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Can We Recreate the Battle of Midway’s “Luck”?

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Can We Recreate the Battle of Midway’s “Luck”?

In H. Ha

This past June marked the 72nd anniversary of the Battle of Midway, recognized as the turning point in the Pacific during World War II.  June 4th, 1942 is dramatized in books aptly titled Miracle at Midway, Incredible Victory, and No Right to Win.  Because at 1020, happenstance brought together three U.S. Navy dive-bomber squadrons, launched at disparate times from different decks, unopposed over four Japanese aircraft-carriers.  This simultaneous aggregation at the critical point is always desired but was unexpected.  In the next five minutes, these fifty dive-bombers would cripple three carriers.  Through the remains of that day, each side would lose a carrier and the balance of power in the Pacific was irrevocably shifted. 

Can this “luck” be recreated in order to engender future opportunities?  If this “luck” can be programmed as an Artificial Intelligence algorithm, then unmanned aviation will truly enter the robotic age.  Military forces based on unmanned autonomous systems will profoundly change how we fight and equip for war and defense of the United States and its partners.[1]  But technology alone will not suffice, it must be paired with yet unforeseen creative applications of that technology.  For as Max Boot writes, “The way to gain a military advantage, therefore, is not necessarily to be the first to produce a new tool or weapon.  Often it is to figure out better than anyone else how to utilize a widely available tool or weapon.”[2]

Battle of Midway

As dawn approached on June 4th, the Japanese “Mobile Force,” centered around four carriers, had sailed south-easterly along a line-of-bearing 200 miles from Midway.  At 0430, this mobile strike force commanded by Nagumo, launched 108 aircraft at Midway in preparation for amphibious assault.  He did not expect U.S. carrier action.  The prevailing thought was the Americans were in respite and would require the capture of Midway to lure the U.S. carriers out for a climatic at-sea Mahanian engagement.

Unbeknownst to the Japanese, American cryptanalysts on Hawaii had broken their codes and were cognizant of their major intentions.  Nimitz’s centerpieces were carriers Enterprise and Hornet in Task Force 16 commanded by Spruance and Yorktown in TF17 commanded by Fletcher and in overall command.  Each carrier group would operate independently but close enough for mutual support.  Meanwhile, Midway hastily received additional Marines and air assets (including Army B-26 and B-17 planes) to bolster their defenses.

To guide American forces, Nimitz promulgated, “Hold Midway and inflict maximum damage on the enemy by strong attrition tactics,” but not to accept “decisive action as would be likely to incur heavy losses in our carriers and cruisers.”  Direct guidance was provided in a letter of instruction, to be “governed by the principle of calculated risk,” which he defined as “the avoidance of exposure of your force to attack by superior enemy forces without good prospect of inflicting, as the result of such exposure, greater damage to the enemy.”  Target priorities were assigned to carriers, battleships, transports, cruisers and auxiliaries in that order.  Both TF’s were to rendezvous northeast of Midway with intent to ambush the enemy vectoring to Midway from the northwest.[3]

Doctrine in an Algorithm?

Nimitz’s issuance of clear intent, guidance, and priorities from his headquarters in Hawaii is well known.  These mission-command type orders are necessary for effective command-and-control of distant forces in sparse communications to achieve operational goals while not stifling tactical initiative.  This has similarities to designing a distributed artificial intelligence system where the overall system end-state is a sum of a multi-agent behaviors as commented in Parunak’s abstract (comments in brackets):

“Agent architectures need to organize themselves and adapt dynamically to changing circumstances without top-down control from a system operator [This describes what military doctrine and training is designed to effect and what mission-command type orders ideally achieve]. Some researchers provide this capability with complex agents that emulate human intelligence and reason explicitly about their coordination, reintroducing many of the problems of complex system design and implementation that motivated increasing software localization in the first place. Naturally occurring systems of simple agents (such as populations of insects or other animals) suggest that this retreat is not necessary [Likewise, complex exquisite weapon systems requirements may not be necessary]. This paper summarizes several studies of such systems, and derives from them a set of general principles that artificial multi-agent systems can use to support overall system behavior significantly more complex than the behavior of the individuals agents [Likewise, a campaign is a series of individual battles designed to achieve operational goals].”[4]

Hornet’s Flight to Nowhere

As Nagumo’s strike package was enroute, the Americans were trying to locate the unsuspected prey primarily using PBY Catalina’s, amphibious reconnaissance planes, based on Midway.  At 0552, a PBY reported Nagumo’s location, “Two carriers and battleships bearing 320 distance 180 course 135 Speed 25” from Midway.  Striking expeditiously was critical, so Spruance was ordered to “Proceed southwesterly and attack enemy carriers as soon as definitely located.”  As for Fletcher, Yorktown (CV-3) soon had to recover their scouting dive-bombers.  Spruance, meanwhile, closed the distance to the reported Japanese position 175 miles to his southwest and set 0700 as the launch time for TF-16.[5]

