I've been reading many articles in recent months concerning new or expanded threats confronting military forces and technological upgrades to counter them. However, I fear that a growing number of commentators are missing the point. Technology has expanded to the point where threats are asymmetrical; where even a relatively minor player on the world stage can take out a strike force, or a major asset such as an aircraft carrier, with relatively minor difficulty.
Consider these examples.
- The USAF's Predator unmanned aerial vehicle has a maximum speed of 135 mph and a range (excluding loiter time) of up to 775 miles. It has a payload (fuel, weapons and sensors) of just over 1,100 pounds, and cost about US $4 million a pop in 2010. The new Cub Crafters XCub, a carbon-fiber modernized version of the venerable Piper Cub with greatly upgraded capabilities, has a maximum speed of 153 mph, , a maximum range (at economical speeds) of 800 miles or more, and a maximum useful load of 1,084 pounds - and even with a relatively 'luxurious' leather and carbon-fiber interior, it costs less than $300,000. I'd imagine any halfway competent aeronautical engineer and computer whizkid could add pilotless operation to it relatively cheaply and easily - the technology to do so is now over-the-counter stuff. For a total expenditure of $200,000 or so, they could also add a surveillance system (in a retractable turret), a satellite communications system, and either weapon hard points under the wings, and/or a means of launching small weapons from the load compartment. That means one could field up to ten pilotless XCubs or equivalent aircraft for the cost of a single Predator. Obviously, the latter is purpose-designed for its surveillance mission, and is therefore likely to be much more capable at it . . . but just how capable does it have to be? The USAF needs four Predators to maintain what it classifies as a single 'unmanned aerial system', sufficient to keep an aircraft continuously on station over a surveillance or target area. A third world nation could have up to 40 light aircraft equivalents to the Predator for roughly the same cost. Which fleet will be more cost-effective and mission-capable in a typical engagement - say, in the next Iraq or Afghanistan conflict? Think about it.
- A modern main battle tank such as the US Army's M1A2SEP costs about $10 million each. Modern anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM's), such as Russia's 9M133 Kornet, Israel's Spike or the latest versions of South Africa's ZT3 Ingwe, can be bought for under a quarter of a million dollars each in quantity. An adversary can buy up to 40 such missiles for the cost of a single main battle tank . . . and no tank in the world, no matter how well equipped with defensive systems, can withstand a barrage of (say) half a dozen ATGM's like that. The cost-per-kill equation has shifted in favor of the defender.
- The same consideration applies to naval vessels. Anti-ship missiles have come a long way since the Soviet Styx missiles that sank Israel's destroyer Eilat in 1967, or the Exocet missiles that sank British ships during the Falklands War in 1982. To take just one example, China's YJ-83 (known as the C-802 in its export version) costs less than $1 million apiece, and is very capable (as Israel found out when its corvette Hanit was struck by one off Lebanon in 2006). It's available in ship-, air- and land-based versions. With a range of 80-120 miles, depending on the version, this missile could force naval vessels to keep their distance from its launchers. This would protect shore bases, navigation choke points such as straits and channels, etc. Even if the vessels have the latest anti-missile defenses, they would be swamped by a barrage of several dozen such missiles, some of which would be sure to strike home. Even if they didn't sink the ships, they'd almost certainly do sufficient damage to prevent them achieving their objectives - a 'mission kill'. Let's be extravagant and say that 100 missiles would be needed. That's a total cost of $100 million or thereabouts - but they could damage an aircraft carrier battle group (costing well over $20 billion) sufficiently to force it to abandon its mission. Even if the battle group could defeat such a threat, it would arise again the next day, and the next, and the next. Eventually, the defense would be worn down.
It's no longer good enough to argue that we need a '300-ship navy' or a '2,000-plane air force' or anything along those lines. The question should be, "What will be survivable (let alone operationally effective) in the face of the massed threats posed by the proliferation of technology?"
I think that watching Israel's changing force structure offers a very interesting perspective on the problem. Israel is emphasizing not one, but many solutions to the problem. It's employing technology to defend against barrage attacks, even down to anti-missile protective systems on its tanks and armored personnel carriers. Even without stealth technology (yet), its Air Force is employing electronic counter-measures to fool enemy air defenses and allow its planes to strike enemy installations (for example, see Operation Orchard in 2007). It's currently preparing to stand up its first F-35 squadron, which will introduce stealth technology for the first time. The IAF is also using large numbers of unmanned aerial vehicles. Their operations are highly classified, but they're almost certainly being used for reconnaissance in areas where the threat to manned aircraft would be too great, and possibly also to deploy electronic counter-measures to allow manned aircraft to get through heavily defended areas.
Israel also appears to be modifying its tactics and systems to take account of the increased threat from guided weapons. Its land units no longer bull into an assault, but soften up the target area first, seeking to make the enemy expend his 'smart' munitions before its forces get into range. Its aircraft operate under the protection of electronic warfare systems, sometimes on their own airframes, sometimes provided by dedicated support aircraft or land-based systems. Furthermore, UAV's such as its Harpy and Harop systems actively target enemy surveillance and defensive systems. Israel's Navy is fairly small, but has increasingly onerous responsibilities, including the defense of natural gas platforms in the Mediterranean Sea, which will be vulnerable to 'barrage' attacks from anti-ship missiles. Details of measures and systems to protect these platforms are highly classified, but I'd expect them to include a wide range of electronic counter-measures as well as active defenses of some sort. I also expect the defenses to include pre-emptive attacks against potential bases from which 'barrage' attacks could be launched (e.g. Hezbollah bases in Lebanon, Hamas bases in Gaza, etc.).
This is where I think the institutional thinking of the US armed forces is lagging behind. For example, in naval terms, I'm seeing lots of debate over whether or not the Littoral Combat Ship was/is/will be worthwhile (personally, I think not), how many aircraft carriers should be fielded, and whether or not to order more F/A-18's. I see much less debate (at least in public) over whether 'barrage' attacks from missiles (particularly higher-technology ones such as we're likely to face in the hands of sophisticated opponents) mean that naval vessels will simply not be able to survive at any meaningful distance from a combat zone. If aircraft carrier battle groups are forced to remain 500 miles or more from a combat zone to evade such a threat, their air wings will be too far away to intervene . . . effectively, a 'mission kill' in all but name. The Navy's investing a lot of money to develop defensive laser weapons and extended-range attack weapons, but will this be enough to defeat the ever-increasing threat? How long does it take a defensive laser to shoot down an incoming missile, re-target onto the next missile, and destroy it? If it takes 3-5 seconds per missile (a very optimistic estimate), but there are 50 incoming weapons, that means more than half of them will make it from the horizon to the target before they can be shot down. That's not a happy thought for those on board the ship.
I don't want to single out the US Navy for criticism. The Army and Air Force have plenty to answer for as well. I suspect there's too much focus on building better, faster, more capable weapons systems, without considering whether the threat environment in which those systems will have to operate will allow them to accomplish the mission for which they're designed. There's too much focus on building all sorts of 'gee-whiz' capabilities into each platform, without asking whether those capabilities will be destroyed by a barrage of cheap missiles that overwhelm them.
Food for thought.