Study: Pentagon Missing Target on Air Weapon Investments

By Allyson Versprille

U.S. military power often is measured by the number of combat aircraft and ships in the inventory. While the United States has by far the largest air force and navy, that size advantage could eventually be negated by enemy air defenses and electronic warfare technologies that are now available in the open market.

The solution is not to buy more fighter jets, stealth bombers or aircraft carriers, but to arm existing Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps combat aircraft with high-tech bombs and missiles that can be dropped in large quantities from hundreds of miles away,suggest military analysts in a new study.

The military for decades has invested in an arsenal of short-range “direct attack” weapons on the assumption that they will be able to get close to targets. It also has acquired a large inventory of highly sophisticated autonomous cruise missiles that can travel more than a thousand miles to a target. Today’s standoff weapons keep aircraft out of harm’s way but, at a million dollars apiece, are too expensive to be able to fire in large numbers in a protracted conflict.

There is clearly a gap between today’s short-range and long-range weapons that needs to be filled, says Mark Gunzinger, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “Our combat air forces are short range and not capable of penetrating contested areas. If we use standoff munitions, those weapons are too large and expensive. The size restricts the number you can carry. We don’t have enough aircraft.”

This should give military leaders pause, he says. U.S adversaries in a future war will be equipped with advanced defenses that could significantly degrade the precision strike advantage the nation has assumed since the end of the Cold War. “We believe that unless DoD tackles this problem, it will be unable to deter and defeat adversaries in future conflicts,” says Gunzinger. Countries like China, Russia and Iran have invested in active and passive defenses that could force the U.S. military to fly more strike sorties and expend larger numbers of precision-guided munitions in future wars.

Gunzinger and co-author Bryan Clark looked at possible outcomes of a “salvo competition” between adversaries that are both equipped with technologically advanced guided munitions and air defenses. They concluded that attempting to compensate for enemy defenses with bigger numbers of the bombs and missiles that the Pentagon currently has in its inventory could be a losing proposition.

The idea that a new approach is needed to fight a future war is “pretty well accepted” in the Defense Department, Gunzinger tells reporters at a CSBA news conference.
Military leaders understand the problem but there is no consensus yet on how to fix it. The study suggests it will require a shift in how the Pentagon buys weapons and also a change in how combat aircraft are deployed and employed. Fighter aircraft, for instance, would not be primarily used to deliver airstrikes but would revert to their World War II role of defending air bases and protecting long-range strike bombers from enemy attack.

“We’re not saying strike fighters will be less useful. We’re saying they should be used in a different mission like offensive counter-air,” Gunzinger says.

Fighters do not have the legs or the cargo capacity to be able to launch standoff weapons from hundreds of miles away. Current fighter jets typically drop bombs from 20 or 25 miles away. This only works in “permissive” environments where enemies do not have advanced air defenses. Future adversaries will be able to shoot down tactical aircraft if they get that close to the target, or could use lasers and microwave guns to jam the electronics of U.S. guided munitions, the study says.

The Pentagon in the past has filled military gaps by throwing money at the problem, but it no longer can afford to do that and needs to be more resourceful, Gunzinger says. “A lot of attention is paid to the platforms. Frankly, not so much to the weapons they carry. Our platforms are only as effective as the weapons. It’s time to pay equal attention to those capabilities.”

Current munitions, such as the Navy’s joint standoff weapon and the Air Force’s small diameter bomb, could have their range extended with relatively inexpensive modifications like adding a rocket motor, says Clark. “We need to get out of the situation where we have really low-end weapons that we can only use in the most permissive environments, and really expensive ones for high-end environments. That’s not affordable,” he says. “The 100-400 nautical mile will be the most affordable range to operate in.”

Widely used direct-attack weapons like the JDAM satellite-guided bombs and the laser-guided Hellfire missiles are going be “either intercepted, diverted, confused or decoyed by the kinds of systems that enemies are going to be able to put in place,” says Clark. “We assume our weapons always get to the target. But in the future the probability of arrival is going to drop.”

Weapons that operate in the 100-400 mile range are the “sweet spot for future DoD inventories,” Clark says. The only U.S. weapon that fits in that niche today is the Air Force’s joint air-to-surface standoff missile, made by Lockheed Martin. But the Air Force is only buying a small number and has decided to switch to a bigger version, called JASSM ER.

Clark suggests the JASSM would be more useful if it had a smaller warhead than the current one that weighs 600 pounds. “We have not dramatically shrunk the warhead size of our standoff weapons. Using the same weapon with a smaller warhead and giving it more range might be a better approach.”

CSBA analysts will be presenting their study on Capitol Hill just as the Pentagon embarks on a long-term modernization plan led by Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work. Senior officials publicly have called on the military and the defense industry to come up with more innovative ideas to counter enemy firepower. “Our adversaries are getting guided munitions or soon will have them,” Work said. “We need to win a guided munitions salvo competition.”

Gunzinger insists that the Pentagon should rethink its spending priorities in air warfare. In the fiscal year 2015 budget, it requested $3.6 billion for precision-guided munitions, compared to $26.6 billion for aircraft and $14.4 billion for ships. The administration is seeking an increase for munitions programs in 2016, but only for JDAM and Hellfire missiles.

A declining munitions budget weakens innovation and also will drive suppliers out of the market, the study says. “The industrial base could not support a surge in precision-guided munitions production in the event of a crisis. Only a handful of prime contractors can produce PGMs and rely on more than 100 specialized suppliers for components like batteries, sensors, datalinks, guidance systems and engines.”

CSBA suggests the Pentagon could help the industry by designing PGMS that are less complex and share more components so suppliers could make them in larger numbers at less cost than current systems.

The Pentagon also could benefit from greater investments in cutting-edge weapons like rail guns, high-energy lasers and hypersonic missiles, says Gunzinger. “That’s the framework on how we might change our mix to maintain the advantage.” These weapons have been in military laboratories for years. “We need programs to buy these weapons. We could have a hypersonic missile in the sweet spot within five to six years if we wanted to. Or a high-power microwave cruise missile in two to three years. We need to fund these weapons now,” he says.

The Pentagon has to start building a modern arsenal now if it wants to be ready for a future war. “You go to war with the weapons you have now, not with the ones you might build in the future.”

Topics: Armaments, Aviation

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