US Air Force Secretary Not so Hyper on Hypersonics; How to Play the USAF’s ACE Card?

Further to this post,

US Air Force Hypersonics Programs not Manoeuvering very Rapidly or Purposefully, or, Missiles Looking for Missions

the civilian head of the service is a very sharp fellow (see his bio), good to have one such on top of a military branch; pity none like him in Canada. At the start and end of an article at Air Force Magazine (my suggested title: “Hold those Hypersonic Horses):

Kendall: Don’t Mirror China on Hypersonics…

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall warned of putting too much emphasis on hypersonics just because China is advancing in that area, saying hypersonic missiles are better suited to China’s strategy and that USAF has yet to determine the right munitions mix for the future…

The targets that China is “worried about, that we present” are well addressed with hypersonic weapons, Kendall said during a Jan. 19 virtual Center for a New American Security event. These tend to be major air bases in the Pacific and naval formations. But “I think we have to be careful about not mirror-imaging the potential threats,” he said.

There was a “rush” during the Trump administration to develop hypersonics, Kendall noted, but they may not always be the most “cost-effective … tool” for the Air Force.

We don’t have the same targets that [China is] worried about,” he said. “We have to think about what’s most cost-effective for us … [Hypersonic systems are] very expensive compared to conventional weapons. So we’ve got to look at that very carefully [emphasis added] and decide where we need to be in that tradeoff. I don’t think enough work has been done on that.”

Kendall didn’t elaborate on the targets most compelling for USAF or whether they are best addressed by slower, stealthy cruise missiles, air-breathing hypersonic cruise missiles that would be cheaper than the boost-glide variety, or direct-attack weapons.

Broadly, he said, the U.S. goal is “having a deterrence that defeats aggression, … whether it’s in Ukraine or … Taiwan, for example.” The “core mission” of adversaries such as China, however, is “to keep us out of their part of the world, or to keep us from intervening,” he said. These are “very different operational requirements.”The right weapons mix is “still very much an open question for me,” Kendall said. He acknowledged that hypersonic missiles have the advantage of being fast and unpredictable and “can be a valuable asset” but that the Air Force needs to better plot its path for future munitions [emphasis added].

“There is a role for hypersonics in that mix,” he allowed. “And I think we should continue to proceed with developing and fielding appropriate hypersonic” systems…

Right Concept for the Future

Kendall said the Air Force’s agile combat employment model of rapidly moving forces around to many different bases is the right concept for the future. But bringing it to fruition requires a number of steps that Kendall pledged he will not allow to be sacrificed for programmatic priorities.

“We need … a sense of urgency” about bringing ACE about, he said. That will mean air bases “have to be harder,” with hardened shelters and facilities. Additionally, “We have to create some ambiguity for the enemy. We have to use multiple locations and deception to do that. We also have to have some level of defenses so that [the enemy] has some uncertainty about how successful his attack might be.” The Air Force also has to “change the equation” about “how much leverage [an enemy could obtain by] … shutting down … a small number of air bases. That, to me, is probably the most immediate task on the list, and one of the easiest ones … when you think about what you have to do [doesn’t seem so easy to me].” .. 

Two posts related to ACE:

US Air Force Planning for “Distributed Operations” in Pacific

US Air Force Planning vs PLA in Indo-Pacific

And a tweet on hypersonics:

Mark Collins

Twitter: @mark3ds

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