Small Wars Journal

This Week at War: Size Matters

In my Foreign Policy column, I explain that if the Pentagon wants to save money on weapons, it should think big rather than small.


Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, has created a tempest with an article in the latest issue of Proceedings, published by the U.S. Naval Institute. Defense analysts have zeroed in on Greenert's assertion that U.S. adversaries will eventually be able to use unusual radar-wave forms and high-powered computing to find even the most elusive stealth aircraft. Many observers interpreted this acknowledgement by the Navy's top officer to be a crack in the Pentagon phalanx defending the troubled and hugely expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. A Navy spokesman later denied that Greenert intended any such implication and declared the Navy remains committed to the F-35.

The larger point of Greenert's essay was an argument for a fundamental reassessment of how the Pentagon should approach weapons procurement. His discussion of the fleeting advantage of stealth technology was an example of how the accelerating advance of technology renders weapons platforms such as aircraft and ships obsolete and vulnerable at a breakneck pace. Yet due to the immense expense of such platforms, Pentagon acquisition officials will require them to stay in service for decades. The task for designers and program officials is find a way to keep platforms relevant even as new technology quickly makes them obsolete.

For Greenert, the answer is to fashion platforms such as aircraft and ships to be large, simple "trucks" rather than exotic, yet soon-to-be-obsolete, "luxury sedans." Platforms carry payloads such as missiles and sensors, which field commanders change depending on the required mission at that moment. It is much easier for weapons designers to upgrade to new payloads as technology advances -- a process much cheaper than upgrading platforms to the latest technology. Thus, according to Greenert, it makes more sense to focus technology investment on the payloads and economize on the platforms by buying simple "trucks."

This is hardly a new concept for weapons procurement and is a technique the Pentagon has successfully employed numerous times over the past five decades, resulting in huge savings to taxpayers. Yet the success stories of platform adaptation have more often been the result of fortuitous improvisation rather than calculated design. The platforms that have most successfully adapted to new roles have one dimension in common: they have all been some of the biggest ships and aircraft in the U.S. arsenal. Successfully implementing Greenert's adaptable "truck" concept may require Pentagon planners to favor "big box" platforms over their little brothers.

Greenert opens his essay by noting that the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise made it through five decades of service because it was easily able to upgrade its payload  -- the aircraft it hosted -- as new generations of aircraft replaced obsolete models. Enterprise's huge size also contributed to its adaptability; it had the space, storage, and electrical power generation capacity to receive new aircraft types, adjust crew requirements, and upgrade ship equipment, factors that have constrained the adaptability of smaller ships. Other examples of adaptation include the temporary conversion of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk into a sea base for special operations forces at the start of the Afghan war in late 2001 and the arrival in the Persian Gulf this month of USS Ponce, an amphibious assault ship now operating as a floating forward base. Just as Enterprise has seen several generations of aircraft on its decks since the 1960s, more than a few classes of smaller escorting destroyers and frigates have come and gone, too. Having learned from Enterprise's example, the Navy has built adaptability into the design of its new Gerald R. Ford class of aircraft carriers.

Size and electrical power constraints may obstruct the Navy's current plans to upgrade the fleet's air and missile defense capabilities. Fleet commanders must contend with advancing anti-ship missile threats. The Navy has also been tasked to play a major role in a national missile-defense system and the Obama administration's European Phased Adaptive Approach missile defense plan. The Navy is developing a next-generation Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR) suite to cope with these requirements. However, there are doubts about whether the current Arleigh Burke class of guided missile destroyers -- the intended host of the AMDR -- has the space and power capacity to take full advantage of the new radar's capabilities. If not, Navy program managers should consider adapting the larger San Antonio class amphibious assault ship, both to accommodate the new radar and to host a much larger arsenal of interceptor missiles than the Burke destroyers can support.

