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New European missile defence

USS Shiloh (CG 67) launching a Standard SM-3 missile.  The SM-3 intercepted a separating ballistic missile threat target, launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility, Barking Sands, Kauai, Hawaii.  (June 22, 2006 | US Navy photo)

USS Shiloh (CG 67) launching a Standard SM-3 missile. The SM-3 intercepted a separating ballistic missile target, launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility, Barking Sands, Kauai. (June 22, 2006 | US Navy photo)

For what it’s worth, I agree with SECDEF Gates’ rebuttal via the New York Times; deploying sea-based SM-3 interceptors can happen faster than the previously-planned ground-based interceptor, and the SM-3 has a better track record than any other BMD system being tested and fielded today.  Even the future plan to have ground-based SM-3s has a certain merit.

But there are some large caveats and potential issues.  First and foremost is the capabilities of the United States Navy, specifically the guided missile cruiser (CG) and destroyer (DDG) platforms that will be the mainstay of this plan.

There are 22 active Ticonderoga-class CGs, and 55 active Arleigh Burke-class DDGs in the USN inventory, all of whom carry the enormously capable Aegis Combat System.  Right now USN has upgraded 3 cruisers and 15 destroyers to BMD capability, with three more still on the books; that’s 21 total Aegis BMD platforms to patrol the world’s seas.

Obviously all 21 ships are not out at sea at any given moment; in a standard USN single-crew rotation, a surface warship will spend 12 to 18 months training and performing maintenance on their vessel to prepare it for deployment.  Then the crew takes their ship on a 6-month deployment, at the end of which they return to home port and the cycle begins anew.  The actual amount of time it takes a ship to begin and end that cycle also depends on how far away its patrol station is, whether it is leaving from the East or West Coast, and how many intermediate stops it makes.  Generally speaking it takes somewhere between three and six weeks to arrive on station.

With those limitations in mind, USN thus requires a force of six surface combatants to keep a single vessel on-station at all times in Central Command’s AOR—or a rotation ratio of 6 to 1. For European Command or Pacific Command, the ratio is 4.5 to 1.  If you factor these in to the current Aegis BMD fleet size, you will realise that only four Aegis BMD ships will be on-station at any given time—one or two in European and Central Commands, and two in Pacific Command.  The others will be back at home port working up for the next deployment, or steaming to and from their assigned station.  And that’s it; you’ve maxed out the deployment capabilities of your Aegis BMD fleet.

Now USN has experimented with Blue/Gold dual crews (such as those used on its SSBNs and SSGNs), and is planning to use multi-crew rotations for its Littoral Combat Ships, thus increasing the amount of time they spend at sea.  (For an in-depth analysis of USN multi-crew rotations, see the Congressional Budget Office document “Crew Rotation in the Navy: The Long-Term Effect on Forward Presence“, October 2007.)   Such a solution could be implemented on Aegis BMD ships (if not the entire surface combatant fleet at large) to help offset the limited number of vessels.  But even this is not going to give you the sort of constant all-aspect coverage US and allied policymakers—and their publics!—will want from a BMD system.  To have a really effective deterrent, you need to increase the number of BMD-capable vessels.

If we are (as the SecDef has previously indicated) living in an era of flat, constrained defence budgets, then either BMD is going to remain a niche capability confined to one quarter of the CG/DDG fleet, or the Administration is going to have to find creative ways of funding BMD upgrades for more ships.

One other concern, too, is that all of Europe’s missile defence eggs will be riding on a single weapon system.  Should opposing forces come up with a cheap and effective way of jamming or defeating the redoubtable Standard SM-3 (besides sheer volume of missiles), then they will have defeated the totality of this administration’s planned European BMD deployment.  There is a certain value in having multiple capabilities on multiple platforms, but for now Europe will have to hope the SM-3 will remain as effective as it appears to be today.

The other downer is countering a CG/DDG.  To degrade the effectiveness of a land-based facility you can either 1) degrade or destroy the radar, 2) degrade or destroy the interceptors or 3) oversaturate the BMD system with more targets than it can intercept.  None of these methods are particularly cheap.  But to degrade the effectiveness of Aegis BMD you really only need one thing: a quiet diesel-electric sub.  Those aren’t too hard to come by.

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JOPA Productions: I’m On A Boat

The very sage Neptunus Lex links to this bit of seagoing hilarity (NSFW language warning):

If you are an airedale and don’t quite comprehend why that ought to be funny, I will explain.  First, it is a USN-centric remix of an actual song, The Lonely Island’s “I’m On A Boat“.  Second, the song’s original video is itself supposed to be a parody of the extravagant opulence and freeflowing profanity on display in most rap videos.

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Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still

PLAN Type 054A Jiangkai II frigate (FFG-529 Zhoushan).

