A notional formation of Air Force B-21 bombers fires AGM-183A hypersonic missiles over the Pacific Ocean. Illustration: Mike Tsukamoto/staff; USAF; Jonny Belvedere
Photo Caption & Credits

Cost-Effective Long-Range Strike

The Army’s initiative to generate long-range fires frays when stacked against conventional air and naval options.

The Department of Defense’s strategic shift to great power conflict dramatically changed force structure requirements, in particular those needed for long-range strikes to defeat peer aggression. Today, there is broad consensus on the need to increase long-range strike capacity, but great debate over which investments will deliver the greatest return for America’s warfighters. 

The 2018 National Defense Strategy sees a Chinese or Russian campaign to seize and occupy the territory of a U.S. ally as the pacing challenge for sizing and shaping the U.S. military. Whether a Chinese invasion of Taiwan—which the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has warned could occur this decade—or a Russian invasion of Ukraine or the Baltics along NATO’s eastern front, the requirement to immediately engage enemy forces at the outset of an invasion is constant, requiring a combination of U.S. forces postured in the theater of conflict and long-range strikes from afar to prevent China or Russia from achieving their objectives.

All of the U.S. military services are investing in new long-range strike systems to meet this need:

The Army is investing in medium-range and very long-range surface-to-surface missiles to equip its newly formed Indo-Pacific and Europe Multi-Domain Task Forces (MDTF). 

The Air Force, which has long provided DOD with the preponderance of its long-range strike capacity, is acquiring B-21 stealth bombers, next-generation cruise missiles, and other munitions that can be delivered by aircraft against targets in contested areas. 

The Navy and Marine Corps are fielding new strike munitions for sea control and sea denial in the Indo-Pacific, including shipborne long-range hypersonic boost-glide land attack weapons and vehicle-mounted medium-range missiles capable of attacking ships in littoral areas.

The Navy and Air Force are also increasing the range, effectiveness, and capacity of the “kill chain” needed to find, fix, track, and attack targets over long ranges. 

Europe vs. Pacific 

The Army’s plan to field long-range missiles to bolster NATO’s defenses in Europe is in keeping with defense experts’ view that batteries of ground-launched precision strike missiles prepositioned in Europe would improve deterrence and increase NATO’s ability to block invading forces at a sustainable cost per target. The Army’s planned mid-range missiles, at about 1,500 kilometers, are sufficient to strike targets across Europe’s more compact geography. Indeed, most of the Army’s strikes would target locations within a few hundred kilometers of its missile launchers. For context, the city of Gdansk in northern Poland is only 60 km from the border of Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic Sea.  

Long-Range Hypersonic Weapons

The Indo-Pacific region, however, is another story. The tyranny of distance imposed by the region’s vast expanses, the limited options for basing alternatives compared to Europe, and China’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) missile threats demand DOD greatly increase its capacity to launch precision strikes from thousands of kilometers away. Surface-to-surface missiles placed in Guam, for example, would require ranges of at least 2,900 km to reach China; positioning Army missiles along the Pacific’s First Island Chain would require ranges of 800 km or more just to reach China’s coastline, although shorter-ranged weapons could engage ships at sea.

Stealth aircraft, however, could penetrate China’s airspace to attack targets from much shorter ranges and weapons launched by manned and unmanned ships could likewise maneuver closer to target areas. These options would not require the U.S. to obtain permission from Indo-Pacific allies to posture the Army’s new missile batteries on their sovereign territory, nor require host nation approval—possibly on a salvo-by-salvo basis—before launching strikes. 

To equip itself for long-range strike missions for the first time since 1947, when the Air Force became a separate service, the Army intends to procure not only new missiles, but the means to complete its own long-range kill chains: new air- and space-based surveillance, reconnaissance, communications, and fire-control systems. Many of these—including low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites and fixed-wing aircraft equipped to detect moving targets—would be highly redundant with existing Navy, Space Force, and Air Force capabilities, running counter to well-established joint doctrine. 

Spending billions to duplicate capabilities would reduce resources available to perform the core Army mission of defending U.S. forces and bases from Chinese attacks. As noted by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, failing to field such defenses threatens to severely erode America’s ability to deter and defeat Chinese aggression.

