New Strategy Would Cut F-35s, Boost Bombers and UAVs
October 31, 2014
Today’s U.S. power-projection forces, and those currently planned for the future, will not be able to operate effectively or efficiently against anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) weapons and doctrine being developed by China and other adversaries, according to a new report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) that details a new approach to defense strategy known as Third Offset.
Instead, the Pentagon should immediately refocus its development efforts on a global surveillance and strike (GSS) system based on long-range, very stealthy aircraft—including the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) and a new family of unmanned combat air systems (UCAS)—and submarines. Tactical fighter, surface combatant and heavy land-force programs should be cut back, the report suggests, to pay the bills and rebalance the force.
The CSBA report carries far more weight than usual because it was drafted under the leadership of deputy defense secretary Robert Work (AW&ST March 31, p. 20) and his senior advisers, according to a source directly involved in its production. It is intended to launch a detailed discussion of a major change in national strategy, inside and outside the Pentagon. Author Robert Martinage, a former senior Pentagon official, “can neither confirm nor deny” the extent of Work’s involvement, he tells Aviation Week.
The CSBA paper details the roles of new and existing systems in the Third Offset strategy. It recommends a larger role for the Long-Range Strike Bomber, suggesting that the program could be “accelerated and expanded.” Along with the B-2 and another proposed new weapon, a boost-glide missile launched from submarines, it is the only system able to deal with hard and deeply buried targets in a medium- to high-threat environment. According to the paper, too, it has a stand-in airborne electronic attack capability and can perform high-volume precision strike missions.
The biggest new program recommended in the report is the future UCAS family. Conceptually, Martinage says, this program’s prototype is already flying in the form of the Northrop Grumman X-47B UCAS-D (demonstrator), which could lead directly to a Navy operational aircraft: the CSBA report outlines an N-UCAS with an 8-10-hr. unrefueled endurance and a 3,000-4,000-lb. payload. As a CSBA analyst, Work was a vigorous proponent of a “high-end” Navy UCAS, and his influence has played a part in stalling Navy plans for a less capable and less costly solution to the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike requirement.
The CSBA report revives an idea from UCAS-D’s precursor program, the Joint UCAS: Because wingspan sets a cap on the payload and range of a carrier-based blended wing-body aircraft, a land-based version could benefit from being made larger. A U.S. Air Force version, identified as MQ-X, could handle double the payload, the report suggests, and have a 12-hr. unrefueled endurance. In a move that is unlikely to get strong support from the fighter community, the Air Force aircraft could be armed with air-to-air missiles for both offensive and defensive counter-air missions.
Persistence is a key advantage of UAVs, the report notes. A primary mission for the new UCAS in Third Offset is a “mobile and relocatable target killer,” using a combination of unrefueled range and tanker support to fly 48-hr.-plus missions and remain on-station beyond the limits of human endurance. The UAVs would be nodes in an aerial communications network that would hedge against an adversary’s counter-space activities—and thereby render anti-satellite operations less valuable. The report also cites an unpublished Northrop Grumman study showing that an unmanned replacement for the F/A-18E/F could save $56 billion over a 25-year service life, compared to a piloted aircraft.
Funding the new N-UCAS and MQ-X could call for “reduction in manned tactical aviation force structure” across all services and “scaled-back procurement of all F-35variants—including possible cancellation of the F-35C, replaced with advanced Super Hornets and eventually N-UCAS.” In July 2011, during Work’s tenure as deputy Navy secretary, he directed the service to study alternatives to the F-35B/C.
The limits on the effectiveness of fighters—including the “semi-stealthy” F-35, so described to discriminate it from the wide-band, all-aspect stealth technology of the UAVs and LRS-B—include survivability and their dependence on tankers, which are vulnerable and difficult to protect. Martinage concurs with Aviation Week’s assessment of theChengdu J-20 as an offensive counter-air fighter aimed at tankers and other air assets. “With an extended-range air-to-air missile the J-20 can push the tanker 800-900 mi. back. [U.S.] fighters can’t even make it to the beach.”
Another unmanned vehicle recommended in the study is a “future” stealthy, high-altitude long-endurance UAV. However, the report notes that only three of the most important new GSS elements are not currently under development (MQ-X, N-UCAS and a towed payload module for submarines). The so-called future Hale UAV appears, in fact, to be the in-development but secret Northrop Grumman RQ-180 (AW&ST Dec. 9, 2013, p. 20). The report suggests that the RQ-180 has a light strike capability, possibly for targets of opportunity.
An important caveat is that the Third Offset still addresses lower-intensity conflicts. As the threat becomes less intense and far-reaching, current systems such as tactical fighters and permissive-airspace Reaper UAVs should be available. “The most dangerous cost-imposing strategy is the one we impose on ourselves,” says Center for a New American Security analyst Ben FitzGerald. “It’s taking out a HiLux truck with a $500,000 weapon.” But a near-peer threat will be the driving factor. “You can’t lose an advantage versus a near-peer,” FitzGerald adds. “You don’t come back from that position.”
Martinage says that the CSBA report does not recommend specific numbers for new systems “because we did not intend this to be a budget drill.” But as one example, the Northrop Grumman study cited in the report suggests that a Navy UCAS force could replace a two-times-larger force of manned aircraft.
Submarine warfare is seen as another area where the U.S. has a substantial and enduring lead. The Third Offset report advocates improving the firepower and flexibility of submarine forces by accelerating the development of unmanned underwater vehicles, developing a long-range boost-glide weapon for submarine launch, and developing towed payload modules. The latter could be 3,000-4,000-ton unmanned systems with up to 12 large-diameter launch tubes, which could be towed into position and remain on station for months. Again, there is a price to be paid: the scaled-back procurement of large surface combatants of the DDG-51 class.
In the Third Offset strategy, the use of special operations and counterterrorism land forces is favored over large military formations. Ground forces, however, would play a strong role in establishing “local area A2AD networks,” particularly on the territory of threatened allies. Systems such as land-based anti-ship cruise missiles linked to aerostat-borne radars, for example, could both defend coastlines and inhibit an adversary’s naval movements.
A version of this article appears in the November 3/10 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.