In the cruise missile-stealth aircraft battle, winner-take-all may not be the best idea.
In late 1994, the Government Accounting Office strongly urged the Department of Defense to conduct an extensive force planning analysis that would consider the Desert Storm success of Tomahawk land-attack missiles (TLAM) and conventional air-launched cruise missiles. Specific recommendations were to:
- Review requirements for the proper mix of strike aircraft, aircraft carriers, and cruise missiles.
- Analyze whether payload and stealth characteristics for future aircraft can be amended, given greater reliance on cruise missiles to carry out some missions.
- Determine whether cruise-missile-capable ships and submarines can do more of the overseas presence mission, instead of aircraft carriers.1
The recent missile attack on Iraq has done nothing to diminish the ferocity of the beltway "cruise missile schmooze." Kurt Strauss of Hughes Missile Systems states, "A fundamental shift in the application and utility of cruise missiles has occurred. Tomahawk is no longer viewed as a limited-use strategic weapon." Conversely, RAND Corporation air power analyst Carl Builder asserts that missiles and aircraft "are so different in terms of what they can do that they are really not in competition with each other."2
Well, that clears up everything.
Economies: Cruise Missiles Versus Aircraft
Cruise missile strikes offer certain advantages over aircraft strikes. The missile—being both bomb and bomber—does more than simply eliminate the need for the bomber. It also eliminates the need for any other aircraft to support said bomber.
I recall one particular exercise during an air wing detachment at Fallon, Nevada—a classic Navy defense-in-depth-style strike of about 30 aircraft. Only four actually were dropping bombs; the rest were for air superiority.
We stayed up all night incubating this little miracle, finishing just in time to have another cup of coffee before we briefed. By the time we manned the jets, another four hours had elapsed. We lit the motors and started to taxi more or less on schedule. Eight planes dropped out for "downing" discrepancies. Then the lead started his take-off roll, hit an owl, aborted, and shut down on the runway.
Pretty soon, the entire strike package was lined up from the hold-short line back to the transient line, waiting for the tow gear to haul the lead away. Somebody keyed the wrong mike switch and blurted out, "Is anybody left in this goat-rope who's actually going to the target?"
If, as theater commanders, we decide to conduct this notional contingency strike in the real world with Tomahawks, we probably could get by with fewer than 30 missiles. In addition, we wouldn't need an aircraft carrier to launch them, and we wouldn't need anything at all to land them.
If, as the National Security Council, our concern is that if air crews get shot down and held hostage it will ruin any political impact we hoped to achieve in the first place, then Tomahawks look pretty good. The risk of that happening to a cruise missile is more than acceptable to us.
If, as fiscally constrained force planners, we decide just to keep a cruise missile platform (cruiser, destroyer, arsenal ship, or big old bomber) for this particular contingency mission and lose a carrier or two, we're starting to save serious money. The bucks we save on the carriers and their aircraft are just the beginning. There's the cost of operating and maintaining a carrier for a service life of 30 or more years. There are the thousands of air crew and technicians we wouldn't have to train and pay. Kick in some bloated aircraft programs and we're talking a crud-load of money. Nobody could tell you the exact size of this crud-load, but it is approaching "size of the national debt with enough left over to fix Social Security" big.
Capabilities: Cruise Missiles Versus Aircraft
Upon hearing of the demise of the stealth attack A-12 project, a junior surface warfare officer (SWO) I once knew jumped up from his nap and exclaimed, "Outstanding! That pig was a total money sump. We can do the exact same mission with TLAM and get off watch in time for mid-rats."
Had my friend "checked six" in aviator fashion, he wouldn't have made this remark, because the third person in the room happened to be an attack pilot.
The aviator spun on the SWO and snapped, "That's just the kind of moronic comment that perfectly illustrates the typical 15-knot, ignorant, black-shoe mentality!"
"Oh yeah?" my buddy calmly replied. "Describe for me three significant strike capabilities the A-12 would have given the Navy that it doesn't already have with TLAM?"
The pilot fired back, "It was ten times sexier, a hundred times more expensive, and I was gonna fly it!"
The overlapping capability between cruise missiles and stealth attack/bombers is the deep, precision strike in a non-permissive environment. This is the ability to fly through miles of an integrated air defense system, locate a vital target, destroy it without doing much damage to anything else, then bring the pilot home safely (stealth bomber) or not (cruise missile).
The Desert Storm generation of cruise missiles lacked some important capacities, but subsequent and projected improvements will correct many of their failings.3 We may never be able to make a cruise missile do everything a stealth bomber can, but we might come very, very close.
If we could cover the requirement for deep, precision strike in a non-permissive environment with cruise missiles alone, we could scrap costly stealth attack/bombers altogether. We also could drive the last nail into the coffin of the $71 million per copy F-22 stealth air superiority fighter.4 Here's why.