The Army’s Plan 

Long-range precision fires (LRPF) is one of the “big six” modernization initiatives the Army says are required to ensure its forces are capable of Multi-Domain Operations (MDO). The Army seeks to develop a trio of weapons that, together, will allow it to “penetrate and neutralize enemy A2/AD capabilities” that limit the U.S. military’s freedom of action, according to Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville: 

Precision Strike Missile (PrSM). The Army will soon begin to replace its legacy short-range MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) with PrSM (pronounced “prism”) weapons, which will with a range of more than 500 km and carry a 200-pound blast/fragmentation warhead. Smaller than ATACMS rounds, not one but two PrSMs will fit into each launch pod mounted on the Army’s M270A1 Multiple Launch Rocket System or M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. PrSMs have a GPS/INS guidance system suitable for attacking stationary air defense threats, missile launchers, command and control (C2) centers, troop staging areas, and other non-armored “soft” targets. Early production PrSMs will cost approximately $1.2 million each. 

Mid-Range Capability (MRC). The Army also intends to buy new weapons to attack targets from 500 to 1,500 km away. As an interim solution, the Army is procuring SM-6 Block I/IA dual-mode surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles, at a cost of about $4.3 million each, as well as Tomahawk Block V cruise missiles, which it would buy using existing Navy contract vehicles at a cost of about $1.5 million each. SM-6 Block I/IA missiles have a range of more than 420 km, while Tomahawk Block Vs have a range exceeding 1,600 km. Both can attack ships and targets ashore; with additional fire-control investments, the Army could also use its SM-6s against airborne threats. Upgrading the PrSM’s booster engine to double or more its range is the Army’s preferred mid-range solution in the long run. The Army will also equip these PrSMs with a multi-mode seeker to attack “maritime targets in the Pacific and emitting [Integrated Air Defense Systems] in Europe.” Extended-range PrSMs could cost $3 million each. DARPA is developing an intermediate-range hypersonic boost-glide weapon that could be another MRC candidate, but that would likely be more costly. 

Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW). The LRHW pairs a rocket booster with the Common Hypersonic Glide Body (C-HGB) jointly developed by the Navy and Army. The C-HGB will separate from its booster after reaching high altitudes and hypersonic speeds and then glide to its target using a dynamic, non-ballistic flight path. Some reports indicate LRHWs will have a range of at least 2,250 km. An LRHW battery could consist of a battery operations center and four transporter erector launchers (TEL), each with two weapons. Designed to attack high-payoff, time-sensitive A2/AD targets, such as missile TELs and surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, a single LRHW missile could cost $40 million or more. 

The Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon

McConville says these systems will bring much-needed mass to a fight with China or Russia, but critics counter that the Army’s new long-range missiles will be both more expensive than long-range airstrikes and also more limited, particularly against mobile or hardened targets. 

The “mass” or number of warheads it can place on targets over long ranges will greatly depend on where it can forward posture its launchers and the range of its missiles after launch. The Army’s capacity to conduct strikes will also depend on affordability and on theater logistics networks to support its batteries. Surface-to-surface weapons are larger than air-launched weapons of equivalent payload size and range, since they must use much larger boosters to attain the high altitude and speed needed to reach distant targets. Sustaining ground-based battery operations and resupplying them with missiles requires more airlift, sealift, and ground transportation capacity than needed to support air-launched weapon stocks in a theater.  

Batteries of mid-range PrSMs permanently or rotationally deployed to Poland and other areas along NATO’s eastern front would have more than enough range to attack Russian forces attempting to invade the Baltic States and would enjoy access to NATO’s well-developed transportation networks, supply depots, and other infrastructure. 

Army PrSM batteries postured in Japan, the Philippines, or elsewhere along the First Island Chain would be at best 800 km from China’s coastline. PrSMs with a 500 km range will be sufficient for maritime missions alongside Marine Corps littoral strike units—assuming PrSMs have sensors to locate and track moving ships. Upgraded mid-range PrSMs could cover target areas along China’s coastline, but at a cost of about $3 million each, would be pricey. To reach further into China and strike A2/AD targets, such as SAMs located along China’s coastal areas, the Army would need its MRC and longer-range weapons.

