by J.R. Dunn
Dangerous times await the United States in the international arena. We are facing a period of relative decline in respect to other nations and the global community as a whole. Many are aggressive states with little reason to be friendly to us or to defer to our interests. Our status as leading nation will be challenged, imperiled, and disregarded. This circumstance is locked in and we cannot avoid it. Debt, inflation, overextension, and defense cuts, not to mention a strange national diffidence toward acting as world leader, guarantee this state of affairs.
On the occasion of his retirement in June, defense secretary Robert Gates warned against further defense cuts. “Frankly,” he was quoted as saying, ”I can’t imagine being part of a nation, part of a government … that’s being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world.” Extraordinary words from a man who initiated more cuts than any previous secretary: over 30 programs, including the F-22 Raptor, the Army's Future Combat System, and the AF-1 airborne laser. In other words, some of the programs most crucial to maintaining American military capability in the 21st century.
Even as Gates made his departure, the Obama administration was ordering cuts of $400 billion over a period of twelve years. Leading liberal politicians such as Rep. Barney Frank have gone even further, calling for up to $1 trillion in cuts. And this is not to overlook the recent debt ceiling deal, in which automatic cuts to defense, amounting to $500 billion over and above the amounts already mentioned, will occur if a formal bipartisan budget agreement is not achieved.
At risk is the USAF’s B-3 bomber, the Navy's CG(X) cruiser and EPX intelligence plane, the Marine’s Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, the Army's Ground Combat Vehicle, and the Navy’s new TAOX tanker and the next generation ballistic missile submarine. Talk has also been heard of cutting Army battalions, reducing the number of fleet aircraft carriers, basing fleet units in the continental U.S. rather than at forward bases, dismantling most of our nuclear arsenal, and axing that perennial target, abandoning U.S. Marine Corps aviation.
The reasons for this impasse, while interesting in themselves, do not really concern us as much as the simple reality of what we face. It’s in the cards and we will have to deal with it. How do we go about doing that?
Other dominant states have undergone the same ordeal. The United Kingdom and the Soviet Union can serve as examples. Following its magnificent WW II stand against fascism, the UK suffered a lengthy period of political decline in which its global empire, one of the best-ordered and in many ways admirable of all imperial systems, was stripped away in less than twenty years. The Soviet Union, a much less admirable state, suffered an explosive collapse in the early 1990s following its failure to implement socialism on a national scale while simultaneously challenging the West in the Cold War. Both nations benefited from the existence of an even more powerful national entity that ensured global stability while they adapted to their new status—the United States itself. Countries that might have contemplated taking advantage of the suddenly weakened superstates were held off by the American presence, allowing the UK and USSR to make their transition in relative security. (Only one nation attempted to throw the dice—Argentina in the 1983 Falklands conflict A shrunken Royal Navy succeeded in straightening out the Argentines with assistance from the U.S.)
No guarantor of international stability exists today. The United States will go through its period of readjustment very much on its own. As for challenges from lawless and predatory powers, the question is not if but when. What is in store for us is not conquest, not humiliation, not even necessarily defeat, but a slow erosion of influence and power that will limit our ability to meet crises and make our national will felt. We are already experiencing that erosion, and it will continue for some time to come.
Expansionist states on the cusp of becoming major regional powers will wish to exercise their newfound capabilities. Most see the U.S. as an obstacle. There can be little doubt that each of them views America’s current difficulties as a clear opportunity.
- China—Looks forward to taking back the rogue “province” of Taiwan while at the same time extending its control over the Western Pacific. An internal faction of unknown size and influence involving senior officers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would not at all mind giving the U.S. a black eye in the process.
- Iran—Wishes to gain control over the Persian Gulf and the surrounding states in hopes of establishing something on the order of a Shi’ite caliphate. Its current nuclear weapons program is troubled (it suffered a serious setback as the target of the first tailored cyberweapon), but continuing. Further concern arises over extensive governmental influence from a Shi’ite apocalyptic cult comprised of believers in the imminent return of an Islamic messiah, the Twelfth Imam.
- North Korea—After nearly seventy years, still the personal domain of the world’s sole communist dynasty. Unstable and run by a family of doubtful sanity, North Korea is a perpetual irritant. With its arsenal of crude atomic weapons, it is in the peculiar position of being too weak to fully assert itself yet too well-armed to be ignored. Eventually this conundrum will be resolved through some kind of action.
- Russia—Interested in reestablishing military dominance over Eurasia while also clawing back a few strayed remnants of the old USSR. Important sections of the military and security organs are subject to feelings of anti-American revanchism over the results of the Cold War.
- Venezuela—Has eagerly adapted the mantle of spearhead of Latin Marxism from Cuba, with some success among neighboring states. Has also established close military ties with China and Iran, which include agreements for basing rights and emplacement of advanced strategic weapons systems.
- Pakistan—About to explode thanks to an evil synergy involving a totally corrupt military, an effectively unrestrained Islamist element, and seething ethnic rivalries. The problem lies in its possession of up to 110 nuclear weapons. (Nearly as many as the UK.) 1
- There also exist wild cards—threats that while perhaps unlikely, are within the realm of possibility.
- Europe—Union has not proven as easy or as popular as anticipated. It has long been pointed out that the EU has all the trappings of a neofascist state without the controlling ideology. That could change, and not necessarily for the better. Consider the UK or Ireland attempting to secede from the EU under such circumstances. The technical name for this is “civil war.” (Interestingly, one of the few novels to deal with the concept of European union, Angus Wilson’s satirical SF novel The Old Men at the Zoo, climaxes with exactly such a scenario.)
- Mexico—A potential government takeover by one of the cartels, or alternately a front politician under their control, would turn our southern border into even more of a war zone than it is already. We have been ignoring the Mexican drug war for several years now. We may not have this luxury for much longer.
- A Revived United Arab Republic—The “Arab Spring” has not turned out to be as happy an event as many of us hoped. The most powerful political group in the Arab states is the Muslim Brotherhood, a secret society with fascist antecedents considered to be the grandfather of all Islamic terrorist and Jihadi organizations. Any or all of the “liberated” Arab nations could fall prey to this outfit. (It appears that Egypt is doing so now.) The ramifications will be nothing but ugly.
- And let’s not forget the jihadis while we’re at it. That’s a fifty-year war and we are only one-fifth of the way through it.
Beyond these, we have the “unknown unknowns”—potential threats that we simply cannot foresee. An informed European of 1910 would never have guessed at fascism, Nazism, or communism, which dominated much of the 20th century and came close to destroying Europe. What awaits us in the next half-century is anybody’s guess. (How about a combination of the Singularity and neofascism?) Keeping in mind the words of a great statesman (Calvin Coolidge): “If you see ten troubles comin’ down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into a ditch before they get to you,” one or more of these will confront the U.S. while we are at the same time repairing the ravages of recent excesses, maintaining our standing in the international community, and fulfilling our obligations to our allies and treaty partners. There have been easier periods for this country.
We are no longer a hyperpower, and the status of superpower is slipping from our grasp. Within a decade, the U.S. will be merely one great power among a rising cohort of powers. We no longer possess the forces that defeated the Soviet Union, twice humiliated the armies of Saddam Hussein, and that for decades have guaranteed peaceful commerce across the oceans of the world. While much can be accomplished through diplomacy and alliances with other powers, situations will arise in which military force is the sole option. We must find alternatives to the vast resources that are no longer available to us.
We will not, for the foreseeable future, have access to the traditional American method of spending more money to buy more guns than anyone else on earth can afford. What does that leave us? With yet another traditional American method, one that used to be called “Yankee ingenuity”: using technology to solve problems that cannot be addressed in any other way.
The RMA and the American Dilemma
The Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)2 is the formal name for changes in warfare brought about by technological innovation in the post-Vietnam period. Originally a Soviet concept, the RMA involves advances in such fields as computers, sensor technology, guidance systems, and communications which together hold the potential to increase the destructive capabilities of weaponry by an order of magnitude. Examples include precision-guided munitions (PGMs), stealth aircraft, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Considerable debate has occurred concerning the RMA’s effect on operations, strategy, tactics, and doctrine.
The RMA fell into disrepute after defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld utilized it as the basis of his “transformational” doctrine for the U.S. military. It was the source of the infamous “light footprint,” in which small, technologically advanced forces would destroy much larger conventional armies, requireing reduced outlay in time, resources, and finances. Rumsfeld was not completely mistaken—the forces that defeated Saddam Hussein in 2003 were much smaller than those dispatched to the Gulf in 1990. Technology made up the difference. What Rumsfeld overlooked was the fact that occupation and combat are two different things. Occupation requires large numbers of boots on the ground to assure security, control, and a smooth transition of power. The failure to meet those requirements in the wake of the Second Gulf War resulted in a lengthy guerilla conflict which sapped American resolve and nearly cost us the victory.
Over the past few years, military thinkers have begun to acknowledge that the RMA, far from being discredited, will continue to influence military affairs for the foreseeable future. Technology remains a major driver of military innovation and despite everything the United States remains the forerunner in technology. A 2008 RAND study, “U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology”3 found that the U.S. spends 40 percent of the world’s budget for research, produces 38 percent of new patents, and 63 percent of cited research papers. We also lead in application. The U.S. is the sole nation to have fielded a fleet of stealth fighters and bombers, the sole nation to have made the transition to combat drones, the first adaptor of battlefield robotics, and is very likely the first nation (along with its junior partner Israel) to have created and utilized a cyberwarhead. Technology will enable the United States to endure the challenges to come, and to put the fear of Uncle Sam anew into the world’s bandits, fanatics, and would-be Napoleons.
Naval power is the most important aspect of American military strength. The seapower thesis of Alfred Thayer Mahan4— that the United States comprises a “continental island” closer in nature to maritime states such as Japan and the UK than to the continental powers of Eurasia—has proven far more durable than most 19th-century geopolitical theories.
Since the destruction of the Japanese Imperial Fleet in 1944, the U.S. Navy has had no serious rival for control of the seas. For a short period in the 1980s the development of a Soviet blue-water navy caused some worries, but those ended along with the USSR. It is no coincidence that international trade based on maritime shipping underwent a boom during the postwar period. Security provided by U.S. naval dominance of the world’s oceans was a major factor in economic globalization. The vast amounts spent on America’s fleets have repaid themselves many times over.
In the early 21st century, U.S. maritime power faces its first major challenge in nearly seventy years. The fleet is steadily shrinking. In August 2011 it stood at 284 ships, less than half the 575 in commission twenty years ago. At the same time, several foreign fleets are in the process of establishing themselves as serious competitors. The Indian Navy is friendly. The Chinese and Iranian navies, not so much. In addition, piracy has undergone a dramatic rebirth, in Somalia in particular but also in areas such as the Indonesian archipelago. The 21st century sailor will have his hands full.
The Navy’s plan to meet these challenges is embodied in a doctrine called “AirSea Battle.” While little is known about this new strategy, it can be assumed to be a maritime version of AirLand Battle, the U.S. Army’s extremely effective late 20th century ground-combat strategy. AirLand Battle was based on the theories of the eccentric but brilliant USAF officer Col. John Boyd5, who spent a lifetime attempting to create a universal theory of warfare. AirLand Battle is a complex strategy of maneuver utilizing Boyd’s “decision cycle” (also known as the “OODA Cycle”)6, in which actions carried out at an accelerated pace deny the enemy any opportunity to respond. Large-scale disruptive aerial attacks are followed with swift flank attacks by mechanized units, assaulting not fixed geographic targets such as cities or bases, or even distinct military formations, but any enemy force within reach. The goal is to confuse and disrupt the enemy until utter collapse ensues. AirLand Battle is a strategy by which small, outnumbered forces can defeat much larger opponents through speed, maneuver, and initiative.
