At a time when war with China is talked about as a future possibility, the deputy director for air and cyberspace operations at Pacific Air Forces gave a rare look at how advanced fifth-generation aircraft -- the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II among them -- could lead the air campaign in a conflict in the region.
Col. Max Marosko, in an article for the Mitchell Institute this month, offered up a war scenario 10 years from now in which several squadrons of the aircraft rapidly deploy and disperse to numerous military and civilian airfields across the Pacific, thwarting an enemy trying to use ballistic or cruise missiles against the forward-deployed aircraft.
Heavy radar and communications jamming confront U.S. and coalition forces, but fifth-generation aircraft leverage their advanced sensors to detect and target enemy aircraft.
As operations continue, it becomes apparent that stealth aircraft like the F-22 and F-35 fighters, as well as B-2 and B-21 bombers, are the only aircraft capable of operating over contested territory due to the large number of adversary mobile surface-to-air missile systems deployed.
"Fifth generation fighters achieve most of the adversary air-to-air kills, since older fighters find themselves vulnerable to the long reach and lethality of advanced SAMs, keeping these fighters at a distance from the main fight," Marosko wrote.
Marosko characterizes fifth-generation aircraft as those capable of dealing with the "most capable current air and ground threats," usually with stealth and advanced radar jamming and avionics.
The Pacific Air Forces officer, an F-22 pilot, co-authored the report, titled "Fifth Generation Air Combat: Maintaining the Joint Force Advantage," with Maj. Gen. Jeff Harrigian, who directs the Air Force F-35 integration office at the Pentagon.
The paper was written "to provide joint and combined military commanders, allies and partners, and U.S. government leaders a foundational-level understanding of proposed concept of employment requirements for integrating fifth generation air capabilities," Capt. Tania Bryan, a Pacific Air Forces spokeswoman, said Friday in an email.
Pacific Air Forces, headquartered at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, will serve as a focal point for integrating fifth-generation air capabilities in the Pacific through not only engagements and exercises, but also operational concepts and plans, Bryan said.
She added that the paper "does not speak to conflict with any particular country."
Marosko said in the same email, "As we move toward employing and deploying the F-35 throughout the Pacific, we need to start thinking about the interoperability of this air asset not only within U.S. military services, but with our allies and partners who will also be receiving fifth generation aircraft in the near future."
The air combat vignette illustrates "what a scenario could look like as we bolster the interoperability of our military forces with key partners and allies to ensure security and stability throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific," he said.
Although China isn't mentioned by name -- except in one footnote in the article -- increasing tensions with the rising Asian power form the backdrop for one possible future outcome.
As headlines continue to speculate whether war between the United States and China is possible, Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies in Honolulu, said the situation with China in the South and East China seas is serious, but it doesn't necessarily keep him awake at night.
"I think that both sides ... understand that there is a grave potential for mistakes, for miscalculation," Glosserman said. "The problem, of course, is that there are still plenty of opportunities for bad things to happen."
Glosserman said he worries about escalation in the context of a miscalculation, and while conflict "doesn't go from zero to 100" and all-out war, "At what point do both sides find that it makes sense to stop escalating?"
As for the China of the near future, "Nobody thinks at this point that the Chinese military now, or in 10 years' time, is going to be equal to that of the United States," Glosserman said. But what the Chinese will be able to do is close the military gap in certain areas, he said.
Marosko and Harrigian's paper comes as the Air Force and Marines prepare to field the new F-35 fighter and attack aircraft around the Pacific. The Air Force said in April that Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska was selected for two F-35 squadrons in 2020. A squadron of Marine Corps F-35s will deploy to Iwakuni, Japan, in January.
F-22 Raptor squadrons are based in Hawaii and Alaska, meanwhile.
The air combat report says fifth-generation aircraft provide a "highly integrated picture of the battlespace for friendly forces" that is superior to that of older aircraft and "helps to maximize lethality and survivability."
The Air Force must work to increase flexible basing options for fifth-generation aircraft, to include increasing the number of airfields the Air Force can deploy to, even if some are austere locations, the authors said.
In the combat scenario, an Air Force F-35 is forced to detour to an Australian base following an inflight malfunction, with Australian maintenance personnel who work on their own F-35s able to repair the American aircraft and get it back flying the next day. The goal would be to have all partner nations respond similarly. Australia ordered 72 of the F-35s.
As the conflict continues, fifth-generation aircraft seek out and destroy advanced SAMs, creating a more moderate threat environment allowing "legacy" aircraft to operate alongside them.
"In the coming decade, fifth generation aircraft will grow and mature in sufficient numbers to give the U.S. and our allies a definitive strategic advantage to counter the advancement of modern weapon systems used by potential adversaries," Marosko and Harrigian wrote.
"Fifth generation aircraft," they added, "are critical to returning the military balance to our favor."