In comparison, the long range, low observability, and other features of stealth bombers allow them to launch attacks from air bases along the Second Island Chain, northern Australia, Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and even the United States. With ranges measured in the thousands of miles, and easily extended by aerial refueling, stealth aircraft can attack an enemy from multiple directions. Moreover, bombers can carry large payloads of shorter-range, smaller-sized, and substantially lower-cost weapons to strike multiple targets per sortie. A single B-2 Spirit bomber can deliver 80 small diameter bombs (SDB II) with a standoff range of 40 nm. At a cost $250,000 each, and all equipped with seekers to attack mobile or moving targets. If threats demand the bomber remain further from air defense systems inside China, that same B-2 could carry 16 JASSM-ERs that could reach targets anywhere in China. 

An Army precision strike missile fired in April tests at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., struck a target 85 kilometers away. Lockheed Martin

similar dynamic applies for shipborne and undersea-launched weapons. Navy surface combatants carry missiles, including Tomahawk and SM-6 Block I/Ia, but may not have sufficient defenses to operate inside the First Island Chain during a conflict; they would likely operate outside the most contested areas, and therefore focus their attacks on ships and islands in the East and South China Seas. Navy attack submarines with vertical launch systems (VLS) could operate inside the First Island Chain to strike maritime targets with missiles or torpedoes or use longer-range missiles like Tomahawk to increase the depth of their attacks into China. 

Cost Comparison 

Three rules of thumb help explain the relationships between the range, size, and unit cost of missiles and other munitions. First, as range increases, so does a missile’s size; more range, means more fuel for their engines, bigger boosters to extend flight, sophisticated guidance systems to maintain trajectory, and so on. All of these add cost. Second, surface-launched missiles are generally larger and more expensive than air-launched missiles with similar ranges and payloads, because they must have larger boosters to propel them from the ground into airborne trajectories to reach distant targets. Third, the faster a weapon flies, the more costly it is. 

Long-Range Hypersonic Weapons could give Army batteries located in Guam and other U.S. territories the ability to attack targets in China, but at a cost that could reach $40 million to $50 million each. The cost of LRHW could quickly exceed the cost to buy, operate, and support additional stealth bombers over a 30-year period, including the cost to acquire next-generation Stand-in Attack Weapon (SiAW) missiles. Bombers, moreover, are reusable assets, while an LHRW is expended just once. Similarly, a non-stealth B-52 bomber could launch airbreathing (scramjet) hypersonic cruise missiles costing $4 million to $5 million each, a fraction of the cost of LRHWs and their launch battery. 

The effectiveness of different weapons against challenging targets such as mobile or relocatable missile launchers, hardened or deeply buried facilities or targets located deep in an adversary’s interior, is also a factor. The longer it takes a weapon to reach its designated aimpoint, the less effective it will be. Depending on its speed and trajectory, an Army ballistic missile launched from Japan could take 10 to 15 minutes to reach a mobile threat in China, such as an HQ-9 SAM. Still more time might be needed to complete all the Army’s operations in the kill chain, such as relaying target data from a remote sensor to a joint command and control center, assessing the data, deconflicting airspace for a missile launch, and then commanding a launch. HQ-9s are designed to employ “shoot-and-scoot” tactics, which means they can begin to relocate within about 5 minutes of a launch. That means an Army missile might successfully strike its aimpoint, buy do so after the HQ-9 has already departed the location. Stealth bombers and fighters, however, offer a shorter response time and can be ready to engage fleeting targets by penetrating contested airspace and attacking from shorter ranges. B-2s, F-22s, and F-35s—and future B-21s—can also use onboard systems to find, fix, track, target, and engage targets without outside support, further reducing latency in their kill chains.

Of course, munitions can be equipped with active sensors such as a millimeter wave radar (like the SDB II) and passive infrared or optical sensors capable of adapting to a moving target; these can help find and characterize the mobile target, and then guide the weapon to a new point of impact. While this can greatly improve weapon effectiveness, weapons must also be able to change their trajectories to reach their new aimpoints, which may not be possible for ballistic missiles in their final stage of flight. Unlike cruise missiles that can loiter in a target area while waiting to find and attack mobile/relocatable targets, ballistic missiles that trade speed for range over long trajectories may not have enough kinetic energy and steering ability from their small control surfaces to make major course corrections. 

In general, long-range stand-off weapons also cannot carry large enough warheads to kill targets that are structurally hardened or deeply buried, as is common in China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and elsewhere. PrSMs with 200-pound class warheads would be ineffective against such targets. Penetrating bombers, on the other hand, can deliver 5,000-pound “bunker buster” weapons and even the 30,000-pound GBU-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator. It is unrealistic for such heavy weapons to self- launch and fly very long ranges. 

