Re-crafting the Weapons Enterprise: A Core Strategic Necessity


12/09/2011 In late November, Second Line of Defense continued the dialogue with Professor Mark Lewis, former Chief Scientist of the USAF, on the emerging opportunities and challenges facing the country in fielding 21st Century capabilities.  Here the focus was upon the need to shape a weapons enterprise built around 5th generation aircraft, rather than drifting along with 20th century weapons.

Second Line of Defense: We are using third and fourth generation weapons in an era of 5th generation aircraft shaping a new approach.  This makes no sense.  How does the weapons enterprise get re-shaped and move into the 21st Century?

Without building a new weapons enterprise leveraging 5th generation aircraft, targets will be harder to find and hit. Credit: Bigstock

Lewis: I think we look at the nature of the new aircraft and their capabilities, and build from there. For example the F-35 can best be viewed as a node in an integrated system that includes air and sea.  Remember also, the F-35 is a very, very capable sensors platform that can integrate with other sensors platforms.

General Jumper used to make that point very frequently, that our fifth generation fighter aircraft are also our most capable sensor platforms.  During his tenure as Chief of Staff there was frequent discussion about these sorts of assets being IP addresses in the sky.  It’s a great idea.

One of the things that I worry about now is that we are building this incredible next generation platform technology, but when it’s time to produce an effect, we’ll open up a weapons bay door and out will come a third generation weapon that goes lumbering along, and proves to be relatively ineffective against the target.  Low technology weapons may be easily defeated, especially as potential adversaries improve their air defenses.

For that reason, I think it is an absolute necessity to develop the advanced weapons that will go along with the advanced platforms. By this I mean weapons that integrate with those platforms as part of a complete system.  One of my favorite examples is that, if I build something that fits inside a Navy VLS tube – that’s the vertical launch system – it also probably fits under the wing of an Air Force asset.

Those sorts of pairings of capabilities, I think, are going to be essential to next generation systems. The trick is to be sure we don’t make performance compromises in our attempt to make weapons multi-platform. For example, it probably does not make sense to build a single weapon that does both an air-to-air and air-to-ground mission. The result of that will likely be a missile that costs more per unit than a single-mission system and that isn’t especially effective in either role.

Alarmingly, we have potential adversaries who are figuring out systematically how to hold our current systems at risk.  And that will naturally tend to push us further and further out to deal with risk, which is their obvious intention. To counter this trend, systems that allow us to penetrate, to reach in from afar, and to react more quickly than ever before, are going to be absolutely essential to next generation systems.

One of my other big concerns is that I think some have been lulled into a false sense of security.  We’ve been involved in very recent conflicts in which we have not only air superiority, we have total air supremacy.  In part this is because the U.S. Air Force is so good at what it does. We have also been operating in permissive airspace so we can put clay pigeon RPA’s in the air, and the adversary can’t do anything about it (Robbin: note Iranian capture of an RQ-170 might finally change that sense!). For us to think that this environment will always be the one in which we’re operating is absolutely foolhardy.  And yet, that seems to be a direction in which we’re headed.

SLD: The F-35 has 360-degree situational awareness, and the ability to see several hundred miles.  And has a lot of automation in the cockpit.  This should be  an enabler for a new approach to weapons. And as Secretary Wynne has highlighted the plane enables a wolf pack concept whereby weapons can be fired elsewhere than the F-35 but one focuses on the F-35 as deployed sensors with onboard decision makers, or pilots.

How do I offload weapons?  How do I even automate over time fast missiles coming from adversaries so that I can actually manage the combat space?

What you’re really looking at is at different nodes within a sensor-shooter enterprise. And decision-making is going to have to be very, very rapid.  And in this approach, offense and defense become blended, and the stove piped understanding of missiles defense, weaponization and combat aircraft becomes obsolete.

One is really talking missile defense, offensive missiles, combat aircraft; and robotic vehicles as part of the same world.  And you see also something like the D-21 Chinese missile – it hasn’t been tested, so we don’t know how good it is.  But it can always start deterring us because we’re not taking a holistic management approach to how to deflect that threat.

It’s very important to get the weapons enterprise reengaged here in a fundamental way.

Lewis: I think your example of the D-21 is an excellent one.  It shows that we’ve got folks who are thinking about the way we do things and they’re looking for ways to remove some of our capabilities. Imagine the effect of a successful D-21 strike against a nine-billion-dollar carrier with its crew of 5000!