Randy Schriver, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, East Asia, and senior country director for China in OSD notes China’s steady progress toward a first-rate military.  It is not yet a titan of hard power, but neither is it a bumbling gang of incompetents.  There are observable trend lines, and those trend lines lead toward a shift in the present strategic balance.

…It is a priority for China to acquire capabilities specifically oriented toward countering U.S. military strengths. China’s aerospace programs in anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) and anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons are potential “game-changers” for U.S. operations. A successful ASBM program could expand the threat envelope for U.S. aircraft carriers to a distance where traditional carrier-based flight operations become impractical. Likewise, the ASAT program threatens satellites that the U.S. military relies on for intelligence, communication and navigation.

…Yet of even greater concern is China’s ambition to acquire the capability to lethally cripple civilian and military information infrastructures, and to weave such capabilities into PLA doctrine for war fighting.

…China’s advancing defense industrial capabilities has put a new tool in its political-military tool kit — use of foreign military sales and provision of defense technologies to support broader strategic and military goals.

And China is making policy choices that present growing challenges to U.S. interests. Despite formal commitments, China supplies missiles to Iran and conventional weapons and small arms to Sudan. A U.N. investigation in 2006 found China to be the primary supplier of ammunitions used in Darfur. China’s military sales increasingly complicate U.S. interests.

— Schriver, Randy.  “People’s Army not standing still.”  Washington Times, 12 August 2009.

Let’s not be coy, by “complicate” he means “subvert and supplant”.  Any honest diplomat or soldier should tell you that, indeed, their duty is to be the instruments by which their nation (whether it be China, Canada or anywhere else) can—subtly or unsubtly—alter the strategic balance in its favour.  And to do so is not a gross violation of the international order but the natural inclination of nation-states; so we should not be surprised when China (or, say, France) does so.

Given that the hard-charging Chinese government will, within our lifetime, establish just such a first-rate military, the questions that we should be asking are:

  1. Can we trust a totalitarian government with that sort of capability?   (The short answer is “no”)
  2. What steps are we prepared to take to either subvert it; or, once established, to contain it?

JUST FOR FUN: From militaryphotos.net, an illustration-rich comparison of guided-missile frigates from Southeast Asian nations.  The PLAN Type 054A places in the top three.

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Fighting back against pirates might actually work

Exhibit A:
BOSASSO, Somalia (Reuters) – The crews of two Egyptian fishing vessels have escaped from Somali pirates after overpowering their captors and killing two of them, an associate of the pirates said on Friday.
The kidnappers had held the 34 fishermen hostage since hijacking the Momtaz 1 and Samara Ahmed in April. Gunmen from the failed Horn of Africa state have made tens of millions of dollars in ransoms from attacks in the strategic Gulf of Aden.
An associate of the pirates told Reuters the Egyptians escaped on Thursday after seizing his colleagues’ weapons. Two pirates were killed in a shoot-out, several were captured and one was rescued after being stabbed and thrown into the sea.
— Hassan, Abdiqani.  “Egyptian fishermen escape from Somali pirates.”  Reuters, 14 August 2009.
And that was just a handful of civilian prisoners.
Imagine what might be possible if, say, Combined Task Force

Exhibit A:

BOSASSO, Somalia (Reuters) – The crews of two Egyptian fishing vessels have escaped from Somali pirates after overpowering their captors and killing two of them, an associate of the pirates said on Friday.

The kidnappers had held the 34 fishermen hostage since hijacking the Momtaz 1 and Samara Ahmed in April. Gunmen from the failed Horn of Africa state have made tens of millions of dollars in ransoms from attacks in the strategic Gulf of Aden.

An associate of the pirates told Reuters the Egyptians escaped on Thursday after seizing his colleagues’ weapons. Two pirates were killed in a shoot-out, several were captured and one was rescued after being stabbed and thrown into the sea.

— Hassan, Abdiqani.  “Egyptian fishermen escape from Somali pirates.Reuters, 14 August 2009.

And that was just a handful of civilian prisoners.

Imagine what might be possible if, say, the international fleet of the clueless (a.k.a. Combined Task Force 150) actually got permission to hunt down pirates.

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Navy LaWS smokes several drones

This is pretty cool:

WASHINGTON (NNS) — Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), with support from Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Dahlgren, for the first time successfully tracked, engaged and destroyed a threat representative unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) while in flight at Naval Air Warfare Center, China Lake, Calif., June 7.A total of five targets were engaged and destroyed during the testing, also a first for the U.S. Navy. Members of NAVSEA’s Directed Energy and Electric Weapon Systems (DE&EWS) Program Office and NSWC Dahlgren fired a laser through a beam director on a KINETO tracking mount.

