Consider a scenario: Two warships approach each other, initially from outside the range of their antiship weapons. Which will fire and strike first: The ship that first detects the other? The ship with the longest-range weapon? Or the ship with the shorter range but faster weapon? Perhaps the better question is, Who will take the first shot from maximum effective range with valid targeting and a time to launch and speed of flight inside the adversary’s?
The situation is multivariable and dynamic. And it is something every commanding officer (CO) who sails into the western Pacific considers before bringing, for example, a ship defended by the RGM-84 Harpoon (maximum range: 80 nautical miles) inside the 125-nautical-mile range of a Chinese YJ-83J shooter.
The militaries of the world’s major powers have been on a weapon development timeline that started in the modern era with ballistic bombs and guns and soon will progress to “prompt global strike”—the ability to launch conventional weapons remotely from tremendous range while hitting with precision and speed. Along the way, the powers developed missiles that required radar guidance all the way to impact; to missiles equipped with highly effective onboard acquisition-and-targeting radars; and now laser- and satellite-guided bombs, all with steadily increasing range and power.
Outranging the Enemy
Today’s U.S. Navy sails with weapons that do not outrange those of its two main rivals—not only antiship missiles, but also air-to-air, air-defense, and undersea weapons delivered from surface ships or aircraft. (The submarine-launched Mk 48 torpedo remains quite formidable). A warrior ideally would like weapons with a range at least 1.5 times an enemy’s equivalent. With that, he or she could sit outside the enemy’s defensive perimeter and fire with impunity.
Over the past several years, the Navy has developed all kinds of Band-Aid fixes to the range problem—substituting weapons, adding new technology to old systems, and even modifying fleet operations strategy. These workarounds are necessary to maintain the ability to win in the near term—but they should be recognized as temporary fixes, not permanent solutions.
Some explain away the maximum-range shortfall by saying that the problem will be solved with directed-energy (DE) weapons, with their supposedly bottomless magazines. But DE systems have been in the research-and-development phase for many years and do not appear close to substantial frontline deployment—and they may not have the expected ranges. Worse, some new weapons that are stuck in development already have been outpaced by what the United States’ two main adversaries have fielded or have in development. The new longer-range systems, whenever they finally arrive, also could be trumped by adversary developments in hypersonic weapons. U.S. efforts in hypersonics are substantial, but finished products remain years away from reaching the fleet.
Newer weapons languish for many reasons, not the least of which was the severely constrained defense budget environment from 2008 to 2016. Also, politically, there is more money in building new aircraft and ships to deliver weapons than in procuring the weapons themselves. An F-35 aircraft brings more money to local economies and touches more congressional districts than a new and improved air-to-air weapon; a new warship does the same. Ships and airplanes are a more tangible, visible “bang for the buck” than weapons stored in magazines or bunkers.
Make no mistake: The Navy needs the F-35 and the newest and most advanced warships to stay one or two technological steps ahead of prospective adversaries—the service should want its warriors to have the best tools possible to ensure victory with minimal own-force casualties. It needs all the capability the F-35 aircraft, Block III Arleigh Burke–class guided-missile destroyers, and Virginia-class submarines (to name a few cutting-edge platforms) bring—especially if they carry shorter range weapons that could handicap the Navy against a near peer.
Imagine, though, a Navy just a few years from now with a new air-to-air (or antiship or antisurface) missile with a maximum range at least 1.5 times anything its foes have or are in the process of building. Those air-to-air missiles could be loaded onto a Cessna 210 (if it had the systems to identify and target approaching aircraft) and fired well before a target could respond in kind. Assuming a high probability of a kill, the Cessna does not need stealth or speed; it just has to find the next target and shoot it before it can be shot at.
