While UCLASS could provide a viable option for naval commanders to strike from distance in A2/AD environments, the very nature of the UCLASS program is under threat. Some would like to see the program scale back its vision, becoming essentially another drone with a long range but limited strike capability.
“I believe strongly that to be effective in emerging threat environments in the Western Pacific and other regions, a future carrier-based unmanned combat air system must be stealthy, capable of automated aerial refueling, and have integrated surveillance and strike functionality” explained Forbes.
“In contrast, developing a new carrier-based unmanned aircraft that is primarily another flying sensor would be a missed opportunity.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Time for a New Long-Range Bomber – Or Else
Fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq while taking on terrorists all over the world is an expensive enterprise, one that did not leave much room for a military capability that is often taken for granted. Washington certainly did not invest in the long-range bombers that are now being sought by defense planners. While America’s B-2 bomber is still the world’s best, its first flight was in 1989. America’s other bombers are the 1980s era B-1 and the even older 1950s era B-52 (with multiple upgrades, the B-52 is expected to stay in service until the 2040s). Washington clearly is in need of a new generation of long-range bombers.
For such a bomber to be viable it must meet certain benchmarks: it must be stealthy, it must be able to deliver large conventional as well as nuclear payloads, and is must not break the bank. Enter the Long Range Strike Bomber program, or LRS-B. While many of the details of the program are classified, according to at least one source, the aircraft is expected to have a range of 6,000 nautical miles. Clearly the program has been crafted to replace America’s aging bomber fleet while being able to tackle the A2/AD challenges that are only growing as time passes.
“I am also very supportive of the Air Force’s concept for a long range strike (LRS) family of systems, including the next generation bomber,” Forbes explained.
“Our future requirements, particularly in the vastness of the Asia-Pacific, will demand the ability to operate from considerable distances and penetrate relatively advanced air defense systems. It is vital that the LRS-B enter the Air Force’s inventory on time, on budget, and in adequate numbers to replace the expected retirement of many of the service’s legacy bombers.”
While $600 million has been allocated towards research for the new bomber program with almost $9 billion estimated to be spent by 2018, it remains to be seen whether sequestration could kill such efforts. If so, Washington’s ability to strike targets across the world via traditional bombers will be in serious jeopardy as its fleet averages 33 years in age.
Run Silent, Fire from the Deep
For all the debate here in Washington about AirSea Battle, in some respects, the budding operational concept is already in use. From somewhere beneath the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, U.S. guided submarines launched cruise missile strikes on targets in Libya in 2011. Their goal: to degrade the command and control systems of Gadhafi’s military and destroy the air defense networks protecting his forces. While Gadhafi’s A2/AD capabilities were modest compared to those of China or Iran, the Libya example was a telling demonstration of the capabilities of nuclear attack subs heavily armed with cruise missiles. When strikes come from below the seas and out of sight, the advantages of A2/AD weapons and strategies seems to slip away.
More than a decade ago, Washington started the process of converting four Ohio-Class ballistic missile submarines, traditionally armed with nuclear tipped ICBMs, and rearming them with vast numbers of land-attack tomahawk cruise missiles. This technology allows U.S. naval forces to introduce into the battlespace large amounts of ordinance that even the most sophisticated A2/AD network would have a hard time finding, yet alone destroying. There is only one problem: by 2027 the first SSGN will face retirement, with more to quickly follow. Considering the long timelines needed to plan for a replacement as well as the high cost in ship building, sequestration all but dooms a direct replacement to these important weapons of war. However, an easy solution could be increasing the size of existing Virginia-class attack subs, or SSN’s, to include Tomahawk missiles in their weapons inventory. Distributing small numbers of these weapons across newer generations of attack subs could at least in theory be a viable alternative to new SSGN’s, saving billions of dollars in development costs while preserving a key capability. The idea is already being developed in the Virginia Payload Module. In fact, the U.S navy recently selected a design concept for the project.
Explained Congressman Forbes, “To replace our aging fleet of Guided Cruise-Missile Submarines (SSGNs) we will need to invest in the supplementary Virginia Payload Module (VPM). This module promises to increase the Virginia-class’s payload capacity by 75 percent. It is precisely investments like these, which play to existing American strengths and compel potential adversaries to expend resources in areas of relative weakness, which should be the hallmark of American strategy in the coming years.”
A Clear Choice
While unmanned strike aircraft, new bombers or highly capable submarines all have promise, Washington’s political paralysis could keep such weapons on the drawing board.
If sequestration were to stay in place, next year’s cuts could be even more damaging than those made to date. This summer, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel declared ominously at a press conference that if sequestration were to stay in place, up to three aircraft carriers could be mothballed, and massive cuts in size to the Army and Marine Corp. could be made. Recent reports even noted possible cuts to military benefits, something unthinkable in years past.
The challenge for America’s military is a complex one. After an era of large-scale military commitments around the globe, a “peace dividend” seems a logical choice for a nation that is war weary. One only needs to look to the recent reaction to the talk of U.S. military strikes on Syria as evidence. Yet the U.S. is still a global superpower with worldwide commitments and an alliance network of partners that depend on Washington to keep the peace. The U.S. needs to develop a grand strategy that seeks to confront and defeat the anti-access challenges of the future while keeping in focus budget realities and the political challenges of the present.
“If sequestration is allowed to continue, nearly every aspect of our larger national defense strategy will be detrimentally impacted, including the ‘rebalance’ to the Asia Pacific,” Forbes said.
Despite a challenging budgetary and political environment, America has the potential to recalibrate its armed forces. This can be done with a commitment to developing long-range strike options that enable its forces can fight at a distance while leveraging the U.S. technology edge. Such a goal is surely in the political interests of both parties. However, as another budget showdown looms here in Washington, nothing seems certain these days.
One thing is clear: Without a new strategy, it maybe America’s armed forces that pay the ultimate price when called upon to serve.
Harry J. Kazianis is Managing Editor of The National Interest and former Editor of The Diplomat.