Air Forces as Weapons Systems

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Main Image Credit US Air Force F-15C Eagles and Indian Air Force MIG-27 Floggers fly together during joint military exercises. Courtesy of Keith Brown/US Air Force/Wikimedia.

Report on the one-day RUSI conference that focused on exploring whether air forces can, or indeed should, seek to fight like a single weapons system. Delegates heard from the US Air Force and Royal Air Force, alongside representatives from multiple air forces in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

A key question to ask ourselves, as countries around the world examine their future combat air capabilities, is whether air forces can, or indeed should, seek to fight like a single weapons system, thereby abandoning the individual platform-centric approach that characterised the fourth generation of air combat. 

This conference brought together speakers and delegates from the US Air Force, Royal Air Force, Italian Air Force and the European Air Group, alongside presentations examining Indian, German, Russian and Chinese air force modernisation efforts. All are exploring significantly different strategic approaches and force mixes. Likewise, all are seeking to generate maximum air combat capability within the confines of their financial and political circumstances, and offered valuable insights to airpower practitioners and theorists who often risk becoming intellectually stove-piped within their own national approaches. 

The problems posed by a widely perceived return to great power competition and the spectre of high-end warfare against a state adversary as a defence task are myriad, but appear to have been grasped conceptually by most air forces and militaries in NATO. It was widely agreed upon that there is a need to generate combat mass and resilience, not simply exquisitely capable platforms, to link them via resilient, self-healing and secure network constructs for command, control and communications (C3) purposes, and to shorten capability development and technology refresh cycles. Despite the potential risks in terms of cyber/electronic warfare (EW) attack surfaces, pursuing a revolutionary increase in systems and network integration to allow NATO air forces to interoperate and integrate ever more closely was presented as desirable and one of the only ways for NATO’s various national air arms to generate sufficient combat mass and resilience. 

What remained unclear, however, is how large, bureaucratic organisations such as air forces, which rely heavily on extremely expensive equipment programmes with timeframes spanning decades, can adapt sufficiently to meet these challenges within existing structures and budgets. For all the presentations detailing the innovative approaches being planned or trialled, and new priorities being pushed to enable air forces to cope with the demands of high-end warfighting at scale, there was much less detail provided on what would no longer be done to generate capacity for these new activities – a point repeatedly discussed in the question and answer sessions. 

At the same time, NATO’s potential adversaries are not standing still, with both Russia and China in particular exploring various potential ways to undermine and disrupt the C3 and information-dependent Western approach to modern air warfare. While Russia’s own air and space forces’ modernisation programme is heavily dependent on imported Western electronic components and, therefore, has suffered significant setbacks due to sanctions in the years since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, China has no such problems. As such, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is exploring a raft of innovative intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR); EW and kinetic approaches with a heavy focus on operations against the US in its immediate neighbourhood. With massive industrial and financial capacity and a correspondingly rapid innovation and technology refresh rate, the PLAAF’s capacity to improve and consequently close the gap with the US Air Force and US Navy should not be underestimated.

The conference took place under non-attribution rules, although selected presentations were given on the record. Some of the most interesting discussions took place during the question and answer sessions, but as these were off the record they unfortunately cannot be reproduced here.


Justin Bronk

Research Fellow, Airpower & Technology

Military Sciences

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