Bombers Versus Boots
8:27 AM on Dec 28, 2009
If money for two new systems - a Navy Unmanned Combat Air System and a USAF Next Generation Bomber - is included in the FY2011 budget, it will spark a complex debate about the role of airpower and will challenge the predominant doctrine in the Pentagon today. That doctrine is BCW - Boot Centric Warfare.
What N-UCAS and NGB have in common, and what distinguishes them from most other air combat systems, is that they are designed expressly to penetrate defended airspace, independently of ground forces. Fighters can do that, but only as far as their unrefueled range extends from the safe zone where tankers can operate.
The USAF and its predecessors have worked to maintain that capability for 70 years, and the USN has also done so, but not continuously, and arguably it has been lost to the carrier strike group since the A-6 was retired. However, the USAF's ability to operate in deep defended airspace is also limited and is getting more so as its bombers age.
The problem is that the USAF's plans for a new bomber could turn into a 3-versus-1 argument, with the BCW-centric Marines and Army siding with the Navy. It revolves around the BCW advocates' favorite anti-F-22 meme: that "the F-22 has done nothing in Iraq and Afghanistan" . But that differs from an SSN... exactly how?
You don't hear BCW enthusiasts criticize SSNs or argue that the Navy's only missions should be troop transport, landing support and shore bombardment. Nor do those advocates see any problem in a world where the nation's air force gets 183 F-22s and the Navy's army's air force gets 420 F-35Bs that are slower, don't go as far, are much less survivable and cost as much. And if they do know that USAF bombers have been used more recently and more often than the Marines' ability to take a hostile beach, they don't let on that they do.
Why the inconsistency? Not too hard to explain: The Marines are not going to criticize the Navy, and the Navy's interest is to bulk up the Marines into a second Army and give them all the toys they want. The Army is allied with the Marines to argue the primacy of BCW, but doesn't criticize the Navy because its contact with the Navy is so peripheral and there are few Navy assets that play in BCW. That's not so with the USAF, and the Army wants to sway the USAF budget towards airlift, CAS and tactical ISR (or to be more direct, Predators, because that's the only ISR most of the Army values). Hence the 3-to-1 debate.
The problem is that, today, the US is disinvesting in the ability to operate in defended airspace. There was a 21-year gap between the funding of the last production B-52 and the first B-1B (1961 to 1982). That gap will be equalled in FY2014 since the last B-2 was funded in 1993 - even not taking into account the tiny numbers of B-2s that were built.
The result is that short of trying to land a combined-armed force, the US will have no way at all to affect what an adversary does internally, or take on the adversary forces until they choose to join the fight. The US will also be increasingly restricted in ISR. And with anti-ship ballistic missiles, air-launched cruise missiles and long-range AIP submarines, Blue assets will be at risk at four-digit distances from the adversary's bases.
As we know, the disinvestment is not total. A long-range strike demonstrator is being built, but its capabilities are in the black world. That's a two-edged sword. It protects it from BCW activists, but it means that nobody can use its capabilities to point to a new generation of aircraft. The Navy's X-47B UCAS demonstrator is also under way.
But what is the best way to carry the debate forward? How do we reframe the debate so that it is no longer 3-to-1?
My first suggestion: Build strategic, doctrinal and technical links between NGB and UCAS-N. The long-range UCAV offers the Navy the way out of becoming the ultimate "self-licking ice-cream cone" - a carrier group that commits almost all its resources to self-defense. They can afford that much sooner and in greater quantities than a manned F/A-XX.
At the same time, we need to avoid setting up a competition between UCAS-N and NGB. Neither can be everywhere at once, and there are places where land bases are a better choice than carriers; NGB will carry weapons (bunker-busters today, directed-energy weapons tomorrow) that UCAS-N won't; and technically they are complementary, with scope for UCAS-N and NGB to be cousin systems, like an A320 and A330.
Second, add misisons. NGB and UCAS-N may be as important for ISR and electronic attack as they are for kinetic strike. Another common mission: missile defense. As ballistic and cruise missile technology proliferates and potential adversaries graduate into mobiles, MaRVs and guidance, and use missiles not just for WMD but as an anti-access weapon and tactical spoiler, NGB and UCAS-N become the front end of the shoot-look-shoot engagement, as well as the only means of forcing the adversary to worry about missile survival in the "pre-boost" phase. Conversely, giving the adversary complete sanctuary for long range weapons is the first step to losing the fight completely.
A third suggestion: The bomber should be as nuclear-free as possible. The debate will be complicated enough without linking it to the even more complex world of nuclear weapons, arms limitation and non-proliferation. Also, the role of a nuclear-armed penetrating bomber, today, is ill defined at best.
To Ares readers in the between-holiday doldrums: Any other ideas?
ar99, 2010, UCAS, NGB