The US Air Force’s New Game Plan in the Asia-Pacific

The US Air Force releases a new mission statement, with interesting implications for China and Asia.

Early last month the U.S. Air Force (USAF) released its latest mission statement, Global Vigilance, Global Reach, Global Power for America. Decorated with quotes by Hap Arnold, Giulio Douhet, Winston Churchill and Bernard Montgomery, GVGRGP reaffirms several themes that have been consistent in airpower theory since the end of the Cold War, including emphases on the five core USAF missions (air and space superiority, ISR, Global Mobility, Global Strike and Command and Control) in service of the aforementioned vigilance, reach, and power.

The document is hardly revolutionary, and to some extent serves as an example of how deep concerns about autonomy and independence continue to animate the Air Force. Nevertheless, it’s useful as a window into Air Force culture, and into how the USAF conceives of itself as a warfighting organization.

The vigilance, reach and power triad essentially reflects a desire to make the world visible, accessible and manipulable. Phrased somewhat differently, this means the capability to collect intelligence, the ability to eliminate enemy obstructions (A2/AD), and the capacity to conduct military operations for political effect. 

The “global” aspect is surely worthy of some note; relatively few military organizations in the 21st century aspire to a global role, with even the PLAAF concentrating on the project of achieving regional dominance. However, a recent Banyan Analytics brief by Dr. Oriana Skylar Mastro gives some indication of how these concepts work in a regional framework. In particular, Mastro emphasizes “airpower diplomacy,” whatever the difficulties may be with that term.

 “Airpower diplomacy” supports all three elements of the mission statement, including achieving vigilance and reach through developing partnerships with regional allies, and paying heed to messaging and accident avoidance. Mastro details recent Air Force efforts to try to prevent a miscalculation on the part of either the Chinese or the Americans from leading to a violent incident. In the context of operational plans that value preemption and quick response (as is virtually implicit in GVGRGP), any effort to improve communication is laudable.

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At the same time, the USAF is refining its tactical dispositions to better take Chinese military capabilities into account, thus ensuring access. The USAF is developing the capability to disperse its F-22 assets across several regional installations to reduce the possibility that the PLA Second Artillery’s long-range ballistic and cruise missiles could devastate the force in a first strike.

Brian McGrath has some additional thoughts regarding how this dispersal strategy matches up with air defense requirements. McGrath’s argument focuses on the need to create uncertainty and doubt in the mind of an attacker, not only strategically (as traditionally conceived in deterrence theory), but also operationally. In some sense, this effort can be read as “counter-vigilance,” an effort to prevent the PLAAF, the PLAN and the Second Artillery from coming to sound conclusions regarding U.S. military’s deployments and capabilities.

GVGRGP does not “shortchange the joint fight,” and in fact it repeatedly describes an Air Force that will perform missions in conjunction with foreign partners and with the other two services. However, it is also very much a product of the long-standing Air Force vision of service autonomy and independence. As with the “global” vision, this stands in contrast to its Chinese counterpart(s), which have developed in a vastly different institutional and intellectual framework.

Over the next decades, the organizations that make up the U.S. and Chinese national security bureaucracies may become more responsive to one another; observing how organizational culture and institutional framework affect this process will be a key task for scholars and analysts.