Washington Watch

Aug. 1, 2010

Cost of Long-Range Strike

Anticipated “flatline” Pentagon budgets are causing heated claims that some targets are too expensive to hit. It is a charge that affects requirements for USAF’s new long-range strike aircraft.

As a result, requirements for the airplane are coming down from on high, rather than rising up through normal channels.

These were among the insights offered by Lt. Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, USAF’s deputy chief of staff for operations, plans, and requirements, at an Air Force Association seminar in June. Breedlove said, “Our enemy learns well. He buries himself deeper, in more hardened areas. He knows not to build air shafts that go straight into mission space.”

These targets, he went on, are buried far away from coastlines and require massive bunker-buster bombs, with power to sense the voids they pass through. That, in turn, requires big airplanes with lots of fuel, something Breedlove said isn’t affordable.

“The real debate going on … right now,” Breedlove said, concerns the question of “how much of our nation’s wealth are we willing to put against those targets, which our opponent is making very, very expensive to strike.”

On the other hand, he asked, “Do … the type and number of weapons that we buy telegraph to our opponents that, if you bury to this depth or put it this far inland, then it’s off-limits and we cede that to you?”

Breedlove said, “We still believe … that it is a core requirement of our nation to be able to hold targets around the globe at risk. We cannot allow an enemy to feel like he has sanctuary because of policy decisions or equipment decisions that our nation has made.”

The long-range strike discussion has meant that requirements for the new airplane are increasingly being handed down from the highest levels, Breedlove said.

“I’ll just say—and make no judgment about whether it’s good or bad—but there is a lot more, and a lot earlier, senior civilian involvement in this process,” the general observed. In addition, he said, “this is not happening in the normal progression of things, where A8 at [Air Combat Command] builds a requirement” and it gets passed up the chain of command. “This is going the other way.”

The new aircraft is dubbed the Long-Range Strike Platform, and Breedlove said it will be smaller than previous concepts for a new bomber, the most recent iteration of which called for an aircraft with a payload of up to 27,000 pounds. By comparison, an F-15E fighter can carry more than 23,000 pounds of ordnance.

The new airplane will have to travel far and persist undetected in enemy airspace for long periods, he added. Breedlove encouraged industry to get busy on “small weapons, and the ability to bring small, very precise, and very discrete effects to the battlefield.” He also asked for rapid development of bunker-busters far smaller than today’s gargantuan types.

All in the Family

The new Long-Range Strike Platform will be the “utility infielder” of a family of long-range strike options, said Breedlove.

In his view, it must be equally capable of striking a “near peer” nation with a state-of-the-art integrated air defense system as well as targets in a place with no significant air defenses.

It will also have to be a behind-the-lines, persisting “enabler” of other systems, from stealthy F-22 and F-35 fighters to older fighters and bombers. That means the aircraft will also perform electronic attack, intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance, and suppression or destruction of enemy air defenses.

What it must not be, he said, is an “exquisite” single-purpose aircraft. The Air Force cannot afford to buy airplanes useful for only one mission, he said.

“This is an airplane that is not built to be a bomber at range. It is built to be an enabler at range.”

The other members of the new “family” of long-range strike assets will be:

  • Long-Range Standoff Missile. A new system with range greater than the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile or its derivative, JASSM-ER (for Extended Range).
    • Conventional Prompt Global Strike. The PGS system could be a non-nuclear ICBM adapted from either the Air Force Minuteman or Navy Trident submarine-based weapon.

    Breedlove said that while PGS poses tough problems—other countries tracking the missile might assume it is nuclear—it has attractive attributes.

    “The pure kinematics of a re-entry vehicle, with zero explosive, … is a pretty interesting set of physics” with which to attack deeply buried targets, he noted. It also offers the ability to strike a target “inside of 40 minutes” from launch.

    Regarding the new aircraft itself, another heavy debate concerns whether it will be manned or unmanned. Breedlove said it is his “personal view” that, if the new airplane will carry a nuclear weapon, it “[should] have a man in the cockpit.”

    He noted it would take a vast communications infrastructure to support an unmanned aircraft carrying nuclear weapons, “making sure that link is never broken and is always secure.” In short, he said, “I don’t think our nation can afford that number of satellites.” He added, “That view is not shared widely.”

    Breedlove said he believes that the Office of the Secretary of Defense has a “timeline” for introducing the new airplane, but the Air Force is hoping to be “a part of that discussion,” because it has to keep existing bombers relevant until the new airplane is available.

    The Air Force would like to see a start for the program “inside the FYDP,” or before 2016. However, the new airplane “may not deliver for 12 or 15 years. Should we build the aircraft for the weapons we’ll have in 12 or 15 years, or the weapons we have now?”

    The new aircraft will have to be austere, Breedlove said, because the Air Force has marching orders to focus first on “today’s fight”—Afghanistan. That war is consuming much of the Air Force’s money. “We are now growing an ISR fleet in the Air Force that is stressing every other fleet inside our Air Force for money. … It will stress everything else in the budget.”

    Old Dogs, Hypersonic Tricks

    Hypersonic weapons, possibly available within a decade, could go a long way toward breathing new life into USAF systems that are already old and that the service can’t afford to modernize, according to two experts in the field.

    However, they warned, the US had better invest in the technology, or it may be beaten to the punch.

    “I think we’re less than 10 years away” from initial operational capability of a hypersonic system, said Richard P. Hallion, former chief Air Force historian and an expert on the history and technology of hypersonics, which describes objects traveling between Mach 4 and Mach 12.

    “If not us, then somebody else” will make the breakthrough, Hallion said. He spoke at a symposium of the Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies in late June, where he released a new Mitchell paper, “Hypersonic Power Projection.”

    Moreover, he said, achieving a hypersonic aircraft breakthrough “doesn’t require a break-the-bank investment.”

    Hallion noted that the Air Force’s bombers together average more than 30 years of age, and the fighter force is more than 20 years old, on average. The Air Force can’t afford to replace all those aircraft quickly, but must still confront increasingly lethal air defenses among near-peer nations and client states alike. Hypersonics could be the answer, he said.

    “We talk a lot about closing the sensor-to-shooter loop,” he said, “but we need to close the shooter-to-target loop.” As high-value targets become increasingly mobile, “by the time today’s weapons get to the target area, things have changed.” Hypersonic missiles could catch mobile targets shortly after they are found, and before they can scurry away.

    Also, hypersonics could give older platforms without stealth the ability to loiter far outside air defenses and still hit targets in a reasonable amount of time, Hallion said.

    “This is not a technology beyond … small players,” he pointed out, noting that Russia, China, Iran, Australia, France, Germany, India, and Japan all have the interest and industrial capability to pursue hypersonics successfully.

    Mark J. Lewis, former Air Force chief scientist, said the recent success of the X-51 missile—which ran at hypersonic speed for more than 200 seconds—showed that a near-term practical capability is not far off.

    Quoting an X-51 program official, Lewis said that one of the lessons learned from the test is that “going at hypersonic speed is not that hard.”

    Lewis noted that, at a recent aerospace symposium, “more than half” of the papers submitted on hypersonics were from Chinese researchers. They have “intimate knowledge” of Western literature on the subject, he said, as do Iranians.

    Lewis said that hypersonics offers excellent potential for theater weapons, at ranges of 700 miles or less, where speed would be of high value to targeteers.

    It also offers a good alternative to ballistic missiles for the prompt global strike mission, for which intercontinental ballistic missiles without nuclear warheads are being considered.

    The hypersonic missile is nearly as fast as a re-entry vehicle, and can be launched much faster, since it doesn’t have to be erected, fueled, and otherwise readied in a time-consuming process.

    “The good thing is … because it stays in the atmosphere and it can maneuver, no one can mistake it for an incoming nuclear missile,” which could lead to a grave miscalculation, Lewis said.