A Chronic Dissipation
The US military’s ability to mount long-range strike missions is deteriorating and could disappear altogether unless quick action is taken, according to a new white paper published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
In “Sustaining America’s Strategic Advantage in Long-Range Strike,” released in September, CSBA author Mark A. Gunzinger said the US military’s family of conventional weapons and nuclear-capable delivery systems able to hit faraway targets is “dissipating” due to “chronic underinvestment” since the 1990s. These include bombers, aircraft carriers, and cruise missiles and the electronic warfare platforms necessary to support them.
Gunzinger is also one of the authors of CSBA’s recent paper on AirSea Battle, which the Air Force and Navy are developing as an operational concept to cope interdependently with distant enemies.
The lack of investment and “creeping obsolescence” of current systems could lead to a future force that is “relegated to fighting on the periphery and cannot effectively penetrate anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) battle networks,” Gunzinger wrote. Without investment in the very next defense budget, “a gap is likely to emerge in which the nation could lose its conventional long-range strike advantage for a decade or more.” The US can either accept this loss or commit to modernizing its long-distance combat portfolio.
Adversary defenses have gotten a lot tougher to penetrate, and in a future conflict it may be necessary to strike a great many mobile targets. These will require both range to reach them and persistence to loiter in the target area as they are found.
Moreover, adversaries are placing their most valued fixed targets at maximum distance from coastlines and borders, hardening and deeply burying them to complicate any US effort at striking those targets.
Meanwhile, most US investment in combat aircraft since the 1990s has emphasized relatively short-range fighters. The only system truly capable of striking at great distance and successfully penetrating enemy air defenses today is the B-2 bomber, of which the US has only 20.
Broadly, the US requires land-based systems with a range of 4,600 to 5,750 miles between aerial refuelings “and persisting over target areas located in contested environments characterized by dense, modern air defense networks,” Gunzinger asserted. Because new adversary missiles will likely keep aircraft carriers as much as 1,000 miles away from their targets, the carriers, too, will need new, stealthy aircraft “with a range that is at least two to three times that of the F/A-18E/F or F-35C if carriers are to contribute meaningful strike capacity” in the early stages of a war. Because of the vulnerability of command and control and intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance networks, all strike platforms will need to be “capable of operating effectively independent of these networks.”
Gunzinger summed up, “Simply put, the combination of range, persistence, stealth and independence of action will likely be the sine qua non for effective strike operations over the coming decades.”
He proposed a series of options that would allow the US to maintain its long-range strike capabilities, none of which are cheap and all of which contain some element of risk. Each option offered a prescription for what to do about a new penetrating aircraft; modernization of today’s standoff bombers; pursuit of new cruise missiles; carrier strike capabilities; multimission remotely piloted aircraft; and airborne electronic attack (AEA) aircraft.
Option 1 on Gunzinger’s menu would see the existing bomber force of B-1s, B-2s, and B-52s continually upgraded, while a decision on a new bomber-like aircraft would be deferred until the mid-2020s. There would also be a new cruise missile, a new long-range RPA for the Navy, and a smaller drone with electronic attack capabilities.
The main drawback of Option 1 is that while it would allow more time to develop and mature technologies for a new aircraft, there would be no work to keep design teams together in the interim.
“Option 1 would find DOD’s capability and capacity shortfalls for striking mobile, hardened, deeply buried, and geographically deep targets in progressive—and perhaps irreversible—decline,” Gunzinger said. The Pentagon would have to compensate by ordering up a huge inventory of standoff missiles.
In Option 2, Gunzinger offered that a new standoff bomber to replace the B-1 and B-52 would be developed first, with a new penetrating bomber deferred. A new AEA aircraft wouldn’t appear until the 2040s.
The disadvantages of the second approach would “far outweigh” the advantages, according to the paper. Existing bombers are already “fully paid for” and can serve as standoff systems into the 2040s. In the meantime, the US ability to directly strike deeply buried and hardened targets “would be lost for several decades.”
Option 3, which Gunzinger calls the “most balanced” approach, would put priority on fielding a new penetrating bomber first, deferring a new standoff bomber until the current ones wear out, and simultaneously pursuing a new standoff cruise missile, a new remotely piloted aircraft for Navy carriers, and new AEA platform.
This option would “take full advantage” of the service lives of the B-1, B-2, and B-52, and get a new aircraft capable of penetrating A2/AD systems into the force before the B-2 loses its ability to do so. A penetrating bomber would allow the US to buy precision guided gravity munitions at far lower cost than standoff missiles.
