As studies by the CSBA and numerous articles and blogposts authored by yours truly have documented, the most pervasive and most lethal non-nuclear threat to the US military (other than the threat of deep defense budget cuts, of course) is and will remain the threat of anti-access/area-denial weapon systems, operated in many varieties by many potential adversaries, including China, Russia, North Korea, Syria, Iran, Venezuela, and Hezbollah. (China, Iran, and Russia have complete inventories of A2/AD weapons of all kinds, while the others rely on inventories of specific kinds.)
These weapons range from submarines and naval mines to short-, medium-, and intermediate range ballistic missiles to integrated air defense systems to cyberweapons to antisatellite (ASAT) weapons. They thus come in many varieties and are aimed at different types of American platforms, but their mission is the same: deny the US military access to a theater of operations (e.g. the Western Pacific or the Persian Gulf) or at least make it prohibitively expensive (in terms of casualties) for the US military to operate in that theater.
China and Russia have accumulated huge and very impressive arsenals of such weapons in all their varieties; Iran also has a very potent arsenal of such weapons to offset its purely conventional military inferiority to the US. (If Iran tried to fight the US plane vs plane and ship vs ship, it wouldn’t stand a chance. But by fighting unconventionally, with submarines, naval mines, fast attack craft, and anti-ship missiles, among other things, it could inflict high casualties on the US military.)
North Korea has upgraded Soviet air defense systems, midget submarines, and over a thousand ballistic missiles which can hit any American base in Eastern Asia. Venezuela has modern Russian S-300 SAM systems and advanced submarines.
Given these facts, the US should be quickly shifting its conventional force away from short-range platforms towards long-range ones, and away from platforms suited only for permissive, benign environments towards those designed to operate in very constrained environments, such as heavily-defended airspace.
Yet, the DOD has not done so yet.
To be sure, during the next few years, the DOD did make the initial steps towards that goal. For example, it has begun the development of the Next Generation Bomber, with plans to procure 100 such aircraft; it has announced plans to add the Virginia Payload Module to Block V Virginia class submarines; it is developing anti-ship missiles of its own; it has asked the industry for designs of a new cruise missile; it is ordering further EA-18G jammer and P-8 ASW aircraft; it has invested seriously in cybersecurity; and it’s building Littoral Combat Ships with ASW and demining modules alike.
But those are baby steps, and progress in that regard is too slow.
EA-18G, P-8 Poseidon, and Virginia class orders have been slowed, as have been orders for Arleigh Burke class DDGs. The Navy wants to decommission seven Ticonderoga class cruisers (each of which can launch 122 Tomahawk cruise missiles or missiles of other types) and two amphibious assault ships. The Air Force is merely “studying” the alternatives for the next-gen cruise missile. The NGB is not scheduled to enter service until the mid-2020s, even though it is need now. The DOD is cutting spending on missile defense and ordering inadequate quantities of interceptors and batteries, while also cutting spending on the development of laser missile defenses that would be far more economical than kinetic interceptors.
Furthermore, the current and projected inventories of jammer and ASW aircraft, stealthy bombers, and submarines are inadequate and will be even moreso inadequate as insufficient numbers are procured. These platforms will thus be few in number even though there will be a great demand for them in the Pacific, the Persian Gulf, and probably elsewhere.
In short, the DOD is not investing enough in these urgently-needed weapon platforms and has ordered, or plans to order, insufficient quantities of them.
Meanwhile, the DOD continues to spend a lot of money on its large ground force and on platforms suitable only for permissive environments where the only opponents are insurgents unable to contest control of the air. The DOD wants to increase the number of its Predator and Reaper orbits to 65 with a surge capacity to 80, even though such drones cannot survive in contested airspace. It still wants to procure 2,443 F-35 aircraft, even though they are already obsolete and will become even moreso obsolete by the time they officially enter service later this decade. The Army still continues to develop a heavy mobile bunker for the Ground Combat Vehicle program. And even after the modest reductions the DOD plans to slowly make to the ground force, both the Army and the Marines will still be larger than they were on 9/11 or during the Clinton years.
Can anyone explain to me what is the purpose of such investments, other than to recreate the force of the past and to re-fight yesterday’s war?
The DOD is still not serious about adapting to the A2/AD environment. Neither are most members of Congress, who have imposed a deep budget cut diktat on the DOD while not allowing it to even make modest reforms in the ground force, healthcare programs, base infrastructure, or inventories of old and/or short-ranged and/or niche aircraft like the C-27, C-23, F-16, and A-10. That means the savings which these reforms would produce will not be cashed, which means less money available for long-range-strike platforms.
Moreover, under current DOD plans, Navy shipbuilding programs and the Navy’s ship fleet will decline precipitously (excepting only the LCS program), and it is the Navy and the Air Force, not the Army and the Marines, who will see the relatively deepest cuts to their accounts, which is ridiculous given that the USAF and the USN, NOT the other two services, will play the lead role in any A2/AD environment.
The DOD has taken some steps to adapt to the A2/AD environment, but these are only baby steps. In a future blogpost, I will outline the steps the DOD should make to adapt quickly and adequately to this environment, similar to the “31 initiatives” produced by the USAF/US Army AirLand agreement of the early 1980s.
Air Force Secretary Michael Donley has recently reaffirmed the need for the NGB, while also demonstrating how little this program, and bomber programs in general, cost compared to the USAF’s total modernization budget:
“The new Long-Range Strike bomber is one of our top priorities and encompasses approximately two percent of Air Force investment. An additional three percent over the next five years goes to sustain and modernize the B-52, B-1, and B-2 bombers to ensure these aging aircraft remain viable.”