The Navy's biggest submarine has also been one of its most flexible and adaptable platforms. The 1994 nuclear posture review determined that the Navy did not need four of its 18 large Ohio class ballistic missile submarines. Instead of scrapping the boats, the Navy removed the 24 strategic nuclear missiles on each and replaced them with 154 Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles (one of these subs, the USS Florida, used its Tomahawks to take out Libya's air defense system at the start of last year's Operation Odyssey Dawn). There is also room on each of these four converted subs for up to 66 special forces personnel, their equipment, and facilities to insert these commandos ashore. The large space and power available on the big Ohio class submarines made such conversions worthwhile. In the future, Marines on Navy surface ships will face increasing risk approaching enemy shorelines defended with anti-ship missiles. Large submarines converted into troop carriers could permit a clandestine approach to a defended shoreline and would have the capacity to support the landing of hundreds of assault troops, who could clear a beach for follow-on forces.

The Air Force similarly provides examples of its "big box" aircraft -- its long-range bombers -- outliving many generations of smaller fighter aircraft. Now in its sixth decade of service, the B-52 has seen careers as a nuclear bomber, a cruise missile "truck," and as a conventional bomber flying close air support missions in Afghanistan with satellite-guided bombs. Now it is reinventing itself once again for maritime missions in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The 1970s vintage B-1 bomber has followed a similar path, from the nuclear mission in the 1980s to one of the premier close air support aircraft over Afghanistan. It is the B-1, not small fighters, that has dropped 60 percent of the bombs in support of ground troops in Afghanistan. And like the B-52s, the B-1s are now outfitting for maritime reconnaissance and strike contingencies. The Air Force's big bombers have been adaptable because they have had the space and electrical power to take on new equipment and because their large payload bays have provided the flexibility to accept a wider variety of munitions. Finally, their long range has meant that theater basing constraints have never been an issue.

Technology is the Pentagon's double-edged sword. It has brought the U.S. military impressive, but inevitably fleeting, advantages. Greenert's "truck" model recommends shifting the technology race to the payloads rather than the platforms. This will mean designing adaptability into systems from the beginning rather than counting on clever improvisation later on. For Greenert, the simple but adaptable trucks provide the best long term value for the Pentagon.

Greenert's logic is appealing but has its limits. Simple or not, the "big boxes" are still very pricey; there remains a strong correlation between platform size and cost. And no matter how capable or capacious, a ship or aircraft can only be in one place at one time. As long as the United States military retains global responsibilities, it will need enough quantity to maintain a presence where those responsibilities require. The Pentagon thus cannot afford just big box ships and airplanes.

In addition, commanders will still need a fully diversified portfolio of capabilities. Even if the trucks are poised with large magazines of long-range missiles, they still need to be told where to shoot those missiles. That will require a stealthy aircraft, manned or unmanned, that can find and cue targets while loitering for long periods inside defended airspace. That essential task will fall on the F-35, the F-22, the Air Force's next-generation bomber, and the Navy's future carrier-based drone. Greenert was right to remind his readers that the Pentagon's uncontested advantage in stealth is coming to an end. But it is also true that the competition between aircraft and air defenses has been going on since World War I. Stealth was not the last move in this game.




Mon, 07/16/2012 - 5:05pm

In reply to by Move Forward

Move Forward: I finally had the opportunity to read the Admiral's entire article. I found several things interesting. It has been almost three decades since my time with the Navy finally ended, and although having worked in aerospace,I had very little association with Navy weapons systems over that time.

First, reflecting my day and maybe today, I agree with you that the land component should never be allowed to be under budgeted or become irrelevantly viewed. We don't need a repeat of our opening experience in Korea when we committed poorly equipped and under trained ground forces at high cost. Like my father who retired in 1967 as a Navy E-9, but who started in the military in the mid-1930's in the US Army horse drawn field artillery carrying French 75's (I have the pictures) always said: Ground forces win wars, we (the Navy) just deliver them to the scene and provide support thereafter.

