Sibling Rivalry: Military Services in High-Stakes Tussle Over Long-Range Fires
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Air Force and Army leaders and their supporters are trading barbs over which branches of the military should be investing in long-range strike capabilities. The outcome of the dispute has major implications for service budgets and warfighting roles.
Following nearly two decades of counterinsurgency operations, the Army has made long-range precision fires its top modernization priority as the Defense Department refocuses on great power competition. Major initiatives underway or under consideration include the Extended Range Cannon Artillery; Precision Strike Missile; Strategic Long-Range Cannon; Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon; and modification of existing Navy SM-6 and UGM-109 missiles for ground launch, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The Army plans to spend billions of dollars pursuing these types of systems. However, some officials in other branches don’t believe those are smart investments as the U.S. military gears up for a potential fight in the Indo-Pacific region against China and defense budgets are expected to remain relatively flat or decline in coming years.
“It’s a stupid idea to go invest that kind of money and recreate something that [the Air Force] has mastered,” Air Force Global Strike Command Commander Gen. Timothy Ray said in a recent podcast by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, in which he touted the capabilities of his service’s long-range bombers.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute, said the Army is “aggressively trying to grab missions that they think will help them become more relevant in our new national security strategy, and long-range strike is at the top of that list.”
When asked about Ray’s criticism, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville suggested service parochialism is at play.
“Where you sit sometimes depends on where you stand,” he said. “Your view of the future fight may be different from your perspective.”
“Sometimes, you know, people say certain [critical] things, but … at the chief level we’re not going down that road. We’re really trying to work together,” he added.
The Army’s ground-based long-range fires will give combatant commanders additional force employment options and present “multiple dilemmas” to adversaries, McConville said.
In an op-ed for Breaking Defense, retired Gen. Robert Brown, executive vice president of the Association of the United States Army and former commander of U.S. Army Pacific, called Ray’s comments “a stunning slap at a sister service … at a critical time in the defense budget process.”
Numerous exercises and wargames have demonstrated the “impressive capabilities” that ground-based long-range precision fires would give a joint force commander in the Indo-Pacific, Brown wrote.
Ray and other observers have expressed doubt that any countries in the Asia-Pacific will allow the Army to base its long-range systems on their territory.
“If you’re building new capabilities and potentially having to create new force structure … there are costs associated with that,” said Stacie Pettyjohn, director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security. “If we don’t know if they will actually be able to contribute to deterrence and warfighting in the Pacific theater because no one wants to host them, that’s a potential issue.”
Why aren’t U.S. allies and partners lining up to have the systems on their soil?
“The countries that host them have to worry that they might become a target [during a conflict], or it might just antagonize China,” Pettyjohn explained.
While nations such as Japan are home to other types of U.S. military assets including air bases and naval forces, long-range missiles are different in that they are “purely offensive systems” that could raise concerns about first strikes and crisis instability, she added.
Systems could be stationed on Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific that also hosts Air Force bombers. But most of the long-range fires the Army wants to acquire still probably wouldn’t have enough range to reach Chinese targets, Pettyjohn said. However, the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon would be an exception.
“Guam is definitely relevant for any sort of conflict with China,” Pettyjohn said. “LRHW could be based there and actually range targets of interest.”
However, the platforms would be expensive and the Air Force and Navy are also pursuing their own air-launched and sea-launched hypersonics that they plan to field in the next few years, she noted.
Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense budget expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said affordability is the central question in the long-range fires debate.
“Duplicity is unaffordable right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s unwarranted,” she said in an email. Congress, which holds the power of the purse, will be the final arbiter on that issue, she noted.
The Mitchell Institute recently released a new policy paper, “Understanding the Long-Range Strike Debate,” that compares the ranges, costs, target suitability and other attributes of the long-range missiles the Army intends to acquire to those of precision-guided munitions delivered by U.S. military aircraft.
Army missiles would cost millions of dollars per shot, whereas bombers are reusable and can employ larger numbers of lower-cost weapons, according to the study.
“Increasing the U.S. military’s inventory of combat aircraft capable of attacking multiple targets per sortie has greater potential to increase DoD’s long-range strike capacity in a period of flat or declining defense budgets,” wrote authors Mark Gunzinger, director of future concepts and capability assessments at the Mitchell Institute, Lukas Autenried, senior analyst at the Mitchell Institute and Bryan Clark, director of the Center for Defense Concepts and Technology at the Hudson Institute.
