The Challenges of Fifth-Generation Transformation

The Challenges of Fifth-Generation Transformation

By Wing Commander André Adamson and Colonel Matthew Snyder

Plan Jericho, published in 2015, outlined a strategy that would transform the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) into a fifth-generation air force by 2025 which, if delivered on schedule, would make it the world’s first. This transformation is not based on merely the possession of the next generation of aircraft technology including the F-35A, P-8 Poseidon, EA-18G Growler and E-7A Wedgetail, but on a reconceptualisation of the RAAF as an integrated, networked force. Significantly, this new operating concept is based on working in a highly collaborative manner with the Australian Army, Royal Australian Navy, industry, and allies – especially partners in the F-35 programme – to achieve the full potential of the new technologies, and to ensure that the networked force can work effectively with them.

The Australian plan has given many air forces pause for thought. That an air force comprising fewer than 15,000 regular personnel is seeking to transition to an entirely fifth-generation air force within the next decade to meet its strategic and security objectives demonstrates an undertaking to conduct future air operations in a conceptually different way. The commitment to a similar transformation among other F-35 partners is firmly underway – both the US Air Force (USAF) and Royal Air Force (RAF) have pledged to transition to fifth-generation air forces.[1] In contrast, for air forces that are not committed to a fifth-generation programme, or the transformational concepts that underpin it, the time is rapidly approaching where a hard-nosed evaluation and decision will need to be made on where they want to be as an air force in the next 10-15 years. The choice is tactical, strategic, and political.

An E-7A Wedgetail from No. 2 Squadron RAAF sits on the tarmac at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, during Exercise Red Flag 18-1. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

Since the inception of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) precursor of the F-35 in the mid-1990s, there has been a broad, often polarised, and inevitably highly charged debate surrounding the programme. Over the past decade, as the first prototypes took to the air, this debate focused on cost – perhaps unavoidably given that it is the most expensive military project in history. As the aircraft subsequently moved into its production phase, attention shifted to technical problems with engines, software, and its data fusion capabilities. More recently, however, supporters of the F-35, not least the international partners themselves, have highlighted successes that indicate that the programme may have now turned a corner. These successes include the declaration of initial operating capability (IOC) by the US Marine Corps and USAF, production rates steadily increasing, encouraging feedback from the increasing number of F-35 pilots, and an impressive performance in exercises.

Although these positive developments may not entirely amount to a ‘game changer’, they arguably represent significant steps forward in the delivery of the fifth-generation capability. It is, therefore, useful to frame the debate regarding a new template: that of a capability that is, if not yet fully validated, nonetheless in the process of being delivered to partners, tested in increasingly challenging scenarios, and moving towards full operational capability (FOC). This article analyses some of the stakes involved as this capability increasingly acts as a driver for fifth-generation transformation, and to consider some of the implications for air forces that have committed to fifth-generation programmes and, perhaps more significantly, for those that have not.

Defining Fifth Generation

Most people are now familiar with the term fifth-generation as the naming convention most often used when discussing this next generation of fighter aircraft. Although there is no specific or formal definition of what constitutes a fifth-generation fighter, it is routinely accepted that those aircraft that are designed and capable of operating in highly contested operational environments. To be able to do so it is accepted that the platforms must have not only low-observable features inherent in the design of the aircraft but also onboard radar and sensor features that include low-probability of intercept and low-probability of detection. They also must possess highly sophisticated self-protection and jamming systems combined with advanced avionics and powerful computers. This integration has allowed the evolution of a capability to fuse both onboard and off-board data without the involvement of the pilot. These aircraft are, therefore, able to feed real-time information autonomously into the joint operational network, significantly increasing the awareness and reducing the decision time of commanders. It is, therefore, essential to define a fifth-generation system not just as a fighter but as a system able to operate in a networked and integrated manner. Fifth-generation systems fundamentally revolve around powerful fusion capabilities which enable fusion of data to create a highly accurate picture of the battlespace independently of an operator.

These new systems present clear operational advantages over older platforms. In the ever-increasing high-threat environment characterised by modern integrated air-defence systems (IADS), fifth-generation platforms can operate where non-fifth-generation platforms cannot. Their ability to work cooperatively and talk with other platforms in the battlespace transforms even a limited number of assets into significant force multipliers and force enablers. Thus, the F-35 is not only an air asset; it is also a collection platform which can interact with, and provide data to, both ground and maritime forces. However, possession of such an advanced platform comes at a considerable price. It is complicated to take a non-stealth platform and make it stealthy. Therefore, not only does a country need to sign up to make a significant financial commitment to purchase a fifth-generation platform such as the F-35, but significant investment is required elsewhere, such as in new maintenance facilities and the robust data networks that are necessary to exploit its full capabilities. It is worth briefly reviewing the reasons for the decision to commit to the F-35 programme for those states that have joined.

