U.S. Military Needs Better Defenses From Aerial Attacks

By Chuck Nash
Anyone who has traveled on the London Underground knows that as the train approaches the tube station, there is a warning provided for passengers to “mind the gap.” The gap to be minded is that dangerous physical distance between the edge of the train platform and the floor of the rail car.  If not given attention, a careless or distracted passenger could take a spill, badly twist an ankle, or perhaps get their leg wedged between the platform and the car.

The train platform hazard is perhaps an apt metaphor for a gap that exists in the nation’s ability to defend itself from enemy attacks. That is the area below the horizon of surface based radar, where ever-more stealthy aircraft and cruise missiles could approach undetected.

To mind the gap today, the military services employ radar systems in aircraft such as the U.S. Air Force Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) E-3 Sentry, and the Navy’s “eyes of the fleet,” the E-2 Hawkeye series.

These aircraft are crucial to today’s operations in that they provide the airborne coverage that looks down into the vast expanse of the gap. But they do so at significant operational cost.  The cost per flight hour (CPFH) of a manned aircraft to take and hold station is not just the fuel and flight crew pay. The really expensive part of the CPFH is what, in Navy terms, is known as aviation depot level repairable cost. That is the funding that is prorated per flight hour to cover the cost for the eventual refurbishment of every repairable item on the aircraft’s airframe and weapons system.   

With military funding levels headed down, something has to give. We can no longer afford to continue to do business the same old way, nor should we try.

If the current way of doing business is maintained then either force structure elsewhere needs to be traded away, or current airborne platforms will need to be reduced.  If the number of platforms is reduced, then the ability to mind the gap during a crisis could be perilously reduced. In Pentagonese, this is called “taking risk.” Others might call it robbing Peter to pay Paul.  Either way, without additional funds, some areas lose and risk increases. 

There are, in fact, other ways of completing the mission that cost less.
Unmanned aerial systems are getting a lot of press these days, and advocates are pressing for them to acquire more and more missions.  Although drones are useful in certain scenarios, as with manned aircraft, they bring their own limitations.  A UAS needs to overfly or fly within close proximity to the intended targets of its onboard sensors or weapons. As with current manned platforms, investment must be made in physical numbers of airframes to ensure the desired number of stations are populated when needed.  Thus, manned or unmanned, the platform intensive part of the equation remains unchanged.
A pressing issue in modern warfare is the availability and use of radio frequency bandwidth. Many manned platforms and all UAS systems depend on access to data link bandwidth networks to share their information and in the case of the UAS, for control and system monitoring.
The use of long-endurance aerostats could change the cost equation. A case in point is the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor, a tethered, unmanned aerostat. JLENS could significantly reduce demand for conventional manned platforms and lower the overall cost of the current business model.

Since it has a long-range standoff sensor, it remains well within friendly airspace while performing its mission. Also, the tether carries electrical power up and information down, so radar data is sent to operators to share through ground-based networks, not the radio frequency networks on which other platforms depend.  With no air-to-ground data link, the network is not subject to the same exploitation.

It’s not the strongest who survive but those who are the most adaptable. As technology increases threat potential, more countries and non-state actors will gain access to capabilities that previously were the purview of our nearest competitors. The need to see all of the airspace around our forces and homeland cannot be achieved by placing aircraft in 24-hour, seven-day-a-week orbits.  That is an unaffordable and unwise option.

The long-dwell, long-range, look-down capability of JLENS offers an economical and operationally advantageous way to mind the gap. We must adapt to survive both the threat and budget realities. JLENS is a very promising way of doing that.

Chuck Nash is a retired U.S. Navy captain and naval aviator. He is president of Emerging Technologies International Inc., and the acting chief executive officer of Combat Displays Inc.

Topics: Defense Department, Air Power

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