The Defense Department “should seek the best, most cost-effective solutions instead of allowing initiatives that create excessive redundancy,” the report said.
However, some analysts say the Army has the right idea in pursuing long-range fires.
“Distributed strike across multiple domains is a strategy to counter China’s operational-geographic military advantages,” said Eric Sayers, a visiting fellow at AEI who specializes in Asia-Pacific security policy and defense technology. “I favor a strategy of duplication where each of the services, in a coordinated but overlapping manner, present the [People’s Liberation Army] with a targeting dilemma across the air, land, sea and subsurface.”
“I don’t think we want the PLA to believe they can paralyze America’s power projection forces by just targeting a carrier strike group and several air bases,” he added.
Land-based anti-ship missiles could play an important role in a large maritime theater like the Asia-Pacific, he noted.
Persuading allies to host U.S. platforms isn’t an impossible task, Sayers said. “There is no doubt alliance conversations about rotating these systems into a location like Japan in the future will be difficult,” he said. “But the reality is that China has shifted the military balance so rapidly that … if the United States expects to uphold its security commitments to its allies then … negotiations about the role of ground-based fires are going to have to occur.”
Sayers anticipates that in three to five years the U.S. military could have the necessary infrastructure in place at key locations in Japan.
Notably, Navy leaders have largely refrained from criticizing the Army for pursuing long-range fires.
“The Navy is normally the first service to point out the basing dependencies that other services have and that their systems are freed from those constraints of needing access to foreign territory,” Pettyjohn said. “The Navy has stood on the side right now and let these other two services go at it a little bit. But it’s certainly a part of the conversation because it does have long-range strike capabilities, too.”
Adm. Phil Davidson, who recently served as commander of Indo-Pacific Command, has been supportive of ground-based long-range fires and called on Congress to provide $3.3 billion for such systems in fiscal years 2022 through 2027 as part of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.
“Indo-Pacom requires highly survivable, precision-strike fires featuring increased quantities of ground-based missiles … capable of ranges over 500 kilometers” to assure freedom of action for U.S. forces, he said in March testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee prior to his retirement.
Davidson was succeeded by Adm. John Aquilino following a change-of-command ceremony in late April.
The Navy’s rhetoric could shift depending on how the budget situation plays out, Pettyjohn said. However, “ganging up on the Army” in the long-range fires debate could be problematic because the Marine Corps — which is part of the Department of the Navy — also wants ground-based missiles including hypersonic weapons that could be deployed on vehicles.
“People might point to the fact that it’s one of the Marine Corps’ acquisition … priorities for the [expeditionary advanced base operations] concept,” Pettyjohn said. “You can’t have it both ways.”
Long-range fires will be a priority for the Biden administration, according to the 2022 budget outline it released in April, which called for a “responsive mix” of such capabilities.
But it remains to be seen how funding will be allocated in coming years for these types of systems and how roles and missions will evolve.
“It’s likely going to be a simmering issue underneath the surface for all the services, because if budgets continue to remain flat or decline everyone’s going to be crying for more [money], and they all have ambitious modernization agendas,” Pettyjohn said.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown said there needs to be a discussion about service roles and missions as the military fleshes out the new Joint Warfighting Concept, including looking at “overages of capability.”
“I have talked to Gen. McConville about this,” Brown told reporters at a Defense Writers Group event. “I think there will be an ongoing dialogue between the services on this as well and with the Joint Staff and the JROC,” he added, referring to the Joint Requirements Oversight Council.
Meanwhile, analysts say the Office of the Secretary of Defense needs to take a firm hand.
“In some ways it is natural for these inter-service fights to occur and it can even be healthy if it is done in a professional manner,” Sayers said. “However, this also speaks to the need for strong civilian leadership at the Pentagon to set a clear direction on where we need to go.”
Eaglen said a roles and missions review is long overdue but some senior Pentagon leaders “don’t seem inclined to undertake this difficult task.”
Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten said it would be premature to conduct a review now.
“We’ll have the fruition of the Joint Warfighting Concept in the next decade. And then once we know how to do that and we’ve demonstrated that, we may not be organized correctly, we may not have the right roles and responsibilities,” he said in February during an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But why the heck would you stop and try to figure that out when you actually don’t know the answer?”