The Partners and Why they Joined the F-35 Programme

Nine countries originally signed up as partners to the JSF programme, the precursor to the F-35: the US; the UK; Australia; Canada; Italy; The Netherlands; Norway; Turkey; and Denmark. Three others committed through Foreign Military Sales: Israel; Japan; and South Korea. As the most expensive military development and procurement plan in history, the F-35 has attracted a great deal of controversy since the development contract was signed in November 1996. From its conception, the JSF was to be an international co-development programme, a decision that was driven by several factors. All the partners were either NATO countries and/or close US allies, and there was, from the outset, a clear imperative for interoperability and interconnectivity in coalition-based air operations. The partners had been operating a range of different platforms of varying levels of capability, and the F-35 enabled them to operate the same aircraft with all the evident advantages that it brings regarding interoperability, training, logistics, among others. Furthermore, the partners were all involved, to varying degrees, in the design, building and testing of the aircraft. This was a unique element of the programme that helped maintain domestic hi-tech military industries. The UK, for example, was the only Tier 1 partner and is responsible for 15 percent of the aircraft, worth an estimated £30 billion over the lifetime of the programme sustaining 24,000 jobs. The European F-35 production facility in Cameri, Italy, is projected to bring $15.8 billion of economic benefit to the Italian economy.[2]

The F-35 programme and the cooperative and industrial advantages it confers are, however, as described above, more than the next-generation platform conceived at the outset of the JSF programme. The F-35 represents a commitment by the partner air forces to exploiting a range of new, highly advanced capabilities that constitute a step change in the gathering, processing, and sharing of information, particularly in contested environments. Indeed, it is the recalibration of strategic and operational thinking that has been driven by the requirement to operate in those increasingly contested environments, and against near-peer adversaries, which has proved so persuasive in winning the argument for the fifth-generation partners. It has required a shift in thinking and a reconceptualisation of the conduct of air operations in the joint and combined environment through the significantly enhanced surveillance, command and control, and information sharing that fifth-generation capabilities provide. It also compels fifth-generation air forces to integrate and network with land and maritime forces in an unprecedented way – next-generation air forces will require next-generation joint forces.

F-35 sortie
An F-35 Lightning II performs a maneuvre on 12 September 2016 over Luke Air Force Base. This sortie marked the 10,000th flying hour for the F-35 program at Luke. (Source: US Department of Defense)

The countries that committed to the F-35 programme did so over 15 years ago following the first flight of the prototype X-35B. As described above, motivations at the time were primarily centred on the requirement of those air forces to replace their legacy fleets, or to run those fleets alongside platforms that exploited the latest technological developments, including stealth. The potential of those technologies has evolved significantly over the subsequent years, often beyond the original expectations and understanding, and those air forces which are part of the programme are now beginning to take delivery of a capability that represents a genuine generational change. The geopolitical context has also evolved over that period and, following 15 years of assumed air superiority in Iraq and Afghanistan and the counterinsurgency operations that followed, the air forces that will be using the F-35 are discovering that they have a capability that is credible in contested environments. However, most of those air forces have equally begun to realise that having a fifth-generation aircraft does not merely equate to having a fifth-generation capability as defined above. Although the US Marine Corps declared IOC in 2015 and the USAF in August 2016, there are still significant challenges to be addressed, both technically and conceptually, before the declaration of a genuinely fifth-generation FOC. Furthermore, there are undoubtedly continuous and continuing problems in the development of the F-35 itself, as might be expected in a programme of such size and complexity and the programme is, by some order of magnitude, the costliest in the Department of Defense’s history.[3]

Implications for F-35 Partners of Integrating Fourth- and Fifth-Generation Fighters

F-35 deliveries are now firmly underway with over 200 jets flying, most of the partners operating their aircraft and production rates scheduled to exceed 60 per year soon. This puts considerable pressure on those partner countries and Foreign Military Sales customers to prioritise the elements that will allow them to realise the full force-multiplier potential of the aircraft. This includes the enhanced data management, connectivity and bandwidth upgrades required to operationalise and fully exploit the capability that fifth-generation aircraft offers for information-centric warfare and cross-platform connectivity.

In this regard, the F-35 has a ‘forcing function’ for militaries looking to adopt a fifth-generation standard. Naval and ground forces stand to benefit significantly from the network-centric, cross-platform, multiple-shooter concept of operations of which the F-35 will form such a significant element. As Justin Bronk suggested, given the almost unlimited scope of connecting the F-35 to every system in the battlespace, joint force commands will be compelled to invest in the connectivity and bandwidth for the platforms that stand to provide the most significant increase in combat power and flexibility.[4] This will drive the development of fifth-generation joint forces, a concept that has significant potential, particularly in contested environments. It also is a critical element of underpinning programmes such as Plan Jericho – the transformation to an integrated networked joint force that has combat power much more significant than the sum of its parts.

Whereas the RAAF is looking to upgrade its entire legacy fleet over the next decade, most of the F-35 partners, including the USAF, will need to run their legacy fleets alongside their fifth-generation platforms for some years beyond that. The RAF and Italian Air Force, for example, possess the highly capable Typhoon, a fourth-generation aircraft with high performance, an active scan radar, Link 16, and a comprehensive air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons suite. As Bronk pointed out, in such cases investment in the F-35 and Typhoon should not be seen as a binary choice as ‘each aircraft offer strengths to complement the other’s capabilities. The combination of F-35 and Typhoon can be far more potent than a force composed entirely of either type in many operational scenarios’.[5]

As a US-led, but highly collaborative, programme, development of the F-35 has drawn the partners together. The sharing of technologies, concepts, tactics, training, maintenance, logistics, and procedures represent a significant opportunity for fifth-generation air forces. With the F-35 being operated by so many states there are also substantial prospects for tactical, technical, and conceptual innovation which will allow the aircraft to be highly ‘future-proof’ without compromising issues such as sovereignty, national defence industries or strategic autonomy. All these elements contribute to powerful forces drawing the F-35 partners into what might be described as a fifth-generation ‘club’. The level of international cooperation is unprecedented, with pilots training together at the F-35 multinational pilot training centre at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, maintenance facilities being developed in Italy, Turkey, Norway and The Netherlands, and a global logistics supply chain. The result is a deepening of cooperation between the partner air forces, many of whom already possess a strong ability to do so through links forged over the years through NATO and operating in coalitions since the end of the Cold War.

