Past & Present of the US Maritime Warfare: On July 21, 1921, US Army Air Service Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell sank the decommissioned German battleship SMS Ostfriesland, shattering the conventional military wisdom that such ships were invulnerable to air attack. Combat aircraft have been sinking ships from the air ever since.
Modern combat aircraft can travel hundreds of miles an hour, patrol vast expanses of geography, and extend their reach with standoff weapons. US Air Force bomber forces, with their speed, maneuverability, stealth and advanced weapons and sensors afford superior survivability compared to naval vessels. In a modern threat environment, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, the advantages of using bombers in a maritime strike role is becoming more relevant to future military strategies, plans, and budget priorities.
Indeed, US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) has already carried out test exercises to demonstrate bombers’ great capability and operational flexibility against potential adversaries with significant offensive naval capability. Modern weapons, such as the long-range anti-ship missile (LRASM), give the US a significant capability from bomber aircraft against hostile surface vessels. Pairing LRASM with modern sensors, bomber aircraft can now conduct all-weather precision engagements against mobile maritime targets with less risk than naval vessels, and do so in hours, rather than days or weeks.
In the 1970s, the Soviet Union built up and deployed a large, global fleet equipped with powerful, long-range anti-ship weapons. The Soviet buildup occurred as the US Navy was shrinking and the Vietnam War was winding down. Between 1969 and 1979, the US Navy’s active fleet shrunk from 1,007 to 540 ships. In contrast, the Soviets built powerful new surface ships with large missile payloads, deploying weapons such as the SS-N-19 “Shipwreck” anti-ship missile aboard the nuclear-powered Kirov-class cruisers. By 1979, the Soviet navy fleet stood at 1,764 active vessels. Soviet naval aviation also deployed land-based bombers, such as the Tu-95 Bear, Tu-16 Badger, and Tu-22 Backfire, all armed with long-range anti-ship missiles.
In response to this buildup, interest in the US Air Force’s contribution to maritime operations surged. In 1975, the Air Force agreed to train air crews in ocean surveillance, maritime strike, and aerial mine laying in cooperation with the Navy. B-52s began conducting ocean surveillance missions in the Atlantic and Pacific and regularly trained with the Navy in the conduct of these missions. By 1983, B-52 bombers armed with AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles were stationed in Maine and Guam to counter Soviet naval forces. A concept of operations took shape that envisaged groups of B-52s under the control of a Navy E-2C or P-3, or an Air Force E-3A AWACS, attacking Soviet naval surface forces. As many as 10 B-52s could descend to low altitude, approach from different directions, and launch salvos of Harpoons to saturate defenses. In addition to the B-52’s large missile capacity, and the fact that it could replenish its weapons in hours versus the days or weeks ships required, it also had the range to attack enemy naval surface groups before they came within range of US Navy ships.
With the end of the Cold War, however, the military services downsized these capabilities as part of the “peace dividend.” Without the Soviet threat, the US Navy shrank again, from a total active force of 592 vessels at the end of the Cold War to 287 today. This reduction was ostensibly offset by an increase in the number of missile tubes aboard each ship. In the late 1980s, the surface fleet boasted some 5,000 missile launch tubes. These were composed of around 3,300 vertical launch system (VLS) tubes and 1,600 others, such as those for the AGM-84 Harpoon missile. Today’s Navy surface fleet has nearly 9,000 VLS tubes.
In reality, more missile tubes do not necessarily translate into more maritime strike power. Most of those tubes are armed with defensive anti-aircraft missiles to protect the battle group and ballistic missiles; offensive missiles amount to only one-quarter to one-third of a typical ship’s VLS loadout, and most of these are Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles (TLAM)—not anti-ship or anti-submarine weapons.
In the Asia-Pacific area of operations, with its vast distances, land-based airpower’s maritime strike capacity could prove vital. New weapons have increased airpower’s capability for this mission. The Navy has developed the AGM-158C long-range anti-ship missile, an anti-ship variant of the SM-6 standard missile, and the naval strike missile (NSM). The SM-6 has a range exceeding 250 nautical miles (nm), and though it has a light warhead, it boasts enormous kinetic energy due to its Mach 3.5 speed. The LRASM has a range over 200 miles, and like the Tomahawk, has a 1,000-lb warhead. Surface Navy ships, the F/A-18 Super Hornet, and the B-1B bomber are all slated to employ LRASM. The NSM, as well, is considered a very stealthy weapon with a range of around 100 nm.
The capabilities of Air Force bombers are also being considered while the Navy is trying to halt and then reverse the decline in the size of its active fleet. The Navy’s plan anticipates a 342-ship active fleet by 2040, an upward trend but short of its goal of 355 ships. Only a portion will be deployed in the Western Pacific at any given time, however, and only about 100 ships will be forward deployed on any given day in peacetime. The remainder are either in maintenance or training or in transit to or from forward locations. In 2015, out of 272 ships, there were around 54 in the Western Pacific, 24 in the Indian Ocean, and 13 in the Mediterranean; plans call for increasing presence in the Western Pacific to around 67 ships by the 2020s.
In the event of a conflict with China, the US Navy would be at a tactical disadvantage as the Chinese would be able to surge most of its naval assets from nearby ports against only 20 percent of the entire American Navy.
Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM), with 1,000-pound warheads and a range of more than 200 miles, are slated to be employed by USAF B-1Bs as well as Navy assets.
Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, USAF (Ret.) is Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.