The start of a new year and of a new administration is a good time to think about the future. A key challenge facing the new Obama administration and the Congress is to ensure that US military capabilities continue to innovate and evolve in challenging times.

Paul Bracken has underscored that we are in a Second Nuclear Age, and in this age deterrence is different, but remains as significant as the first. Bracken is concerned that we are ignoring the rebirth of nuclear weapons within the global dynamic at our peril.

This raises a fundamental question for the US Air Force. How does the service contribute to or lead US thinking and capabilities to deter in the Second Nuclear Age? And does the Air Force retain sufficient credibility so our nation’s leaders can dissuade threats of aggression with these horrific weapons of war?

In the same way as described in Gen. Curtis Lemay’s era when the role of Bombers was to hold hostage any point on the globe, now delimited by a Global Positioning Locator. Some would rightly say that with 60 percent of our globe covered with water, this is the mission of the Navy; but this is the essence of joint for where the Air meets the Sea; the issue becomes joint.

Is the current state of our bomber fleet living up to this?

We note some are recommending that we abandon this concept and instead convert some of our nuclear missiles into conventional missiles to effect this outcome at considerably less expense. A review of potential target sites in any portion of an ever-changing landscape of our world today makes one blanche at this idea. It marginalizes our capability. Doing that reduces our credibility when we try to effectively dissuade a determined aggressor.

One thing we learned in the early 1990’s was that an aggressor strains to believe in their success. The least bit of encouragement, however benign, can strike the spark of invasion. Thus did Saddam Hussein inquire as to whether an option to a Kuwait defense was in our national interest; and when advised of uncertainty, seized on the wrong decision.

As Bracken warns in his article,in the dispute between China and Japan over the islands in the South China Sea, Japanese and US forces may be forced to respond.

What happens, Bracken wonders, if the Chinese start moving nuclear weapons around? “What do we do then?” he asks.

Currently there is concern with the diminishing capability of US air and naval forces to prevail when faced with anti-access or anti-denial adversaries. There seems to be reluctance to enter fly against an Integrated Air Defense (IAD) system or if there are advanced surface-to-air-missiles.

As a student of military art, one wonders what message we are sending when we suggest that we can not operate somewhere or some when.

The plan to move to fifth-generation fighter aircraft [the F-22 and F-35] across the flying services is a key element of avoiding tough fights. The point is that new platforms can drive innovation in the entire force structure as a culture of innovation pervades the effort. Thus; recognition of the nature of the capability puts a premium on coordination, leverage and interoperation to move not the entire set of platforms in the force but the force structure back towards overwhelming match.

Fifth-generation fighters can acquire greater information about the situation. They can rapidly disseminate this information to other nodes around them because of their 360-degree communication capability.

This allows pilots to assess the nature of the aggressor, to receive updated political or military instructions for a plan of approach or attack, to coordinate with fourth generation fighters as well as Bombers in the region; and, finally, to leverage available ground- and sea-based sensors or shooter assets to become an extension of their target acquisition systems.

One of the most difficult arts those who fly fifth generation fighters must learn is restraint. Their tasks are to deter, dissuade, and defeat using all means at hand. This form of fighting might not involve firing weapons, though clearly being armed increases the likelihood of victory.

That said, clearly they represent the tip of the spear for the onset of warfare. They must enter contested airspace with an eye towards mapping the path to victory. They need to be able to provide detailed targeting data to following forces and, where possible, eliminating the most contentious threats.

To hearken back to Lemay’s concept of holding hostage any point on the globe, escort duty may become an issue, again either on ingress or on egress but more likely accepting the mission of suppression of enemy air defenses which then allows the Bomber to have multiple target opportunities on a given mission.

The nature of the emergent bomber [known fondly at the Pentagon as the Long Range Strike program] provides it with extraordinary sensor acquisition characteristics as it takes in the swath of enemy territory and with that swath the placement and scope of potential secondary targets. This is all too off-boarded and transcribed into follow-on forces as needed. This means potential landing areas; and potential safe placement of ground forces.

One of the best ways to demonstrate the power of sharing data from fifth-generation fighters would be to integrate allied fourth generation operations into the fleet. The Korean Air Force is very proficient in the F-16 operations and could yield a true training ground for leveraging the fourth-generation capabilities into the fifth-generation command and control loop.

This takes leadership courage. For the Air Force, this would be a breakthrough on several levels.

First, it would demonstrate conclusively the true advance of a total fleet change to fifth generation fighters.

Second, it would boldly demonstrate to the whole of Asia that we are with them.

Third, it would represent a terrific opportunity to test the interoperation of the fifth- and fourth generation fighters as well as to introduce both the Japanese and Australian air fleet to this type of joint operation.

With both the Korean and American armies being involved in the peninsula, the connectivity and fluid command and control would be thoroughly exercised. Naval operations, which have already considered what the inherent capability of the F-35 is in extending the reach of the AEGIS platform, can now gain an amazing sensor capability should the time come for practicing missile defense; or in exercising throughout the Pacific Theater.

With the Pacific being the most demanding for air operations, perhaps it is time to consider drop tanks for the fifth generation fleet so range can be extended and can move the launch point wherever needed. Using drop tanks would reduce their stealth but the stealth cover can be restored once the tanks are jettisoned.

This could alter concepts of operation as they have for generations of range extended aircraft. While none are in evidence as of yet, it does seem like an ideal rapid acquisition program, in advance of the military requirement.

Leveraging distant fires, creating opportunities for fourth generation success in a fifth generation engagement will be central to mission success. The Air Force role in the future fight looks to be as air combat manager, recalling the mission to Fly, Fight and Win. This will be done through the fifth generation-led revolution, not by older systems such as AWACS.

Mike Wynne was Air Force Secretary from November 2005 to June 2008.