Implications of Integrated Fourth- and Fifth-Generation Air Forces for Countries that are not F-35 Partners

Air forces that have not yet committed, or do not have current plans to transition to fifth-generation systems, will need to consider the operational and strategic implications of such decisions. Four areas should be considered considering future military operations: the ability to engage near-peer adversaries in a high-intensity environment; the military status and political parity with allied countries; the integration and collaboration capabilities with partner forces; and the potential limitation of the depth and breadth of defence technological innovation.

One of the UK’s first F-35B Lightning II aircraft takes off from Eglin Air Force Base, c. 2014. (Source: UK Ministry of Defence)

As previously discussed, fifth-generation systems are not merely about employing stealth attributes, but rather about harnessing the substantial advancements in processing ability and data fusion capabilities inherent in such systems. Tellingly, the aim is to create and operate a networked environment where the lines are seamless between sensors, shooters, and operators. As a result, air forces that do not possess these capabilities are likely to find themselves increasingly relegated to a supporting rather than a leading role in planning for, and executing, future contingency operations. Countries that are not able to contribute and operate effectively in high-threat environments will potentially find themselves not on an equal footing with their coalition partners, a position that may compromise their role in military operations and, increasingly, political decision-making. Except for Australia, all the original nine partner countries are NATO members, allowing the smaller air forces of the Alliance – such as Spain and Belgium – to mitigate the limitations of their continued reliance on fourth-generation assets by optimising the capabilities of the F-35 with their legacy platforms in a NATO context. For larger Western countries not in the F-35 programme – such as France and Germany – there will be pressure to prioritise the optimisation of their existing platforms with the capabilities of the F-35. France faces the challenge of preserving its much-valued strategic autonomy, continued global aspirations and protection of its defence industrial base in the context of fifth-generation transformation. In his evidence to French MPs last year the Chief of the French Air Force, General Lanata, warned that, in less than five years, the F-35 would become the standard for operating in the most demanding operational scenarios, and that it would bring to a head the decision as to whether an air force can engage in those scenarios in the future.[6]  In short, without fifth-generation aircraft, an air force risks being in a supporting role in a coalition air environment and will require a fifth-generation partner to provide mission success against a near-peer adversary.

Finally, the benefits of privileged access to the highest level of military technology enjoyed by the F-35 are substantial. The highly collaborative nature of the programme ensures that technology transfer occurs at an unprecedented scale and provides a wealth of opportunities for hi-tech defence industries across the partner countries. The fact that so many states will operate the F-35 will also boost the opportunities for innovation in disciplines such as engineering and avionics, as well as tactics and concepts. For air forces outside of the programme, technological advances can, of course, be pursued at the national level but they will not benefit from the exchange of ideas, concepts and innovation that are generated by this collaborative programme.


This article has articulated some of the critical implications for air forces committed to a fifth-generation programme centred on the F-35 and for those that have not. After a decade and a half of delays, setbacks, and bad press, the F-35 programme and the technological advancements linked to it are gathering momentum. The programme is driving the partner states not just to unprecedented levels of military cooperation and convergence but also developing the networked joint forces necessary to operate in an increasingly contested environment. For states that have chosen to not participate in the fifth-generation programme, the challenges will be tactical, strategic, and political.

At a tactical level, operators of legacy fleets will struggle to interoperate effectively with the F-35 and other fifth-generation assets and indeed may degrade the effectiveness of coalition operations centred on fifth-generation systems. Furthermore, they may well be restricted to operating only in semi-permissive environments with a low IADS threat. At a strategic level, air forces that do not operate fifth-generation platforms may face the challenge of not being considered on an equal footing with the F-35 partners who, within a decade, are likely to have developed means to fuse, process, distribute and exploit data that will out-pace anything that even updated legacy fleets can match. At a political level, the range of credible options available to a national executive in the context of a highly contested environment against a peer competitor risk being limited. There will, therefore, be an increasing onus on air forces not operating fifth-generation platforms to articulate a credible and conceptually coherent ‘offer’, what they can contribute to a fifth-generation-led coalition, for example, to justify their status at each level. This will be a point that will not be lost on many who look to avoid the risk of fourth-generation air forces being restricted to a supporting role in the air environment against a near-peer.

Furthermore, partners in fifth-generation system development are pushing the boundaries of collaborative networked systems and transforming military operations. The ‘forcing function’ – the incentives generated by the F-35 for further technological developments and integration – provides a potent impetus for change and innovation among the fifth-generation partners. Conversely, countries not actively involved in fifth-generation transformation are starting to face a capability gap that will only continue to widen over the next decade. Other means – political, financial, or industrial – will be needed to drive the change necessary to mitigate the divergence or offset its effects. Set against these challenges, these air forces might argue that their national security priorities over the next 10-15 years are perfectly well met by remaining outside the F-35 programme and the fifth-generation capabilities of which it is a core element. An approach such as this relies on updating fourth-generation assets in the short term and developing other solutions either nationally or in collaboration with other partners for deployment beyond the 2035 timeframe. They might also credibly contend that legacy assets are inherently less vulnerable to disruption of the networks on which fifth-generation platforms rely and that the significant costs associated with the programme could be more effectively apportioned elsewhere to meet those national priorities.

