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Countering China: Hypersonic Missiles, Sensors, Stealth, & Speed

Posted by Robbin Laird on

We have heard much about the anti-access/area denial threat China poses to American and allied forces in the Pacific. We have read much about new Chinese missiles such as the DF-21, which supposedly can destroy maneuvering ships at sea — especially US aircraft carriers. We have read that Pacific allies wish to deploy substantial fleets of F-35s, and then critics decide that these “short range” assets can not meet the crucial needs of warfighting in the Pacific.

We have also learned in the press that core competencies like amphibious assault have now become virtually impossible because of the A2/AD capabilities of China. What is lost in all of this hyperbole is what the United States and its allies are doing to shape a new combat capability appropriate to the 21st century. It may be true that a linear airpower force would find it difficult to cope with such threats. One deploying what we call S-cubed evolution capabilities — sensors, stealth, and speed — can create a powerful distributed force in the Pacific, one that so complicates Chinese military planning as to greatly enhance US deterrence.

At the heart of getting the policy agenda right is to understand that warfare is highly interactive. Buying, building, and deploying yesterday’s technologies against evolving threats is the right way of being on the wrong side of the outcome.

As Maj. Gen. Robert Walsh, deputy commander of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, put it succinctly in a recent presentation: “Some say that the development of modern anti-access, area denial threats make an amphibious assault impossible. That has been said before and it was not true then and it is not true now. The challenge is to leverage the asymmetric advantages we have in functions like ISR, precision-first, and seabasing. The challenge is to use the sea as a maneuver space in the context of the modern threat. We don’t need to give up on the capability. We need to think our way through the challenge.”

This is especially true because persistent presence is fundamental to the kind of alliance and partner relationships necessary for 21st century Pacific operations. What Walsh was hinting at is what we would call the S-cubed evolution or revolution of capabilities.

A deployed fleet of F-35s – allied and American – in the Pacific lay down a strong stealth and sensor-enabled honeycomb of deployed kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities. The F-35 has been built to be a fleet, not a single silver bullet. As Lt. General Robert Schmidle, the Marines’ deputy commandant for aviation, commented recently, speaking of the flexibility and coverage which F-35Bs can bring to a theater like the Pacific: “I think that we’re going to find ourselves in a situation where we, the Marine Corps, are going to be able to offer much more to the joint force in terms of capability… The Air Force Commander will look at USMC or USN F-35s as part of his F-35 fleet from the perspective of the joint fight.”

Other sensor capabilities will be provided by robotic capabilities under the sea, on the sea and in the air. The concept of a wolf pack of robotic elements outside of the fleet and inside the planes themselves will create a stealth-sensors dynamic as a solid foundation for the weapons revolution.

We are currently putting third- and fourth-generation weapons on fifth-generation aircraft. This makes little sense. With a plane that can see significantly further than the weapons it carries can engage, the capabilities of the F-35 are being limited by the past, rather than enabling a new strike enterprise future.

The core capability which we wish to highlight here is the third S – speed – in offboarding of weapons. Offloading of weapons will be a fundamental opportunity posed by fifth generation aircraft. Before his departure, former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz spoke of F-22s training to guide Tomahawk missiles fired from surface ships to their targets. The US tested an F-22 retargeting a Tomahawk cruise missile that was launched from a submarine last year: This is an example of how we are moving closer to this joint pre-integration under the Air-Sea Battle concept.

But all that is just a hint of things to come. The F-35 has a 360-degree situational awareness and data delivery capability. This offers the possibility of leveraging the 360-degree space to guide weapons to their targets. Target acquisition does not have to be limited to weapons carried on board. This means that classic distinctions between tactical fighters doing close air support or air superiority missions or air defense missions become blurred. The fleet as a whole identifies targets for the various mission sets and can guide weapons from any of its elements to a diversity of targets. The reach of the fleet is the key to the operation of the fleet, not the range of individual aircraft.

Mark Lewis, former Chief Scientist of the Air Force and now head of the Science and Technology Policy Institute at the Institute for Defense Analyses, is one of the world’s leading experts in hypersonics, the science of flying more than five times the speed of sound. Lewis thinks that a Mach 5+ cruise missile is the low-hanging fruit of the hypersonics revolution. In considering the impact of hypersonic missiles carrying new kinds of warheads, one can see the breakthrough possibilities. With a forward-deployed stealth fleet doing target identification as well as being able to rapidly prosecute combat advantage from the results of the strike, American and allied forces would not only be more lethal, but a much more effective deterrent force.

Hypersonic cruise missiles are part of the competitive landscape. The Russians, the Indians, the Chinese, and the US are all investing in these capabilities. Lewis compared the development of hypersonics to the work which led to the development of ICBMs: “The resistance of the bomber community to ICBMs was significant. General Le May referred to them as firecrackers. But to his credit, the USAF leadership garnered the resources and built the ICBMs. I think hypersonic poses a very, very similar change in mindset. The fact that I can reach in quickly, that I can reach far. Hypersonic systems give us the ability to marry surgical precision with rapidity of action and provides for invulnerability in the face of enemy aircraft as well. And rather than thinking of it as a silver bullet but part of an ‘S Cubed force,’ it enables the forward deployed F-35 stealth fleet to guide lethality to a broad variety of targets. Such game changing technology needs to be a high priority for DOD and NASA investments.”

As allies develop new missiles and pay to integrate them on the global fleet, the US would have access directly to such missiles. When block four of the F-35 software arrives, we will see MBDA, Kongsberg, and Turkish missiles made available across the fleet. This frees the US from having to invest in duplicating existing allied missiles for the F-35 fleet or the legacy fleet. Investments can be concentrated on a breakthrough technology, like hypersonic cruise missiles, or increasingly faster cruise missiles with new types of warheads.

And associated with shaping new delivery vehicles is the development of new warheads as well. New warheads can be developed for the hypersonic missile which have the ability to get inside the electronics, the fire controls, the signals, the sensors of your opponent and to do it at very high speed.

One way to understand the potential for change is to revisit the large deck aircraft carrier. Does not a hypersonic missile woven into a fleet of evolving capabilities significantly enhance the viability of the force and its lethality? Imagine the F-35Bs and F-35Cs providing the forward punch to the sea force and identifying targets along with robotic elements deployed in the water, under the water, and in the air. They could guide a set of new weapons on the fourth-generation F-18s based on the carriers, including a hypersonic cruise missile.

What is there not to like about a maneuvering ship with a variable geometry strike force onboard? In short, sensors combined with stealth combined with speed can provide a new paradigm for shaping the Pacific force necessary for the US in working in the Pacific.

As Lewis put it: “Distance only gives you tyranny if you’re clanking along at 30 knots. If I’m flying at Mach 2, Mach 3, Mach 5, Mach 6, I don’t think distance is such a tyranny any longer. And I think that’s what speed and range, by the way, in combination bring to the equation.”

What do you think?