AirLand Battle never saw action against the Warsaw Pact, its original target, but found its moment in the two campaigns against the Iraqi Army. These were virtual textbook operations, with the U.S.-led Coalition dominating the battlespace from the start and swiftly subduing the Iraqis with very few direct engagements.
AirSea Battle7 is a combined-services strategy in which the USAF and Navy will act as a single offensive force. Working from the AirLand Battle template, we can assume that USAF long-range air assets will strike first, disrupting and demoralizing enemy maritime forces. They will be followed by naval air, surface, and submarine elements, striking with PGMs, cruise missiles, and long-range torpedoes. If carried out with the same ferocity as AirLand Battle, this strategy would climax with surviving enemy units fleeing the battlespace, leaving it dominated by U.S. naval forces.
Two major questions arise: can such a strategy be carried out by a steadily shrinking Navy? And can a strategy so dependent on the ever more vulnerable aircraft carrier remain viable into the 21st century?
Fleet carriers are among the most impressive warships ever to take to sea. But all things move toward their end, and carriers of the Nimitz and Ford class may have seen their day. The Chinese, the most serious maritime challenge facing our Navy, are doing their best to make the carrier obsolete. China considers the South China Sea as its territory, going so far as to refer to it as “blue soil,” an inherent part of the Chinese heritage. It has laid claim to the Spratleys, the Paracels, and other small island chains in defiance of Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan, and the Philippines. It has never given up its claim to Taiwan. It has suggested that other states—specifically the U.S.—abandon all interest in the area, in clear disregard of current treaties and the traditional law of the sea. (The U.S. is responding by sending its first three operational Littoral Combat Ships8 into the South China Sea. This is a carefully calibrated riposte: while not strategic assets, these shallow-water vessels—which the media have taken to calling “stealth ships”—are capable of a variety of missions including shore assault, reconnaissance and surveillance, special warfare, and deep-water combat. The message is easily read: we’re ready for anything.)
Whatever Chinese plans may be, one element that can upset them is the aircraft carrier. Each possesses the combat power of a medium-sized nation, unmatched versatility, and the moral force of a weapon that has never been adequately countered. The Chinese have worried about them for a long time, and have put a lot of work into countermeasures. These include:
- Cruise Missiles—Entire families of sea-launched cruise missiles are deployed on both surface ships—including fast patrol craft—and submarines.
- Song Class Diesel Submarines, —quite capable and very difficult to detect9. In 2006, a Song-class sub surfaced without warning only a short distance from the USS Kitty Hawk.
- The J-20 Stealth Fighter——from its size clearly not an air-superiority aircraft, but most likely intended as a strike aircraft10. It would be surprising if it wasn’t used against carriers.
- The DF-21D Ballistic Missile—over the past year, a new version of the DF-21 MRBM with anti-ship capabilities has been fielded11. The Chinese can deploy hundreds of these missiles in a short time frame.
- Electromagnetic Pulse Weapons (EMP)—China has apparently modified a number of nuclear warheads to trigger a high-altitude EMP pulse capable of damaging or destroying nearby electronic equipment12. While some are intended for use against Taiwan, others may target aircraft carriers. The code names of these weapons are “Assassin’s Mace” for older warheads and “Trump Card” for warheads using newer technology. (This is a good opportunity to kill the “EMP as national threat” myth. There’s been a lot of rhetoric expended claiming that the pulse from a single nuclear warhead set off 200 miles above the U.S. could fry all electronics gear across the country and plunge us into a new dark age. Well maybe, under perfect laboratory conditions, but even that’s doubtful. As a physicist pointed out to me, for this to work, you need to have more energy coming out than the original explosion put in. A little thing called the First Law of Thermodynamics forbids this.)
