America's Asia Challenges: China, Air-Sea Battle and Beyond

June 9, 2014 Topic: SecurityDefense Region: AsiaChinaUnited States

America's Asia Challenges: China, Air-Sea Battle and Beyond

TNI speaks with Congressman J. Randy Forbes. 

The UCLASS project has also been something you have spoken about quite extensively. Where do you see the state of the program as of today? Where does it need to go in the future?

While the carrier provides the Nation with a sovereign, mobile airfield that can be positioned at the time and place of the Commander-in-Chief’s choosing, the true combat power of this naval asset resides in the composition of its Air Wing. A carrier like the USS Eisenhower can have a service life that stretches from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the War on Terror, but it’s enduring utility is enabled not just by its hull-life, but by the continued modernization of aviation assets found on its flight deck. Given the scope of China’s counter-intervention modernization effort, I believe the future air wing must comprise a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft and provide capabilities for extended-range operations, persistence, stealth, payload, and electronic warfare.

The Navy is well along in proving the feasibility of a carrier-based unmanned combat air system (UCLASS). To be effective in emerging threat environments in the Western Pacific and other regions, such a system should have broadband, all-aspect stealth, be capable of automated aerial refueling, and have integrated surveillance and strike functionality. Unfortunately, the current UCLASS requirements will not address the emerging anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) challenges to U.S. power projection that originally motivated creation of the Navy Unmanned Combat Air System (N-UCAS) program during the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), and which were reaffirmed in both the 2010 QDR and 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance. The House Armed Services Committee, in its recent markup of the FY15 National Defense Authorization Act, concluded that it believes the Navy and indeed the Nation require a long-range, survivable unmanned ISR-strike aircraft as an integral part of the carrier air wings. In contrast, developing a new carrier-based unmanned aircraft that is primarily another flying sensor would be a missed opportunity with profound consequences for the practical utility of the carrier and thus for the nation.

Like has been the case with other historical cases of military innovation, it will be up to civilian leaders to prescribe a vision for the future and overcome the strong bureaucratic opposition and other political and budgetary hurdles necessary to achieve success.

As the DoD seeks to plan and build the future force following the release of the latest QDR, what do you see as the Congressional role in this process? There have been past examples of how Congress pushed the Department in innovative directions - aircraft carriers, the Navy's SSGN conversion, unmanned systems for the Air Force. What is the next Predator that the services have failed to foresee, either for budgetary, cultural, or bureaucratic reasons?

Now we need to be carefully with this word - innovation - that is as overused as it is often misused. Innovation is not simply an improvement to something else but really a form of creative destruction, where something succeeds at the cost of something else. This is what makes true innovation so difficult - a group or platform must be swept aside in favor of a new way of operating. Think naval aviation and the death of the battleship - naval gunfire simply could not compete with the range of fire generated by aircraft flying from a carrier deck. But despite this reality, it did not mute the collective voice of battleship defenders throughout the 1920 and 1930s.

The Hill is often criticized for being parochial on national defense issues, but the truth is that the Congress has a long and storied history of supporting and pressing for military innovation. In addition to its oversight and budgetary responsibilities, the Congress is well-positioned to identify bureaucratic challenges to DoD innovation and wield its influence to bring change. Whether it was the Navy’s move towards carriers in the 1930s, the decisions to convert four Ohio-class submarines to Guide-Missile Submarines (SSGNs) in the late 1990s, or fielding and arming the Predator by the Air Force in the early 2000s, the Congress has played a strong role in advocating for innovative futures.

As Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, we face a new period of military competition marked by both the maturation of sophisticated anti-access/area-denial networks in China and Iran and new technological development in electromagnetics, directed energy, hypersonics, electronic warfare, and unmanned and autonomous capabilities. It will be imperative for the Congress and the Department to work together to build a military that is prepared to maximize our enduring technological advantages in an effort to offset the geographic and asymmetric advantages our competitors enjoy. For instance, we should look to provide strong guidance and support for the Air-Sea Battle concept, build a UCLASS that can contribute to strike operations in contested environments, challenge the Army to consider concepts and capabilities for imposing costs and providing affordable theater defenses in critical regions like the Asia-Pacific and Persian Gulf, and advocate for more long-range unmanned Air Force systems that can operate in contested environments, to name just a few places Congress should look to push the services in the years ahead.