The Buzz

The U.S. Military's Nightmare: Stealth, Aircraft Carriers and Submarines Are Obsolete?

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Once again, the Washington-based think-tank universe provides us some important clues concerning the challenges ahead. In a report by the always smart Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), as well as in a follow on piece in this publication partly excerpted below, CSBA Senior Fellow Bryan Clark lays out the challenge to America’s submarine force:

“Since the Cold War, submarines, particularly quiet American ones, have been considered largely immune to adversary A2/AD capabilities. But the ability of submarines to hide through quieting alone will decrease as each successive decibel of noise reduction becomes more expensive and as new detection methods mature that rely on phenomena other than sounds emanating from a submarine. These techniques include lower frequency active sonar and non-acoustic methods that detect submarine wakes or (at short ranges) bounce laser or light-emitting diode (LED) light off a submarine hull. The physics behind most of these alternative techniques has been known for decades, but was not exploited because computer processors were too slow to run the detailed models needed to see small changes in the environment caused by a quiet submarine. Today, ‘big data’ processing enables advanced navies to run sophisticated oceanographic models in real time to exploit these detection techniques. As they become more prevalent, they could make some coastal areas too hazardous for manned submarines.”

From there the problem gets worse. Clark’s CSBA report sees even more problems ahead:

“New sensors and related improvements to torpedo seekers could enable completely new approaches to finding and attacking submarines. Most significantly, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) forces could shift away from today’s skill- and labor-intensive tactics that result from the short detection range of sensors that are precise enough to support ASW engagements. This limitation requires ASW ships and aircraft to methodically search a wide area for a submarine, then track it until they can get within weapons range for an attack. New sensor and seeker capabilities could instead enable a “fire and forget” approach in which ASW forces detect a submarine at long range and apply computer processing to obtain enough precision for an attack using long-range missiles with torpedo warheads. This kind of attack may not sink the submarine, but would likely compel it to at least evade, breaking its initiative and making it more detectable.”

RIP Stealth?

Finally, we come to America’s growing fleet of stealth fighters and long-range bombers. It seems advances in new types of radars could provide the targeting information needed to take down some of Washington’s most advanced aircraft—and most expensive.

As National Interest Defense Editor, Dave Majumdar, points out, “China appears to be building a new high-frequency radar on an artificial feature in the Spratly Islands that could allow Beijing to track even the stealthiest American warplanes, including the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and even the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit.” He explains, in greater detail, that:

“While the system is called a high-frequency (HF) radar—that’s bit of a misnomer. HF radars actually operate on low frequencies relative to the VHF, UHF, L, S, C, X and Ku bands, which are more typically used by military radars. These low frequencies have waves that are several meters long and, consequently, most stealth aircraft show up on HF radar. In order to defeat low frequency radar, a stealth aircraft has to eliminate features like fins, which is why the flying-wing shape is the best way available to avoid detection. That is because there is an omnidirectional resonance effect that occurs when a feature on an aircraft—such as a tail-fin—is less than eight times the size of a particular frequency wavelength. As a result, there is a step change in radar cross section once that threshold is exceeded. Since every stealth aircraft currently in America’s fleet exceeds that threshold—even the B-2 is not large enough to avoid most HF radars—every U.S. aircraft would show up on the Chinese radar. Indeed—all stealth aircraft will show up at some frequency.”

How Should America Respond?

So what is Washington doing about the threats listed above?