The arguments presented in this article suggest, however, that the implications of this approach in the longer-term are potentially severe and that there will be, eventually, a cost regarding capability, operational effectiveness, technological superiority, and status. Writing in 1989, William Lind et al. wrote that ‘whoever is first to recognize, understand, and implement a generational change can gain a decisive advantage. Conversely, a nation that is slow to adapt to generational change opens itself to catastrophic defeat.’[7] Although he was writing in the context of the end of the Cold War, Lind’s observation remains apposite and is at the core of the conceptual leap being undertaken by Australia, the US, the UK and the other F-35 partners. These are increasingly clear strategic choices that will have implications for all air forces, and they will soon discover whether the price will have been worth paying.

N.B. This article is derived from the author’s work as published in The RUSI Journal. See: André Adamson and Matthew Snyder, ‘The Challenges of Fifth-Generation Transformation,’ The RUSI Journal, 164:4 (2017), pp. 60-6.

Wing Commander André Adamson is an officer in the RAF and was until recently liaison officer for the Plans Bureau with the French Air Staff in Paris. Colonel Matthew Snyder is an officer in the USAF and strategic partnership exchange officer for the Plans Bureau with the French Air Staff in Paris. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of their respective organisations.

Header Image: An F-35 Lightning II departs RAAF Base Amberley for the Avalon Air Show, c. 2017. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

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[1]  The RAF has decided to refer to a ‘next generation’ air force in its recently published strategy to emphasise the concept of integration and to reduce the risk of the strategy being seen to be platform based. See RAF, Royal Air Force Strategy: Delivering a World-Class Air Force, (London: Royal Air Force, 2017).

[2] PWC, ‘Italian F-35 Lightning II Program: Economic Impact Assessment,’ February 2014.

[3] By way of comparison, the estimated cost of the US Navy’s first four new Gerald R Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers will cost approximately $50 billion and the costs for modernising all three components of US nuclear forces will cost approximately $350 billion over the next decade. See, Congressional Budget Office, ‘Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2017 to 2026,’ February 2017.

[4] Justin Bronk, ‘Maximum Value from the F-35: Harnessing Transformational Fifth-Generation Capabilities for the UK Military,’ RUSI Whitehall Reports, 1-16 (February 2016), p. viii.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Franck Delétraz, ‘Le cri d’alerte du général Lanata,’ Présent, 8 August 2017.

[7] William S. Lind, Colonel Keith Nightengale (USA), Captain John F. Schmitt (USMC), Colonel Joseph W. Sutton (USA), and Lieutenant Colonel Gary I. Wilson (USMCR), ‘The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation,’ Marine Corps Gazette, (October 1989), p. 22.

Observations on the Character of Future #highintensitywar

Observations on the Character of Future #highintensitywar

By Squadron Leader Jenna Higgins

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Squadron Leader Jenna Higgins examines some of the possible characteristics that may define high-intensity warfare in the future.

High-intensity war is often equated with conventional or regular war, as after the Middle Ages, this was the ‘usual’ type of war. However, high-intensity war has somewhat fallen from the regular discourse. Being replaced by what is ironically known as irregular war. However, as was highlighted in the opening post to this series, this is starting to change. High-intensity war has become a distinct possibility in the near future, so we must prepare for and try an understand what that means for us. This article aims to explore the possible characteristics of future high-intensity war as a crucial step in preparing ourselves for it.

An attempt to control a domain typifies high-intensity warfare.[1] In recent decades, the requirement and ability to control the air domain has been somewhat of a non-issue. Recent conflicts have instead been labelled irregular or low intensity, and seeks to hurt, harass or demoralise the enemy; there is less of an intent, or perhaps a requirement, to control a domain. In looking to the future, we need to consider the context in which control of a domain, which in the case of this article is air, is required before any further action.

The ability to forecast when and where this high-intensity war will occur with any accuracy is challenging to say the least. However, with that said, why should we have to predict such an occurrence? If western air forces were able to maintain a seamless mastery of the full spectrum of operations, then the finer detail such as whether it was to be high or low intensity, would not matter. We would be prepared regardless. However, as Austin Long, an Associate Professor at Columbia University asserted ‘no military has been able to achieve this goal.’[2] In preparing for high-intensity warfare, the best we can do is outline potential realities with the aspiration that they will, in some way, prepare us through the generation of discussion and preparedness of the mind.

One. Displacement, trauma and bloodshed are unavoidable. According to The Economist, in:

[2040] two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities. The number of megacities with populations of more than 10 million has doubled to 29 in the past year, and each year nearly 80 million people are moving from rural to urban areas.[3]

So, while the exact location of future conflict is unknown, it is safe to assume, high-intensity war will be fought in an urban environment.  More significantly, these urban areas will be more densely populated than any time in history. High-intensity warfare in such an environment will be confronting to the moral sensibilities of a western society conditioned to small-scale conflict in less populated areas. This will be further compounded as scenes of mass destruction are broadcast over media networks worldwide. One needs only to recall the recent global outcry over the Syrian civil war as an illustration. The humanitarian disaster that unfolded in the wake of the Syrian civil war would be nothing compared to high-intensity conflict in a modern mega city. Syria had a pre-civil war population of 22 million, but only two cities with a population more than one million. One can only imagine the implications of a war in a city with a population ten times that of a Syrian city.