It would be a difficult trick to carry out a warfighting strategy with one of its central elements at the bottom of the briny deep. Potential defenses exist, chief among them directed-energy weapons. High-energy lasers would defeat most anti-ship threats, in particular missiles of all varieties. Unfortunately, the free-electron laser (FEL), the most well-adapted for naval use (FELs are tunable and can be fired at the best wavelengths to cut through sea haze, salt spray, fog, and other maritime commonplaces), was canceled by Congress last June13. (The Navy’s primary new offensive weapon, the electromagnetic railgun, was canceled at the same time.) Nothing less than such a universal defense will do. The Kamikaze campaign of 1945 clearly demonstrated how difficult it is to defend ships from determined attack. It won’t require the loss of very many $15 billion carriers along with their air wings to drive the U.S. out of the South China Sea or the Persian Gulf more or less permanently.
While the Chinese launched their first carrier—formerly the Ukrainian Varyag—this past summer, and are constructing at least two domestic carriers, they possess no support craft or escorts to sail with them. They’re unlikely to play a major role in the time-span we’re considering here.
But the fleet carrier is by no means the ultimate evolution of the aircraft carrier. The Navy has already studied the feasibility of smaller carriers14. In fact, future carriers may not resemble our current models, with their vast and crowded flight decks, in any fashion at all.
The key to this development is the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle—the combat drone. The Navy came late to the drone revolution, but in recent years has gone all out to catch up. Last February marked the debut of the Northrop Grumman X-47B, a drone designed to take off and land on a carrier15. The Navy wants drones operating with carrier forces by 2018. Subsequent development of drones is likely to transform the carrier itself. There is no reason why drones need to operate exactly like manned aircraft, requiring a flight deck, arrestor gear, and the entire panoply of traditional naval aviation. Properly designed drones could be launched from any type of surface ship, or, for that matter, from submarines running underwater. It’s possible to foresee a time when every naval vessel, including support ships, operates a unit of drones, from a dozen aboard a support vessel such as a tanker to fifty or more aboard a guided missile cruiser.
Such drones would be very different birds from today’s pioneer models—nearly autonomous, cheap, and far more capable. They could well be expendable, with no recovery necessary. (The USAF has already fielded such a design, the MALD. See below.) It’s possible that they wouldn’t even be armed, instead destroying their targets by kinetic kill. Consider a swarm of hundreds of small, fast, maneuverable drones suddenly appearing out of nowhere, with no obvious source (and target) like a conventional aircraft carrier in sight. Such a capability would complicate enemy strategy immeasurably. It would also go a long way toward lowering the cost of a fleet and increasing the number of available combat vessels.
The drone revolution is by no means limited to aerial platforms. Application of drone technology to both surface and submersible craft is in process. Former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead initiated development of a long-range UUV (Unmanned Underwater Vehicle), a robot submarine capable of operating independently for long periods on missions covering thousands of miles16. Roughead envisioned a basic guidance system and power plant module that can be reconfigured with weapon and sensor suites tailored for each particular mission. Such UUVs would patrol independently, report in by satellite linkage, and return to port on their own. Smaller versions could act as drone torpedoes, maintaining station on a semi-permanent basis and launching themselves at enemy shipping when the war signal arrives.
Necessary technology such as advanced AI algorithms and compact power plants remains enticingly out of reach. But less complex versions of such UUVs could very likely be launched today. These drones could accompany a fleet, acting as a first line of defense against enemy subs, be monitored constantly and rendezvous with surface vessels for maintenance and refueling. Such drones would be relatively cheap and expendable where manned submarines would not be.
Preliminary work has also been done on surface drones by the Navy in cooperation with the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), the DoD’s in-house research department, particularly involving an unmanned frigate, the Anti-submarine warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV)17. An ACTUV could patrol vast areas of ocean for months with no human input. On encountering a sub, it would notify its naval HQ, and perhaps also latch onto the sub’s signal and follow it wherever it went, rendering the crew’s life incredibly nerve-wracking. One interesting development involves the Navy’s creation of an online game, ACTUV Tactics, where outside players compete as ACTUV’s or sub skippers, in order to work out the best tactics to encode as operational algorithms18. (What’s that you say? Potential enemy sub skippers can log on too, and learn all the tricks? I guess nothing’s perfect.)
