We’re all well aware of the conventional wisdom regarding Anti-Air Warfare,
It’s better to shoot archers than arrows.
For anyone who might not recognize this concept, the idea is that it’s easier and far more efficient to destroy a missile’s launch platform than to try to deal with the multitude of individual missiles after they’ve been launched. An added benefit is that each launch platform that is destroyed is one less that’s available for future attacks.
Well, now there’s an amendment,
It’s better to shoot the archer’s eyes than the archer.
The world has quickly come up with very long range weapons that can cover many hundreds to thousands of miles. However, as we’ve previously discussed, the ability to locate, identify, and precisely target objects at that range is an enormous challenge and is, essentially, non-existent today or in the foreseeable future.
Consider our own efforts at long range targeting. Satellites have some utility for locating but, not being linked in real time to any weapon system, are unsuited for targeting. AWACS assets are so valuable that they are held well back from any potential harm which means they have only very limited ability to provide long range targeting. The P-8 is intended to be a front line ISR asset and could provide targeting but it is non-survivable in that it is not stealthy, fast, or maneuverable. UAVs offer some possibility for long range targeting but, again, are only marginally survivable.
Note that we’re mainly talking about airborne sensors. Ship’s sensors are just too limited in range. Submarine sensors are also a serious threat but their presence and usefulness is a bit sporadic. Their need to remain undetected tends to negate their value as real time targeting assets.
Note also that the relative number of targeting assets (the archer’s eyes) in any military are very limited compared to the number of available launch platforms. Just as there are many more arrows than archers, so too there are many more archers than eyes. The eyes are the weak link in the kill chain. Destroying the few targeting assets can render the many launch platforms ineffective.
This should tell us something about the future of our own ISR targeting assets. We need to develop very long range assets that have a reasonable degree of survivability, robust sensors (meaning long range), and strong communications (there’s no point collecting targeting data if you can’t transmit the information). This sounds like an ideal mission for UAVs provided we can make them cheaply enough to use in large numbers because the enemy is going to find and kill many of them. They need to be cheap enough to almost be considered one-way, throwaway aircraft.
All of this works both ways. We need to focus on our enemy’s targeting assets and destroy them. That requires a long distance ability to find and kill those platforms. Given the long ranges of missiles and sensors, it is necessary to find and kill the targeting platforms as far away from their targets as possible. We need a very long range air-to-air platform that is survivable and has sufficient electronics, both active and passive, to find the archer’s eyes and the ability to destroy them. Some might suggest the F-35 but it is inadequate due to limited range. In theory, if we knew precisely where an enemy targeting asset was and could provide tanking support, we could get an F-35 to the target and destroy it. The reality is that we will not know where the targeting assets are – we’ll have to go looking for them which means we need very long range aircraft with significant loiter time. It’s not enough to be able to make it out hundreds or thousands of miles – we have to stay there and conduct long searches with significant loiter times. The F-35 can’t do this. It would also be nice if such an aircraft were cheap enough to absorb losses. An aircraft loitering for extended periods deep in enemy air space will eventually be found and killed. Again, a good use for a focused function UAV – essentially a very long range, loitering cruise missile.
Of course, the best option is to destroy the targeting assets at their bases and, certainly, significant effort should be directed to that end. Submarine launched Tomahawk missiles are well suited for that job and intermediate ballistic missiles can be effective against fixed bases. However, we will still have to deal with airborne targeting assets.
We seem to not be on the right path regarding long range targeting, either offensively or defensively. Our current ISR path is suited for peacetime patrolling but not war. We need a survivable, long range targeting asset, probably a UAV. On the other side of the coin, we need a survivable, very long range A2A killer to use against enemy targeting assets.
This is an example of the absolute necessity for having a comprehensive and coherent strategy, doctrine, and tactics and using those to drive procurement. Instead, we’re allowing procurement to drive strategy and doctrine and the result is a collection of disparate, unrelated systems that do not support a common goal in a complementary fashion. Worse, many of our random procurements are geared at peacetime operations and will be only marginally useful during combat.