The city of Raqqa after fighting in the city during 2017. (Source: Wikimedia)

Civilian death, displacement and trauma are not the aims of modern democratic governments, noting that there have been some historical exceptions, but are unfortunately unavoidable. Combine a high-intensity conflict and a significant population centre, and the scale of destruction is exponentially increased from anything witnessed in recent history. The effect of a large-scale humanitarian catastrophe will be two-fold. There will be a requirement to prevent the overflow of conflict and refugees into surrounding nations and potentially cause further unrest. However, secondly, as these images are broadcast into our living room, it will be the responsibility of the government to maintain a supportive domestic base in the face of such horrific scenes. The morality of this scenario is complex and must be considered prior to its eventuality.

Two. Competition with near-peers will challenge our resilience and capacity. For the first time in 10 years, the United States has released a new National Defence Strategy in which it outlines strategic competition to be the ‘central challenge to US prosperity and security as Russian and Chinese military capabilities expand’. This document highlights that great power competition is now the focus. Given the accelerating regional military modernisation that is occurring in the Asia Pacific region, Australia too must focus resources on overcoming the challenges that the growing confidence of China or Indonesia poses. The fight against a near-peer offers several challenges not experienced in the preceding decades. One such example is the effect of a significant loss of platforms, refer to Rex Harrison’s post on attrition. There are assets in the Australian order of battle that will not be able to enter a contested environment without a high probability of loss, and to do so would deplete capability at an untenable rate.

Should we lose aircraft at an untenable rate, we also face the prospect of losing our highly specialised aircrew. With such a small air force relative to our potential adversaries, we lack the capacity and redundancy offered by larger forces. To win the high-intensity war, an organisation needs enough people who are willing to commit their lives to the higher objective. Unfortunately, due to the small population of our nation, we lack the recruitment pool to both enlist personnel at a high rate in the case of war or prepare adequately through the employment of additional personnel in times of peace for redundancy.

Three. High-intensity war will be fought through a multi-domain construct. One hundred years ago there was debate as to the utility of an independent air force. With the acceptance that land and maritime control could not exist without control of the air; an independent, specialised air force was born.  In 2018, the same argument must be made for the cyber and space domains. Without control of the cyber and space domains, we do not control the air domain. Greater knowledge of the benefits and limitations of these domains must be established and socialised within the broader warfighting community if success in a high-intently war is to be achieved. In fighting a high-intensity war, warfighters cannot continue to think from a domain-first perspective. Success in high-intensity war will need to:

[f]eature militaries capable of complex combined arms operations, as well as lethal offensive threats. These conflicts will engage US allies and disrupt the ability of the future joint force to move within operational reach of the adversary.[4]

In analysing the ‘Context of Future Conflict and War,’ Jeffrey Becker explained that:

[t]hreats will transcend tidy categories, cutting across land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace, while being distributed across military domains and/or reaching across broader geographic range and scope.[5]

It is not only Western militaries that are faced with this realisation. Chinese military publications also indicate that war is no longer a contest between units or specific services. The Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) refer to this concept at systems confrontation [体系对抗]. Systems confrontation is:

[w]aged not only in the traditional physical domains of land, sea, and air, but also in outer space, nonphysical cyberspace, electromagnetic, and even psychological domains. Whereas achieving dominance in one or a few of the physical domains was sufficient for war fighting success in the past systems confrontation requires that “comprehensive dominance” be achieved in all domains or battlefields.[6]

This inevitably leads to the question as to the suitability of the current organisational structure, and if we are truly ready to fight the joint fight. However, that is a whole other post.

The Royal Australian Air Force’s first P-8A Poseidon flies down the St Vincent Gulf coastline near Adelaide in South Australia, c. 2016. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

Four. Implications for capability transition. From an Australian air power perspective, we are both blessed and disadvantaged by the new capabilities entering service. In the coming five years, the RAAF will see several new platforms enter service. Platforms such as the F-35 Lightning, EA-18G Growler and P-8 Poseidon enable greater integration with coalition forces, while also enhancing connectivity with command. However, while the RAAF may have exceptional new, high-end capability, if these assets cannot fully integrate into the joint fight, or, if the wider warfighting community does not fully understand their capabilities, then their effectiveness is partially lost. With capability transition must come education. Air power practitioner’s need to emphasise the effects of their platforms rather than just assume the joint force knows what each platform brings to the fight. High-intensity warfighting must emphasise effects-based operations.

Five. We cannot rely purely on advanced technology to win; we need a contest of ideas.  Given the intricacies of the new, high-end capabilities as well as a large number of unknowns within the new domains, it will take everyone, from airmen and women to the Chief of Defence Force to achieve success in an effects-based operation. No one person, organisation or government holds the panacea to predicting and defeating an adversary in a high-intensity war. It is vital members at all levels are engaged and given the freedom to voice their ideas and concerns. It is through the contest of ideas that innovation is realised. This concept was aptly summarised by Air Marshal Leo Davies, Chief of Air Force, when he states that:

It is far, far better that we should respectfully engage in that contest than to hide our thoughts, only to find them wanting when it matters most.[7]

It is only through engagement and conversation that we become truly prepared for the future.

