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Military aircraft from the US, UK, France. Courtesy of US Air Force/Tech Sgt. Matthew Plew

The Future of NATO Airpower: How are Future Capability Plans Within the Alliance Diverging and How Can Interoperability be Maintained?

Justin Bronk
Whitehall Papers, 18 December 2019
Aerospace, NATO, Defence Policy, International Institutions
NATO members are pursuing different paths – this poses new challenges for working together as an Alliance.

This Whitehall Paper argues that there is an increasing divergence between the pace and trajectory of airpower capability development in the US and the rest of the NATO Alliance. While the US has held an overwhelming capability lead for decades, the emerging focus on countering Chinese capabilities at scale in the Pacific theatre, coupled with a continuing resource imbalance, is further eroding the ability of other NATO air forces to keep pace.

Specifically, this study argues that there are major changes on the horizon in terms of the way that the US wages war from the air and as a joint force. These are likely to make it significantly more technically difficult and politically complex for other NATO air forces to ‘plug into’ US-led coalitions as they have done for decades. From the way that sensor data, weapon allocation and targeting are cued within the kill chain, to a step change in how enablers like AWACS aircraft are provided, to the scale of cross-domain integration, the US is aiming to revolutionise the way it fights. In some cases, other NATO members may not wish to go down the same developmental pathways, even if they are able to do so. This might be because combat aircraft, concepts of operations (CONOPS) or weapons systems developed by the US with a Chinese threat in the Pacific in mind might be judged unsuitable for European needs. However, there are potentially more disruptive ethical and legal issues to do with fighting as part of a future US-led coalition as the latter pursues extensive automation to improve its lethality in a major war. For an alliance whose airpower edge is highly dependent on US enablers, command and control (C2) infrastructure and in some cases equipment, this has major implications. NATO is first and foremost a political organisation rather than a military one. However, this should not obscure the fact that it is a political organisation with a central purpose – mutual defence and deterrence against state opponents – which requires strong, interoperable military capabilities in addition to political will and unity.

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Author

Justin Bronk
Research Fellow, Airpower and Technology

Justin Bronk is a Research Fellow specialising in combat airpower and technology in the Military Sciences team at RUSI. He is also... read more

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