US Navy’s increasing tilt towards US Airforce for support!
The US Navy wants to build more ships and submarines to keep parity with the Chinese navy, but this option is a very costly way to increase offensive power. The Congressional Budget Office in 2017 estimated that the cost to increase the Navy fleet from 308 ships to 355 would add 13 percent to the budget ($102 billion versus $90 billion a year) and would necessitate increasing Navy personnel strength by 48,000 people. Yet more ships do not yield a proportional boost in operationally significant fire power. For each additional Burke-class guided missile destroyer, for example, only 20 to 30 of its 96 VLS tubes could be used for anti-ship missiles.
Nor could those ships rely on submarines, which would almost certainly be focused on anti-submarine warfare and land attack using TLAMs in the opening days of any conflict. Carrier-based strike aircraft, meanwhile, have relatively limited payloads and range. The F/A-18 can only carry a pair of LRASMs, for example, and even with the capabilities of an F-35C to draw on, if a carrier had to remain east of Guam due to anti-ship missile threats, a maximum-range LRASM strike would not penetrate far into the Philippine Sea. This means carrier-based aircraft would have extreme difficulty approaching enemy targets in the Western Pacific and East Asia, and any subsequent strikes would depend on the availability of munitions onboard aircraft carriers and replenishment ships.
Rather than a costly naval buildup that might not achieve the necessary increase in maritime striking power to meet the demands of our national military strategy, an asymmetric—and truly joint—approach is to rely on Air Force bombers to increase US maritime strike capability. This is by far the most cost-effective option available to achieve the desired effect. B-52, B-1B, and B-2 bombers are developed, deployed, and operational today and the B-21 now in development will also conduct maritime strike.
The B-21 is already programmed into the Air Force’s budget and will add to this capability once deployed. The primary cost to the Air Force will come from developing additional naval-strike capabilities for these aircraft such as acquiring new ASCMs, training bomber crews in maritime operations, and expanding efforts to ensure robust Air Force-Navy maritime strike interoperability.
The reasoning behind using bombers today is very similar to why they were called on in World War II and during the Cold War. These are large aircraft, designed to carry large payloads and travel long distances at speeds 30 to 40 times faster than ships, while requiring a fraction of the resources and manpower to achieve commensurate combat effects.
A B-52H can carry 8 to 12 Harpoon anti-ship missiles, along with 20 AGM-158 joint air-to-surface standoff munition (JASSM) weapons. The JASSM is the weapon the LRASM is based on and has the same size and weight characteristics. In comparison, the B-1B can carry 24 JASSM-class weapons, and the B-2 can carry 16. To date, the B-1B is the only one of the three that has launched an LRASM, but both the B-52 and B-2 could be adapted easily to carry them. Other weapons could also be used in the maritime strike mission aboard bombers. Though Air Force aircraft have never launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, it is slightly smaller and lighter than the AGM-86C/D conventional air-launched cruise missile—of which a B-52 can carry 20.
The US Navy is slated to deploy an anti-ship variant of the Tomahawk in the 2020s. Thus, the possibility of integrating an anti-ship variant of the Tomahawk onto B-52s and B-1Bs should be investigated as a possibility to enhance maritime attack capabilities for little additional investment.
Long-range strike weapons and cruise missiles could generate a large amount of flexible strike capacity onboard Air Force bombers. Putting Tomahawks on bombers could hold vessels in the Chinese littorals at risk, outside the range of ground-based air defenses, while a single bomber equipped with LRASMs could launch a salvo equal to that of a destroyer or submarine—and two bombers could launch as many as an entire carrier air wing.
In addition to the strike flexibility of their weapons, the range and speed of bombers allow for great operational flexibility in the maritime mission. All three Air Force bomber types have flown numerous long-range sorties from bases in the United States to strike targets in Asia, then safely returned home. The unrefueled combat radius of Air Force bombers—the maximum distance they can travel to a target and return—is between 2,500 and 4,500 nm, depending on the variant and payload. With this range bombers can strike from distant bases safe from enemy attack, approach from unpredictable directions, and attack from multiple azimuths simultaneously.
Speed also gives bombers rapid re-strike capability, as they could return to base, reload, and launch new strikes in hours. By contrast, submarines and ships could take over a week to replenish their weapons stocks. Even accounting for forward anchorages or replenishment underway, bombers could launch far more weapons in a comparable timeframe.
The mobility of maritime targets presents a complex targeting and cueing problem. However, in just two hours, two B-52s can monitor 140,000 square miles (364,000 square kilometers) of ocean surface—orders of magnitude greater than possible with two surface ships. This mission area also epitomizes the potential to engage via a “combat cloud” approach that links together various sensor and shooter aircraft and surface platforms.
In the 1980s, the Air Force and Navy practiced strike cueing by using the E-2C, P-3, and E-3A AWACS to cue B-52s. In 2004, as Pacific Air Force’s director of operations, I orchestrated the “Resultant Fury” test exercise demonstrating that an E-8 JSTARS aircraft could find and track maritime targets and pass that information to B-52s and their weapons to strike ships under way. The Navy’s P-8 and MQ-4C remotely piloted aircraft can also detect and track maritime targets and share that information to bombers.
A compelling operational solution for finding and tracking maritime targets in an environment filled with high-threat air defenses is to employ stealth aircraft such as the B-2 and the B-21. These bombers have the range and endurance to find enemy surface ships within close proximity of their targets, and then are capable of transmitting precise data to both stealthy and non-stealthy shooters to take advantage of the ranges of their respective weapons. Stealth bombers can also attack maritime targets in closer proximity with larger numbers of smaller weapons, while B-1Bs could strike at distance using LRASMs—severely complicating the defensive problem for surface ships or other adversary forces.
US Air Force bombers offer joint and combined combatant commanders a strong, cost-effective, and efficient deterrent to Adversary’s naval power; bolster US Navy and allied forces in continuing efforts to counter adversary; and enhance American national security options to respond to potential adversary aggression in the Asia-Pacific theater and around the globe.
Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, USAF (Ret.) is Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.