Of the offensive and defensive counterair missions, stealth is only required for the former. The defensive counterair objective is to kill Bad Guy bombers; stealth doesn't contribute much directly in that regard. Stealth is justified by the offensive counterair task. Good Guy fighters want to be able to fight Bad Guy fighters over Bad Guy country without worrying about surface-to-air missiles.
The next assumption is that Bad Guy's fighters also will be stealthy (we sold them to him). If the Good Guy stealth fighter (we'll call him "A") and the Bad Guy stealth fighter (we'll call him "B") can find and kill each other with passive sensors, neither one is very stealthy. Both got ripped off and want their money back.
If A gets detection and missile guidance on B from third-party C (satellite, ground sight, airborne early warning, etc.), then B still isn't very stealthy and A was a waste of money because we could have just built a weapon to strap on C.
If A can find and target B with an on-board active sensor, B still isn't very stealthy. But guess what. The moment A turns on his active sensor, he isn't either. That active sensor emits some kind of energy—radio waves, light, sound, or even gas. If enough energy bounces off B for A to sniff, B can smell it, too. B can sic a Fox-Four generation missile, trained to home in on A's scent, in the direction of the smell.
This time, Bad Guy beat us tactically. He'll beat us strategically if we buy stealth fighter A and one of Bad Guy's smart guys figures out they can just keep boring old fighter D and fit it with the Fox-Four system. But nobody'd be that smart.
A and B both soon realize that they have to remain passive to survive. With active sensors on, both are invisible men finding their way in the dark with flashlights (clue: aim at the light). Lights out, they're $70 million day/visual interceptors that couldn't out dogfight a Sopwith Camel.
They can't find or kill each other. They can't find or kill each other's bomber buddies. So what do we pay them for?
At this stage, the fighter guy argument winds back to ensuring survival of the bomber force. The fighter guys figure their bomber buddies will swallow this hook, line, and sinker. They will, until some bright bomber boy asks, "What kind of bomber does this stealth fighter protect?"
If we need a stealth fighter to protect a stealth bomber, then the bomber isn't very stealthy, and he wants his money back, too. If our stealth fighter protects a non-stealth bomber, maybe we put stealth in the wrong airplane. We ripped ourselves off.
If we replace bombers with cruise missiles in the non-permissive environment, court's adjourned. Few fighter pilots will argue the need for a stealth fighter to protect kamikaze robots.
With our manned aircraft operating only in a permissive environment, a lot of stuff besides stealth could take a hike. We wouldn't need fighters because we're not gonna fight fighters. We wouldn't need high-speed antiradiation missiles because we don't care about surface-to-air missiles. We wouldn't need electronic attack aircraft to hide us from enemy radars. We would hardly need tactical air launched stand-off weapons. What would we be standing off from? We wouldn't need airborne early warning. Who they gonna warn?
At the rate we're going, the tankers aren't going to have anybody left to tank except each other. And by golly, when that happens, we won't need them either.
Cruise Missile of the Gods
If we go so far as to replace our entire piloted air force with cruise missiles, they better be some mighty groovy missiles. In 1994, a famous defense consulting firm constructed a mission requirement statement for just such a weapon. It could be launched at a moment's notice from a platform in the Arabian Gulf and release a barrage of brilliant submunitions that would destroy a division of Iraqi tanks. It then would proceed to the nofly zone and cover a four-hour defensive counterair patrol window, after which it could cruise downtown Baghdad and locate the First Bank of Iraq. It would walk in through the lobby whistling "Yankee Doodle Dandy" while handing out propaganda pamphlets, then dash to the safe, hover, and crack the combination. Inside the vault, it could go to a desk drawer, find a picture of Saddam Hussein, and spit on it. It then could produce a custom-shaped detonation that would atomize the picture, make toothpicks out of the desk, burn all the paper money, and melt all the coins in the safe—without shattering the big picture window out front.
We could get ten copies of this beauty designed and built to military specifications at a cost that would increase the national debt by no more than 357%. Ten would be plenty. These sweethearts would be so dear that even if we could afford to buy them, we couldn't afford to expend them.
Balanced Force of the Gods
There are serious stakes and stands on both sides of this issue. The extreme positions are ludicrous. Here are seven considerations that may help elevate the debate:
Keep some stealth aircraft attack capability. If you said, "I can develop an affordable cruise missile that can reach and destroy any target that a precision stealth bomber can," I'd tell you to get a grip. If you actually could do this, it would be the first weapon program to live up to its promise since the sticks and bones those monkeys slapped the snot out of each other with at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
We need manned stealth capability, but no more than we have now. That's enough to satisfy the strategic risk concerns, which include encountering critical targets that even the most totally groovy cruise missiles just can't reach or destroy; not being able to produce enough cruise missiles to take out all the targets we'll need to strike in a major regional conflict scenario; or making it too easy for Bad Guy, who could start targeting his defense wad on lots of low-tech, low-cost stuff like antiaircraft artillery, barrage balloons, and great big nets he can string up across valleys, ridge lines, and other places where cruise missiles like to fly.
Don't make stealth any stealthier. The "stealth gap" theory says that there already are fairly cheap things out there that can see and target our expensive last-generation stealth (F-117). By the time our more expensive current generation stealth hits the street (B-2), cheaper stuff will be out that can kill it, too. If we are heading toward way more expensive follow-on stealth that will be made obsolete by dime store detection and targeting before it's off the drawing board, it's time to get a new theory.
Don't put stealth aircraft on aircraft carriers. If we double or triple the cost of our tailhook jets, we'll put carrier force costs over the top. If Navy cruise missiles can't cover our deep strike requirements in a non-permissive environment, the Air Force will—even if it's with conventional-cruise-missile-carrying B-52s launched from some place in the mid-west where nobody wants to live.
Develop tactical capability for cruise missiles. To deter Bad Guy from doing Bad Stuff, cruise missiles need to be more than just a strategic briar patch.
Say Bad Guy gets this really great idea to roll his tanks into neighboring Limpo during the Super Bowl. His army guys look into it and tell him their tanks can be in Limpo's capital in about two hours.
Bad Guy checks the complimentary calendar he got at the new members' seminar at the last NATO conference and sees that the only thing we'll have in his theater on Super Bowl Sunday is a Tomahawk-capable submarine. He knows that today's Tomahawk can't do diddly against moving tanks, so he concludes that the worst thing we can do to him before his tanks are parked in Limpo's front yard is to knock down his power grid for about as long as it takes for the half-time show.
Weighing the certainty of having his tanks in Limpo against the possibly of missing the half-time chat, Bad Guy might just roll those tanks. And if he does, we're up a creek with just two directions to paddle: wimp out or mount a major operation to drive him out.
If, on the other hand, we already have implemented planned improvements that will make the Tomahawk capable of launching from submarines and hitting moving tactical targets, we can come up with a little something for those tanks.5 Knowing this, Bad Guy might instead decide that the best course of action is to just sit back and watch the show.
Continue to develop survivability for our non-stealthy combat aircraft. Our non-stealthy combat aircraft need to be able to operate in other than totally permissive environments. This affects future development of air-to-air and surface-to-air defense capabilities of non-stealthy strikers and fighters. It also has implications for direct combat support aircraft such as airborne early warning.
Continue to develop stand-off attack capability for non-stealthy tactical aircraft. There are three big justifications for tactical air launched stand-off air-to-ground attack: The first is related to survivability plus some other tactical details that are too hard to describe here. Second, the more one-dimensional our air strike arsenal becomes, the cheaper and easier it gets for Bad Guy to defend against us. Third is the matter of economy. Against certain targets, a reusable non-stealthy aircraft with a stand-off weapon would be less expensive to employ than a number of single-use Tomahawks.
Continue development of precision direct attack. The joint direct attack munitions are the same old dumb bombs we have now with sorta-smart and fairly cheap noses and fins.6 Precision direct attack for non-stealth aircraft (very permissive environment) and stealth aircraft (non-permissive environment) are the economically appropriate weapons in any scenario with a high volume of precision targets.
Grand Strategy of the Gods
There is, of course, a grim fairy tale that says we don't need any airplanes or any cruise missiles of the Gods. We've still got enough of those intercontinental ballistic missiles leftover from the Cold War to grill to taste as much of the world as we want. This is the "No More Mister Good Guy" strategy. The next time one of those kindergarten countries in the UN gives us any lip, we smoke 'em like a Dutch Master.
Right now, the only guy who can keep us from getting away with this is in a somewhat precarious condition. Eventually he might check out, but by that time, a lot of the other guys will have those new, improved theater ballistic missiles of the Gods that can reach out and touch us guys in the continental United States.
If we wait until that happens, we'll have to start shoveling bricks and bricks of money into national defense again. As strategist and force planners, we'll have messed up royally. Because now we'll have to go back in to work.
1 Robert Holzer, "Cruise Missiles Get a Boost/GAO: Their Use Could Ease Need to Upgrade Aircraft," Navy Times, 20 March 1995.
3 Robert Holzer, "After the Tomahawk/Navy Studying Next-Generation Cruise Missile."
4 Roberty F. Dorr, "The F-22 Is Not A Cure-All," Air Force Times, 13 November 1995.
5 Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, Resources, Warfare Requirements, and Assessments (N8), Force 2001: A Program Guide to the U.S. Navy (Washington: 1995), pp. 8, 39, 87, 88.
6 Ibid., pp. 77, 78.
Commander Huber is deployed with VAW-124 on board the John F. Kennedy (CV-67).