Therefore, while adversary nations rapidly field technologies that could make our traditional approach to air dominance impossible, our services are scrambling to develop a sixth-generation jet fighter and Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B, or B-21 Raider), doubling down on the attributes and capabilities of the previous models. Envisioned to replace our existing air platforms, we’re reliably informed that these prospective aircraft feature designs with improved strike, enhanced sensing, and stealth capabilities that will continue to allow us to conduct operations inside contested airspace. These systems are likely to be expensive, and we cannot expect to see them fielded in the next decade. Will our adversaries be as slow?
For its part, the U.S. Navy recognizes the danger posed by swarms of cheap anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), a proliferating threat which current defense systems will have difficulty handling at scale. In 2016, the destroyer USS Mason successfully used the Standard Missile 2 (SM-2) and Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) to counter two incoming ASCMs fired by Houthi rebels off the coast of Yemen. At a cost of $3 million per SM-2 and $1 million per ESSM, we see how an adversary can asymmetrically impose cost on U.S. forces. The Houthi missiles – likely Chinese C-802 variants – have been estimated to set back their owners no more than $500,000 each. Michael Armstrong, writing in The National Interest in 2017, noted, “Mason’s attackers fired ASCMs one or two at a time. Countries employing anti-access area-denial strategies could have aircraft, ships, submarines, and/or coastal batteries firing them in dozens.” What then?
Our deliberate, methodical, work-until-you-meet-the-letter-of-the-specification approach to solutions fails to accommodate the real, fundamental challenges in each domain. The existing culture and approach in the Department of Defense (DOD) and its performer base is partial to developing capabilities that are evolutionary extensions of known warfighting constructs and that rely primarily on monolithic high-value assets such as aircraft carriers or exquisite satellites. These assets are expensive to design, develop, field, and sustain and are ultimately vulnerable to emerging sophisticated countermeasures.
The Air Force and Navy are facing a slew of challenges arising from emerging and unprecedented threats in the air and at sea. The proliferation of anti-ship ballistic missiles, long-range strike capabilities, ubiquitous ISR, and integrated air defense systems have threatened our ability to reliably dominate the sea and airspace domains.
Improving naval vessel terminal-defense systems to cope with increasingly lethal threats is an approach with significant shortcomings: These defenses will almost certainly be effective only in the short term until our adversaries develop faster, more maneuverable, and more commoditized weapons. Our responses – repeated iterations on existing defense systems – are costly to develop and take up precious space on maritime assets that might otherwise be allocated to offense.
The aircraft carrier was a disruptive force in the early 20th century precisely because it hosted a disaggregated threat (its air wing) deadly to the capital ships and tactics of the period. The 90 aircraft carried aboard the World War II-era USS Enterprise (CV 6, “Big E”) were the analog of today’s cheap, launch-by-the-dozens cruise missile. Over the course of the Pacific War, the Enterprise “sank 71 ships and damaged or destroyed 192 more,” a formidable record of accomplishment. By contrast, Japan’s two Yamato-class battleships, both commissioned soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, were the heaviest and arguably the most powerful dreadnoughts ever built – but were essentially footnotes in a naval campaign that had left their class of vessel behind. One, the Musashi, was sunk at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944 by aircraft from multiple American carriers, including the Enterprise; the other, the Yamato, went down in the East China Sea in April 1945, on its way to defend Okinawa against invasion. Ironically, the Japanese plan called for the battleship to beach itself on the island and for its crew to fight until the vessel was destroyed. This was the best use that could be made of the Yamato once its effectiveness was blunted by the carrier’s air wing.
Note that a third battleship in the class, Shinano, was converted to an aircraft carrier while under construction. It was sunk in 1944, on its way to finish its conversion, carrying no aircraft. Almost 4,500 crewmembers were lost in these three sinkings.