Obviously, the Cessna example is farfetched, but think about an adversary’s antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) network and an approaching group of warships. With a strike weapon such as an improved Tomahawk land-attack missile (TLAM) outranging the defender’s antiship missiles inside the A2/AD network, there would be no need for elaborate tactics or fifth-generation aircraft to operate inside and destroy the A2/AD threat. Those enemy weapons instead effectively would get “stiff-armed” from a safe range, and the A2/AD threat would go away with minimal-to-no risk to blue forces.
Traditional missile propellant—and the energy it provides per unit of volume—appears to be maxed out chemically. To increase range, then, weapons must get bigger, more aerodynamically efficient, or both. This leads to a problem with standard vertical-launching system (VLS) cells on ships. Existing cruisers and destroyers have fixed VLS-cell size, and current weapons (Standard Missiles, antisubmarine rockets [AsRocs], Harpoons, TLAMs, etc.) fill the space. Weapons with improved range (and eventually prompt global strike) will require bigger cells—maybe two or four standard cells could become one. The answer is uncertain, but “re-celling” the surface fleet with larger, custom-sized cells, rather than some easy multiple of what already exists, would be prohibitively expensive.
In principle, increasing range is easier to do with air-launched weapons: Increase the diameter and/or length of a missile to provide more propellant—but maybe not so easy if the result has to fit in an F-35’s weapons bay.
Maximum range is not the only factor that determines who puts a warhead on a target first. Others include target acquisition-and-identification range, time to shoot (once a contact has been identified as hostile and the rules of engagement [ROE] have been met), weapon speed of flight, and weapon vulnerability to countermeasures. Let’s consider these one at a time.
Getting Faster than the Enemy
Early target acquisition is crucial to kill the other guy first. The United States is making strides in this area by networking national intelligence assets into operations but can do more. The MQ-25 Stingray unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) can launch and recover on an aircraft carrier. It could be modified to include an active electronically scanned array radar, an electro-optical targeting suite, and an intelligence-collection suite. These would add tremendous value to the carrier strike group (CSG). Such a platform could stay airborne for 8–10 hours and not require more fuel, water, food, or head calls. Its data would be linked back to the battlespace management network (more on that below), its crucial information shared with all platforms and weapon managers. Placed between a threat sector and the CSG, perhaps 100–400 nautical miles in front of naval assets, the Stingray would amplify the range at which the CSG could react to the threat, identifying approaching targets well outside the enemy’s maximum effective range.
The ability to classify contacts at range to determine if they are hostile also is crucial. Good technical progress is being made in this area, with the range at which the Navy can positively identify contacts growing steadily, as several fleet demonstration exercises have shown. (Further discussion is outside this article’s unclassified scope.)
Speed and range work hand-in-hand to get the first warhead on target. When designing the next generation of weapons, speed must be maximized. Propellant plays a similar role here as it does in range, although some newer technologies (railguns, for instance) could overcome such limitations, at least for ship- and ground-launched weapons. Survivability against enemy countermeasures—denying, evading, or degrading his defensive systems—must also be part of new designs.
Outpunching the Enemy
Warhead capability has not seemed to get enough attention from designers in recent years. As a young A-7 Corsair II pilot, I dropped AGM-62 Walleye glide bombs with 825- and 2,000-pound warheads that employed star-shaped charges to generate jets of molten material traveling at Mach 10—talk about combat power! Today, it could take multiple Harpoon missile warheads to achieve a mission kill on a typical destroyer. The United States used to design the best weapons in the world, and the warheads were key—it should not require an entire magazine to take out one enemy asset. There are not enough magazines in the fleet!
That leads to the next point: The Navy lacks magazine depth in general. Study after study, including the National Defense Strategy Commission’s “Providing for the Common Defense,” shows the Navy has not purchased the number of weapons necessary to support its operational plans. If the nation goes to war tomorrow with a major peer competitor, every shot must count. Ramping up production lines after the shooting has started will be difficult, and most of these systems are produced by only one manufacturer. The Navy should be buying more weapons—and the right weapons—while the budget allows.