However, there was no plan to coordinate between Enterprise (CV-6) and Hornet (CV-8) within TF-16.  Unlike Japanese doctrine, American doctrine had each carrier air-wing operate individually, and each carrier had its own methods for ‘spotting’ planes on deck for launch.  Unlike modern aircraft carriers with angled decks and ample flattops to conduct launch and recovery operations simultaneously, WWII carriers were limited to one operation due to one runway.  Either spot on deck from below-deck hangers to the aft section of the flattop in preparation, launch, or recovery.  Enterprise chose to spot their Combat Air Patrol (CAP) fighters and longer-ranged SBDs (dive-bombers) first on deck for group launch.  Afterwards, escort-fighters and TBDs (torpedo-bombers) were elevatored up from the hanger deck for spot and launch to join the dive-bombers hovering above.  The intent was a balanced attack package travelling as one air armada: SBDs at high-altitude, TBDs at low-altitude, and fighters protecting both from enemy CAP.  After Enterprise’s first spot launched, problems delayed spotting the second group. During this delay, at 0740 an intercepted Japanese transmission revealing TF16’s position added urgency to resolve the issue as the element of surprise was waning.  So, Spruance ordered the airborne Enterprise dive-bombers to proceed on mission independently without their fighter-escort or torpedo-bombers. As such, LCDR McClusky, CV-6’s air-group commander, led thirty-three dive-bombers of Scouting Six (VS-6) and Bombing Six (VB-6) to the southwest climbing to 19,000 ft.  So at the outset, Enterprise’s strike was fragmented into two groups and further fragmented later when VF-6 could not find VT-6 whom they were supposed to escort.[6] 

Hornet completed launch at 0755 with some variance in spotting order, but inexplicably the air-group commander, LCDR Stanhope Ring, proceeding on a course nearly due west (265) rather than 240 toward the expected Japanese track toward Midway.  Shortly after take-off, LCDR Waldron in direct violation to Ring’s protests, veered off to 240 with his entire VT squadron toward the enemy.[7] 

Yorktown’s launch was well executed and aloft by 0906 for what became the only coordinated strike package sent to target.  Yorktown was a veteran of the recent Coral Sea Battle in the first carrier-vs-carrier battle but lessons learned were not yet disseminated to the fleet.  Fletcher maintained his Scouting Squadron onboard as a reserve.  Although launched cohesively, near enemy contact, this package also fragmented into two groups:  TBDs with two escort-fighters, and SBDs with four escort-fighters.

The three U.S. carriers launched 151 aircraft at disparate times toward the enemy’s general direction with little coordination to arrive upon the enemy simultaneously.  This air swarm decentralized into seven pulses, but “luck” would sequence their attacks and remass concurrently for critical effect.  Can we encode this?

Simplicity in Distributed Artificial Intelligence

Sometimes the most complicated problems require the simplest solutions.  Such was the case for “predator-prey” problem in the field of distributed artificial intelligence that vexed researchers for years.  In a moose hunt, a single wolf cannot match a powerful moose, but a pack of wolves can surround the moose so that one can deliver a killing blow when the moose is distracted by the pack.  Many proposed solutions assumed reasoning and communication capabilities not organic to wolves - akin to humans using radios for a coordinated attack.  A simpler solution proposed by Korf in 1992 requires only rudimentary sensing and action on the part of both moose and wolves:

1. Moose: move to the neighboring cell that is farthest away from the nearest wolf.

2. Wolves: move to the neighboring cell with the highest score as determined by,

S = d(moose) – k * d(wolf)

Where d(moose) is the distance to the moose, d(wolf) is the distance to the nearest other wolf, and k is a tuning constant modeling a repulsive force between wolves.  Parunak explains, “Each individual in the wolf-moose system both influences and is influenced by the entire system. Behavior of the overall system depends critically on the relative speeds of moose and wolves (since a fast moose can always escape a pack of slow wolves), and on the value of the parameter k that establishes the repulsion among wolves. When repulsion and attraction are suitably balanced, the wolves inevitably surround the moose, without any explicit communication or negotiation of strategies.”[8]

Regarding Ring’s flight to nowhere, although nonsensical, if the separate “pulses” are considered multi-agents (wolves) in a distributed artificial intelligence system then they make sense.  The repulsion factor (k) between these “wolves” dispersed them individually while collectively trying to surround Nagumo.