That said, after opening with a description of how technology changes impact war fighting from a Navy perspective -- using a description of how passive radar systems can function, which I found fascinating, but in my day would have been to informative for the public; the Admiral followed with his description of what he describes as a new approach to extending the lives of ships by changing the weapons systems they carry. A necessity because he indirectly notes the Navy will not have the budget to build new ships designed to carry new weapons systems. Thus he he plans, simply put, to change the weapons systems and the accompanying electronics on ships over time as technology progresses and thereby extend their life and not suffer due to what will be reduced budgets. It will also enable the Navy to more rapidly have modern technology available versus building new ships.

What surprises me is that the Admiral either doesn't know, or cleverly failed to acknowledge, that is exactly the type of program Admiral Arleigh Burke instituted when he was CNO in the 1950's (initially) for our destroyers at that time. Admiral Burke stated that the Navy would not have the budget, at that time, to build new destroyers, but facing the Soviet Navy's growing submarine forces, he knew that destroyers would play a key role in that contest should it occur. Those were the days when the USAF bomber boys and ICBM types were winning the budget wars.

Those upgraded destroyers proved their during the Cuban Missile Crisis when the US Navy intercepted six Russian subs on the way to Cuba. post embargo implementation, and drove them to the surface and then closely tracked each Soviet sub non stop, letting them know they would be immediately sunk if they attempted hostile action.

Admiral Burke had the Navy institute the "Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization" (FRAM) program to upgrade the Fleets destroyers by removing old technology and unneeded weapons systems and replacing them with new electronics and weapons systems. Literally hundreds of destroyers were upgraded -- we had a large Navy in those days including 320 DD's DDG's and DE's. The program was later expanded to cover almost all types of ships.

Destroyers received the then new AN/SQS-23 SONAR, the ASROC rocket-assisted anti-submarine torpedo launcher, the DASH antisubmarine helicopter with a range of up to 22 miles, ECM equipment, etc. Instead of retiring seven older aircraft carriers, they were converted to CVS's for ASW missions and carried 3 squadrons dedicated to hunting subs, some heavy cruisers such as the Chicago were converted to floating anti-aircraft platforms, etc. These were major electronics and weapons systems overhauls of the nature the Admiral plans to do over time once again.

It doesn't require large ships to handle these technical changes in capability. In fact, it should be somewhat simpler today. In the 1950's and 1960's electronics was extremely heavy and space consuming due to its reliance on vacuum tubes, etc. I was an officer on at least two WWII ships that had undergone a FRAM upgrade -- a DD and a CVS. They were certainly crowded due to the space requirements absorbed by the new weapons systems, but functional. One of those ships went through an upgrade in capability during a 7 month period in dry dock when I was assigned to it. It was a fascinating process.

As the WWII ships aged many were retired and replaced by newer ships, one of which I was later assigned to (a new type DE). Apparently, after my time, the Navy decided to simply mothball these ships rather than upgrade them as their systems aged and to build new ones to replace them, or at least that was the plan. A benefit of Reagen era budgets. The only reason I could see for proceeding that way is that the Navy was then in processing of changing its engines from steam boiler driven to jet turbine driven. Totally different fuel requirements. Regardless, the newer ones (from my time) were certainly far more advanced, less crowded, and air conditioned versus the older ones I rode on, but their lifespan was much shorter.

Admiral Greenert is effectively reconstituting the FRAM program in these forthcoming tight budget years. As for the Enterprise, it is an older ship. I remember watching from the bridge of another ship as the Enterprise launched her morning strikes off of North Vietnam in 1968. Out of curiosity I timed their launch. She launched 65 aircraft in just a few minutes -- forgot the exact time, just remember being amazed at the speed of that launch. Sooner or later, ships wear out. She is over 50 years old and is apparently going to be scrapped? Maybe with new carriers coming on line, the Navy does not have the budget to operate the Enterprise. However, again in olden post WW-II times they mothballed ships that were still sea worthy in case of future needs. I remember the massive mothball fleet maintained at the Philadelphia Navy Yard when I was there. Times and economics change, I guess.