Once the Navy has the correct mix of weapons—with longer range, higher speeds of flight, and more powerful warheads—operational tactics can shift. An appropriately armed fleet can sit outside the furthest-on circle of our adversary—whether defined by the range of his land-based bombers, the DF-21D antiship ballistic missile, the closest submarine, or something else—and find and kill him first. With longer range and more capable weapons, the Navy will not need to prepare itself to lose some carrier strike groups, as it might if it engages the enemy in a decisive-engagement type of war at sea. Instead, the U.S. fleet can sit outside that the enemy’s A2/AD perimeter and punish him when he steps (or we put him) inside the Navy’s maximum range. The Navy would be free to cross his lines at times and locations of its choosing, when it is to its own operational and tactical advantage—retreating in raid-style to safety to rearm, regroup, and prepare for the next round. (See “Fight Inside an Adversary’s Weapons Engagement Zone,” Proceedings, April 2019, pp. 32–35.) Over time, the enemy’s superior numbers would be attrited with minimum U.S. casualties, until the threat rings he presents collapse back to his shoreline and the U.S. Navy achieves maritime (air, surface, and subsurface) superiority, if not supremacy.
Outfighting the Enemy
A key missing piece of this plan is a system to counter the large number of assets the enemy can put in motion at any one time. A CSG, surface action group, or fleet-sized task force will need a battlespace management system (BMS) to automate many weapon and targeting processes to enable success with a smaller force and fewer weapons. In a CSG, for example, the BMS would network all ships and aircraft (and possibly submarines) to provide a common operational picture (COP) that automatically shows and classifies all contacts. This system would take input from all platform sensors and fuse signals and electronic and national intelligence data into the COP. Contacts would be updated automatically and continuously as new information is received.
To aid decision-making, each target would display a confidence factor indicating the number of sources that provided data on the target and how old the information was. The software would prioritize targets and recommend responses based on operational geometry, ROE, the threat environment, and other factors. The system would display jamming and countermeasures and would task units to respond. If a target were determined to be hostile and an order were given to engage it, the system would decide which platform and weapon within the group would be best suited to take the highest percentage shot. If tactics call for multiple shots, the system might task different platforms to attack from different axes, compounding the enemy’s countertargeting problem. The system would follow shot doctrine; if tactics tell sailors to shoot, delay, and shoot again, it would do that, as well. Machine learning could be incorporated to tighten identification libraries, planned responses, etc.
This might seem as farfetched as the Cessna example, but the technology is getting close to making it reality. A significant problem is that each component in a future BMS system of systems currently resides in a different initiative and company. The Navy needs to develop one system that shows all the information on one screen, in real time, without operators manually punching in new data, and without regard to classification level. Tactical action officers cannot be running to the top-secret space—30 yards and a cipher lock away—to get vital information to fight the ship in the combat information center. Some of the proposed BMS work already is being done as part of the distributed maritime operations concept. Its enabler, formerly known as the naval tactical grid, now is called the naval operational architecture. It will be joint and resilient, will have common data standards, and will leverage artificial intelligence—some good developments.
Getting in Motion
China and Russia are on pace to challenge the U.S. Navy soon—the recent National Defense Strategy Commission study says it has happened already. The Navy cannot spend ten years getting new weapons and technology to sea. Upgrades and modifications to weapon systems need to be done in the next three to five years—from design to testing to fully operational status. As for filling the magazines and bunkers, the Navy should build enough weapons for a magazine depth at least 1.25 times the number required by operational planning. It must build additional shots for training, as well.
Imagine the power that would come from marrying longer, faster, and more powerful weapons with the Navy’s cutting-edge aircraft, ships, and submarines, all controlled by a BMS that connects them for optimum performance. It truly would be transformational. The recently released presidential budget requests funding for some of the issues advocated for in this essay—a good start. It is imperative that Congress fund the Navy (and all the armed services) at a level sufficient to regain lost readiness, modernize, and procure sufficient numbers of platforms and weapons.