February 1, 2009  

Strike now

Next Generation Long Range Strike system provides strategic options

Following the Defense Department’s decision in 2006 to accelerate the Next Generation Long Range Strike (NGLRS) system, design and development is poised to begin. Given the current budgetary conditions, however, a robust debate is emerging on the necessity of following through on that decision. Still, any decision must be weighed more against the future security environment of 2020 and beyond and less on the current geopolitical climate and fiscal constraints. When looking to the future, two unsettling trends are clear.

First, China and Russia are developing a range of advanced weapons that could neutralize U.S. air and maritime power projection forces. For one, China has articulated its “Assassin’s Mace” concept, which envisions striking nearby U.S. bases and naval force elements with ballistic/cruise missiles, defending its homeland with advanced surface-to-air (SAM) systems and fighter aircraft, and disrupting U.S. command-and-control systems. Russia’s concentration of forces on the border of Eastern Europe means that to deter threats, U.S. and coalition combat forces would need to be deployed to new operating locations on the Russian periphery, which would incur enormous costs as well as prompt a fractious political debate in the U.S. Both of these global powers are nations with significant geographic areas — a reality that restricts U.S. options to exerting influence anywhere but at the periphery of those nations unless survivable long-range strike options are available. Fielding NGLRS offers a broad range of options for the U.S. and dilemmas for those nations.

Second, smaller powers such as North Korea and Iran have seen U.S. conventional power in action and concluded that they, too, should field similar denial systems. These regional states may not have the resources to deploy the same quantity of air defense, ballistic missile or maritime forces, but they can be expected nonetheless to field a mixture that would challenge U.S. capabilities. When matched with even rudimentary investments in nuclear weapons, these nations can present a political and nuclear barrier unseen in previous U.S. military campaigns.

Against this backdrop, force planners are reviewing the recent Defense Department decisions on long-range strike systems. In 2001, the Pentagon decided not to procure additional B-2 bombers, but five years later, announced it would accelerate fielding the next-generation bomber from 2037 to 2018. Debate has now erupted on whether the U.S. should delay or reconsider that decision.

Rarely has the Defense Department had the opportunity it has now to shape future capabilities for theater commanders and the National Command Authority with the decision whether to pursue the NGLRS. If pursued, commanders will have a robust, synergistic and high-value weapon system that leverages the joint team. Future presidents will gain a strategic tool that imposes costs on adversaries throughout the spectrum of conflict. If not pursued, future political and military leaders will face shrinking options in the face of disruptive threats that negate the U.S.’ competitive advantages. Finally, while theater conflict has dominated defense planners’ attention since 1991, the long-term value of a strategic system such as NGLRS should not be ignored — especially during a time when uncertainty defines that environment.

For perspective, consider the situation after Russia invaded Georgia in August. Had the president sought to respond quickly with military options, the U.S. was impotent. The only force element that could have attacked quickly with any chance of success — the low observable B-2 fleet — represents less than half of 1 percent of U.S. combat air forces. The B-2s perhaps could have been supplemented by carrier aviation supported by extensive aerial refueling. The small survivable bomber force means that the U.S. could have made a statement, but not executed a militarily significant campaign to neutralize Russian aggression or deterred an expansion of the conflict. With only 16 operational aircraft, the B-2 inventory could have sustained one or two missions per day, striking 80 to 160 targets each day.

If the U.S. delays procurement of the NGLRS, future presidents’ power projection capabilities will continue to be eroded over the next two decades. The current military strategic construct relies on close basing (land and sea) for generating a high sortie rate with fighter aircraft, using advanced precise weapons employment — in air-to-air and air-to-ground missions — and limited low-observable aircraft that provide survivability to neutralize a select few high-threat targets.

The case for proceeding with NGLRS now is evident by looking past the current military threat to forecast forces and capabilities being fielded over the next two decades. The foremost challenge facing future military commanders will be the proliferation of advanced offensive and defensive weapon systems.

Many nations are fielding ballistic and cruise missiles capable of striking targets as far as 2,000 miles from their firing locations. When armed with conventional munitions and guided by space-based precision navigation timing systems, long-range offensive missiles can eliminate a forward U.S. or coalition base. Future versions could also put ships at risk. When armed with nuclear or biological weapons, hostile nations can hold U.S. allies hostage to the weapons of mass destruction risk, which has implications for access to regional bases. More than 30 nations possess ballistic missiles capable of ranging more than 1,000 miles. In addition, there are more than 75,000 cruise missiles worldwide, representing a threat to U.S. sea- or land-based airpower. Force planners must anticipate that a future adversary leader will not allow U.S. forces to build up on their border as former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic or former Iraq president Saddam Hussein allowed the U.S.-led coalition to do over the past 15 years. As a result, U.S. forces will be pushed back to ranges that severely restrict their ability to provide meaningful support using short-range aircraft.

