Stealth Bombers, Nuclear Attack Submarines and Aircraft Carriers: The U.S. Military's Future

March 19, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: StealthB-21TechnologyWorldMilitaryWarU.S. Military

Stealth Bombers, Nuclear Attack Submarines and Aircraft Carriers: The U.S. Military's Future

Where Washington's defense dollars will flow. 

(Washington D.C.) Hypersonic weapons, Research and Development, attack submarines, drones and AI are all massive areas of priority for Pentagon weapons developers as they seek to accelerate its growing “pivot” to major-power warfare, seeks to address deficits and - perhaps of greatest significance - stay ahead of Russia and China when it comes to weapons areas of great concern to the US military services.

The more than 700-billion Pentagon 2020 proposed budget naturally covers a wide-ranging sphere of technologies and weapons programs, yet there are a handful of technologies and platforms slated for significant spending increases when compared with recent years. These areas, it goes without saying offers relevant and timely insight into the current threat environment and DoD priorities addressing an emerging new strategic landscape.

Taking a close look at where the increases are, the two largest ones in the 2020 submission appear to be $14 billion proposed for the new Space Force and an overall 10-percent increase in Research and Development spending. Large increases are also slated for AI, the Pentagon’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, an accelerated Navy fleet-size expansion and a host of Air Force programs to include hypersonics and the new stealthy B-21 bomber.

AI is, arguably, among the most wide-spread or encompassing areas of major emphasis. Not only has the Pentagon recently unveiled a new AI strategy, but AI, in general, has been expanding well beyond IT and more narrowly configured elements of the cyber domain to include large platforms across the services. New iterations of AI are now being woven into things like the F-35, current and future armored combat vehicles and Navy ships such as the LCS and new Ford-class carriers. Cybersecurity, senior Air Force leaders explain, is by no means restricted to IT. Rather, large networks, fire control, radar, weapons, sensors and command and control networks are increasingly cyber-reliant and informed by AI.

Overall, it is important to note that areas of proposed increases do not instantly or completely suggest that these are the most important programs - yet they do indicate significant areas of growing Pentagon emphasis as it strives to stay ahead of major power rivals -- and increasingly complex and serious challenge. The reasons “why” these areas are emphasized emerges as perhaps the most significant series of questions.

Let’s break it down a bit further:

Analysis of Where the Increases Are - and Why

It’s no surprise that, broadly speaking, the Pentagon is placing a much-accelerated measure of importance upon Research and Development by asking for a nearly 10-percent increase in spending. Upon initial examination, there are naturally some self-evident or more obvious reasons for this, given the pace of global technical advancement and the commensurate need for newer technologies. These include an ambitious DoD-wide migration to cloud platforms, new AI strategy, Nuclear Posture Review and of course fast-paced preparations for Space War. Much progress has been made when it comes to implementing Acting Defense Secretary Shanahan’s directive to migrate quickly to cloud technologies, a move directed in a widely-circulated memo several years ago when he served as the Deputy Secretary of Defense. DoD is also progressing with a widespread move to Windows 10.

Other proposed increases, as well, appear to have a pretty straight forward reason. The Air Force B-21, for instance, is getting a roughly $700 million boost in funding; the program recently completed its Critical Design Review and is moving toward a new prototyping and construction phase. There is also broad consensus that a new generation of stealth is needed to stay in front of advanced, Russian-built air defenses.

Nuclear Arsenal

The much-discussed Nuclear Posture Review introduces a handful of ambitious plans to expand the US nuclear arsenal. This of course included continued rapid progress on existing nuclear weapons programs such as the new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent next-generation ICBM and progress with an emerging nuclear-armed Long Range Standoff Weapon. Concurrently, the NPR calls specifically for the addition of new, low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and nuclear cruise missile to introduce an option to launch more pinpointed nuclear strikes if need be. Pentagon weapons developers tell Warrior Maven the early draft plans for this weapon have been completed and that the next steps are underway. The reason for these new weapons, Pentagon developers say, is not to lower the threshold to nuclear war but rather strengthen a deterrence posture.

The Air Force is also moving quickly, through use of digital engineering techniques, on its Ground Based Strategic Deterrence new ICBM.

