The big errors of the CNAS

As America deals with its budget deficit problem, the fierce debate about the proper size and composition of both the defense budget and the military itself continues. One of the think tanks that have weighed in is the center-left “Center for a New American Security”.

Founded in 2007, it made a number of DOD readjustment, budget cut, and reform recommendations (Hard Choices) in 2011 while warning that cutting the defense budget beyond $500 bn per decade would significantly undermine America’s military capabilities. They reaffirmed their recommendations in May 2012 while expanding on them and explaining why they think they’re prudent.

Unfortunately, in their May 2012 paper, A Sustainable Preeminence, while explaining well in so many words why the US needs to have the strongest military in the world and be engaged globally to keep the world secure and at peace, they make several unwise, poorly thought-out, imprudent recommendations that would significantly undermine US military power if implemented, and also contradict their stated recomendation (with which I agree) of prioritizing naval and air capabilities.

Specifically, they are dead wrong to claim that the DOD should:

1) Cut its carrier fleet from 11 to 10 ships and the number of carrier air wings from 10 to 9. As I have explained here, this would significantly weaken America’s power-projection and airpower capabilities. With 11 carriers in total, 7 are operational and available for duty anytime. This means that the Navy can assign 2-3 carriers to the Persian Gulf and still commit 4-5 flattops elsewhere. With a fleet of 10 flattops, however, no more than 5-6 would be available for duty. This means that no more than 2 of them (and perhaps only one) could be committed to the Persian Gulf, because the rest (3-4) would be needed in and committed to the Pacific Rim. Even this year, with 11 flattops in total, CENTCOM Commander Gen. James Mattis was denied a third carrier group because (surprise, surprise) all other flattops were committed to the Western Pacific. Matters would grow only worse if the CNAS got its way.

The claim that the Ford class, and aircraft carriers in general, are “vulnerable to threats” is wrong, for the reasons stated here. Also, the CNAS suggests that small carriers (amphibious assault ships) could take big carriers’ place; but they cannot, and if anti-ship weapons are threats to their big cousins, why aren’t they threats to amphibious assault ships themselves? The CNAS’s claim is illogical and wrong.

2) Cut the Navy’s planned purchase of F-35Cs by half, buy some Super Hornets in the near term, and hope that combat-capable UAVs emerge in the 2020s and the 2030s. This would be a bad mistake, too. It would deprive the Navy of a large quantity of stealthy, multirole, fully combat-capable aircraft while forcing it to rely on obsolete 1985 “old wine in a new bottle” aircraft (Super Hornets) and hope that combat-capable UAVs emerge in the 2030s, two decades from now. This would be a foolish mistake.

The CNAS wrongly claims that the F-35C is not survivable in anti-access/area-denial environments, but that’s not true. The F-35C, being very stealthy, is very survivable and very much survivable in such environments – it was explicitly designed for them. It can survive in environments in which nonstealthy aircraft, including the obsolete Super Hornet, cannot. Only the F-35, the F-22, the B-2, and the planned Next Generation Bomber can survive in airspace infested by modern (or even upgraded legacy) Russian and Chinese air defense systems such as the S-300, S-400, and HQ-9.

The CNAS also complains about the F-35C’s supposedly short range, but its combat radius is actually 650 nm, making it the second longest-ranged shipborne aircraft in USN history, trailing only the A-6 Intruder (860 nm). By contrast, the Super Hornet’s combat radius is a meagre 390 nm, one of the shortest of any shipborne aircraft in USN history, and its huge RCS and poor aerodynamic and kinematic capabilities make it decisively inferior to the F-35C. It is also not true that the F-35C would “require aicraft carriers to get within dangerously close to enemy coasts or necessitate frequent aerial refueling”, but the Super Hornet would. The USN should not order any more Super Hornets and should buy the full planned quantity of F-35Cs.

Furthermore, while the planned X-47B carrier-based drone will have a combat range of 2,100 nm, longer than the F-35Cs, it can carry only 5,000 pounds of ordnance. The F-35C, even in stealth mode, can carry 18,000 pounds of weapons – over 3 times more than the X-47B.

The CNAS also wants 25% of all carrier-based aircraft to be unmanned by 2025. This is irrational. Their fetishization of unmanned aircraft is wrong. Their comm links are easy to degrade or jam, they can be commandeered, they rely heavily on human input, and, as the X-47B’s case shows, they carry far less payload than manned aircraft such as the F-35C. They are also far more accident-prone than manned aircraft. No, the Navy should not set the goal the CNAS proposes. It should do the contrary: limit its usage of unmanned aircraft to the minimum extent possible.

3) Retire prematurely the 7 cruisers planned for early retirement. This would mean ratifying the Navy’s boneheaded decision to retire 7 of its most powerful and most versatile surface combatants prematurely, with 20 years of service life remaining for each cruiser, and cutting the Navy’s firepower by more than the shipborne firepower of the entire Royal Navy, as well as depriving the Pacific Fleet of four cruisers (including one BMD-capable vessel) at a time when missile defense is in high demand and the US military is supposed to “pivot” to Asia. This, by itself, would be a foolish mistake of huge proportions. Each of these cruisers will be very crucial for the A2/AD environment of which the CNAS warns about so many times in its May 2012 paper. Refitting and modernizing these cruisers would cost no more than $2 bn.

4) Cut the Navy’s SSBN fleet below 12 submarines through a “binding, verifiable, mutual treaty”. This would be the most foolish recommendation of all, which, if implemented, would significantly imperil America’s security and its very survival. The planned fleet of 12 SSBNs is the absolute minimum needed to maintain America’s deterrent, reassure America’s allies, and deter all potential nuclear adversaries, including Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.

Of most concern are Moscow and Beijing. Russia plans to have a 12-boat SSBN fleet (it currently has 13, with another 2 in reserve) and its Borei class submarines, from the 4th to the 8th boat, are to carry 20 SLBMs each, compared to only 16 for the first three and for the planned new American SSBN class. Cutting the USN’s SSBN fleet to fewer than 12 boats would greatly undermine the sea-based leg of America’s nuclear deterrent and, as a result, the entire deterrent. This, in turn, would undermine America’s ability to deter Russia, China, and others, and cause allies to doubt the credibility of the US nuclear umbrella, forcing them to develop their own nuclear weapons and thus making the proliferation problem much worse.

China has up to 3,000 warheads, not the 240-400 that are often claimed. These are deployed on a wide range of delivery systems including over 75 ICBMs, 72-132 SLBMs on six SSBNs, 440 strategic and theater bombers, 120-140 MRBMs, and a number of SRBMs and LACMs. Deterring China alone, not to mention Russia, North Korea, and Iran together, will require a nuclear arsenal (and SSBN fleet) at least as large as the current one.

5) Cancel further purchases of the V-22 Osprey. This is also a wrongheaded, very mistaken proposal. It would deprive the military of any further airframes of the only VTOL aircraft type that can survive in contested airspace, cover large swathes of land, and deliver large numbers of troops and supplies to barren locations quickly and safely. It can also fly twice farther and twice faster than any helicopter. Moreover, while the CNAS wrongly claims that the USMC should buy helicopters instead (they’re silent about how the USAF and the USN would fill the gap), they ignore the fact that CH-53 helicopters are twice more expensive to buy and operate than V-22s. Most importantly, its primary users, Marine pilots, like it. Just listen to them. And watch this film about how the V-22 proved its mettle, proved itself to be far more capable and useful than any helicopter (its speed and service ceiling really matter in combat zones), and what the Marines say about it. Also listen to USMC Commandant Gen. James Amos, a Naval Aviator by trade, who has strongly praised the V-22 and urged its continued production. (Whom will you believe – a real Marine general or armchair generals?) Also listen to his predecessor, Gen. James Conway.

As experts have stated, the V-22 is the most capable VTOL aircraft ever, and nothing provides even comparable capability. “It has the best characteristics of a helicopter and a conventional propeller-driven aircraft”, says Peter Caddick Adams of the Royal College of Military Science. “And because it can do both, it exceeds the capabilities of either. It’s so versatile, there is nothing in the world which can match its capability.” From a cold start, it can get to a flight configuration in just 11 seconds.

In short, the CNAS is dead wrong. Again.

6) They advocate procuring 27 Littoral Combat Ships instead of the 55 planned, while recognizing that the LCS cannot survive in a hostile environment, as stated by the DOD’s weapon-testing community.

But if the LCS cannot survive in such environment, what is the point of procuring any such ships? I have long advocated the cancellation of all orders for LCSes and for the procurement of other ships instead. CNAS wants nonetheless to see the Navy buy 27 unsurvivable ships. Why?

7) Further cut the Navy’s purchases of Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) ISR drones, buying more Global Hawks instead, and relying more on P-8 Poseidon aircraft. But BAMS is simply the Global Hawk’s naval variant, and P-8 aircraft cannot operate from carriers (they’re essentially modified B737s). Furthermore, only a few P-8s have entered service so far.

8) Claiming that the US military does not need an all-stealthy fleet of strike aircraft. This is also patently wrong. The proliferation of advanced air defense systems around the world, such as the S-300, S-400, HQ-9, HQ-16, Tor-M1, Pantsir-S1, and others, as well as upgraded Soviet systems (such as the SA-2, SA-3, SA-4, SA-5, SA-6, the Tunguska, and the Buk) means that all nonstealthy aircraft are unsurvivable, nonviable, and useless in anything other than benign environments where the only opponents are insurgents or primitive countries unable to contest control of the air. Nonstealthy aircraft would get slaughtered by these advanced air defense systems. More on that here and here.

9) Eliminating the USMC’s carrier-based fighters (giving way to promised future Naval UCAVs). Thus would, however, only cut the Navy-USMC team’s fighter/strike capabilities significantly while forcing them to wait for promised future single-purpose UCAVs that will not be capable of air-to-air combat.

10) Retiring all USMC E-6B electronic warfare aircraft, relying solely on an already overburdened Navy E-6B/EA-18G fleet.

11) Eliminating or placing into storage most of the USMC’s ground combat vehicles, including its tanks. This would dramatically reduce the USMC’s combat power while dramatically reducing its combat value, as it would be of little value even if transported quickly into a war theater. The reason why the USMC is such a valuable and powerful service is because it can deliver well-armed units (including tank units) into any theater quickly.

12) Claiming that “Air Force leadership decisions to prioritize acquisition of the expensive F-22 fifth-generation fighter left far fewer dollars available to buy greater quantities of less expensive but still capable fourth-generation jets and to fund other priorities, from UAS to personnel.” But this is wrong: 4th generation combat aircraft are no longer viable or capable of defeating anyone but primitive opponents. They stand no chance against modern Russian and Chinese fighters and modern (or even legacy) Russian and Chinese air defense systems. The USAF was right to procure F-22s and not buy any new F-16s. More on that here.

The CNAS also claims that F-16s and F/A-18s are still very potent in A2A combat and could still defeat enemy fighters. This is not true. The Super Bug is decisively inferior even to 3rd generation Russian and Chinese fighters such as the MiG-21/J-7 and the J-8. The F-16 is outclassed by the J-10 (an upgraded Chinese clone of the F-16), the Flanker family, the PAKFA, the J-20, and the J-31. It is inferior to these aircraft in BVR combat (owing to its pathetic 50,000 ceiling, its weak radar, its large RCS when flown with external stores, and its low top speed of no more than Mach 2) and totally uncompetitive in WVR combat (thanks to its high wing loading ratio and unimpressive, 1.095:1 thrust/weight ratio). Moreover, it can pull 9Gs only if flown without any external stores (missiles, bombs, or CFTs); if any are carried, it cannot pull 9Gs.

I could go on and on about what’s wrong with the CNAS’s report, but the above 12 errors should suffice. That is not to say that the entire report was wrong. Many of its recommendations and observations are sound. But these 12 recommendations above are wrongheaded and unacceptable.

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