Even though the United States is out of Iraq and winding down its involvement in Afghanistan there will be no rest for the Department of Defense. It must recapitalize a force either worn down after a decade of war or rapidly aging. It must also undertake a pivot to the Pacific region with distinct political, military and geographic challenges. Finally, the Pentagon must accomplish both these tasks while absorbing one trillion dollars in budget cuts.
To complicate the situation further, U.S. competitors and potential adversaries are not taking a breather. In a speech this week at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Science and Technology Forum and Exposition conference, Under Secretary of Defense for AT&L, Frank Kendall warned that “China and Russia … are modernizing particularly fast … at a rate that I find disconcerting. China is modernizing in a very strategic and focused way. It is fielding systems that directly challenge our capabilities.” Last week China allegedly tested a hypersonic boost glide vehicle launched from an ICBM. Late last year it sent its first aircraft carrier into the South China Sea. Both Russia and China are investing in so called anti-access/area denial capabilities designed to counter areas of U.S. technological and operational advantage or, at a minimum, impose on U.S. forces an unfavorable cost-exchange ratio between their relatively cheap offensive systems and our relatively dear defensive capabilities.
Nor is this problem limited to just the U.S.-China military balance. The rate at which advanced military technology is proliferating is increasing. Moreover, it is getting into the hands of non-state actors as well as rogue states and would-be hegemons. Israeli sources are now warning that Syria and Hezbollah are deploying precision-guided heavy rockets and will inevitably come to possess GPS-guided ballistic missiles. Hezbollah and Hamas together have thousands of “dumb” rockets and missiles which could be turned into smart weapons at relatively low cost.
Israel’s missile defense against shorter range rockets and missiles such as those Hezbollah possesses, using the Iron Dome system, relies on the inaccuracy of the incoming weapons to establish a manageable cost-exchange ratio between the offense and the defense. Only a small fraction of the missiles and rockets launched against Israel require interception; lacking precision guidance, the majority of them fall into open spaces. If all those thousands of weapons possessed precision guidance, Israel’s current missile defense system would collapse. Nor could Israel, even with U.S. assistance, field enough interceptors to defeat thousands of incoming smart weapons. The cost-exchange ratio would be impossible.
The U.S. is going to confront the same problem. Cheap ballistic and cruise missiles launched en-masse would threaten to overwhelm or at least exhaust existing defenses, forcing surviving U.S. forces to withdraw. Individually, U.S. defensive systems and interceptors are better than the offensive missiles they would attempt to engage. The problem is the cost-exchange ratio.
The U.S. and its allies, all nations subject to the threat of proliferated smart missiles and rockets, are going to have to find ways of defeating the threat or at least reversing the unfavorable cost-exchange ratio.
One set of technologies that show serious promise of being able to achieve this objective are directed energy weapons. These include lasers, microwave generators and hypervelocity projectiles (HVP) launched from rail guns or modified conventional large caliber guns. I have already written about the implications of naval lasers for countering the growing missile threat to the Fleet and bending the cost-exchange ratio in our favor. In a recent article in Proceedings on the future surface fleet, Rear Admiral Thomas Rowden, Director, Surface Warfare Division (OPNAV N96), predicted that as early as ten years out shipboard lasers and HVPs could enter the Fleet. As the Admiral remarked regarding the latter weapon system, “The HVP’s attributes, coupled with accurate guidance electronics, may provide game-changing, low-cost mission effectiveness against current and future threats.”
But the U.S. military is not moving out aggressively to pursue these potentially game-changing options. If the Navy is serious about directed energy weapons in the mid-term it needs to wake up. R&D programs, including prototype development and testing need to be completed in the next few years. The Navy foremost, but the other services as well, need to take the steps necessary in order to make directed energy weapons programs of record and to prepare for their fielding within the next decade. We cannot afford the standard 20 year acquisition program with its intolerance of risk, endless testing and funding instability. It is time for another Manhattan Project.
Find Archived Articles: