Tuesday, January 10, 2012

An AirSea Battle on the Potomac

It is clear from last month's commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor that this disaster continues to impact the U.S. psyche and national strategy. "The next Pearl Harbor" has been a common theme in reports regarding 9/11.
One can assume the recently developed and classified AirSea Battle Concept has a similar vista. Addressing the "anti-access/area denial" environment, it purportedly discusses the growing influence of China and the importance of Asia to America's national interests. As the name states, air and sea power will be critical to the attainment of U.S. national interests.
While analogies to Pearl Harbor are understandable, they may be misleading on the challenges of tomorrow. A more appropriate lesson might be found in the Battle of Midway.
As the sun rose on June 4, 1942, the Imperial Navy of Japan was the most powerful navy ever to sail. By sunset, its eventual defeat was inevitable. Japan in 1942 possessed six world-class aircraft carriers and the finest naval aviators. Four carriers were lost on that day.
Lacking a robust industrial base, Japan would produce only seven additional fleet carriers by the end of the war (the U.S. more than 20). Rational or not, Japan started a war with a limited force structure and little ability to replenish loses.
Fast-forward to 2012. In a world of iPads, it is incredible, but the forces that will carry out the AirSea Battle construct reflect decisions made decades ago. Tomorrow's U.S. Air Force will possess a nominal force of bombers and a handful of sophisticated F-22s and F-35s. While highly capable, these fifth-generation fighters lack the range and payload necessary for conflicts in Asia. Friendly bases are few.
The airfields close enough for effective sortie generation rates with fifth-gen fighters will likewise be within range of Chinese ballistic and cruise missiles. This environment requires hardened facilities and a robust missile-defense system. The former do not exist and the latter only in limited numbers.
While U.S. naval forces will benefit from their mobility, they too will face a Chinese anti-access threat projected to acquire and target surface combatants. With a deck of F/A-18s and F-35s, our carriers will be as range-challenged as our land-based fighters. Getting the carrier to the fight will require expensive escorts to defend against missile attacks. Combat operations would quickly become problematic once the defensive armaments are depleted.
Complicating this bleak outlook is the acquisition death spiral of increased cost/reduced numbers. As weapon systems progress through the acquisition cycle, they invariably fall behind schedule from unforeseen production issues. This drives up the cost, reducing the number of systems that can be purchased. The spiral continues with the war fighter receiving fewer platforms, later than needed, and costing significantly more than planned.
These two flaws could leave the U.S. in the same position that Japan found itself in 1943, weakened and unable to reconstitute a viable force. A small fighter force will generate few effective sorties (this assumes sufficient aerial tankers. Fighters in Asia are static displays without tankers). The loss of a Nimitz-class carrier would rival Pearl Harbor in loss of life and drive our surface naval forces out of harm's way. Like Imperial Japan, a Midway debacle would cripple U.S. power projection. And like Japan of 1943, America of 2012 cannot quickly reconstitute our current weapon systems.
With senior leaders stating there are no alternatives to weapon systems currently in development, it's apparent their predecessors organized a Pickett's Charge decades ago and left the charge to them. Resolving this mismatch between force structure and strategy will require a proper focus on the challenges of combat operations in the Pacific.
Specifically, in the short term:
■ Expand procurement of standoff missiles, such as the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range.
■ Regain our superiority in electronic warfare that was lost in our infatuation with stealth.
■ Purchase low-end attack aircraft and remotely piloted vehicles for noncontested environments.
■ Limit the F-35 buy to 200 to 400 aircraft.
For the long term:
■ Develop manned/unmanned long-range penetrating precision strike platforms (both land- and carrier-based).
■ Research and develop 21st century battleships capable of firing ballistic and cruise missiles from long range.
On June 3, 1942, the Imperial Navy of Japan was the uncontested master of the Pacific. On the following day, American ingenuity, guts and a degree of luck made Japan's eventual defeat inevitable. The future naval and air forces of the U.S. could face a similar tragedy, one in which the finest air and naval forces are rendered incapable of effective combat operations due to a 20-year process where we purchased what we wanted instead of what we needed.
Perhaps the most important contribution from an honest assessment of the AirSea Battle construct will be to own up to this unfortunate fact.
Chris Choate is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel now performing operational test and evaluation work with the service as a civilian employee. These views reflect those of the author and not the Air Force, Defense Department or U.S. government.

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