More Operational Issues

PrSMs upgraded with sensors needed to attack moving ships could contribute to sea denial operations for parts of the East China Sea and South China Sea, depending on where the Army postures its PrSM launchers. However, this maritime strike capability would duplicate the Marine Corps’ anti-ship initiatives and would require the Army to develop new infrastructure to support expeditionary operations, possibly in austere locations. 

The willingness of allied nations to host the Army’s new weapons is also an issue. McConville has said basing these weapons is “a political decision … up to the policymakers and the diplomats.” Yet MRC missiles would need to be postured in western Japan and other First Island Chain locations, posing significant challenges: 

Host nation permission is required to station new U.S. land-based, long-range strike batteries on their sovereign territory. Convincing any nation along the First Island Chain to host launchers aimed at Chinese targets, even on a rotational basis, will be a tough sell. In South Korea, domestic opposition was fierce and the diplomatic pressure from China was strong after South Korea agreed to host a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery. THAAD is purely defensive; hosting offensive systems will be significantly harder. Noted retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, “Today, there is probably not one of our regional partners in the First Island Chain that would be willing to base Army—or any other service’s—long-range strike missiles in their country.” 

Second, even if the United States can find regional partners willing to host the Army’s missile launchers, problems remain. In a crisis, a host nation could deny launch permission for a wide range of reasons, including a desire not to risk retaliation by China. Or permission could be granted on a case-by-case basis or even a weapon-by-weapon basis. 

An Air Force C-17 delivers U.S. Army Terminal High Altitude Area Defense Missile Batteries to South Korea in 2020, but permanent placement of the defensive weapons are not yet final, raising questions about whether U.S. allies would ever agree to host long-range offensive strike weapons on their soil. Seventh Air Force/Courtesy

In contrast, basing requirements for combat aircraft are more flexible. Bases can be chosen based on aircraft’s range and the availability of aerial refueling. Bombers stationed in the United States, Guam or other U.S. territories, Diego Garcia, and elsewhere can attack targets throughout China and do so from multiple aspects. This also gives commanders options in the event of political opposition within a given allied country. Ships at sea also offer the ability to operate independent of host nation concerns. 

Duplicating Sensors and Networks

To help target its medium-range and long-range fires, the Army is developing new air and space sensor platforms, communications networks, and decision support tools, some of which have been demonstrated through the service’s Project Convergence. 

The Army’s Terrestrial Layer System-Large (TLS-Large) is a vehicle-based electronic intelligence and electromagnetic warfare (EW) system intended to support brigade-level units conducting electromagnetic spectrum operations (EMSO) that combine EW with spectrum management and electromagnetic battle management (EMBM). TLS-Large is needed to counter the Russian Armed Forces’ EW systems. The Army has two MQ-1 Grey Eagle UAVs that can carry TLS aerial systems, and it is developing helicopter-launched small UAVs for over-the-horizon surveillance and targeting.

To enable medium-range sensing and targeting in a theater like INDOPACOM, the Army is developing the Airborne Reconnaissance and Targeting Multi-mission Intelligence System (ARTEMIS). ARTEMIS would be able to operate at around 40,000 feet, enabling it to identify targets more than 400 km away. ARTEMIS, however, duplicates existing Navy and Air Force high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) UAVs such as the MQ-4 Global Hawk and Triton. It will also be more vulnerable than these aircraft, which can fly at higher altitudes, enabling longer standoff distances from air defense threats. 

To provide targeting for long-range fires, the Army is pursuing space-based sensing systems, like the Gunsmoke-J satellite. Like ARTEMIS, these small satellites duplicate multiple existing space-based sensing systems, as well as the growing array of commercial and military satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), among them the Missile Defense Agency’s Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking and Surveillance System (HBTSS), DARPA’s Blackjack, and HawkEye360’s signals intelligence system. 

The merits of the Army’s plan must be weighed against the opportunity costs of forgone investments that might provide greater overall value to joint combatant commands. Of particular note, U.S. military forces and installations throughout the Indo-Pacific remain nearly undefended against Chinese air and missile attacks—this is USINDOPACOM’s top unfunded priority. It is also an Army core mission that the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act noted is being left unfulfilled: “In too many respects, the Army Missile Defense (AMD) forces fielded today fall considerably short of being an effective foundation for the kind of conflict envisioned by the National Defense Strategy.” 