The downside of Option 3, Gunzinger said, would be that replacing the legacy bombers might have to start before the new penetrating bomber fleet is fully bought. However, the overlap would be less costly than the “bow wave” of funding demands in Option 2, and could be mitigated if DOD chooses a less stealthy variant of the penetrating bomber to replace its standoff aircraft as well.
Option 4, the most expensive approach, would replace all existing bombers as soon as possible with a new, penetrating machine while simultaneously buying new standoff missiles, a new Navy RPA, and a new AEA platform.
The downside of Option 4, Gunzinger said, is that the expense of replacing all the bombers at once could well drive the Pentagon to acquire a much smaller bomber fleet, and using superstealthy aircraft to attack targets with lesser defenses would be costly overkill.
After assessing the choices, he argued that a force of about 100 new penetrating bombers with a payload of about 20,000 pounds and a range of 4,600 to 5,750 miles should be the first priority. Whereas the Air Force has been saying it wants an aircraft that could make maximum use of offboard sensors to keep costs down—not a “lone wolf” attack airplane—Gunzinger argued that the airplane needs a full suite of onboard surveillance and self-defense capabilities precisely because it may be cut off from supporting elements in the LRS portfolio.
He also recommended buying a new standoff bomber when acquisition of the penetrating bomber is nearly completed; that the Navy develop an air refuelable stealthy RPA with a 1,700-mile range; that the Navy and Air Force jointly develop a new air- or sea-launched cruise missile; that the services develop a new longer-range AEA platform; and that the new bomber have the potential to carry nuclear weapons.
Gunzinger also suggested building an inventory of no more than 100 conventional prompt global strike systems, such as a conventionally armed ICBM, for those times when an extremely high-value target must be hit in a matter of hours at great range.
More Without More
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates rolled out a raft of 23 new defense acquisition policies and initiatives in September, meant to help the Pentagon reach his mandated goal of saving $100 billion over the next five years. The policies aim to introduce more sensible and less wasteful practices into Pentagon contracting, which should also have the benefit of speeding up new weapons programs.
Gates unveiled the plan at a Sept. 14 Pentagon press conference, and said the policies would go into effect immediately.
Consumers, Gates said, have become accustomed to seeing capability increases in the products they buy, even as the price of products comes down. However, “we have not seen [this] productivity growth in the defense economy.”
While consumers get more for their money every year, “taxpayers had to spend significantly more in order to get more. We need to reverse this trend.”
The objective is to find enough savings from the Pentagon’s existing spending to support a two-to-three percent annual increase in investment in new hardware to replace systems worn out by age or war, Gates said.
Perhaps the biggest change will be a shift from “will cost” to “should cost” contracting, Pentagon acquisition, technology, and logistics chief Ashton B. Carter said at the press conference.
Gates claimed “should cost” practices on the Navy’s upcoming ballistic missile submarine program have whittled its costs down from an estimated $7 billion per boat to $5 billion per boat.
“The goal is a reduction of fully 27 percent in a program where total cost is expected to be more than $100 billion,” Gates said. In general, “designing to affordability and not just desire or appetite is critical.”
Wherever possible, “real” competition will be pursued, and directed buys will be avoided. Gates said a second engine for the F-35 fighter is not “real” competition, arguing a competition has already been run for the power plant.
Wherever possible, fixed-price contracts will be used when the product is well understood. In development, incentive contracts allow government and industry to share savings from innovation. In services, time limits will be imposed so that contracts don’t continue long after their usefulness has run out.
Gates said he’s not against contractors making a profit, and the rewards will be greater for contractors who provide greater productivity, in the form of lower costs or greater capability for the same cost. Progress payments will be more closely linked with progress, and not the calendar.
“Non-value-added” procedures will be targeted within the Pentagon and industry alike, particularly reporting and oversight requirements that don’t provide meaningful benefits.
Programs will run better because of new, overarching policies, Carter said. Production rates will be stabilized, and multiyear contracts will be used whenever practical. Redundancies will be reduced or eliminated within combat portfolios, so the services won’t be buying separate systems to accomplish the same results.
Carter said DOD will “follow the Air Force lead” by establishing a program executive officer for services to focus on improving policy and practice in services contracting.
All of these initiatives should also help the defense industrial base by “sustaining investment” while nurturing new technology and finding money to buy new systems, Carter noted.
Gates said there’s good reason to believe the $100 billion savings target will be met.
“We have established reasonable reduction targets,” he said. “We can identify the excess after an era of double-digit growth. And the President, the Congress, the Joint Chiefs, and I are all supportive of change in how we do business.”