Move Forward

Sun, 07/15/2012 - 6:15pm

In reply to by CBCalif

Agree with much of what you say CB, but Admiral Greenert specifically cited LCS as the first example of replacing and upgrading modules instead of building entirely new ships. He cites the problem of using multi-system destroyers to combat piracy, and LPDs for flag-showing and humanitarian support missions other than amphibious assault. Both are missions the LCS could handle. Existing ships like the modernized Ponce become platforms for modernized aircraft and the new payloads they support. I still don't understand why we would dismantle a perfectly good CVN carrier.

He says this does not mean the end of stealth. It just may mean that we cannot throw money at a marble-sized RCS for F/A-XX or long range strike bombers when golf-ball size might suffice. You may not need 100 bombers at a highly questionable $550 million each when they can be found and shot down deep over enemy territory. You can create munition payloads, unmanned aerial system refuelers and conformal pods that support or fit in the current and revised F-35C that meet the loitering, range, stealth, and sensor requirements without starting from scratch.

The overwhelming majority of potential adversaries spend well under $10 billion annually on defense. They will never afford the quantity and quality of fighters and air defenses that Russia and China can afford, and even Russia is questionable in terms of what they can afford. Few nations pose imposing distance constraints not easily accomodated by fighters with aerial refuelers and standoff weapons. Many nations can afford land Armies and buried systems that are hard to detect or that hug civilians or complex terrain to make air-targeting difficult.

The current plan for F-35s and perhaps a F-35 based F/A-XX with upgradeable payloads that fit both internally and externally is fully adequate for the next 50 years when combined with F-22, B-2, B-1B, P-8 and existing long range weapons like JASSM-ER, SLAM-ER, JSOW, and Navy vertical-launched weapons. We cannot throw so much money at perceived but unlikely Pacific threats, that the land component becomes irrelevant because it can't deploy because the Air Force cuts back on airlift and the Navy on sealift.

Admiral Greenert's implication and logic are correct. It is the essence of high tech warfare conducted by the Navy. New weapons platforms (Ships, subs, planes) are designed to hide in the medium in which they operate and then, understanding that our potential enemies will develop similar systems, we develop technology to locate those hidden platforms and destroy them. Once that occurs, until the next generation of weapons systems can be developed, we develop systems and / or tactics that enable the platform to possibly reduce the possibility of discovery or break the lock on of generally controlled responses aimed at eliminating them. Anyone who believed that technical methods such as "passive radar" wouldn't, couldn't, or wasn't being developed to locate stealth aircraft hasn't spent time in the world of high tech warfare systems.

This game has been playing out for a long time, but the difference is that today it receives (far too much[?]) publicity. In the past secrets were kept and few realized many of the detection capabilities we possessed. As an example, in the 1960's the belief was held (by those who were interested) that the USN could not locate Russian nuclear powered submarines at sea, when in fact through a system of different types of passive listening devices and systems strategically placed and through tactics employed by a combination of ASW Group ships and P-3 aircraft operating in a coordinated manner we could and did track and locate them. The systems that provided some of the location data and more were "top secret" (since declassified probably due to obsolescence) as was their name. No one that was involved with them (I was a Navy Officer assigned to ASW Groups) ever leaked that information to the public or press -- of that era.

I don't know if the discussions about scientific / engineering developments in search capability are good or bad, but welcome to the world of high tech warfare. No platform, despite its design, will remain hidden forever. Our Aerospace industry (where I was once employed post-Navy) definitely has the best and the brightest engineers and scientists working there. This country had better make certain that our defense budgets don't shrink so much they lose that talent or this nation's military will someday be in big trouble.

That applies to the ground forces as well as to the Navy and Air Force. I personally knew (not to imply my age) the engineers who developed the laser targeting system for the (then) XM-1 and the Fire Finder radar for the US Army's artillery. Where would the ground forces be if a reduced defense budget had eliminated the development and manufacture of those capabilities?