Sacrificial Lions

The American torpedo plane at the time was the TBD-1 Devastator that lugged a 2000 pound torpedo externally. It was the Navy’s first all-metal carrier monoplane, but by 1942 it was obsolete.  The proscribed attack profile was to fly at 80kts, 100 ft altitude on steady course to within 1000 yards of a ship.  This was a vulnerable position and doctrine was to attack with high-altitude SDBs to divide the efforts of enemy fighters present and with escort-fighters to protect both units in a combined strike package.  TBD squadrons attacking alone would be suicidal.  But that is exactly what happened to three torpedo-squadrons from Torpedo Squadron Eight (VT-8) from Hornet (CV-8) and VT-6 and VT-3 from Enterprise and Yorktown respectfully.  Of the 51 torpedo-planes that attacked in cadenced fashion, only 7 returned back!  The young Devastator pilots understood the odds facing them yet pressed on their attack runs while expectedly affecting no damage.

The common perception of these acts of valor, is that low-flying Devastators drew all the Japanese fighters to low-altitude in order to decimate the slow-flying torpedo-bombers.  Subsequently, this left the three squadrons of high-altitude SDBs unnoticed and unhindered to conduct their near vertical killing blows.  In the words of one Midway veteran, “You have to remember that the Japanese were subjected to no less than five separate torpedo attacks [B-26s and TBFs from Midway, then the three VT squadrons] over a period of only two hours or so, and the last three all came within the final hour. Despite their intense training and combat experience, the repeated attacks down low got those Zero pilots accustomed to the need for fighting at low altitude. By the time VT-6 and VT-3 showed up they had to expect it. They weren’t disappointed. VT-3 paid a terrible price for being the final bait, but they got it done. The Zeros were down low with them, not up there with McClusky and Leslie’s SBDs.”[9]

Although true, Parshall presents an overlooked analysis that serial torpedo-squadron attacks prevented the Japanese from launching their counter-strike at the U.S.  After Nagumo recovered his Midway strike force at 0912, he was sequentially attacked by three torpedo-squadrons preventing his flight decks to spot his own strike package upon the known American position: (approximate times) 0920 VT-8 attacks, 0940 VT-6 attacks, and 1010 VT-3 attacks.  Either Nagumo was launching and recovering fighters to replenish his CAP, or radically maneuvering his carriers to evade the incoming enemy.  Spotting on deck a Japanese strike force nominally takes 45 minutes to bring topside, warm-up, and launch - the Japanese carriers as a system had no respite.  As suicidal as the American torpedo-bombers attack runs seemed, they disrupted the enemy’s will.

Some theorists equate Force to Capability multiplied by Will.  Modern technology can enable autonomous drones where Will can be absolute.  Low-cost drones are expendable and can be used to distract and disrupt the enemy, moreso if used sacrificially.  Autonomy currently exists for constrained straight-forward tasks like landing on an aircraft-carrier or flying designated waypoints, but much more can be achieved.

A portfolio of UAV’s should align with two promising operating concepts, Air-Sea Battle (ASB) and Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA).  ASB’s operational approach to A2/AD challenges is a Networked, Integrated force capable of Attack-in-Depth to Disrupt, Destroy and Defeat adversary forces (NIA/D3).  All of these terms are self-explanatory, save for Attack-in-Depth which an ASB Office representative describes as: “offensive and defensive fires and includes both kinetic and non-kinetic means to attack an adversary’s critical vulnerabilities without requiring systematic destruction of the enemy’s defenses. This is a significant departure from today’s rollback methodology that relies on uncontested communications and the ability to establish air superiority, or dominance in any other domain. The attack-in-depth methodology seeks to create and exploit corridors and windows of control that are temporal in nature and limited in geography.”[10]

The military boogie-man known as A2/AD is nothing new to military history.  One example is World War I after initial sweeping maneuvers devolved to static lines with intricate trench systems, interlocking machine gun fields of fire, barbed wire, and incessant long-range artillery.  Such was the situation in March 1918 when the Germans began their spring offensive, but this time, new tactics were codified in a German manual The Attack in Position Warfare.  A Bavarian Captain had consolidated the army’s new concept of rapid advance and disregard for security of the flanks.  Attacks were led by specialized storm-troopers to cause envelopment and disruption.  The German offensives from March through July 1918 saw the largest territorial gains since trench warfare ensued years prior.[11]

NIFC-CA will provide long-range fire-control and projection, enable coordinated and cooperative situational awareness in a contested battlespace.  By sharing a common-operating picture and target-solutions between platforms, an indirect fire-support system is created.  Whereby, a sensor platform (forward-observer) can call-in long-range precision guided weapons from distant platforms (shooter) for massed coordinated fires. 

Going back to the Wolves-Moose system, an algorithm is used to surround the moose.  Likewise autonomous UAVs can be used to surround the target at effective missile range for massed fires - the wolves inevitably surround the moose, without any explicit communication or negotiation of strategies.  This is what happened on 4 June at 1020, but by happenstance, when McClusky and Leslie’s three dive-bomber squadrons appeared overhead the enemy at the same time from different vectors.

Proposed Portfolio of UAV’s

Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B):  long-range precision-guided munitions could be ‘on call’ for fire support or assigned deep missions itself after skirmishers have disrupted or decoyed defenses.

UCAV:  similar to the promise of X-47D, full broad-band stealth strike with long endurance to penetrate A2/AD defenses as a skirmisher.  Its moderate internal weapons-loads can kill targets of opportunity or use NIFC-CA to call in strikes from LRS-B.

UCLASS:  cheaper, low-observable drones with modular swap-in swap-out ISR payloads and armaments on external hard-points.  An expendable disruptor.

QF-16:  the “Boyd” drone.  Boeing is working to convert F-16s into unmanned vehicles target drones.  Hundreds of retired F-16s in ‘boneyards’ can be converted.[12]  Boyd helped design the highly-maneuverable short-range fighter and they can be used to get within the enemy’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act loop construct.  Preprogrammed moves based on sensed enemy disposition can be executed.  UAVs can jinx through high-G force maneuvers that a human pilot could not physiologically sustain to place the enemy aircraft out of position ala “40-second” Boyd fame.

The Acquisition Strategy for this portfolio should start with the Artificial Intelligence (AI) piece as its own separate program.  Individual platforms will have their own specific control systems but open architecture and open interfaces will allow for future Technical Insertions of AI for operational employment after platform development.  In the near-term, development of UCAV and QF-16 should begin.  The QF-16 is near full capability and under relaxed UAV export regulation, QF-16 can immediately bolster our partners through FMS or Section 1206 security funding programs countering China’s own UCAV program. 

UCAV is developed early, because the lessons-learned can feed into LRS-B.  Additionally, a combat-orientated unmanned platform, versus ISR-dominate, is needed early to glean integrated strike operation lessons similar to Yorktown learning carrier-based aviation best practices at the Battle of Coral Sea leading up to Midway.  An ISR-dominate UAV marginalized to flying midnight ISR missions will not force the cultural and technical transformations necessary.  There should be consideration for combined acquisition efforts with the U.K.’s own UCAV program, Taranis.   

To this end, the planned six UAV per carrier detachment should be an Acquisition Category Level II-D program, with a multi-year contract developing six UCAV’s annually over five years.  Two dets for deployed carriers, two dets for integrated manned-unmanned Carrier Qualification periods and ready in 30-days for major-combat operations surge, and one det for training and experimentation INCONUS.

In the mid-term, LRS-B will start development as the AI will be nearing completion and ready for Technical Insertion into UCAV airframes.  Far-term is UCLASS development as our present inventory of hundreds of armed-capable drones near end-of-life.  At this point-in-time, additive manufacturing advances may allow for the impromptu printing of thousands of cheap UAV frames to be assembled with higher-density power sources and ISR payloads. 

Final Act of Valor

John Keegan writes that “Nature argued for flight, for cowardice, for self-interest; nature made for Cossacking, whereby a, man fought if he chose and not otherwise, and might turn to commerce on the battlefield if that suited his ends- this was ‘real war’ at its worst. The best-observed ideals of regimental culture, however – total obedience, single-minded courage, self-sacrifice, honour – most nearly approached that ‘true war’ which Clausewitz convinced himself a professional soldier should make his end.” As war more nearly approximated ‘true war’ the better it served a state’s political needs.[13]

Indeed the crews of three Devastator squadrons emulated the virtues of true war as defined by Clausewitz.  But ‘true war’ is unbearable.  Whereas, the psyche of a human warrior cannot walk the fine line between real and true war due to their incompatible values, unmanned systems can maintain ‘true war’ as written in their code and mimic ‘real war’ in constrained situations when advantageous.

In the future, a young cyber-warrior charged by mission-command orders and informed by doctrine will generate the application for the robotic age - an “app” to implement operating concepts as the situation dictates.[14]   This tactical adaptability is warranted, because (in pugilistic terms) the resources applied in three balanced attacks in recurring ‘jab, right-cross’ combinations, may have more efficacy if restructured in ‘jab, jab, jab, right-hook, left-hook’ fashion.  At Midway, this occurred serendipitously, although enabled by training, doggedness and bravery.  The panacea will be AI - capturing valor in an algorithm - and the opportunities that such a genie will provide in a combined-arms approach to warfare.  Such valor as demonstrated by three torpedo-squadrons and the 99 of 128 crewmembers that bore the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

End Notes

[1] Good primer addressing the coming military-technical revolution, its opportunities and challenges. Robert O. Work and Shawn Brimley, 20YY Preparing for War in the Robotic Age (Center for a New America Security, Jan 2014).