The five observations mentioned above about the character of future high-intensity warfare are in no way to be considered an exhaustive list. However, a common thread can be identified. Education and discussion into the broader warfighting community are vital. Future high-intensity war cannot be considered from a single-domain perspective, and consequently, a greater knowledge of all domains and capabilities is required.

Squadron Leader Jenna Higgins is an Air Combat Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force and editor at The Central Blue. She can be found on Twitter @jenna_ellen_ The opinions expressed are hers alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

Header Image: A Royal Australian Air Force F-35A flies in formation with a US Air Force F-35 during trial flights from Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix Arizona, c. 2016. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

[1] Michael Muehlbauer and David Ulbrich, Ways of War: American Military History from the Colonial Era to the Twenty-First Century (New York: Routledge, 2014), p. 3.

[2] Austin Long, ‘Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence – The U.S. Military and Counterinsurgency Doctrine, 1960-1970 and 2003-2006,’ RAND Counterinsurgency Study – Paper 6 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2008), p. 28.

[3] Matthew Symonds, ‘The Future of war – The new battleground,’ The Economist, 25 January 2018.

[4] Jeffrey Becker, ‘Contexts of Future Conflict and War,’ Joint Forces Quarterly, 74 (2014), p. 18.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jeffrey Engstrom, Systems Confrontation and System Destruction Warfare: How the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Seeks to Wage Modern Warfare (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018)

[7] Editorial, ‘A Central Blue debrief with Air Marshal Leo Davies, AO, CSC – Chief of Air Force,’ The Central Blue: The Blog of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation, 20 August 2017.

Fearing a Space Pearl Harbor: Space Warfare, #highintensitywar, and Air Power

Fearing a Space Pearl Harbor: Space Warfare, #highintensitywar, and Air Power

By Dr Bleddyn E. Bowen[1]

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Dr Bleddyn Bowen examines the place of space power in modern high-intensity warfare. In doing so, he discusses two competing astro-strategies and their applicability to air forces and the use of air power.


Modern air forces cannot conduct precise and highly coordinated operations without the navigation and communications services provided by satellites. Proven in 1991, America’s space power-enabled military forces decimated Iraq’s massed conventional forces and turned a defeat into a rout as Iraqi troops abandoned their heavy weapons and dispersed. Other military forces have now emulated precision bombing and networked air interception capabilities. Space power integration within the military forces of China and Russia proceeds apace with their precision strike and sophisticated standoff area denial weapons.

It is inevitable that space power’s influence on the battlefield, as well as attempts to disrupt or disable satellite operations, will be a significant feature of high-intensity warfare. Deterrence failure would open up space to the trials of space warfare for the first time.[2] Satellite communications, intelligence, and navigation services are essential to the operation of modern warfare in all terrestrial environments, and in particular, enable the combat and logistical effectiveness of fifth-generation air forces. Air power in future wars will be increasingly shaped by the influence of space power upon terrestrial warfare.

Two astro-strategies encapsulate competing visions of space warfare: a Space Pearl Harbor and a Reserve strategy. Both centre upon when and where each side wants to unleash a precision-guided munitions (PGM) salvo from and against air and maritime forces as well as fixed bases. Such a PGM salvo is the tip of the spear that a fifth-generation air force provides.[3] Space warfare threatens to blunt or parry this tip that modern military forces have come to rely upon. This article examines these two astro-strategies that influence the employment of airpower. While both astro-strategies centre upon when and where either side wishes to exploit and deny the dispersing effects of space power on the battlefield, modern air forces have a crucial role to play in imposing and denying those dispersing effects of space power and have a critical dependency on space power themselves to function.

The Influence of Space Power

Space power enables aggressive air forces to reliably shoot what they see promptly and increases the efficiency at which they can operate. This imposes dispersing pressures on the opposing force because of the reliability of precision-strike weapons.[4] Unless the PGM can be intercepted, its launcher destroyed, or its space-based navigation crippled, the targets must hide or scatter. As well as imposing a dispersing influence on enemy forces, dispersion through space services allows friendly deployed forces to remain physically dispersed while retaining a networked ability to concentrate firepower in time and place. The exploitation, denial, and negation of the dispersing effects of space power is a critical operational dynamic for future high-intensity warfare.

The hard edge of Western military forces – deep and precise airstrikes conducted at long distances from home – cannot function without space power. Fifth-generation aircraft and the emergence of ever-more autonomous and remotely piloted aircraft increases the reliance of modern air forces on the communications, navigation, and intelligence provided by satellites. In future high-intensity warfare, the practice of air power seems to grow acutely dependent on possessing a command of space.[5] Naturally, then, satellites are logical targets in any future high-intensity conflict as part of a range of options to degrade a PGM salvo capability. Air forces can be a direct counter-space or anti-satellite capable service with the employment of air-launched suborbital-capable missiles and electronic warfare suites.

Without space systems, the modernised military forces that have dispersed lose their connectivity and become less effective and vulnerable to any massing and concentration of the opposing force. Early warning of enemy movements and a return to ‘dumb’ weapons make massing against a fifth-generation air force and modern ground forces no longer a suicidal option. This is the reason that space infrastructure is a lucrative target in modern warfare: space power makes vulnerable opponents scatter and hide while allowing smaller forces to stand up to larger massed conventional forces. Attacking the space power that supports this military advantage improves the odds against fifth-generation aircraft and their joint methods of warfare.