Move Forward

Sun, 07/15/2012 - 11:38am

In reply to by carl

I'm not remotely authoritative on fighter or air defense technology, but even the AOL defense article mentions LM has considered an optionally-manned version of F-35. The F/A-18E/F and EA-18G are new enough that a F/A-XX isn't even necessary for at least 20 or 30 years.

That would give LM plenty of time to modify the same or similar software and hardware in the same approximate dimensions with conformal tanks for buddy refueling. By then a new more powerful single engine will be available, as well.

IIRC, we bombed radio and TV stations early in OIF 1 and with initial attacks at night you would expect little cell phone traffic and bombed towers in certain corridors. After corridors are available, external stores could be used on F-35 variants to employ longer range munitions from within the attacked aggressor nation or its neighbor they have invaded.


Sun, 07/15/2012 - 1:48am

In reply to by Move Forward

Move Forward:

I don't think we will ever see a two seat version of the F-35. It would be a huge task to do that and given the pace of the program so far it would be fielded at least 20 years after they started to seriously work on it. But more importantly, if they did start to work on one, it would be an admission that way back when they decided to only produce single seat versions of the airplane, that was a mistake. That would never ever do.

The kind of radar you mentioned, the cell phone tower one, I thought that concept would use every kind of transmitter out there, TV, broadcast radio etc. I didn't think it solely relied on cell transmissions. Is that wrong?

Move Forward

Sun, 07/15/2012 - 12:54am

Reading Admiral Greenert's article, imagine my surprise when I found none of the anti F-35 bias so many analysts have attributed to his article. Then I read AOL Defense and see that the Navy may see a modified F-35C as the sole realistic future F/A-XX replacement of the F/A-18E/F and EA-18G.…

The sole stealth-related footnotes provided in the Admiral's article are from a Bill Sweetman (!) article circa Dec 2001! That article did not include any of the L-band radar that Air Power Australia touts as the Russian fighter stealth-killer of the future...even though no L-band missiles exist. If cell phone towers could find stealth aircraft is there much doubt that they all would be targeted at night by cruise missiles prior to our first stealth aircraft strikes? And computers can still be fooled by EA-18G and F-35C, not to mention jamming and regular air-launched decoys.

Reference those decoys and other Navy UAS, a dual-seat F-35 adaptation that doubles as an aerial refueler with longer endurance could control Navy stealth UAS and even optionally-manned regular F-35C. The less stealthy rear of the F-35C would allow dual-seat F-35s to track bomb and missile "truck" regular F-35 operating forward of the dual-seat larger F-35.

A fighter can always defend itself semi-deep over enemy territory provided it has stealthy aerial refueling available. A penetrating bomber that loiters is less likely to defend itself and escape enemy fighters with a general idea of its loitering location...provided by those L-Band and Cell-phone radars...

However, most threats will not have large numbers of stealth-fighters and high tech air defenses which is the whole point of stealth. It prices nearly all enemies out of fighter aircraft and air defenses capable of dealing with large numbers of U.S. and allied stealth aircraft and stealth cruise missiles and other stand-off stealth munitions. Many potential threats will never get the state of the art anyway due to sanctions the Russians and Chinese may honor if North Korea and Iran are any indication. Syria appears to be another matter.

If potential adversaries will eventually be able to find and track the most elusive of stealth aircraft because of radar and computer advances, how would this "That will require a stealthy aircraft, manned or unmanned, that can find and cue targets while loitering for long periods inside defended airspace." be possible? If stealthy strike aircraft will be found won't stealthy recce aircraft be found also? If so, then loitering over the target or enemy territory won't be possible.

If that isn't possible, I think you would have to go back to the old days when recon airplanes dashed over targets and depended on sheer performance to survive. SR-71 redux?

Satellites, big capable ones, might be too predictable thereby being easy targets. Could you launch, via aircraft (say stripped down F-15s) small recon satellites that would make only one pass over the target to get info immediately before a strike was launched? The enemy wouldn't know they were there until they came over the horizon. I know next to nothing about satellites but the thought occurred to me and I'm just asking.