thoughts to any disturber of peace.” Furthermore, the US will undoubtedly be involved in conflicts where the use of violent force is needed; however, they will likely be limited objective wars. “Wars are limited by three means: by the territory on which they are fought (as in Korea or Vietnam); by the means used to fight them (no nuclear weapons in Korea; no massive mobilization for Vietnam); or by the objectives for which they are fought-the most significant limitation in political terms and therefore the limitation that is most often discussed and debated.” General Powell indicates throughout his article that the US military will indeed continue to be involved in the future. While we will be waging a different kind of warfare, it remains imperative that US forces are prepared to fight.

In an effort to plan for future military force structure a panel was put together and composed a background paper for Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment entitled American Military Power: Future needs, Future Choices. The paper begins by claiming that while the US no longer has one large enemy to contend with, it can still “concentrate its military efforts on the few countries of the world that have significant military resources and directly threaten some US interest or ally”. While the US faces few threats to its home soil, protecting our interests and the interests of democracy are vital, particularly in Europe. According to the paper, the United States has four basic national security objectives:

  • Ensuring the survival of the Nation as a politically independent entity
  • Promoting economic prosperity for Americans and the world
  • Maintaining a stable world order conducive to liberty
  • Forging strong ties to allies and like-minded nations throughout the world

Securing these objectives will require “military forces to supplement economic and diplomatic tools”.

In Changes Ahead: Future Directions for the U.S. Overseas Military Presence Richard Kugler recognizes that US military forces stationed and deployed abroad perform unique and important functions in support of US national interests. However, it is evident that because of the changing nature of conflict, “the need for a strong US overseas presence does not mean that tomorrows posture should be identical to today’s or even closely resemble it”. The US military will in the future have new enemies, and therefore new objectives and missions. While re-establishing overseas military doctrine applies to all branches of the military, the new scope of conflict could see a larger emphasis placed upon airpower. In the future, “emphasis of overseas presence is to be quick power projection, USAF (Unites States Air Force) forces are clearly well-suited to play a major role. Thus, the future agenda for the US overseas presence offers the Air Force important opportunities if it is willing to rise to the challenge.” Overseas presence, particularly that of the Air Force, offer quick strike capability that not only allows the US to subdue conflict before it escalates, it also offers a deterrent factor to our regional enemies. US Regional Deterrence Strategies by Kenneth Watman and Dean Wilkening was prepared for the US Army and Air Force to determine whether the United States should base its regional strategy on deterrence. They begin by pointing out that with the Cold War now over, “deterrence is no longer a necessity; it is an option to be evaluated just like any other policy option”. It is noted that because regional adversaries seek short wars it is the forces that “can deploy to the region on short notice that will have the greatest deterrent effect”. It is reported that the threat of conventional attack alone may not be enough to deter a regional enemy, therefore “it is important for the United States not to permit an adversary to be absolutely sure the United States would never use nuclear weapons in a regional conflict under any circumstance.

In Robert Levine’s report Flexible Flight: The Air Force role in a Changing Europe, the capabilities of our nations land based Air Force and the possible need for them in the future is outlined. Levine claims that the future US threat will be uncertain and always changing, and US military presence will be crucial despite the end of the Cold War. Furthermore, “the future will be directed by politics, and military planning must depend on political determinations”. Because of changing potential combat and political determinants, “the rapid response capability and the mobility of air forces as we enter an era in which the only firm expectation is further change make air power the centerpiece of American military capabilities”. The US Air Force in particular has the means to carry out and support a short term or sustained conflict because of the diversity and flexibility of its airpower.

Policy Options

Currently, as the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces the President has three options when engaging in conflict. He can deploy US forces on a large scale, entailing a joint effort on part of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. He can choose to use ground forces of the Army and Marines as the primary attacking force, which would be supplemented by the Navy and Air Force. Or he can choose to use airpower as the primary weapon for future conflict. Conflicts the United States will be involved with have changed, and the American public is increasingly unaccepting of US casualties. Therefore, I propose that the Commander-in-Chiefs most viable policy option for the future regarding US military intervention is that of rapidly deployable land based airpower, that will supported by the American public by ensuring limited casualties while still accomplishing the objective.

Policy Support

Throughout history the military has been required to adapt to the changing style of conflict. New technology, new leadership, new enemies, and domestic determinants dictate this change. In the past 10 years the nature of conflict has moved to an emphasis on airpower. The reasons for this are many. First and foremost, the world is no longer threatened by a cold war. The United States prevailed and the prospect of nuclear war has as a result decreased. However, with such a threat no longer a prime concern, conventional warfare has heated up. Spanning from the late 80’s into the 21st century American troops have acted in the Philippines, Panama, El Salvador, Liberia, Iraq, Somalia, Bangladesh, Zaire, Cuba, and the former Soviet Union. Compared to past conflicts the US has been involved with such as Vietnam, Korea and both World Wars, all of these engagements have seen limited US presence and casualties. It is highly likely that these minor crisis interventions will become more numerous in the future than they are now. “Most observers expect these missions to continue or even increase in response to increasing economic and ethnic tensions in many areas.” Furthermore, there are other Saddam Hussein’s in this world, the original is as unpredictable as ever and still in power, and there is another in Korea. In order to keep up with the pace of these increasing operations, it will be the force that can respond quickly to these crises and show American military power through presence or force. This of course lies within rapid mobility of our nations Air Force.