New air defense threats

Advanced air defense systems will impose severe loss rates on aircraft without low-observable features. Emerging systems, such as the SA-10/S-300 and SA-20/S-400 phased array, sophisticated surface-to-air missile systems, can engage legacy aircraft at ranges of 100 to 250 miles — 10 times farther than the SA-2, SA-3 and SA-6 systems U.S. aircrews neutralized over Iraq and Serbia. With the ability to fire at more than 30 targets simultaneously and equipped with a high-speed and highly maneuverable missile, these new air defense systems will place legacy fighter, bomber and C2ISR aircraft at risk. Designed, manufactured and deployed initially in Russia, 14 other nations have bought the SA-10/S-300 with an additional four nations, including Venezuela and Indonesia, seeking it. Within the next decade, an equal number of nations can be expected to pursue the more advanced version from Russia. At the same time, China and other nations will replicate this technology — aggravating the proliferation of this threat.

Equally important is the fielding of sophisticated fourth- and fifth-generation fighter aircraft to augment the radar missile defense networks. Today, the SU-35 Flanker can challenge the U.S. air dominance provided by F-15s. Within the next 10 to 15 years, a more advanced Flanker will be fielded in large numbers by Russia and China plus in lesser numbers with regional states — Iran, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela — seeking to challenge U.S. geopolitical ascendancy. Equipped with advanced electronically scanned radars and high-speed missiles, these fighters will engage conventional and stealth aircraft in large numbers. When employed en masse, an adversary can deny U.S. air dominance by placing more aircraft in the airspace than the F-22 can employ missiles against them.

In the past, U.S. forces confronted adversaries employing second-tier air defenses compared to the more capable U.S. aircraft. Air Force F-15s did confront aircraft with near parity, such as the MiG-29 Fulcrum, but Iraq and Serbia operated only a few of these aircraft. Over the next 20 years, however, future foes will field systems on par with U.S. technology, such as Russia’s PAK-FA or China’s J-XX stealth fighters, and in greater numbers with inventories of 100 or more advanced aircraft. Qualitatively and quantitatively, these air defenses will create a barrier to U.S. flight operations in or near an adversary’s airspace.

If pursing the NGLRS is not done today, what assets will future commanders have to overcome these barriers by 2020? The Air Force will have 1,430 combat-coded fighter and bomber aircraft, while the Navy will field about 550 combat-coded F/A-18s and F-35s. Of those, only 36 B-1s, 16 B-2s and 32 B-52s will reach past 750 miles without requiring aerial refueling. Of those, only the B-2s will have the capability to operate at lower risk in the high-threat air defense environment. At best, the B-2 fleet could sustain four missions per day, giving future commanders the ability to strike 320 tactical-size targets daily. While the Air Force will have 776 low-observable F-22s and F-35s, these aircraft will require a significant number of air refueling sorties, which an adversary will recognize as a vulnerability. A surge in Flanker sorties, reaching out 1,000 miles from the coast or border, could overwhelm the F-22 capability and, at a minimum, chase the support aircraft out of their orbit locations. When an F-22 operates more than 750 miles from its bases, taking out its aerial refueling aircraft is just as effective as shooting down the F-22.

The NGLRS can also serve as a node in the joint team’s C2ISR architecture — collecting, disseminating and relaying vital, time-critical data throughout the battlespace. Thus, a single NGLRS will have a payload of versatile capabilities — effects that range from lethal to nonlethal, kinetic to nonkinetic.

In addition, the NGLRS fleet will provide capacity to the joint force. Air Force leaders expressed the intent to field 80 operational next-generation bombers — a fourfold increase in the number of long-range, survivable aircraft. If measured in terms of 2,000-pound precision weapons, the NGLRS’ lethal payload will ensure future commanders have the capacity to strike 1,376 targets at extended ranges — up from the 256 targets the 16 operational B-2s could strike now. Thus, in terms of capability and capacity, the NGLRS will enhance theater commanders’ campaigns when they must confront a nation that has added advanced air defense weapons to their inventory.

Beyond benefiting the combatant commanders, the NGLRS will provide strategic options as a survivable, flexible aircraft that will enable the U.S. to project power anywhere in the world within hours. While U.S. force planners may anticipate the U.S. decision to pursue NGLRS will resonate with nations such as China or Russia, all other potential rivals will also be cognizant of America’s plan. Thus, the U.S. commitment to NGLRS will force a wide variety of potential hostile states to divert scarce funds to defense or acquiesce to U.S. aerospace capabilities. NGLRS will provide significant global leverage and influence.

The geographic distribution of potential future threats increases that leverage. The rising cost of systems and personnel indicates that the overall U.S. force posture will contract. American strategy has been to maintain a two-theater capability to deter threats if our forces are committed to a theater, but this will be increasingly difficult as the force posture contracts. Accordingly, the NGLRS could act as a strategic hedge — deterring adversary action in one theater if the main U.S. force is committed to another.

The decision to pursue NGLRS must be made based on its strategic importance and not on tactical maneuvering to balance the budget. What could be a higher modernization priority than increasing America’s future long-range striking power?

Michael Isherwood is a senior analyst at the Northrop Grumman Analysis Center.