The gradual decline of stealth may call for a high-low mix in airpower strategy.
In the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2016 budget request, the Long-Range Strike Bomber is a big deal. At $1.2 billion, LRS-B development would account just under 7 percent of next year’s unclassified R&D spending. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a similarly big deal, ramping up orders from 38 to 57 (44 of which are F-35As for the USAF). Major General Garrett Harencak, assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, explained the USAF’s commitment to an Air Force Association breakfast meeting last month. The service, he said, will always want an airplane that can “go anywhere in the world, anytime, and to get through enemy defenses and be able to provide a lot of ordnance on a consistent basis.” And that’s a great idea, unless it’s not possible, for what is not possible is not needed.
How would the F-35 or the LRS-B fall short of expectations? If ‘sensors start to circumvent stealth’, as Admiral Greenert wrote in Proceedings last year. As he said just yesterday at the Office of Naval Research’s Future Force Science and Technology Exposition, “stealth may be overrated. I don’t want to necessarily say that it’s over but let’s face it, if something moves fast through the air and disrupts molecules in the air and puts out heat—I don’t care how cool the engine can be—it’s going to be detectable.” As a technical means of protection, the decline of stealth is thus inevitable. The processing power of sensors is still proceeding apace, even should Moore’s Law soon run out. The stealthiness of any stealth aircraft, however, is pretty much baked at the final design review.
Granted, “nobody argues that stealth is dead”—at least not yet, and not even noted JSF opponent Bill Sweetman—but it’s worth asking whether “the operational advantage of the F-35 been eroded”. If you expect your combat aircraft to last decades, you shouldn’t count on enduring relevance through engineering. Indeed, according to Dave Majumdar and Sam LaGrone, plenty of people in the Navy already don’t think that even their stealthier F-35Cs could survive today against the latest Chinese air defense ships. As they wrote this past July, “a broadband stealth aircraft might be the only means of destroying such enemy warships other than by using submarines or long-range anti-ship cruise missiles.” But is such a thing even possible? As one engineer at China Lake put it to me recently,
I don’t believe that we’ll be able to build a broadband stealth airplane… As for F-35, even the fan club acknowledges that its forward aspect LO [low-observability] is optimized for X-band. Everyone knows that. It’s been out in the defense press for years. And now the Chinese are supposedly integrating ideas lifted from the leaky Team JSF for their own birds. For lots of scenarios, it’ll probably have an advantage, especially if there are no external stores or pylons. But as with all the history of warfare, the countermeasure innovation cycle is faster and more adaptive than the initial great idea. And bloody hell, no one thought the A-10 or any other aircraft was going to survive over the Fulda Gap. It was a quantity trade on how many hours of effectiveness we’d get until we busted out the tactical nukes.
Perhaps that’s a little strong, though not too strong in the long run. Perhaps, as T.X. Hammes writes this week, we should rethink deep strike in the 21st century. Beyond the battlefield, he observes, there are two missions for which big bombers are wanted, but that drones and cruise missiles can’t handle: barnstorming the countryside looking for mobile missile launchers, and dropping massive bombs on deeply buried targets. Even the B-2 would have a hard time with the latter, as the Chinese and the Iranians have gotten very good at digging very deeply. And even the B-2 stands little chance at the former, even though hunting down those missiles was the mission for which it was designed, way back in the 1980s. As easily as Iraqi Scuds evading detection in the open desert in 1991, it’s hard to imagine how the Chinese could not do better in more complex terrain. Do we really think that half-billion-dollar bombers are going to range all over hostile territory looking for needles in haystacks—in broad daylight? Perhaps, as Tyler Rogoway wrote, all those mobile missiles really are “scary as hell,” but if Hammes is correct that they’re not findable anyway, then maybe the USAF should stop trying so hard to do something about them.
If the claims are pointing in this direction, then let’s work through the logic. If only a $150 million jet stands a chance of running a deep-penetrating offensive air campaign, and only under cover of darkness, is that a good investment? Before answering, consider the question from the reverse angle. Under that technological balance between offense and defense, the fast jets of no potential enemy would be able to penetrate the air defenses of Europe, Japan, South Korea, or probably even Taiwan, without enduring prohibitive losses. North America would be as secure as ever. There would be little to fear, but a lot potentially to overspend. Other priorities would be relatively starved, even within a half-trillion-dollar defense budget.