Significant conflicts or operations the US has been involved with in the past 10 years support the claim that the nature of battle is changing. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, our nations armed forces rapidly mobilized. Within 24 hours American military presence could be felt in the Middle East, mainly through the establishment of Air Wings in Saudi Arabia. In the months preceding the ensuing conflict, USAF and Navy sorties were being flown around the clock. When the battle finally took place, it was a month long air campaign that annihilated Iraqi defenses and weakened their attack forces. While military leaders originally projected upwards of 10,000 casualties following a bloody ground battle, airpower had weakened the enemy to such an extent that Iraq surrendered following a 100-hour ground campaign. All told less than 500 American lives were lost.

More recently, during Operation Allied Force in the war torn former Yugoslavia, American military forces spearheaded a campaign that sought to end the atrocities brought upon Kosovar-Albanians by Slobadon Milosevic’s repressive regime. American foreign policy requires a stable Eastern Europe. This stability was returned to the region for the first time ever by American airpower alone. The brunt of the force was supplied by land based USAF aircraft part of the 31st Air Expeditionary Wing located out of Aviano AB (Air Base), Italy. This conflict, albeit comparatively minor, exemplifies the shift to airpower as the primary attacking force of future conflict, and not one American life was lost.

Furthermore, US airpower proves it has the power and ability to play an influential role in peacekeeping operations that the US is sure to involve itself with more frequently in the future. Operation Northern Watch in Iraq is carried out almost solely by the USAF. Sorties are flown around the clock from Incirlik AB, Turkey. These missions provide Combat Air Support to enforce a no fly zone in Northern Iraq designed to ensure the safety of Iraqi Kurds.

These past operations show that the US is making a shift to airpower as its primary weapon system. The reason for this is not only because the mission calls for it, but also because the nation does as well. The public has not forgotten Vietnam, where 52,000 Americans gave their lives. More recently, images of a deceased American soldier being dragged through the streets by a Somali rebel have emphasized the public’s aversion to our soldiers being killed. Air strikes seem the safer alternative, and allow for a more rapid departure should the need arise. The public opinion seems to be win and go home, but winning at all costs is no longer an option. In a Gallup Poll taken in 1999, respondents were asked: “Suppose the air strikes fail to stop Serbian aggression in Kosovo. Should the United States send in ground troops?” The public said no, 2-to-1. As a politician, the Commander-in-Chief cannot ignore those numbers. America’s foreign policy is profoundly affected by domestic determinants, and as of late, the majority of the public is against the use of ground troops, which is seemingly shaping the scope of future conflict as well.

It appears as though future conflict will call upon the increased use of our nations land based Air Force. Fortunately, the USAF is up to the challenge, as it stands as the worlds premier supplier of airpower. The majority of the Air Force is located at bases found on the continental United States, but is supplemented with forward operating locations throughout the globe and also Reserve and National Guard units in the US which take the strain of active duty forces. The diversity of the USAF can be found within its ability to provide for such a wide array of mission capabilities.

The most notable and glamorous of which is that of Air Superiority. Air Superiority, simply put, is guaranteeing that all US aircraft and ground troops in the vicinity are free from enemy air attack. This mission calls primarily upon the F-15C. This aircraft is the premiere air-to-air fighter in the world and dominates its CAP or combat air patrol mission. The F-15C is supplemented in its air-to-air role by the F-16 and F-15E multi-purpose fighters. The F-16 and F-15E are both air-to-air fighters and air-to-ground fighters. They combine the ability to engage targets in the air, as well as bomb ground targets with incredible precision.

Furthermore, the F-16 flies SEADs or Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses missions. The “Wild Weasel” mission takes out enemy anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) and surface to air missile (SAM) sites to allow for safe insurgence of bomber or attack aircraft. The A-10 provides close air support to ensure the destruction of any threat found on the ground to American aircraft or ground troops. Along with the F-16 and F-15E, flying attack or fighter-bomber missions is the notorious F-117, also known as the stealth fighter. The US is the only country in the world to fly an aircraft with stealth technology and it gives our Air Force the unprecedented advantage of being able to fly unseen to a target.

The bombing mission takes on a strategic role with the USAF heavy bomber fleet. The B-52, B-1, and B-2 all have conventional as well as nuclear capabilities. These aircraft are capable not only of flying missions from a forward operating location, but also from the continental US. Global Power missions as they are known utilize aerial refueling to allow American bombers to take off from a USAF base, fly to any overseas target, drop the ordinance, then return home. During operation Allied Force B-2s stationed at Whiteman, AFB in Missouri flew 34-hour round trip missions to engage targets in the former Yugoslavia. The stealth capability of the B-2 ensures that our enemies will be unaware of its presence until the bomb impacts.

