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Assessing Attributes For A Future Long-Range Strike Family of Systems

The new framework of assumptions proposed by this paper suggests the Defense Department’s next long-range strike family of systems will require certain attributes. The vast distances involved in operating in some potential theaters of operation, the growing missile threat to US forward bases, and an increasingly challenging target set will require land-based strike platforms with the capability of flying 4,000–5,000 nautical miles (nm) between aerial refuelings and persisting over target areas located in contested environments characterized by dense, modern air defense networks. Anti-access/area-denial networks like the one being developed by the PRC and other states with the resources to buy advanced military systems will likely pose unacceptably high risks to US Navy surface forces and compel them to operate initially as far as 1,000 nm or more from an adversary’s coastline. This suggests the need for a carrier-based aircraft with a range that is at least two to three times that of the F/A-18E/F or F-35C if carriers are to contribute meaningful strike capacity at the outset of future operations. Moreover, land- and sea-based aircraft penetrating dense, sophisticated integrated air defenses will require all-aspect, broadband low-observable characteristics. Finally, hedging against the loss of vulnerable C4ISR battle networks will require strike platforms to be capable of operating effectively independent of these networks. Simply put, the combination of range, persistence, stealth and independence of action will likely be the sine qua non for effective strike operations over the coming decades.

The Next Long-Range Strike Family of Systems

Using this new framework to assess the Defense Department’s current long-range strike family of systems reveals the following capability shortfalls:

  • Land-based bombers, with the exception of the small B-2 force, lack the ability to penetrate and persist in high-threat air defense environments;
  • US carrier air wings lack the range, persistence and survivability to support long-range strike operations in A2/AD environments, especially if enemy threats force carriers to operate beyond effective ranges for strike operations;
  • Current and planned land- and sea-based strike systems, including both manned and unmanned, lack the capability and capacity to strike large target sets that are increasingly mobile, relocatable, hardened, deeply buried, and located deep in contested areas;
  • Standoff weapons lack the ability to strike targets which are increasingly mobile, relocatable, time-critical, hardened or deeply buried; and
  • Airborne electronic attack platforms lack the range and survivability needed to support long-range strike operations in contested airspace.

The Air Force’s current bomber force lacks the capabilities and capacity needed to penetrate contested airspace to strike thousands of targets in future air campaigns. While a new penetrating bomber will require all-aspect, broadband stealth and other self-protection features, its weight and payload capacity cannot result in an average unit cost that is so great that it would effectively limit the Air Force to procuring a small “silver bullet” force on the order of today’s twenty- aircraft B-2 feet. Options that could reduce a new bomber program’s impact on the defense budget include avoiding requirements creep; fully resourcing program development and competitive prototyping; taking advantage of technologies and systems developed for other programs; and delivering capabilities in incremental block upgrades. Developing a new bomber that could be optionally manned depending on mission requirements would increase combatant commanders’ options in future air campaigns, especially in degraded satellite communications environments. An optionally manned bomber, if appropriately designed, could also preserve the option to carry nuclear weapons with relatively minimal modifications, thereby preserving future flexibility.

Reversing the erosion of the Navy’s strike advantage will require investments in a new generation of capabilities to increase the range, persistence and survivability of carrier aircraft. The Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration program represents a first possible step toward fielding an unmanned platform with all-aspect, broadband low observability, a combat radius of 1,500 nautical miles, and mission durations of up to fifty hours with aerial refueling. Without such investments, US aircraft carriers will be locked into a concept of operations that is dependent on relatively benign, permissive operating conditions. With new investments, the Navy could make a bold shift toward enabling effective strike operations against enemies with robust A2/AD battle networks, thereby ensuring that its future forward presence and immediately employable strike forces will remain effective.

Given the expected service life of the Air Force’s current bombers and their continued ability to perform standoff attack missions, it may be possible to defer development of a new standoff platform until production of a penetrating bomber is nearly completed. In lieu of this option, investing in a joint Air Force-Navy cruise missile that could be air- and sea-launched from a wide variety of platforms would increase the US military’s standoff weapons magazine while taking advantage of economies of scale via a larger procurement and steady sustained production over time to reduce total cost per missile. The Defense Department should also consider buying a small magazine — one hundred or fewer — of conventional prompt global strike munitions for defeating a small number of critical targets that might have to be engaged within an hour or less.

To support penetrating strike systems, including standoff attack missiles, the Defense Department should develop a long-range penetrating airborne electronic attack aircraft. As DoD assesses alternatives for this new aircraft, it must ensure they have the same attributes that are needed by other long-range strike systems, e.g., all-aspect, broad-band low observability and sufficient range and persistence to support operations deep into an enemy’s landmass. Leveraging other development programs and off-the-shelf technologies to develop this platform may help reduce its cost and avoid the long lead times typically associated with developing new aircraft designs.