It is time for U.S. defense planners to accept the reality that our likely adversaries believe they have figured out how to beat us. Simply put, they are betting that quantity will defeat quality, particularly in a protracted conflict. The U.S. military may be playing into our opponent’s strategy to the extent that it reduces end strength and numbers of platforms in response to declining budgets. Individually, our men and women in uniform may be more capable than their adversaries and our aircraft, ships and tanks more sophisticated and deadly, but they are in danger of being swamped by enemies willing to take casualties, absorbing losses until our forces run out of weapons or even platforms. Bad U.S. acquisition decisions have contributed to this problem. Two examples of this are the decisions to truncate the B-2 and F-22 programs at 21 and 187 airframes, respectively.
Regimes such as those in Pyongyang and Teheran are betting on numbers to win the day. With only a few exceptions, neither country is seeking to deploy military hardware equal to our own. North Korea has for decades maintained a force of some 10,000 artillery tubes and rocket launchers on its side of the demilitarized zone capable of reaching Seoul. Add to this the nearly 700,000 ground troops within 60 miles of the border, a special operations command of 200,000 and an air force of around 1,600 planes and it is easy to see that they plan to roll over the South Korean and U.S. defenses before our superior technology can be brought to bear. Similarly, Iran is betting on its swarms of small attack craft, sea mines, older model anti-shipping cruise missiles and antiquated fighters to allow it to defeat, or at least bring to a standstill a more sophisticated but numerically inferior coalition led by the United States. Of course, this doesn’t even consider Pyongyang or Teheran’s growing arsenals of ballistic missiles based largely on obsolescent Soviet-era technology.
China today is still relying on quantity to defeat quality even as it invests in advanced missiles, aircraft, ships and submarines that could bring it into technological parity with the United States and our allies sometime in the 2030s. The Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) has deployed what is easily the world’s densest air defense network. While many of the radars and even interceptors are older models, sheer numbers not only increase the potential for detecting and tracking inbound platforms and weapons but also the probability of the defense being able to put enough missiles and fighters into the air to defeat a technologically-superior, numerically inferior adversary. The PLA Air Force and Navy can afford to suffer extremely high losses in order to go after critical U.S. high value, low density assets. In addition, the Chinese military already has thousands of ballistic missiles and land attack cruise missiles within range of Taiwan, Japan and U.S. forward deployed forces and bases. Based on current procurement plans, there will not be a sufficient number of defensive missiles in our inventory to defeat this threat.
The U.S. military needs to invest in capabilities that alter, if not totally upend, what may already be a disadvantageous cost-exchange ratio in future conflicts, one which threatens to become insurmountable once our adversaries acquire advanced air defenses, missiles and fighters. Three emerging capabilities technologies offer the potential to achieve this goal. The first is directed energy, specifically solid state lasers. Deployed aboard newer Navy warships, with their ability to generate a lot of electric power, such a system offers the advantages of instantaneous engagements, deep magazines and low cost per shot. The second capability is tactical hypersonics. Extremely high speed air-to-ground and air-to-air weapons could extend the reach of older aircraft and negate Iranian, North Korean and even Chinese investments in quantity. The third capability is small, low-visibility unmanned aerial systems, particularly when employed in swarms. Such systems could be employed to perform low-power, stand-in electronic warfare or even serve as decoys to draw hostile fire, forcing adversaries to waste lots of shots.
These capabilities will provide additional potential operational benefits, as well. For example, laser-armed Navy surface combatants could reserve their highly valuable air and missile defense interceptors for the most dangerous threats and thereby devote more of their relatively scarce magazine spaces to offensive weapons. Fourth-generation aircraft equipped with hypersonic weapons could free up fifth-generation F-22s and F-35s for strike missions or to operate as penetrating ISR platforms.
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