[2] Max Boot, War Made New (NY: Gotham Books 2006) p.459.

[3] Robert J. Cressman et al., A Glorious Page in our History (Missoula, MT: Pictorial Histories Publishing 1990) p.39.

[4] H.V.D. Parunak, “Go to the Ant: Engineering Principles from Natural Multi-Agent Systems,” Annals of Operations Research, 75:69-101, 1997.

[5] Jon Parshall and Tony Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (DC: Potomac Books 2007) p.134-135.

[6] Jon Parshall and Tony Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (DC: Potomac Books 2007) p.172-173.

[7] To this day, the issue whether Ring departed on 265 or 240 is debated with hints of cover-ups.  Alvin Kernan, The Unknown Battle of Midway (New Haven: Yale University 2005) p.128-136.  Ronald W. Russell, No Right to Win (NY: iUniverse 2006) p.127-146.

[8] H.V.D. Parunak, “Go to the Ant: Engineering Principles from Natural Multi-Agent Systems,” Annals of Operations Research, 75:69-101, 1997.

[9] Ronald W. Russell, No Right to Win (NY: iUniverse Inc 2006) p. 195.

[10] CDR John Callaway, “The Operational Art of Air-Sea Battle,” Center for International Maritime Security,

[11] John Keegan, The First World War (NY: Alfred A. Knopf 1998) p.394-410.

[12] Matthew Bell, “Boeing touts operational QF-16 UAV,” HIS Jane’s Defense Weekly, 07 May 2014,

[13] John Keegan, A History of Warfare (NY: Vintage Books 1993) p.16-22.

[14] LT Robert Bebber, “Developing a Strategic Cadre in the Information Dominance Corps”, Center for International Maritime Security, 29August 2014 (


About the Author(s)

Commander In H. Ha, USN, is the Military Deputy for Undersea Programs at Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division in Orlando, FL.  He is a submariner who was a pilot for deep-submergence rescue vehicle MYSTIC, coordinated submarine operations in Guam, executed operational-level psychological operations in Iraq, and currently in training systems acquisition.  He is a graduate of the Naval Academy and Naval War College.  He was a 2011 recipient of the General Prize Essay contest for Proceedings magazine.


Move Forward

Tue, 08/11/2015 - 10:49am

In reply to by In H. Ha

Commander Ha,

Nice response sir, however autonomy could be partly “nascent or stalled” because at a major artificial intelligence (AI) conference in Buenos Aires last month, key leaders such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak, and thousands of artificial intelligence researchers all signed a letter urging a ban on weapons using AI technology. If given the opportunity to side with Max Boot or the aforementioned signatories, you know which I would choose.;)

Yes, a PBS article describes five weapons that already are autonomous to include land mines, the Phalanx and Iron dome air/missile defense systems, the X-47B and European Taranis, and a South Korea DMZ sentry robot able to spot, track, and engage targets with a rifle. However, these weapons are defensive or have human input/overrides sans exclusive autonomy. Landmine employment also has been severely restricted by most in the West thanks in part to Princess Di.

Then there is DoD Directive 3000.09, dated Nov 21, 2012, dealing with Autonomy in Weapon Systems (approved for public release), which states the following as found at via Google:
<blockquote>4. POLICY. It is DoD policy that:
a. Autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems shall be designed to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force.</blockquote>

A major difference exists between autonomy controlling aspects of an unmanned aircraft flight, such as X-47B automatic carrier landings and aerial refueling, versus complete autonomy in engagements. Is such autonomy even necessary or smart? Given that targets could be crossing a Strait occupied by civil and allied ships/aircraft or on territory with multiple friendly civilians and their infrastructure suffering from an invasion, do offensive autonomous weapons make sense? A presumed major target in many think tank pieces is often transporter erector launchers or TELs. Yet, such targets are unlikely to be close to shores and may exploit complex and urban terrain where they can hide, temporarily moving into an opening to launch, followed by a rapid “scoot” to cover.

