Key point: Like the battleships of old, no mighty class of capital ship can last forever.
The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The nuclear-powered submarine. Ultra-advanced stealth bombers and fighters. These all represent the most lethal, sophisticated and expensive weapons in the U.S. military’s mighty arsenal—and they might soon all be close to obsolete.
Well, at least if certain technological trends bear fruit, according to a number of think-tank reports, research studies and in-depth essays that have been published over the last year.
And while it might not all come to pass, or at least not right away and certainly not all at once, the trend lines are clear: America’s military, if it wants to retain its unrivaled dominance on the battlefields of the future, will need to do a great deal of soul searching and investment to maintain its edge over nations like Russia, China and many others in the years to come.
America’s Carriers vs. China’s Missiles: Who Wins?
The aircraft carrier, a symbol of American naval and overall power projection capabilities, seems under the most threat of being rendered a relic of the past. Almost every week, a new report casts a dark shadow on the future of this important U.S. military asset.
Take, for example, the recent report released by the Center for New American Security (CNAS) smartly titled, “Red Alert: The Growing Threat to U.S. Aircraft Carriers.” Author Kelley Sayler, an associate fellow at CNAS, argues that “the short, medium, and long-range threats to the carrier–including SAMs and other anti-access/area denial capabilities (A2/AD), in which China is investing heavily” will create a situation where American carriers “will not be able to act with impunity in the event of future conflict.” As Sayler explains in great detail in her report, carriers
“will face a dense and growing threat across their full range of operations as A2/AD systems continue to proliferate. Operating the carrier in the face of increasingly lethal and precise munitions will thus require the United States to expose a multibillion-dollar asset to high levels of risk in the event of a conflict. Indeed, under such circumstances, an adversary with A2/AD capabilities would likely launch a saturation attack against the carrier from a variety of platforms and directions. Such an attack would be difficult—if not impossible—to defend against.”
“China appears intent upon increasing its ASBM [anti-ship ballistic missile] capabilities further and, at a recent military parade commemorating the end of World War II, revealed that it may have an ASBM variant of a substantially longer-range missile—the DF-26. As with the DF-21D, estimates of the capabilities of the DF-26 vary widely; however, it is thought to have a range of 1,620 to 2,160 nm and to have both conventional and nuclear warheads. If accurate and operational, this system would give China the ability to strike targets within the second island chain – including those in and around the U.S. territory of Guam – as well as those throughout the entirety of the Bay of Bengal. In the event of a wider conflict, these systems could also reach targets throughout much, if not all, of the Arabian Sea.”
U.S. Subs Face New Challenges
As for America’s nuclear-powered submarine force, the threats to its continued dominance in undersea warfare seem a little more further off, but nonetheless, something that must be planned for.
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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.”
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?
First off, when it comes to America’s carriers, it should be noted that no one really knows how deadly China’s anti-ship missiles, especially at long-ranges, would be in a real firefight. For example, can Beijing find a U.S. carrier in the massive Pacific Ocean? Can they defeat American missile defenses? And as for the case of the dangers poised to advanced submarines, at least as of now, such threats are more on the drawing board than a clear and present danger. As for the challenges posed to stealth, that seems a more realistic and present-day challenge U.S. officials will have to deal with. (They seem to be working on negating the challenge as we speak).
However, there is a clear recognition in the Pentagon that America’s chief competitors, namely great power challengers like China and Russia, are catching up to many of the U.S. military's chief abilities to project power or are quickly finding ways to negate such capabilities. While the Obama Administration’s recent budget request does smartly increase funding for research and development, I can’t help but wonder if such investments might be too little, too late. There is also the very real possibility that a new administration will have its own priorities, slowing down or possibly cancelling any modernization efforts that could make a real difference. In fact, members on Capitol Hill seem to take such a possibility seriously. As Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee, recently explained,