The Pentagon’s fixation on long-range strikes is shortsighted
If the experience of the past five years means anything, it is that the Long War for the greater Middle East is most likely to be fought at close range, whether the mission is combat, counterinsurgency, stability operations, “peacekeeping” or working to build capacity of allied forces. Why, then, are we transfixed by the capabilities for long-range strikes?
Indeed, the enthusiasm for strike warfare of ever-greater range and precision originated in the dying days of the Cold War. Theorists in the Soviet Union wrote in detail about “reconnaissance-strike complexes”; the Red Army had always regarded artillery as the “god of war.” More practically, the U.S. had successes with the Multiple Launch Rocket System and the Army Tactical Missile System, linked to the Joint Surveillance and Targeting Airborne Reconnaissance System, the Joint STARS. The idea of striking the Soviet hordes at a distance, before they overwhelmed the NATO front lines, had a strong appeal.
But when the Soviet Union collapsed, the air likewise came out of the long-range-strike bubble. The Pentagon’s 1990 major aircraft review, during Vice President Dick Cheney’s tenure as defense secretary, cut the planned buy of 132 B-2 bombers — the plane was conceived entirely as a penetrating nuclear bomber — to 75. Two years later, President George H.W. Bush announced the termination of the program at 20 aircraft, and the Air Force disbanded Strategic Air Command. And the experience of Operation Desert Storm, in which swarms of tactical aircraft armed with precision-guided weapons were believed to be decisive, marked the nadir for long-range-strike enthusiasts.
Yet congressional and industrial concerns centered on the B-2 program; the loss of 85 percent of the planned program buy was devastating to a variety of companies and particularly to the California industry. The rear-guard action wasn’t over until 1999, when the Air Force’s “Bomber Road Map” acknowledged the value of long-range attack aircraft but allowed that it couldn’t manage to produce a new one until 2037.
Yet the worm was already turning: At the same time as the Pentagon was producing its bomber plan, NATO was winning — albeit slowly — its “no ground force” war over Kosovo. After 78 days of airstrikes, prominently featuring a tiny B-2 and F-117 fleet that delivered the new satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), Serbian and Yugoslav forces had withdrawn from Kosovo. Even though they were flying painfully long sorties from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, the B-2s were judged, by dropping about 650 JDAMs in 45 missions, “to have damaged a higher percentage of targets than any other aircraft participating in combat operations.”
Coming into office, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his lieutenants in senior Pentagon positions were already advocates for improving long-range-strike capabilities. These ideas were expressed forcefully in the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), both as an opportunity and as an emerging danger. There was an opportunity, for example, to retrofit Trident ballistic-missile submarines as “arsenal ships” to provide a stealthy platform for hundreds of conventional cruise missiles capable of pinpoint strikes a thousand miles from the target. And it was an especially good thing that U.S. long-range-strike capabilities could be developed, because the review also concluded that gaining access to crucial spots in times of crisis or conflict was a growing challenge. One of the QDR’s top “operational goals” for its project of force transformation was “projecting and sustaining U.S. forces in distant anti-access or area-denial environments and defeating anti-access and area-denial threats.” That is, the Pentagon assumed that enemies faced with American power projection forces would strive to keep them from establishing a toehold in the theater, within range. Driven by concerns over China or a nuclear-armed Iran, the QDR continued:
“Future adversaries could have the means to render ineffective much of our current ability to project military power overseas. Saturation attacks with ballistic and cruise missiles could deny or delay U.S. military access to overseas bases, airfields and ports. Advanced air defense systems could deny access to hostile airspace to all but low-observable aircraft. … Anti-ship cruise missiles, advanced diesel submarines and advanced mines could threaten the ability of U.S. naval and amphibious forces to operate in littoral waters. New approaches for projecting power must be developed to meet these threats.
“Adversaries will also likely seek to exploit strategic depth to their advantage. Mobile ballistic missile systems can be launched from extended range, exacerbating the anti-access and area-denial challenges. Space denial capabilities, such as ground-based lasers, can be located deep within an adversary’s territory. Accordingly, a key objective of transformation is to develop the means to deny sanctuary to potential adversaries. This will likely require the development and acquisition of robust capabilities to conduct persistent surveillance, precision strike and maneuver at varying depths within denied areas.”
The initial invasion of Afghanistan appeared to validate this view. In addition to B-2s, older B-52Hs and B-1Bs had been upgraded to permit them to drop JDAMs, and indeed, in the “permissive” air defense environment at high altitudes above the Afghan battlefield, these larger aircraft acted, as Barry Watts of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments put it, as “roving linebackers” providing highly accurate fire support to small units, including special operations forces working with Afghan militias. On-call American long-range strike power put heart in indigenous formations and gutted Taliban units whenever they massed to defend. By November 2001 — just two months after the Sept. 11 attacks — Pentagon acquisition chief E.C. “Pete” Aldridge told the Air Force to speed up its development of a long-range strike platform (either a manned bomber or an unmanned aerial vehicle), with a goal of establishing a formal program in the 2012 time frame, well before the date anticipated in the Bomber Road Map.
Similar tactics were applied in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Although the ground invasion force was much larger and heavier than in Afghanistan, dashing to Baghdad with less than four full divisions of soldiers and Marines would not have been possible but for fire support from aircraft. Although the bulk of the strike missions involved tactical aircraft, from the beginning of the “shock and awe” campaign against Baghdad to the strikes targeted at Saddam Hussein’s suspected hideouts, long-range bombers carrying a variety of JDAM payloads were often the keystones of the air campaign.
Operation Iraqi Freedom also seemed to underscore the difficulties of access, even from allies. Turkey famously denied the 4th Infantry Division the ability to open a northern front by driving through Kurdistan toward Baghdad. And Saudi Arabia denied the use of Prince Sultan Air Base for strike operations during the invasion.
Nor is there any doubt that precision air power continues to play an important role in the ongoing counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as the wars have dragged on, the burden has been borne primarily by short-range fighter-bombers. In set-piece battles such as Fallujah or even in day-to-day operations, heavy loads of weaponry aren’t so desperately needed, nor, in a benign air defense environment that permits nearby tanker operations, is range or time on station so crucial.
In short, the primary fight in the Long War is the struggle for the future of the Arab heartland, as indicated by Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy and chief al-Qaida strategist; the region has long been the wellspring for Salafist radicals, the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has decisively “gained access,” coming ashore to stay in the way it did in Normandy in 1944. We haven’t left Europe since and won’t — unless defeated — leave the Middle East anytime soon.
But the 2006 QDR seems caught in a time-warp where access and distance are still the most pressing problems. To be sure, when considering military operations in the Western Pacific or inland Asia, the need for range remains constant. The Pentagon still wishes to think of the Long War as a glorified global manhunt, a special-operations-style raid on steroids, rather than a grinding constabulary campaign of winning hearts and minds — and shooting it out with the bad guys — at intimate distances. The strike that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a spectacular diversion from the core mission of the war.
It is still necessary to “deny sanctuary to prospective adversaries” and hold at risk” those “emergent” and “fleeting” targets” in “anti-access environments” at “great strategic depth,” but it’s not a sufficient way to win the Long War. And overlooked in the mania for long-range strike has been the need to find the targets in the first place; you can’t hit what you don’t see. A dollar spent on persistent, long-duration surveillance by unmanned vehicles is a better investment than a new bomber fleet.