When think tanks describe PLA Second Artillery Corps and other assets associated with TELs, they typically talk of only 1600-2000 ballistic and cruise missiles of short, medium, and long range with the latter typically being nuclear. Contrast those moderate missile numbers, comparable to bombs in damage, with coalition munition quantities in these selected air campaigns. These figures come from Rand Corporation’s latest study, “Precision and Purpose: Airpower in the Libyan Civil War” about 2011’s Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector. Note the large quantity of munitions expended relative to the 2000 ballistic and cruise missiles of the PLA that are used to argue that an anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) barrier exists keeping us out of the Pacific:

Selected Air Campaigns, 1991–2011 (they used the Operation names while I cite countries being bombed)
Operation_____Sorties Flown___U.S. Sortie %___Total Munitions Expended____ % PGM
Iraq, 1991_______118,700_______85_____________227,000_________________ 6
Afghanistan, 2001__ 23,900_________86___________17,500________________57
Libya, 2011______ 26,300_________27____________ 7,642________________100

You can watch a interview of one author of this Rand study in the link below. If the subsequent disarray in Libya (and for that matter Yemen and Syria) were not so tragic, it would be almost amusing that the study appears to advocate a future strategy involving primarily airpower supporting local ground forces while ignoring the eventual chaotic endstates.…

Recent failures of airpower to achieve a stable outcome are due to its inherently limited effects in achieving the ultimate goal of lasting non-conflict or consolidated invasion gains. Regardless of the scale of precision air or missile attacks, the actual seizure and stabilized control of terrain and the people living there is what ultimately counts. China must make an invasion of Taiwan last regardless of how much damage it temporarily inflicts with missiles. That would require not a few insurgents or local forces, but rather an unprecedented large ground force invading across 100 miles of Strait.

So far, local ground forces have not demonstrated much capacity to exclusively prevent chaos and stabilize areas subject to massed bombing. This particularly is evident when bombed states probably should not be single countries to begin with because a unity government and non-secular security force is virtually impossible to form with so many “haves and have nots” sharing common colonial era borders. You note that in both successful Bosnia and Kosovo bombings new states were formed after the fact and large coalition ground forces also posed a threat just as our Marines kept Hussein distracted thinking that they might assault Kuwait from the sea.

Now compare the effects of the far shorter distance and more resourced WWII Normandy invasion and Eastern Front ground efforts to the constant bombing that preceded it years earlier. China would need to duplicate such an unprecedented achievement in any invasion despite only limited damage to the coalition that would oppose them. In that context, compare total munitions expended in these relatively small wars (except Desert Storm and the unlisted OIF) to what is claimed to be a show-stopper in the A2/AD facade. A relatively scant 2,000 available Second Artillery Corps missiles would not make a significant difference in excluding our coalition or leading to their successful invasion of Taiwan.

Also consider that China would need to decide whether to salvo all its missiles at once in a surprise attack against multiple U.S., Taiwan, and allied targets on Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines <strong>or more likely</strong> start with a smaller salvo and save many missiles for later engagements. A surprise attack would create an instant coalition of the willing with no pretense of a limited or unconventional hybrid war.

Unlike some pronouncements, it probably would not be a “short, sharp war” because PLA air munition combat power would largely be depleted while ours would be just beginning. They also would be required to invade to consolidate missile attack gains while enduring constant coalition attacks during their initial crossing, their subsequent resupply and reinforcement, and during our distant blockade of their mainland ports. This and the sheer numbers of dispersed targets the PLA would need to engage would further deplete the explosive disruption of targeted areas.

Runways can be repaired. Most of our fighter aircraft and ships would be stateside, dispersed in Rapid Raptor numbers, or well outside the first island chain. Air defenses and hardened shelters would absorb some attacking missiles while friendly jamming, decoys, and cyber could disrupt others not to mention simple mechanical malfunctions. Then you have training aspects of allied fighter and bomber pilots with over a decade of combat experience relative to PLAAF or Russian pilots and their old, stressed aircraft with proven engine problems, let alone North Korea or Iranian pilots and their primitive and broken down aircraft.

As for involvement of all domains in future conflict, you get the gist from this Libya airpower Rand Study (paid for by the USAF) that the ground component could be indigenous ground forces which is why they chose these more limited air campaigns (why Desert Storm?) and not Iraqi Freedom. They portray that allied rather than U.S. sorties could be an increasingly frequent part of future conflict. If that is the case, doesn’t it argue for the F-35 and its use by multiple allies despite its 3,000 lb internal payload? How long in any conflict will the aircraft be restricted to only internal weapons? At some point, another 15,000 lbs of external payload will be available.

Most adversaries that allied coalitions may fight have nothing comparable in capability or numbers of modern integrated air defense systems like China and Russia possess and those, too, will be suppressed, eliminated, and depleted in a matter of weeks/months. Most nations will lack large numbers of guided missiles to pose any A2/AD challenge. Most adversaries won’t have large fighter fleets, let alone stealthy versions because they simply cost too much for nations with typical $10 billion or less defense budgets. Even Russia and China are unlikely to have stealth fleets anywhere comparable to our own and allies combined.

