Op Ed Published in the Navy Times
As America’s Cold-War network of bases and allies gradually erodes in Eurasia, sea-based forces are assuming more of the warfighting burden in U.S. military plans. That is particularly true of the Navy’s eleven wings of carrier-based aircraft, which at least for the next generation are likely to provide the core of U.S. global strike forces.
It’s a pretty imposing responsibility for a few hundred aircraft on a handful of aircraft carriers, and Navy leaders readily admit they may need the support of Air Force long-range bombers and sea-based missiles to accomplish some strike missions. But the ability of the Air Force’s dwindling bomber force to sustain protracted strike operations in the absence of regional bases cannot be assured, and the Navy’s supply of precision land-attack missiles is less than abundant.
For example, the sea service has only about 3,000 Tomahawks on hand, the most commonly- used unmanned system in recent strike missions. That’s less than 10% of the number that would have been needed to hit all 40,000 aimpoints attacked in the six-week air war during Operation Desert Storm.
Thus, even if manned aircraft did not have obvious advantages over missiles in certain missions (like search and destroy), it seems clear that most of the burden of carrying out major strike missions will fall squarely on the Navy’s carrier-based tactical aircraft.
Navy leaders are not exactly appalled at this prospect. In fact, for some time they have been reengineering their force structure and tactics in preparation for a bigger role in strike warfare. Gone are the days when Navy aircraft carried mostly dumb bombs – – both the aircraft and the munitions are rapidly being replaced by agile, precise, versatile systems that are evolutionary in programmatic terms but genuinely revolutionary in their capabilities.
The centerpiece of this transformation is the F/A-18 multirole fighter, which early in the next century will make up over two-thirds of the nation’s entire carrier-based tactical aircraft fleet. The latest version of the F/A-18, the Super Hornet, will eventually replace the service’s A-6 medium bombers, F-14 air superiority fighters and earlier Hornet variants. Most experts believe it will also be used as a replacement airframe for the EA-6B Prowler electronic-warfare aircraft.
Obviously, any aircraft that can replace several other more specialized planes is quite capable. The Super Hornet is distinguished from earlier Hornets by its longer range, greater survivability (courtesy of stealth technology), and ability to both take off and return to the carrier with a diverse load of munitions. It also has more internal space for future growth, one reason why it may become the Navy’s next jammer.
But one thing Super Hornet lacks is a truly modern radar. Because the aircraft is an evolved design from earlier Hornets, it will carry an improved version of the same AN/APG-73 radar in its nose. It’s a good radar, but it doesn’t measure up to the more advanced sensors being incorporated into aircraft such as the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor and Eurofighter.
The basic problem with the existing sensor is that – – like all fighter radars of its generation – – the AN/APG-73 consists of a single high-power transmitter that is turned mechanically to scan the space ahead of the aircraft. Newer radars consist of hundreds of transmit/receive modules that are electronically steered so that they don’t need to physically move to scan a wide area.
Because the current radar has moving parts, it can break down. And because it relies on a single transmitter, the failure of that component effectively makes the whole system useless. Worse, the moving metal face of the AN/APG-73 provides potential adversaries with a pretty strong radar return, which makes the plane less survivable.
The Navy has a solution to this problem that would greatly enhance Super Hornet performance. It’s called an Active Electronically-Scanned Array, or AESA. It isn’t really a new radar so much as an insertion of new technology into the existing radar that would bring it up to modern standards. For example, the mean time between failures would improve so much that it would begin to approach the projected lifespan of the aircraft itself.
The AESA would also be a lot more capable, able to simultaneously operate in air-to-air, air-to-ground surveillance and/or jamming roles. In other words, it would mimic the overall versatility of the Super Hornet itself, providing huge gains in operational effectiveness and flexibility.
The whole upgrade, including development and installation of 200-300 radars, can be had for around $800 million – – about four hours worth of federal spending at current rates. But AESA is not funded in the Navy’s 2000-2005 spending plan, due partly to bureaucratic infighting among members of the Navy and Marine Corps “team”.
The money needs to be found. Super Hornet will be the centerpiece of naval strike assets for at least the next twenty years, and maybe much longer if the Joint Strike Fighter fails to materialize as planned. It doesn’t make much sense to invest billions in a new airframe and then fail to spend what amounts to pocket change to give it the sensor it needs.
Penny-wise and pound-foolish isn’t exactly a new phenomenon in Pentagon budgeting, but lately it seems to be getting more popular. Giving Super Hornet a modern radar would be a smart way of spending a small amount of the future increase the Clinton Administration assures us the Pentagon will receive to achieve big gains in military performance.
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