How and when should an opponent’s space infrastructure be attacked, then? Fears and confidence in the success of a first strike in space warfare, or a ‘Space Pearl Harbor’ may be over-blown but timing a coordinated space warfare campaign with operations on Earth and holding counter-space operations in reserve may be more difficult than anticipated. These opposing views of space warfare in a future great power clash dominate operational-level thought about space warfare.

Space Pearl Harbor Strategy

The phrase ‘Space Pearl Harbor’ gained traction following the publication of Donald Rumsfeld’s 2001 Space Commission Report. The Commission noted a potential threat to U.S. space systems in the form of a debilitating first strike from a near-peer adversary against its space systems. Striking space systems first is an attractive strategy from China’s point of view because it undermines America’s dependencies in long-range precision-strike capabilities. Reducing the speed and flexibility at which fifth-generation aircraft can be tasked, reducing their weapons accuracies, decreasing the ranges at which they can fire-and-forget, as well as hampering battle damage assessment, can improve the odds of strategic success for the People’s Liberation Army. The incentive to strike American space systems and risking a like-for-like retaliation may seem like a possibly acceptable cost given China’s disproportionately reduced dependence on space power for a Taiwan scenario.

Not only has China developed a credible suite of anti-satellite capabilities, but China has also begun to resemble the early stages of the space power-enabled military machine the United States had in 1991. A massed military force is slowly transitioning to a lighter and more lethal-per-platform professional force. Today, both China and America are developing longer-range precision strike and uncrewed weapons to counter increasingly sophisticated air defence and maritime denial systems. These increase the dependency on space power and its dispersing effects on oneself and the enemy.

In future high-intensity warfare fifth-generation air forces must consider their dependencies on space systems for various degrees of operational capability as area-denial, and anti-access (A2AD) capabilities increasingly seek to disable and disrupt space communications. A Space Pearl Harbor strategy is increasingly appealing for the United States – not only its potential adversaries. China’s Qu Dian system – its satellite communications, command and control, and intelligence-gathering capabilities – is a potential target for America. China and America may become the first two military powers with competing systems-of-systems and fifth-generation aircraft to fight each other, with space systems providing the backbone for all long-range military capabilities. Both military powers possess reconnaissance-strike complexes, have provided ample targets for each other in orbit and on Earth.

U.S. Navy intercepts malfunctioning intellegence satellite
Launch of the SM-3 missile that intercepted USA-193. (Source: Wikipedia)

A key calculation in the strategies of China and the US with their opposing precision strike complexes is how long naval and airborne forces could operate within one another’s A2AD zones to fire their PGM salvos and retreat to safety. Successful counter space operations – whether through soft kill jamming or hard-kill destruction of satellites – may provide more time for aircraft in an anti-access region as dismantling the space component of A2AD weapons reduces the effectiveness and reliability of a precision-strike complex. However, the United States is also thinking and acting along these lines. China’s ever-increasing space infrastructure provides more targets worth hitting for US and allied ASAT programs, especially as China itself intends to project the dispersing influence of space power-enabled terrestrial strike weapons across the Pacific.

There is a strong incentive therefore to an early strike against space systems for both sides to prevent fifth-generation aircraft from being able to reliably intercept enemy fighters and bombard targets on Earth’s surface. Doing so would undermine the opponent’s ability to launch a fully capable PGM salvo which requires reliable celestial lines of communication. Part of China’s A2AD plan for a war in the Pacific may require the targeting of US bases in Guam, the Philippines, and Japan, and is developing longer-range air-launched PGM capabilities to do so. Such deep PGM strikes resemble what Clausewitz called an attack on the enemy’s army in its quarters, which prevents the enemy from assembling at its preferred location and buys significant time for the assailant as the victim spends days assembling at a more rearward, safer, position.

Space power’s influence on fifth-generation air forces partly increases the value of the first strike against space systems, especially if it is to prevent an expeditionary force from arriving in theatre before other hostilities begin. A fifth-generation aircraft’s utility in future high-intensity warfare may be determined by what happens in orbit to a degree only glimpsed by fourth-generation aircraft. Losing a space warfare campaign may seriously undermine the long-range strike options available for fifth-generation air forces, as without some space systems aircraft could not even leave an airfield, let alone navigate to a specific target and reliably hit it with one-shot-one-kill reliability. In close combat operations, impaired space support may disable reliable close air support that small and dispersed land units have come to rely upon in Western armed forces.

However, this does not mean that a U.S.-China war will inevitably begin in space. For strategists, the discussion of when and how which satellites may be targeted in war is particularly thorny, and has no obvious answer, despite the benefits of striking space systems. Space power is pervasive and diverse in its functions and influences, and space infrastructure may be more resilient or redundant than a first strike strategy may anticipate. Surprise attacks may not produce the strategic results desired, and forces will be needed in reserve. Betting everything on a surprise attack and a debilitating first strike is the other aspect of the Pearl Harbor analogy that seems under-emphasised in such discussion. A surprise attack has no guarantee of success, and there are good reasons why strategists tend not to commit their entire force and war plan to the success of the opening shots. The Space Pearl Harbor strategy has its merits, but it is only one possible astro-strategy. The defender is not always so helpless, and not necessarily so strategically vulnerable to such attacks.

Reserve Strategy

Beijing must assault Washington’s celestial lines of communication that support the maritime and air forces that Washington must dispatch to aid Taiwan. The consequences of doing so, or failing to do so, results in the dispersing influence of space power being brought to bear on the side that manages to keep using space power and commanding space to a good enough degree.