IIRC, a JSOW-equipped F-35 can attack a destroyer or other ship. Clearly, our submarines would have a field day engaging any Strait crossing without worrying about Second Artillery Corps missiles. The rationale for attacking deep into any nuclear state does not justify the escalatory risk involved when the tactical targets available <strong>without flying deep</strong> are all we require to thwart any PLA or Russian invasion.

You mentioned India and Pakistan but only the most recent war in 1999 saw both sides with nuclear weapons. That limited India-Pakistan Kargil war in Kashmir in 1999 occurred only a year after both countries tested nuclear weapons. Any limited exchange at that time largely would have been tactical or not of the same MAD scale as that between the U.S. and its major nuclear adversaries. That Kargil War also involved mostly initial infiltration and close combat to include artillery and localized air attacks. No deep air penetration was involved against other state targets outside Kashmir. Even without such action, Pakistan nuclear saber-rattling still caused grave concern to the point that President Clinton got involved according to the Wikipedia entry for “Kargil War.”

Yes, the Navy miniature air-launched decoy and the jammer variant are great ideas. Data linked cruise and other missiles also are ideal for standoff engagements with a man still in the loop, so your B-52 reference illustrates that we still have stand-off capabilities without relying on autonomy or 100 costly new LRS-B and a host of other exquisite air systems. Any attempt to salvo lots of exquisite stealthy autonomous unmanned aircraft to cover China’s or Russia’s land mass would risk that if they do their job too well their leaders will be faced with a use-it-or-lose-it situation, particularly since many TELs and C2 targets can involve either nuclear or conventional missiles.

I suspect that Russia and China will only gain rapid autonomy of weapons if we do it first and they subsequently hack, steal, or backward engineer our designs. As for swarms, the airspace risk and high likelihood of wasted assets unable to find targets are challenges that too many disregard. After all, even manned aircraft over Iraq-Syria are onlyfinding targets in one out of four flights, and that in fairly open terrain with fewer places to hide relative to some areas, and also with human eyes for combat identification vs. an algorithm of uncertain accuracy when human lives are involved.

<blockquote>Just as a Joint Force offers more combined-arms opportunities for a creative commander, autonomy offers no-loss-of-life capabilities to deter, distract, and disrupt to set up more decisive engagements – this was my desired intent. And I believe autonomy makes sense from either a capability or threat-based assessment/need. </blockquote>

In current wars, there has been minimal loss of life of stateside and deployed UAS/RPA pilots/operators, or for that matter, pilots of USAF, Navy, and Marine fixed wing fighters at altitude. That medium altitude combined with stand-off direct attack, stealth, and jamming will continue to safeguard our F-35 pilots even though most ground troops think they should fly low and slow like an A-10. They don’t realize that won’t work against current and projected air defenses because A-10s don’t fly low and slow enough like a helicopter can using masking terrain as necessary. The trend of few fixed wing pilot losses has continued since Vietnam and even in that war relatively few pilots were killed relative to those in close combat in helicopters and on the ground.

So given the relative risk to pilots vs. Soldiers/Marines on or near the ground, where would DoD money better be spent to save the most lives and be most useful in more common conflicts? Joint future vertical lift aircraft offer opportunities to address many of the target sets on Taiwan for instance that autonomy would have difficulty engaging due to close proximity to civilians and presence of urban and complex terrain. Add unmanned aircraft and ground vehicles to that mix with men/women-in-the-loop and humans can succeed where autonomy often would search in vain. As a former Army pilot myself with past (and hopefully future) involvement with Army unmanned aircraft, count me in as favoring manned-unmanned teaming and continuing man-in-the-loop aspects of future air and ground engagements.

In H. Ha

Mon, 08/10/2015 - 9:58pm

In reply to by Move Forward

Thanks for your comments, but you mistakenly take my article to hyperbole when you say, “We have a Joint force for a reason, and any over-concentration on any single or dual domains leaves us under-defended and reduces our force's deterrence value. It is all the more dangerous to put all our eggs in the deep attack and autonomous basket when such attacks are inherently risky from a nuclear escalation and collateral damage standpoint.” It would be foolhardy to advocate such a uni-lateral approach to equipping the military, and autonomy is still nascent if not stalled. Regardless, it will never be an all or nothing proposition but rather a slow (unfortunately) innovation crawl toward more man-in/on-the-loop operations over time. Just as a Joint Force offers more combined-arms opportunities for a creative commander, autonomy offers no-loss-of-life capabilities to deter, distract, and disrupt to set up more decisive engagements – this was my desired intent. And I believe autonomy makes sense from either a capability or threat-based assessment/need.