Another weapon overdue for technological enhancement is the sea mine, an often underrated asset. During the last months of WW II, mines dropped from USAAF B-29 Superfortresses into the Inland Sea and coastal areas brought Japanese maritime activity to a standstill, completely isolating the Home Islands.
The 21st century mine will be a far cry from the anchored “dumb” mines of WW II. They will have limited autonomous capability, be able to detect and target individual ships, avoid minesweepers, and maneuver into optimal attack positions. Several warheads could be fitted with programmable fuses to suit the targets. Networks of these mines would communicate and coordinate their attacks. Enemy fleets and merchant marine vessels might well be locked into their ports, unable to emerge for fear of hordes of “smart mines.” When hostilities end, the mines would be signaled to surface and wait for pickup.
A picture of the fleet to come begins to take form, surrounded by a cloud of undetectable drones, preceded by a shield of small unmanned submarines, with robot frigates patrolling the fringes, and the manned ships on the center. Small in numbers, and nowhere near as impressive as a Nimitz-class carrier and its escorts, but with a potential combat power orders of magnitude greater than any current fleet. Stealthed, laser and railgun armed (we can assume that these programs are on “zombie” status, with current work carefully preserved and waiting for funding), integrated into satellite weather, detection, and communication systems, capable of tracking targets at the other side of the ocean and engaging them at half that distance. Such a fleet would possess capabilities unknown up to this point in time, and perhaps unguessable even today.
Maintaining Air Superiority
For several decades, the U.S. Air Force has carried the banner of military technological innovation. Working with DARPA, the “Pentagon’s mad scientists,” the USAF has been responsible for the most spectacular and effective technological breakthroughs of recent years, including stealth aircraft and the combat drone. Can this partnership prevail into the 21st century?
Since WW II, the U.S. has possessed effective air superiority over other combatants. Except for short periods over Korea in 1950-51 and Vietnam in 1966-67, American superiority was so overwhelming that at times opponents didn’t even dare challenge it. During the First Gulf War (1991), Iraqi Air Force units defected en masse to Iran to avoid destruction by Coalition air assets. After the Hussein regime was overthrown in 2003, pathetic little monuments were found in the desert where Iraqi MiGs had been buried in sand to protect them.
Technology was the leading reason for American superiority in the air. Following the Korean War, John Boyd discovered that the USAF had gained ascendancy over Communist air forces when the F-86E Sabre was introduced to combat in 1952. Unlike earlier models, the E Sabre featured hydraulic controls, enabling it to shift from one maneuver to the next before enemy MiG-15s could react. This created an extraordinary situation in which the USAF was provided with the winning edge without even realizing it. (This insight formed the basis of Boyd’s “decision cycle” thesis.)
While the U.S. currently retains this edge, there’s no guarantee it will keep it. Aviation technology is a fast-changing field, sensitive to breakthroughs in many technical disciplines. Both Russia and China have tested stealth fighters, with the Russians claiming their Sukhoi PAK TA T-50 as fully equal to the USAF’s F-22 Raptor, the premier U.S. air superiority aircraft19. Production of the Raptor was capped at 187 planes by Secretary Gates over the protests of Air Force staff. While Gates claimed that the less-capable F-35 Lightning II would take up the slack, questions about program costs and delays have arisen over the past year. (Both the F-22 and F-35 have experienced serious systemic flaws over the past year that led to some aircraft being grounded. These should be viewed as shakedown problems not uncommon among new high-performance aircraft. The B-29, the bomber that defeated Japan, had numerous failings including uncontrollable engine fires and windows popping out at high altitude. The F-86 killed so many pilots that it was called the “lieutenant eater.” The B-47, the first strategic jet bomber, had a particularly stark drawback—in the early models, the wings tended to fall off during sharp turns.) The Marine Corps S/VTOL version is currently “on probation” and may well be cancelled. We could end up with far fewer than the 2,400 F-35s planned.