Hellfire & Small Diameter Bomb II

A lesser-recognized proposed budget increase can be seen with two key munitions -- the Hellfire Missile and Small Diameter Bomb II. The Hellfire is greatly expanding it uses beyond helicopters and some of its regular applications, to include arming the Navy Littoral combat ship and the Army’s Short Range Air Defense arming Stryker vehicles with vertically-launched, counter air Hellfires. The Small Diameter Bomb II, an air-dropped weapon bringing a new generation of precision targeting and attack technology, is now more fully integrating to F-35s and other aircraft. The SBD II brings integrated seeker systems to include semi-active laser technology, millimeter wave guidance, RF guidance and infrared heat-seeking sensor targeting. The SBD II is also capable of essentially “tracking” moving targets, changing course in flight and hitting targets at ranges out to 40-miles. In development for several years now, the SBD II is fast-entering new stages of testing, early production and integration on various aircraft.

Also, as part of this, there are also two broad often discussed trends. The first is that, given the persistent scope of attacks on ISIS in recent years, there has been an overall ammunition stockpile shortage. For example, in recent years the Air Force has made rapid moves to increase its stockpile of laser-guided rockets, 2.75 inch Hydra Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System. Secondly, the Air Force, in particular, is now making a massive push to modernize its arsenal of air-dropped bombs - with much of this falling under the R&D proposed increase. A recent Mitchell Institute study pointed out that, despite the well-document massive improvements in bomb-guidance technology, precision and targeting, bomb bodies themselves have not seen a commensurate level of modernization. As a result, the Air Force Research Lab is now fast-tracking a handful of new air-dropped weapons to include new “variable yield” weapons and new large penetrating “bunker-buster bombs.”

Massive Navy Fleet Expansion - 11 Carriers & Large Drones

The 2020 Navy budget asks for increased funds to pay for an 11th Aircraft Carrier, three attack submarines per year, large new surface and undersea drones,a new Frigate and -- most of all -- an overall fast jump from roughly 280 ships up to 301 in the near future. Of course the Navy is now in the early stages of pushing toward its fleet goal of 355 ships. For its part, the Marine Corps is expecting funding increases to, among other things, fund its new Amphibious Combat Vehicle now entering production.

Also, Naval Sea Systems Command is in the early phases on engineering two large Unmanned Surface Vehicle drones to coordinate command and control for fleets of smaller USVs, hunt submarines, counter mines and possibly fire weapons. Called the “Medium” and “Large” USVs, the emerging drones are considered fundamental to the Navy’s “Ghost Fleet” initiative. This Navy and Office of Naval Research effort is now developing swarms of networked small boats -- drawing upon advanced AI - operate in a coordinated fashion to conduct ISR, sweep for mines and submarines and launch attacks while sailors remain at a safer standoff distance.

Virginia-class Attack Submarines

The Navy budget also seeks to implement a new plant to build three Virginia-class attack submarines per year moving forward to address a current and anticipated future attack submarine deficit. For quite some time, Combatant Commanders have expressed serious concern that the availability of attack submarines continues to be dangerously lower than what is needed. Navy leadership has, for quite some time, been working with Congress to rev up production.

The previous status quo had been for the Navy to drop from building two Virginia-Class boats per year to one in the early 2020s when construction of the new Columbia-Class nuclear-armed submarines begins. The service then moved to a plan to build two Virginia-class submarines and one Columbia-class submarine concurrently, according to findings from a previous Navy assessment.

The new Navy plan is to jump up to three Virginia-class per year when Columbia-class production hits a lull in “off years,” senior service leaders have told Congress.

There are many reasons why attack submarines are increasingly in demand; undersea vehicles are often able to conduct reconnaissance missions closer to targets than large-draft surface ships can. Forward positioning enables them to be “stealthier” in coastal areas, inlets or islands. As part of this, they can also move substantial firepower, in the form of Tomahawk missiles, closer to inland targets.

Navy leaders have consistently talked about an expected submarine shortfall in the mid-2020s and that more attack submarines were needed to strengthen the fleet and stay in front of near-peer rivals such as Russia and China.