To this end, I think we need to be looking at advanced weapons across the board.  There is obviously a wide range of missions for the deep penetrators.  In particular, hypersonic weapons, those operating at five times the speed of sound or above, would bring a unique capability to the battle.

In addition to the more conventional high-speed rockets, there are two basic types of hypersonic weapons. There is the high-speed cruise missile category, and then there is the second category of weapons that are boost glide systems launched on a rocket. These include weapons that might be air-dropped or launched from the ground. The boost glide weapons, obviously, have the advantage of requiring no propulsion system other than their relatively conventional boosters; but those weapons have, I think, some significant some operational issues associated with them.

If we’re going to pursue high-speed cruise missiles, which I believe are the “lowest hanging fruit” in the hypersonic basket, propulsion is the key technology to develop. Simply put, if you don’t have an engine, you’re not going anywhere.  That’s true of any aerospace system. By the way, whenever I say that, someone always asks “what about gliders?”  But gliders do have a propulsion system; it’s just not on the glider itself.

I would even argue that every great advance in aerospace engineering has really begun with a propulsion advance. The jet engine enabled the jet age; rockets enabled missiles and space travel. Even the Wright Brothers didn’t invent the lifting airfoil, their great contribution was adding efficient power to their gliders. Because of the importance of having that propulsion system, I worry about people putting the cart before the horse. In the hypersonics field, there are people who envision building high-speed platform asset without really knowing how to build the engine.  That to me, is a prescription for failure.

So the first step in fielding a high-speed cruise weapon is the development of the high-speed engine.

SLD: Going back to the intersection between the new aircraft and the weapons involved, how does an F-35 enable you to have a different kind of weapons enterprise?

Lewis: The combination of penetration, stealth and sensing is crucial.  That combination of capabilities allows me to be in the best situation from which to launch an advanced weapon. I think this is an absolute winning combination, especially with a high-speed weapon.

I can also apply the value of high-speed weapons to other platforms and, combined with the F-35 as a forward deployed sensor and command system, I can call in attack from those other platforms. For example, there is great value in the concept of a stand-off arsenal ship, orbiting beyond threat range, ready to launch into challenged airspace.  When something happens, that platform may be queued for example by an F-35, launching a high-speed missile into that territory and making an effect happen very quickly.  That’s a winning combination.

General Moseley – who is a truly deep thinker in such matters – used to challenge his Air Staff about the importance of thinking about future capabilities. He used to remind us of examples of past air forces that failed to invest properly in future capabilities, and suffered as a result. Think for example of the pre-WWII German Luftwaffe, which made the deliberate strategic decision to not invest in long-range bombing, very fortunately for us! When Gen Moseley was Chief we talked about this idea of having such a high-speed weapon system connected with low-speed platform.  The platform doesn’t have to be at risk, but when it’s time to act, boom, there’s this high-speed weapon that’s integrated into the platform, and that responds quickly.

SLD: If you have these forward deployed sensors, which we’ll call the F-35s that are processing and identifying that there’s no reason that you can’t be launching at a distance. One is able to manage a significant combat space, and the adversary doesn’t know exactly where you’re going to hit him. Doesn’t know exactly where you are, that you’ve got multiple tools to available to complicate any notion that he can have a simple one-shot victory.

Lewis.  I agree.  One of my favorite quotes about this was from Air Chief Marshal Graham Eric “Jock” Stirrup, who later became Chief of the UK Defense Staff, about how to shape dominance. Looking at modern warfare Sir Jock said simply that “speed is the critical issue.”

I agree, and I argue there are basically three ways to do something quickly.

Solution one is, do it at the speed of light: directed energy, or electronic, or cyber war. Solution two is ubiquity: I’m already there because I have presence everywhere.  That’s kind of hard to do by the way, but if I can penetrate I can have some measure of what we might call “localized ubiquity.” Solution three is to fly there as fast as possible.  That’s where high-speed weapons come in.

If we can combine penetration and sensing with fast response, I think we’ve got a winning combination for anticipated future conflicts. Speed offers some measure of penetration; if a weapon or vehicle is traveling fast enough it doesn’t matter if someone sees it, it can’t be stopped easily. So for example, by combing a broad fleet of F-35s with a new weapons enterprise, we would have a solid foundation for both strategic and tactical success.

Professor Lewis is Director and Past President, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Willis Young Prof. and Chair, Department of Aerospace Engineering, A. James Clark School of Engineering, University of Maryland.

For earlier pieces on Second Line of Defense with Mark Lewis see the following: