The U.S. military is losing its edge in the development of guided weapons, a top Pentagon official said this week.
The rising costs associated with fielding new technologies combined with emerging innovations by potential U.S. enemies pose a considerable threat, Undersecretary of the Navy Robert O. Work said in a Nov. 8 speech at the 2010 Naval Science and Technology Partnership Conference outside Washington, D.C.
Key to winning current and future wars is to have the most advanced networks and guided munitions, Work said. “We’ve had a monopoly in this regime for a long time,” he said. “That monopoly is eroding.”
In 1945, the first U.S. "battle network" went up against Japanese kamikazes, and the results were devastating, he said. About 28,000 suicide pilots sunk or damaged more than 430 ships and killed or wounded nearly 10,000 sailors.
“The burden on the defense in the guided-weapons warfare regime is enormous,” Work said. Navy scientists during World War II determined that no matter how strong the unguided weapons defense, at least 14 percent of kamikazes still broke through and hit targets.
That experience more than 60 years ago was a wakeup call for the Navy, which went on to be a leader in the development of guided weapons, Work said. The service produced successful systems such as the Talos, Terrior and Tartar missiles as well as unguided torpedoes and depth charges.
But adversaries have developed “anti-access” and “area-denial” weapons — including guided rockets, artillery, missiles and mortars — that could neutralize the U.S. advantage in smart weaponry. China has developed an anti-ship ballistic missile. Just a handful of missiles could keep the United States from operating in certain areas, Work said.
“We at the Pentagon don’t have any better crystal ball than any of you,” Work told a crowd of defense contractors and researchers from private companies and universities.
The United States must develop advanced systems to be able to hit intended targets while defending U.S. forces from enemy attacks, Work said. Often the first to fire wins, he added.
But the rising costs of building and maintaining U.S. weaponry, as well as the soaring national debt, could derail the Pentagon's ambitious modernization plans, he said.
“The secretary and I consider cost a threat,” Work said. “We must solve this problem. If the [science and technology] community cannot help us address total ownership costs, we will quickly find ourselves with a fleet too small to exert its will.”
The cost of developing hardware, and operating the fleet and combat systems and equipment continues to grow at a rate greater than inflation, Work said. “We simply can’t afford to be spending billions and billions of dollars on ships and aircraft that don’t reach their service lives and which we cannot operate in this [more challenging] regime,” he said.
Now more than ever, Work said, the U.S. military is in need of technological innovation that is also affordable.