A strike against space systems at the outset of hostilities or manoeuvres may not be necessary or inevitable because of the needs and conditions of the terrestrial campaign. If a terrestrial campaign requires complete surprise, an attack on space systems may give away the terrestrial attack and reduce its effect. Expecting space superiority for an air strike may tempt the opposing force to conduct an opening airstrike without space superiority – much like how Egypt’s land offensive in the 1973 Yom Kippur War took Israel by surprise because they did so without air superiority.

A simple incentive to use a reserve strategy is that its timing can be used to increase the terrestrial consequences of the loss of space support at a crucial time. America would have more incentive to wait until its forces are converging on Taiwan when China needs to gather more data from sensors ashore to increase its anti-ship missile hit probabilities – making this the opportune time to disable the Qu Dian system and launch a concerted American space offensive. This is seemingly risky, but if timed well, can create the crucial opening for amphibious reinforcements of the Taiwanese resistance by the US Navy and Air Force. If the Qu Dian system is neutralised too early, workarounds may have been deployed by the time American expeditionary forces arrive in-theatre.

The reserve strategy may be useful to as a responsive posture based on when the adversary is about to launch a PGM salvo, and that salvo in itself may be used only when enemy terrestrial forces have concentrated on Earth around a geographical point, such as Taiwan and its surrounding waters. Counterspace operations and point-defence systems can parry the blow of a PGM salvo, or at least deny the one-shot-one-kill potential feared in Chinese A2AD systems. Indeed, the best time to deny Chinese A2AD systems is when the Chinese are counting on them to work at a crucial time of their choosing. This approach, however, may require a risk appetite that is now alien to the leaders of Western air and maritime forces.

The US Air Force launches the ninth Boeing-built Wideband Global SATCOM satellite at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., March 18, 2017. Such satellites play an integral part in the strategic and tactical coordination of military operations. (Source: US Department fo Defense)

Space power and air power are not immune to strategic logic. The abstract and absolutist nature of a Space Pearl Harbor assault on space systems is feared and has triggered thought and planning on mitigating the damages of such an attack on both sides. Mitigating the risks of a decisive blow from above in space follows a classic logic of strategy. Space systems may be more resilient than some assume. Terrestrial mitigation measures to parry the blow of a PGM salvo may decrease the need for excessive and pre-emptive counter-space operations. Fifth-generation aircraft may have a significant role as interceptors of long-range A2AD platforms and projectiles to protect the heavy-hitting destroyers and carriers as they approach a point of geographic interest and increase their risks of taking on damage. There may be an incentive not to shoot at or disrupt satellites first if one side thinks they can weather successive rounds of PGM salvos and exhaust the enemy’s supply of PGMs while retaining the ability to meet the objectives of the campaign in the aftermath. Space warfare and astro-strategy in a Taiwan scenario should – in part – be subordinated to the needs of a terrestrial salvo competition, which is itself partly subordinated to the needs of the amphibious Taiwan campaign and its political objectives.


The proliferation of space power increases its usefulness in warfare. Therefore the payoff of counter-space operations also increases. This proliferation, however, does not necessarily result in reduced strategic stability, as the ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ mentality encouraged by the Space Pearl Harbor astro-strategy is not without its inherent strategic flaws as a surprise attack. Space weapons and anti-satellite operations may be held in reserve to coincide with a critical moment on Earth: joint operations must include space power, but space operations must also embrace the needs of terrestrial warfare. With the advent of fifth-generation air forces and the emergence of remotely piloted or autonomous reconnaissance and combat aircraft, the reliance of air power on space power will only increase. Future high-intensity warfare will witness competing systems-of-systems, and space warfare will play a frontline role as a method of parrying and blunting each side’s precise airborne spear tips as two high technology militaries exploit and impose the dispersing effects of space power.

Dr Bleddyn E. Bowen is a Lecturer in International Relations at the School of History, Politics, and International Relations, University of Leicester. Previously, he lectured at King’s College London and Aberystwyth University. Bleddyn is a specialist in space power theory, astro-politics, and space security, and has published in The Journal of Strategic Studies, The British Journal of International Relations, and Astropolitics, frequently contributes to blogs on space warfare, and has featured in the podcasts The Space Show and The Dead Prussian. Amongst other things, Bleddyn is currently working on his research monograph on space power theory and convenes the Astropolitics Collective.

Header Image: An Atlas V rocket carrying a Space Based Infrared System Geosynchronous Earth Orbit satellite for a US Air Force mission lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, 19 January 2018. (Source: US Department of Defense)

[1] This article is based on research presented at the International Studies Association 2017 Annual Convention and will feature in a forthcoming monograph. Bleddyn E. Bowen. ‘Down to Earth: The Influence of Spacepower Upon Future History’, paper presented at ISA Annual Convention, Baltimore, February 2017.

[2] Bleddyn E. Bowen, ‘The Art of Space Deterrence’, European Leadership Network, 20 February 2018,

[3] Mark Gunzinger and Bryan Clark, Winning the Salvo Competition: Rebalancing America’s Air and Missile Defenses (Washington, D.C.: CBSA, 2016)

[4] John B. Sheldon, Reasoning by Strategic Analogy: Classical Strategic Thought and the Foundations of a Theory of Space Power (PhD Thesis, University of Reading, 2005)

[5] Bleddyn E. Bowen, ‘From the sea to outer space: The command of space as the foundation of spacepower theory’, Journal of Strategic Studies, First Online, 2017