Supporting the “pointed end of the spear” is an airlift force made up of C-5s, C-17s, C-141s, and C-130s. The C-5 is the largest aircraft in the US inventory and is called upon to transport the heaviest and largest loads. The C-17 and C-141 can carry mid-sized loads anywhere in the world and have airdrop capabilities. The C-130 is a smaller cargo aircraft with airdrop and short field landing capabilities. This cargo fleet can transport any piece of Air Force equipment anywhere in the world within 24 hours. They are responsible for moving personnel and support equipment to the combat zone when the need should arise.

None of the previous missions listed would be possible if it weren’t for the in-flight refueling capabilities of the USAF. The KC-135 and KC-10 provide this service to all Air Force aircraft. This function enables fighter aircraft to linger in the combat zone for extended periods of time. It also increases the range in which bomber and attack aircraft can fly, allowing them to attack targets from a safer distance away from the front lines. Aerial Refueling also allows for the sense of urgency that USAF transport aircraft can deliver cargo. As previously mentioned, the majority of USAF bases are found within the United States. However the capabilities of air refueling allow fighter and bomber aircraft to get to the fight fast. Combined with the ability of transport aircraft to support and sustain the fight, our nations Air Force has rapid global mobility.

While the Air Force does have the ability to deploy to a combat zone rapidly, it is still necessary to maintain an overseas presence. The Air Force has forward operating locations in each of the three theatres of potential combat. In the European Theatre, USAF F-15s and KC-135s can be found in England. F-16s and A-10s are stationed at American Air Bases in Germany, and F-16s are permanently located in Italy. In the Pacific Theatre, F-15s and KC-135s are located in Okinawa, and F-16s are stationed in Japan and Korea. In the Middle Eastern Theatre, Incirlik AB in Turkey and Rhiad AB in Saudi Arabia supports tenant units that rotate with units located within the United States. Furthermore, units stationed stateside spend at least 90 days a year deployed to one or more of the forward operating locations the Air Force maintains. These bases ensure that the Air Force is the best equipped to rapidly respond to any crisis the United States may become involved in.

The land-based power of the USAF appears to be well equipped to handle the conflicts of the future. However, it is also equipped to deter them from ever beginning. As suggested in the literature, the force that will have the greatest deterrent effect in the future are the forces that are in the region or can deploy to the region on short notice. Combined with the numerous forward locations operated by the USAF, the continental based forces can be mobilized and deployed within a matter of days. Furthermore, the Air Force capability of attacking from home shores in a global power mission gives the US the option of putting bombs on target in less than 24 hours. While some adversaries may not feel threatened by a conventional only force, the Air Force maintains the ability to be nuclear capable. The B-52, B-1, B-2, and F-117 are all nuclear capable aircraft that contribute to the risk our enemies would be taking should they decide to test the United State. These factors assure that a powerful blow can be delivered to our adversaries quickly. Past conflicts that US has been involved with, particularly operations Desert Storm and Allied Force serve as a wake-up call to our potential enemies to what might become of them if they attempt to disrupt peace.

The USAF is committed to continuing the capabilities of its airpower, and hopes that because no enemy can match our power in the air, it will maintain peace. New weapons currently in development such as the F-22 will provide the Air Force with a weapon system that will further provide for unmatched air superiority. The F-22 guarantees the ability to win on our terms. First-look, first-shot, first-kill, the F-22 has the ability to find, identify and destroy targets without being detected, and exemplifies the countries commitment to maintaining air superiority. Furthermore, currently in initial test phases is the joint strike fighter (JSF) that will serve as a replacement to the F-16 and utilize the same capabilities of the F-22 in both fighter and attack roles. More important than acquiring new weapon systems is the commitment of the Air Force to maintain its people, the driving force behind any military organization. Recent pay raises will be combined with more in the near future, along with increased benefits in order to assure that people behind the force are the best in the military. The Air Force is looking towards the future in order to be prepared for the future conflicts we are sure to be involved in, a preparation hopefully so intense it will deter conflict from ever beginning.


The nature of conflict has yet again changed. Smaller regional conflicts will dominate the future and it is the force that can respond quickly and powerfully that will be called upon. Our armed forces commitment in those conflicts has also changed. The American public is wary of sending in ground forces, and looks to an emphasis on air strikes. However, the current capabilities of our nations Air Force are such that forces stationed in the US can rapidly deploy to a combat zone, and are supplemented by those units at forward operation locations that ensure that the Air Force can be the first there and ready to strike. Furthermore, the Air Force is capable of providing unmatched air superiority, global attack, rapid global mobility, and suppression of enemy defenses, and is committed to continuing that style of excellence. These factors combine to ensure that the President’s best policy option for the future in regards to deploying our armed forces is indeed to send in land based airpower first. The attacking force of the future will come from the skies.

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