The United States’ Navy is beset by numerous challenges: a growing set of potential adversaries equipped with advanced technologies; a problematic operating environment complicated by long distances, questionable basing access increasingly within range of enemy weapons; contested operating domains; and, a shrinking force caused by budgetary constraints, thus reducing their operational capacity and investment production. All this drastically affects the depth and breadth of operational capabilities.
A recent report from the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) added to that list of challenges. It found that “one area of relative analytical neglect involves China’s extensive efforts to develop and deploy large numbers of highly accurate antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) on a range of ground, naval, and air platforms.” The report’s assessment of China’s cruise missile ambitions is the latest confirmation that China’s military modernization efforts remain focused on its broader counterintervention strategy.
The general issue of ‘saturation’ when paired with precision is highly worrisome. In the days of old, mass fires were needed to ensure at least some rounds hit the target. However, with the rise of ‘precision’, sheer numbers were no longer required due to the increased probability of any individual round hitting the desired target. Now that the cost of precision is declining, the specter of mass precision is rising. This threat continues to grow in complexity to the point where we may be approaching or may have arrived at the tipping point whereby the offensive capability of ASCMs outstrips our defensive capabilities. The United States is obviously developing counters to individual precision guided munitions (PGMs); the next challenge will be to counter volleys of PGMs, each arriving at the target along a different path or exploiting a ‘window’ created by a leading PGM.
In order to address the challenge of mass precision in times of budgetary uncertainty, the U.S. will need to adopt capabilities-based planning. Capabilities are more than individual platforms (such as an aircraft carrier or fighter plane). They include systems—that not just “fight” but also transport, support, and provide intelligence—people, and alliance support that are necessary for projecting U.S. military power to parts of the world where the Navy protects vital American interests. Equally important in evaluating capabilities is both the state of training and readiness of the forces.
Modernization is an important factor in capabilities-based planning. Here maintaining a competitive technological edge might be one important factor. But it is not the only one. Modernization programs are essential to sustaining the force for three reasons: (1) If the U.S. follows through on existing programs in which significant investments have already been made, it will harvest significant new capabilities that will make the armed forces more effective overall. (2) Maintaining new systems will be more cost effective than maintaining old equipment. (3) The armed forces can retire less efficient systems, such as large surveillance aircraft.
With the respect to the threat of mass precision, America’s Navy has begun to increase research and development (R&D) efforts in directed energy technology for ASCM applications. The Navy should accelerate these efforts and undertake a program of experimentation to understand their revolutionary potential. Directed energy systems could favorably change the cost-exchange ratio between missile attackers and defenders. Given current budgetary constraints, the US should be looking for game changing capabilities in key areas of competition like missile attack versus defense that could devalue large portions of an opponent’s investments. Although directed energy continues to hold promise, the projected cost in both development dollars and the energy necessary to generate the capability in the field are high. There are also a number of physics-problems to overcome.
In the event of a multi-pronged attack by China’s People’s Liberation Army, radar will also serve a critical role in keeping the fleet off the bottom of the ocean. For the last 70 years, these systems have provided a means for volume search, tracking, missile discrimination, and missile communications. However, while the Navy has an enduring advantage in radar design, construction, and operations, its current radar technology, SPY-1D (V), is increasingly unable to address existing and emerging strategic capabilities—such as the growing threat of mass precision and China’s often-discussed anti-ship ballistic missile system. It stands to reason that as Chinese offensive missile capabilities mature, so too must our naval radar systems. The Pentagon must invest in improved and integrated radar systems, such as the Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR), to fill these critical capability gaps and ensure our sailors can meet the ever-changing demands of today’s challenging global threat environment. Significant advancements in threat detection range and discrimination accuracy provided by AMDR’s S-Band radar (AMDR-S) expand our capacity to undermine Chinese strategic capabilities. Modernization on its own, however, should not be viewed as a panacea.
The qualitative advantage that the U.S. military has long enjoyed is eroding as advanced military capabilities proliferate around the world. The capabilities of U.S. forces are also deteriorating as platforms and systems age and as critical modernization programs are delayed or even cancelled.
Emil Maine is a National Security Research Assistant at the Heritage Foundation, where he conducts independent research on U.S. defense posture. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own.