Another threat lies in advances in radar. It is possible to design a radar system that can detect, if not track, stealth aircraft. Australia’s JORN (Jindalee Operational Radar Network) system detects the turbulence created by an aircraft’s passage and is claimed to have a range of several thousand miles20. The Chinese are known to be working on an ultra-high frequency radar for the purpose of defeating stealth. It is easily possible that further advances could negate the stealth advantage, leaving the U.S. without air superiority for the first time since 1944.
The answer to this dilemma may well lie in the UAV. It’s remarkable to consider that the drone revolution that has transformed so many aspects of warfare was a matter of pure inadvertence. The original MQ-1 Predator drones were unarmed and were retrofitted with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles only after it was realized that the time lag between drones detecting a target and a fighter-bomber response was unnecessary. Since that time, drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper have been designed for weapons carriage from the first. We can assume that all drones from this point on will possess at least the capability of being armed.
It has been understood since 1972, when a Ryan Firebee operated by remote control easily outmaneuvered an F-4 Phantom in a series of dogfights, that drones could operate in the air-superiority role. It would be a simple matter to fit Predators or Reapers with AIM-9 Sidewinder or AIM-120 AMRAAM missile kits to enable them to operate as fighters. But both lack necessary speed and maneuverability, although the RQ-170 “Beast of Kandahar” drone, with its stealthy features and swept wings, appears to be approaching that level.
There’s little reason to doubt that DARPA, in its thorough way, is working on such aircraft and that prototypes may be flying at this moment at Groom Lake or a similar test base.
On the other hand, the future may already have arrived in the form of the Miniature Air-Launched Decoy (MALD), a small, expendable drone designed to confuse and overwhelm air defense radars21. MALDs can be programmed to maneuver precisely like manned aircraft, and can be launched by the hundreds from transports, hopelessly saturating any current air-defense system. Raytheon has begun developing versions of the MALD fitted with sensors and warheads, transforming them into armed fighter drones.
A MALD air-superiority system could be deployed in a number of ways. They could be launched from transports or AWACs (launch racks have been developed for this purpose), goading an opponent into sending up his aircraft, which would then be downed en masse by the drones. Range could be extended by shutting off the engine and gliding, or alternately by zooming up to high altitude, deploying a balloon or parachute, and drifting until a threat appears. (A USAF anti-radiation missile, the AGM-136 Tacit Rainbow, operates on this principle.)
Manned fighters carrying MALDs in lieu of bombs or external fuel tanks could launch them just before coming into enemy radar range. After the first wave of drones engaged the enemy, the F-15s and F-22s would fly in to mop up.
Whatever the technique (and experienced pilots and weapons officers will no doubt come up with far more intricate and effective tactics), it is clear that cheap drones can make up for shortfalls in manned air-superiority aircraft. With its current head start in UAV technology, the U.S. need not drop into second place (and in air combat, anything below number one is the loser) anytime soon. It’s also clear that drones will not “replace” so much as supplement manned fighter aircraft for the foreseeable future. There will always be a need for conscious mentalities, if only to figure out when the battle’s over.
A Bomber Revival?
The USAF has traditionally been a bomber service, its major mission that of strategic bombing, its legendary figures—Mitchell, Arnold, Spaatz, LeMay—bomber pilots and commanders. It was only in recent years that fighter pilots were granted the same lofty status as the bomber aristocracy.
But the manned bomber has had a rough time in recent decades, squeezed between improved air defenses and the titanic expense required to overcome them. Of the last three proposed strategic bombers, the B-70 Valkyrie was cancelled outright in the early 1960s, the B-1 Lancer was cancelled and then resurrected in the 1980s, and the B-2 Spirit, the storied “stealth bomber,” was limited by its cost of over $1 billion apiece to only 21 aircraft (20 of which are still flying, one having crashed at Guam in February 2008). The Air Force currently possesses under 200 strategic bombers, a derisory number compared the thousands deployed during the Cold War, much less the tens of thousands that fought WW II.
