Shutting America's Military Out of the Combat Theater

Often debated is whether the U.S. should attack Iran's nuclear program or defend South Korea and Taiwan from their aggressive neighbors.  What is seldom discussed, however, is whether the U.S. could do either in light of these adversaries' acquisition of access-denial weapons, which will downgrade the vast majority of America's current weapons (except nuclear weapons, stealthy aircraft, and cruise missiles) into benign and easily rebuffed implements.  

Access-denial weapons promise heavy casualties for any attempted U.S. invasion into an enemy combat theater, therefore deterring U.S. military action to counter enemy policies.

America's enemies have learned the lessons of the First Gulf War, one of which was that the chief cause of America's victory was its unimpeded access to the combat theater and to nearby bases.

Thus, America's enemies have developed and fielded (and continue to deploy) a wide range of access-denial weapons, including:

  • 1. Submarines: Kilo class (Russia, China, Iran), Song and Yuan class (China), Lada class (Russia), and nuclear propelled submarines
  • 2. Anti-ship cruise missiles (launched from aircraft and warships such as the Slava class, the Kirov class, and the Sovremenny class) and anti-ship ballistic missiles (e.g., the DF-21D)
  • 3. Naval mines
  • 4. Long-range-coverage SAMs capable of detecting planes at very low altitudes (including the S-300, S-400 and HQ-9 systems)
  • 5. Fighterplanes such as the Su-30 family, J-10s, JF-17s, PAKFAs, and most recently a J-20 stealthy fighterplane
  • 6. Land-attack cruise missiles (could be launched from ships, aircraft, and ground launchers)
  • 7. Bombers and attack aircraft such as modernized H-6K bombers and JH-7 attack jets, which can deliver cruise missiles as well as bombs
  • 8. Anti-satellite weapons
  • 9. Hacking programs and other "malware" designed to attack cyber networks
  • 10. Missile boats and patrol boats to attack mid-sized warships
  • 11. Suicide submarines (DPRK)
  • 12. Surface-to-surface ballistic missiles (now possessed by over 30 countries around the world)

These weapons, if employed by America's enemies, could shut the U.S. military out of combat theaters and eliminate American bases abroad, or else cause local populaces and governments to prohibit the U.S. from using them.  The vast majority of these bases (including those in Korea, Japan, the Persian Gulf area, and Turkey) are within the range of these weapons.  Enemies could attack these bases or population centers to terrorize foreign nations and governments.

America's current arsenal is composed mostly of obsolete, mostly nonstealthy weapons, predominantly of the standoff category.  The USAF's inventory consists mostly of fighterplanes, though their numbers are significantly shrinking.  The USAF has only twenty stealthy bombers; its other bombers are nonstealthy and have large radar combat signatures.  The Navy is unable to detect AIP (air-independent-propulsion)-equipped submarines similar to those employed by Russia and China, partly due to decreased ASW (anti-submarine warfare) training time and ASW emphasis.

The USAF does have a number of stealthy cruise missiles, but they are currently scheduled to be dismantled due to maintenance costs and the U.S. government's obsession with disarmament.  This means that B-52 standoff bombers could not attack enemy targets even if they stay out of range of enemy fighterplanes and SAMs.

The USN's carriers, unless guarded by submarines and by warships capable of intercepting enemy ballistic and cruise missiles, will be relegated outside the range of its current and projected aircraft (F/A-18E/Fs and F-35s).

Whether we like it or not, the U.S. military will, in the future, often be forced to strike from far over the horizon -- usually from over a thousand miles.  For the USN, this would mean twice or thrice as far from the shore as today.  For the USAF, it would mean bombing Iran, China, or North Korea from Andersen AFB (Guam), RAF base Diego Garcia (in the Indian Ocean), or even Hickam AFB, HI.  Secretary Gates recognized this fact in January 2009 only to cancel the Next Generation Bomber in April that year and then admit the need for a new bomber type in 2010.

It is evident that the DOD needs to acquire a new family of long-range strike systems, as called for by Col. Mark Gunzinger (USAF, ret.) in his "Sustaining America's Advantage in Long-Range Strike" monograph published by the CSBA.  Therein, the colonel recommends that the DOD should buy the following systems:

  • 1. One hundred next-generation bombers that would be stealthy, optionally manned, nuclear-capable, able to fly over intercontinental distances, and able to deliver a significant (but not excessively large) payload. Their cost, the colonel advises, could be limited to an affordable level by avoiding requirements creep, installing capabilities incrementally, implementing economies of scale, and using available technology from other aircraft, e.g. landing gear from the B737 type. Col. Gunzinger has even devised a complete basic-parts-blueprint of such a bomber.
  • 2. A number of prompt-global-strike weapons to attack priority targets.
  • 3. A naval long-range stealthy UCAV that could endure for fifty hours nonstop with aerial refueling.
  • 4. A next-generation stealthy cruise missile that could be launched from a wide variety of aerial and maritime platforms.
  • 5. A new Airborne Electronic Attack platform.

This is a good plan, but it's insufficient.  Firstly, a fleet of just a hundred penetrating bombers would be insufficient given America's global interests and its wide range of enemies.  A fleet of two to three hundred bombers would be more adequate and would mean greater economies of scale.  They're cheaper to buy by the dozen.  The cost of a hundred 20,000-pound-payload bombers, the colonel says, would be $440M per plane; the cost of three hundred bombers would, at such a price, be $132 billion.  Spread over fifteen years, this would amount to just $8.8 billion per year.

Secondly, the plan limits the recommended number of PGS weapons to one hundred, even though, under certain scenarios, more than that might be needed.

Thirdly, it doesn't call on the DOD to invest, in parallel, in protective equipment such as sea- and land-based missile defense systems, ASW equipment, and cyber defenses.  These weapons are needed to defend American warships, satellites, and cyber networks.

How could such a wide range of new weapons be financed in light of America's fiscal woes?  By reforming the Pentagon and reinvesting the resulting savings in weapon programs instead of redirecting them to deficit reduction.  Secretary Gates has already proposed savings worth $20 billion per year, to be partially devoted to some of the forementioned long-range strike weapons.  The DOD can build on these reforms by reducing its bureaucracies, radically flattening its organizational structure, reducing health care program costs, laying off thousands of bureaucrats, and closing dozens of unneeded bases in America and abroad.

The U.S. military is no longer unchallenged.  It has numerous peer and non-peer enemies, and it is at risk of becoming unable to enter highly defended combat theaters.  But with significant reforms of the DOD, adequate defense funding (i.e., no defense spending cuts), and a prioritization of long-range-strike weapons and protective systems, the U.S. military will be able to defeat any adversary.
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