The problem is so great that today, the threat of massive air and missile attacks on U.S. and allied air bases in Japan, Guam, and elsewhere could pose the greatest threat to the joint force’s ability to generate combat power under stress. The Army has yet to demonstrate how its long-range fires would mitigate this risk. DOD should compare the net gain in the number of targets it can strike with the addition of Army long-range missiles against the number of targets left vulnerable to attack if undefended against Chinese air and missile attacks. The addition of high-energy lasers and high-power microwave systems with the potential to kill incoming cruise missiles and armed drones for pennies per shot, along with hyper-velocity projectiles that cost $65,000 to $85,000 each fired by Army howitzers, could provide a robust theater air base defense. 

Chinese missile attacks pose a threat not only to forward air and naval bases, but also the Army’s long-range strike batteries. Even if the Army’s mobile launchers prove difficult for the Chinese to target, they will not be immune from attack. If the Army can strike China’s mobile targets, China probably can reciprocate. Moreover, the Army’s caches of missile reloads must be stored in easily targeted depots, which likewise will demand theater defenses of their own. 

Recommendations

Reshaping the U.S. military to meet challenges in a renewed era of great power competition will require DOD to invest in fundamentally different capabilities from what it fielded for counter-terror and counterinsurgency operations over the past two decades. DOD should seek the best, most cost-effective solutions to solving its challenges. Allowing excessive redundancy in long-range strike systems would reduce, rather than increase, its ability to meet emerging threats. 

To ensure development of a diverse mix of long-range strike capabilities, DOD should:

  • Direct a comprehensive cost-effectiveness assessment. This study should determine the mix of capabilities that would maximize future long-range strike capacity as a whole, instead of enable a “stove-piped” service-by-service approach. This assessment should compare the cost-effectiveness of air-to-surface and surface-to-surface weapons, long-range strike alternatives, and the optimal mix theater commanders need to ensure multiple options. 
  • Assess the opportunity costs of the Army’s planned long-range strike investments. The study should determine if some resources could be better directed to increase the Army’s capacity to perform the core mission of defending U.S. forces and theater installations against Russian or Chinese missiles. 
  • Ensure the Army’s long-range strike batteries can be postured in forward locations. This is not just a political question, but also a warfighter issue; it cannot simply be left to “the policymakers and the diplomats.” DOD should address Indo-Pacific host nation issues for Army long-range strike batteries, along with rules of engagement for their use in a crisis, before committing to substantial investments for that theater. The Army should continue to develop and procure mid-range weapons to defend NATO allies and deter Russian aggression, however, given the greater opportunities to posture Army batteries in at-risk allied countries, such as Poland and the Baltic States.
  • Integrate Army and Marine Corps counter-maritime strike. Army mid-range strike batteries might have some benefit in the Indo-Pacific if they are able to deploy and sustain their operations alongside Marine units for counter-maritime operations.The Army and Marine Corps should cooperatively develop operating concepts, tactics, techniques, and procedures that would integrate their littoral counter-maritime strikes in the Indo-Pacific to complement Air Force and Navy capabilities. 
A U.S. Army hyper velocity gun weapon system, cued by a remote air force aircraft, destroyed an airborne target during and advanced battle management system on-ramp exercise in September 2020. The Army projectiles cost $65,000 to $85,000 each. USAF

The 2018 National Defense Strategy rightfully shifted DOD’s planning and resource priorities toward preparing for great power competition and conflict. These priorities include fielding new strike systems that will provide theater commanders with the precision, long ranges, and mass they will need to defeat peer aggression. A mix of surface-launched, long-range missiles including shipborne capabilities, bombers, and next-generation penetrating fighter equipped with long-range weapons will create multiple options with which to attack China and Russia and complicate their ability to counter U.S. attacks. However, expending resources on overly duplicative capabilities could decrease, not increase, the long-range strike capacity available to theater commanders. DOD’s overriding objective for long-range strike and its other investments should be to ensure integrated cost-effective joint force operations to optimize impact against peer adversaries.  

Col. Mark Gunzinger, USAF (Ret.) is the director of Future Concepts and Capability Assessments at The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. Lukas Autenried is a senior analyst at Mitchell, and Bryan Clark is the director of the Center for Defense Concepts and Technology, Hudson Institute.