By Jon Dougherty
The United States spends around $700 billion a year on its military but following a series of wargames over the past couple of years, “blue” forces continue to lose and lose big to simulated war with great powers like Russia and China.
Massive aircraft carriers are modern naval wonders but they’re also massive targets for increasingly accurate precision-guided missiles. The F-22 and F-35 dominate the air when they’re in the air, but they keep getting blown up on the ground. Also, the large air bases where they are stationed often go up in smoke as well, giving them nowhere to land. And while the Navy and Air Force have vulnerable, high-dollar systems that are constantly being destroyed during these games, the Army doesn’t fare much better.
“In our games, when we fight Russia and China, blue gets its ass handed to it,” RAND analyst David Ochmanek said last week, as reported by Breaking Defense.
He notes that in scenario after scenario, American forces suffer heavy losses — especially to expensive, legacy systems — while still being unable to prevent “red” forces (China and Russia) from achieving their strategic objectives.
That’s a problem, say RAND and Pentagon planners, not just because there would be massive loss of American life: If the United States’ ‘Achilles heel’ was exposed — that our large carriers, large bases, and whiz-bang weapons were unable to stop a near-peer adversary — our alliances around the world would also collapse, meaning global war would become far more likely, not less.
“In every case I know of,” said Robert Work, a former deputy secretary of defense with decades of wargaming experience, “the F-35 rules the sky when it’s in the sky, but it gets killed on the ground in large numbers.
Breaking Defense added:
Even the hottest jet has to land somewhere. But big airbases on land and big aircraft carriers on the water turn out to be big targets for long-range precision-guided missiles. Once an American monopoly, such smart weapons are now a rapidly growing part of Russian and Chinese arsenals — as are the long-range sensors, communications networks, and command systems required to aim them.
As potential enemies improve their systems, Ochmanek said, “things that rely on sophisticated base infrastructure like runways and fuel tanks are going to have a hard time. Things that sail on the surface of the sea are going to have a hard time.”
That’s a primary reason why the Navy is pushing to retire the aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman decades early — around 2024, rather than spend billions for a mid-life refurbishment and refueling of its nuclear reactors. It’s also why, in the 2020 budget, the Marine Corps wants to buy the ‘jump jet’ version of the F-35, because it can take off and land at very small, ad hoc airfields. That said, it’s not going to be easy to maintain a high-end, high-tech plane in low-tech environments.
As for the Army, its massive supply bases are also ‘destroyed’ during the Pentagon-sponsored wargames. Also, its tank formations are shot up by precision cruise missiles, drones, and enemy helicopters — a result of the Army ridding itself over the past several years of mobile anti-aircraft troops, which the service is scrambling to rectify. In addition, Army air defense units are often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of incoming missiles.
“If we went to war in Europe, there would be one Patriot battery moving, and it would go to Ramstein. And that’s it,” Work said, according to Breaking Defense. “We have 58 Brigade Combat Teams, but we don’t have anything to protect our bases. so what difference does it make?”
It’s not just air, sea, and ground systems that take huge hits, Work and Ochmanek said. Near-peer adversaries would also launch cyber attacks against military satellites, infrastructure, and wireless networks. Enemy electronic warfare units would ensure our command-and-control systems were “suppressed, if not shattered,” said Ochmanek.
“Whenever we have an exercise and the red force really destroys our command and control, we stop the exercise,” Work added, instead of trying to figure out how to keep fighting when the command post gives blue forces nothing but blank screens and radio static.
No one learns anything that way, he said.
The Chinese call the tactic “system destruction warfare,” Work noted: They plan to “attack the American battle network at all levels, relentlessly, and they practice it all the time.”
Work and Ochmanek said that RAND has come up with a $24 billion fix — just 3.3 percent of current annual Pentagon expenditures — for each of the next five years. It’s a broad-stroke approach, but it would get the U.S. military on the path toward adapting to 21st-century warfare that’s changing quickly thanks to the speed, precision, and electronic capabilities of emerging weapons systems.
Breaking Defense noted:
So what does $24 billion buy?
To start with, missiles. Lots and lots of missiles. The US and its allies notoriously keep underestimating how many smart weapons they’ll need for a shooting war, then start to run out against enemies as weak as the Serbs or Libyans. Against a Russia or China, which can match not only our technology but our mass, you run out of munitions fast.
Specifically, you want lots of long-range offensive missiles. Ochmanek mentioned Army artillery brigades, which use MLRS missile launchers, and the Air Force’s JAGM-ER smart bomb, while Work touted the Navy’s LRASM ship-killer. You also want lots of defensive missiles to shoot down the enemy‘s offensive missiles, aircraft, and drones. One short-term fix there is the Army’s new Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense (MSHORAD) batteries, Stinger missiles mounted on 8×8 Stryker armored vehicles. In the longer term, lasers, railguns, and high-powered microwaves could shoot down incoming missiles much less expensively.
The other big fix: toughening up our command, control, and communications networks. That includes everything from jam-proof datalinks to electronic warfare gear on combat aircraft and warships. The services are fond of cutting corners on electronics to get as many planes in the air and hulls in the water as possible, Ochmanek said, but a multi-billion dollar ship that dies for lack of a million-dollar decoy is a lousy return on investment.
For the long haul, the Pentagon must invest in artificial intelligence (AI), a field in which the Chinese have already put a lot off resources. In January, the Washington Times‘ national security reporter Bill Gertz noted:
The PLA Daily reported Jan. 19 that warfare is shifting from conventional destruction to artificial-intelligence-powered high-speed and extreme destruction operations.
Li Minghai of the PLA’s National Defense University wrote that AI will be a key “war-winning mechanism” for China.
“Through gunpowder smoke in war, we can perceive that today, war fighting has evolved from bloody struggle for storming castles and capturing territories in the uncivilized and barbaric age into information-driven precision decapitation operations and intense contests in the domain of high intelligence,” Li stated.
The military expert said China plans to win wars by shifting the emphasis in war fighting from “systems confrontation” to “algorithms competition” and that gaining superiority in algorithms ultimately will produce “war-fighting superiority.”
“In future warfare, the force that enjoys algorithm superiority will be able to rapidly and accurately predict the development of the battlefield situation, thus coming up with the best combat-fighting methods and achieving the war objective of ‘prevailing before battle starts,’” Li added.
The Russians are also keenly aware of the advantages of mastering AI. In September 2017 during a speech to Russian schoolchildren, President Vladimir Putin said, “Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia but for all humankind,” reports RT. “It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”
- Follow Jon Dougherty on Twitter at @JonDougherty10