Less ambitious air arms have already retreated conceptually from this goal. In its recent analysis of alternatives (to use the Pentagon’s term) for replacing the CF-18, the Royal Canadian Air Force assesses its probability of needing to penetrate sophisticated enemy air defenses in a first strike as “highly unlikely”. As for the US Navy’s conception of an F/A-XX, its eventual replacement for the F/A-18E/F, Greenert offers a restrained view. “I don’t think it’s going to be super-duper fast,” he continued yesterday, “because you can’t outrun missiles.” Future fighters, he thinks, will need to fight through air defenses, and not attempt to slip by them through speed or stealth. The all-in bet on the JSF was meant to substitute technical complexity for operational complexity. Greenert’s aerial armada would be part of an operationally complex set of combined arms, in which tactical flexibility could grow from a more diverse fleet architecture.
In his recent paper Vertical Dominance: the Present Revolution in Airpower, David Blair builds this theory of modern airpower through the analogies of three Roman battlefield disasters: Cannae, Carrhae, and the Teutonburger Wald. An USAF gunship and drone pilot, now fresh from a PhD at Georgetown, he stresses the importance of tactical flexibility, and maximizing the value of different arms of an air force when rolling back enemies. As he writes,
an F-35 brings little value added over an F-16 in such conflicts; arguably, an antiquated A-1 Skyraider would be preferable to both. And to add insult to injury, the A-1 is vastly less expensive than either platform, ergo one could fill the sky with Skyraiders for the cost of a few F-16s. Without the F-16, certainly the Skyraider couldn’t fly, but without the Skyraider, the F-16 would wear itself out and bankrupt the force by dropping expensive ordnance from an expensive aircraft. To put it simply, your Cadillac doesn’t get cheaper when you use if to haul concrete.
These days, our air forces need to haul of lot of ordnance—killing ISIS, as King Abdullah said yesterday, until we’re “out of fuel and bullets.” Retired Major General Charles Dunlap recently lauded the blunting of ISIS’s advance as “Airpower’s Remarkable Accomplishment.” Whether over Gaza or Mosul, there are certainly limits to what precision strikes can accomplish, but it’s working well enough, helping save large parts of the world from barbarism. Part of the answer is more drones—and more drone crews—as Paul Scharre has been arguing, because that’s the economical approach. Part of the answer is more drones, as Blair argues, because that’s the approach best oriented on the battlefield at hand. He stresses that this need not lead to two separate air armadas, but a mix of aircraft for dealing with different threats over different time horizons. Predator drones and Hercules gunships may fly slowly, but as the bomb squads say about route clearance, sometimes you must ‘go slow to go fast’.
This is no call for an unmanned air force. Drones don’t do everything well, even in permissive airspace. As Dan Lamothe of the Washington Post noted last fall, the first bombs dropped on ISIS came from F-18Fs. Those aren’t just manned; they’re doubly-manned, two-seaters made to make sense of a chaotic battlefield. This is also no call to abandon the cause of stealth—even if Dan Ward (see his recent book FIRE) would like to pay for the A-10C fleet by slowing down procurement of those F-35As. This call does offer the caveat that the high-low mix can be overdone. General Glenn Kent, the Cold War Air Force strategist, notably argued that air-breathing bombers greatly complicated the defense of the huge expanse of the Soviet Union, forcing Moscow to spend money it did not have. But few governments today are so flush with money that they can continue to deliver concrete with Cadillacs.
This is, after all, what led Greenert to write of “payloads over platforms”. His F/A-XX and UCLASS would be sufficiently affordable to purchase in numbers, so that those numbers could overcome the eventual losses. That was the point of the high-low mix of the US Navy’s surface fleet architecture in the late Cold War, and the idea behind the naval ‘streetfighter’ of the 1990s. As it was with the A-1s over Vietnam, it could again be the idea behind a combined arms approach to airpower. It is always a quantity trade, as my friend from China Lake would say, just hopefully without the nukes.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.