But drone technology may, paradoxically, rescue the manned bomber. Secretary Gates cancelled a bomber scheduled to be fielded by 2018. Apparently having second thoughts, Gates green-lighted a new bomber project just before his retirement. This Deep Strike Aircraft will be a stealth model that can fly either manned or unmanned, depending on mission requirements. While little is known about the B-3’s actual configuration, the bomber would possess both conventional and nuclear capability, carrying PGMs, bunker-busters, or air-to-ground rockets. Defense could be provided by high-energy lasers and also by versions of the MALD with the B-3 in effect carrying its own escort force, deployed upon entering hostile airspace and accompanying the bomber on its run against a target. (Aviation buffs will recognize this as the millennial version of the XF-85 Goblin, a late 1940s fighter designed for carriage by the B-36 as an escort plane. If you wait long enough, every technical gimmick comes around for a second run.) Over $4 billion has been budgeted for strike aircraft development. If all goes according to schedule, 80 to 100 B-3s will join the inventory sometime in the mid 2020s22.
Another revival is the Prompt Global Strike system, a weapon that could hit targets at intercontinental distances from CONUS (the Continental United States) within two hours. This weapon could strike high-value targets of temporary nature (say, a conference of terrorist leaders) without the diplomatic complications that might arise from launching an attack from a third-party state.
Several attempts have been made to develop such an asset, including a proposal to utilize surplus ICBMs or submarine-launched missiles in the role that was abandoned after it became apparent that there was no plausible way to assure bystander nations that they weren’t packed full of nuclear warheads. Attention shifted to hypersonic aircraft, with several projects initiated, including the Falcon (Force Application and Launch from CONUS), a reusable hypersonic cruise vehicle launched by rocket and capable of carrying a 12,000 lb. payload up to 9,000 miles, and the Blackswift, a Mach 6 multimission aircraft developed by DARPA for use as a spy plane, bomber, or satellite launcher23. Although funding of $1 billion was authorized, the Blackswift was cancelled in 2009.
But the hypersonic aircraft concept proved too tough to kill. The past year has seen some promising developments, including a successful test of the USAF’s X-51 hypersonic missile and flights by the Falcon HTV-2 which, though not flawless (the Falcons lost telemetry links with the ground and shut themselves down), produced valuable data. It was further revealed that yet another hypersonic bomber project, dubbed “Son of Blackswift” is under development. It appears that the U.S. will have an intercontinental fist to add to its conventional arsenal.
The United States need not relinquish its superiority as regards air power. The crucial question involves funding. Aerospace technology is expensive and often the first to be cut, as shown by the B-70, the B-1, and the Blackswift. But such cuts often represent false economies. Early in WW II, American pilots were forced to fight in sturdy but obsolescent aircraft such as the Bell P-39 and the Curtiss P-40 that simply could not stand up to the Luftwaffe’s Me-109s and Fw-190s, much less the superb Mitsubishi A6M Zero. It required two years for adequate American designs to appear. It would take far longer today, and wars in the millennial era simply don’t last that long. (The UK, on the other hand, spent large amounts during the mid-1930s developing fast, maneuverable eight-gun fighters, the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire. These aircraft saved the country during the Battle of Britain.)
End Notes for Part One:
- http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/01/world/asia/01policy.html?pagewanted=all Calling all Seals!
- http://www.airforce-magazine.com/MagazineArchive/Pages/2010/August percent202010/0810battle.aspx
- http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/blogs/defense/index.jsp?plckController=Blog&plckScript=blogScript&plckElementId=blogDest&plckBlogPage=BlogViewPost&plckPostId=Blog percent3A27ec4a53-dcc8-42d0-bd3a-01329aef79a7Post percent3A021e786e-04be-426b-ad32-dcbb54b90d00
Watch for Part II, War in the Dirt, next month!
Copyright © 2011 by J.R. Dunn
J.R. Dunn is a novelist, editor, and political commentator active both in print and online. His SF novels include This Side of Judgment, Days of Cain, a powerful time travel novel dealing with the the Holocaust, and Full Tide of Night. He is the associate editor of The International Military Encyclopedia and is a contributing editor on military affairs to the American Thinker. His latest nonfiction book is Death by Liberlism, from Broadside.