Although I speak to a deep-strike option over water (i.e. within the First Island chain), a land option can equally deter, present the enemy countless operational dilemmas to defend against, and present national security decision-makers an option other than nuclear escalation. Have nuclear powers like Russia, India, PRC, and Pakistan had previous skirmishes amongst themselves? Would our response to a Cuban missile crisis quarantine violation been nuclear or gradual conventional response? That risk is ultimately borne by our elected, but providing creative military options (and procuring hardware) is ours.

Regarding your F-35 comments, I see this a “light stealthy truck” because of its small internal payload of 3000#. Outside of the possible LRS-B, the modernized B-52 with eight Air Launched Cruise Missiles on an internal rotary launcher is the truck you want now:…
But sure, if the F-35 champions’ claims of detecting 10x farther than the enemy are valid, the JSF would make an excellent QB for a supporting UAS/RPA team.
And any of these platforms should be able to launch the Miniature Air Launched Decoy (which seems autonomous) to further distract/disrupt the enemy.

Undoubtedly, Russia and PRC are proceeding along the autonomy path for asymmetry reasons as they realize their military soldiers/sailors/airmen cannot match ours in education, training, or esprit-de-corp. Better to be first or ahead of the problem like Max Boot opines.

Move Forward

Sun, 08/09/2015 - 11:23am

Liked the commander's ideas about the QF-16 (converting F-16 to UAS/RPA). He also caused me to research the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) after reading other recent articles about it for over-the-horizon SM-6 engagement of air targets. But googling that led to other articles that implied that NIFC-CA could be jammed and that its main node, the E-2D radar plane, would also be vulnerable.

However it was disappointing to see no mention of the role of F-35 and F-22 as ISR platforms that also could jam and take out ships and low-to-high frequency radars on ships and shore. With the assistance of EA-18G, these platforms would be highly survivable as truck platforms to engage tactical targets crossing the Straits of Taiwan for instance, or attempting to close with our distant ships, bases, and aerial refuelers.

Then there is this article at War on the Rocks that describes any President's probable reluctance to engage China or Russia deep due to risk of nuclear escalation:…

If deep penetration by manned aircraft with a pilot's discretion or a UAS/RPA with distant decision-makers is already a collateral damage risk, how much more so is the idea of autonomous UAS/RPA flying around making decisions on what to attack on their own. Large targets at sea such as described in his Midway example have little relevance to targets that easily can hide on complex terrain or among civilians. It is difficult to envision any algorithm that could be trusted to differentiate between a TEL that is nuclear or conventional or a TEL that is disguised as a container. It is equally hard to imagine an algorithm that could see civilians nearby and differentiate them from military Soldiers or insurgents dressed like civilians.

Finally, the distances involved for an autonomous UAS/RPA without any kind of escort raise questions about what would protect the autonomous aircraft from visual shoot-down by enemy fighters deep over their own territory. Is the autonomous aircraft only going to fly at night when it is more difficult to visually spot? Wouldn't that mean the enemy would fire most of its missiles and move its TELs during the day when more traffic is on the road to disguise movement? The Commander, like most autonomous UAS/RPA proponents also is overly optimistic about the range and endurance of such a jet aircraft to stay on station for a prolonged period to find targets that don't want to be found. If aerial refueling is seen as the answer, then you return to the problem of enemies targeting those aircraft from extended range since they are non-stealthy.

I read the Commander's other article at USNI in 2011 and he was pushing air-cushioned vehicles there as a viable alternative to the Marine EFV. His current work with submersibles sounds like an equally viable alternative to a host of exquisite UAS/RPAs to prevent enemy ships from reaching Taiwan or interfering with our Blue Water Navy or distant blockade efforts.

Manned aircraft likewise will have value many decades from now as both tactical and strategic assets that can originate from land and sea operating with proposed data links to guide weapons and each other and be guided by distant AWACS/E-2D/Rivet Joint/Global Hawk. The F-35 and its superb sensors would easily be converted to a UAS/RPA after decades of stress on those airframes lead us to no longer risk pilots on board. We have a Joint force for a reason, and any over-concentration on any single or dual domains leaves us under-defended and reduces our force's deterrence value. It is all the more dangerous to put all our eggs in the deep attack and autonomous basket when such attacks are inherently risky from a nuclear escalation and collateral damage standpoint.

An interesting article I enjoyed toward which I have only a minor quibble, that being: rather than the use of the phrase "true war," perhaps replacing it with 'ideal war' would be more apropos?