Two additional UAVs were engaged and destroyed in flight June 9, with two more UAVs shot down June 11. These recent evolutions continued a series of progressively challenging tests using the prototype version of the Surface Navy Laser Weapon System (LaWS).

— Naval Sea Systems Command Office of Corporate Communications.  “Navy Laser Success Key in Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Research, Development“, June 19th, 2009.

Also a good reminder that present-day UAVs may seem like hot stuff while operating in uncontested airspace versus a 7th century enemy armed with 20th century weapons.  But they need a little help against an OPFOR that can detect and shoot at air targets.

The hidden cost of an aging fleet

General John J. Hoffman, chief of Air Force Materiel Command, has a realistic view of how a geriatric fleet with varying degrees of combat utility is going to fly and fight.  In an interview related by Air Force magazine’s executive editor John Tirpak, General Hoffman paints a bleak but pragmatic picture of the materiel challenges facing the United States Air Force.

In an interview, Hoffman said the Air Force has been lurching from one potentially fleet-grounding mechanical issue to another with its legacy combat forces. He noted the need to unexpectedly rewing the A-10 fleet, fix numerous F-16s with cracked bulkheads, and cope with last year’s grounding of F-15s due to longeron problems.

Hoffman said the Air Force will “get through” the current spate of structural problems, but he can’t provide any assurances that such events won’t become the rule.

“Is there another event behind any of those? Sure, could be,” Hoffman said. “We could have the whole fleet back on the ground with another event.”

— John A. Tirpak.  “Washington Watch“, Air Force magazine, May 2009.

One of the prime challenges facing USAF is a lack of funds for fleet modernisation and recapitalisation.  In today’s funding environment, there is a very real possibility that today’s upgrade programs will take so long to approve and execute, that they will be obsolete by the time the capability is fielded.

He noted that a new radar in the F-15E offers a profound reduction in mean time between failure rates. Over time, the new radar “pays for itself” in cost avoidance. However, it’s “going to take us 20 years to actually install it,” given the funds available. After only a few years, he said, he’s certain that USAF will face a “vanishing vendor” issue wherein some of the parts will be out of production. The upgrade would more sensibly have been done over three or four years, but the lack of up-front investment dollars blunts the savings.

And worst of all, some of today’s close air support systems will still be considered front-line aircraft when the F-22 starts retiring.

Although he feels confident USAF can keep old aircraft flying safely for a long while, the real issue is “whether they’re still relevant” militarily.

The F-22 may be the newest aircraft on the ramp, but within a decade, the first operational models will near their planned service lives of 8,000 hours, Hoffman said. To reduce wear and tear on the Raptors and get them to last longer, the Air Force reduced the amount of close-in dogfight training that F-22 pilots do.

Further, “I’ve tasked the system to think forward into the later ’teens about what a life extension program would look like on that aircraft,” Hoffman said. He thinks the wings could be replaced, but the complex composite materials and sophisticated electronics would be trickier.

Still, “we’ll be retiring [F-22s] while we’re still flying A-10s. Something doesn’t seem quite right about that.”

The F-22 faces an additional challenge as it ages, because it incorporates a lot of composite materials.  In aluminum aircraft, when a major structural part ages out, the aircraft can be dissasembled, the part replaced, and the aircraft riveted back together.  But composite aircraft can’t be taken apart and rebuilt so easily.  They have no rivets or plates that can be pulled apart easily.  The composite material forms a seamless woven shell.  Carving up the aerodynamic shell to refit major structural parts, refurbishing or replacing them, and then rebuilding the composite weave, is something that has never been done on a composite airframe to date.  The Raptor will be among the first.  (This is also, incidentally, a challenge that will be faced by Boeing’s brand new 787 Dreamliner, another composite-heavy airframe.)

In the long run, though, the Air Force faces some hard choices about the kind of aircraft it can expect to field on Day One of a war, and which airframes will be too weak or vulnerable to put in harm’s way right away.

Fighting with a mixed fleet will require the Air Force to sort its capabilities into “Day 1, Day 2” systems that can penetrate enemy airspace, and “Week 2” capabilities that can only operate when defenses have been beaten down, Hoffman observed.

“In extremis,” he said, the Air Force may have to “put more risk on the operators.”

To defeat enemy defenses, Hoffman said USAF will have to think in terms of persistent systems that will have to be survivable—through stealth, speed, or standoff range—or expendable items such as drones or missiles whose loss can be tolerated. He prefers to frame the choices in that context rather than in terms of “stand in [and] stand off.”

The short version, one suspects, is that the F-22 and F-35 are the Day 1 and Day 2 systems.  Week 2 is all the vintage hardware and slow UCAVs that require the safety of a permissive environment.

The brass, bless them, are self-aware enough to realise how they got into this sad state of affairs.

The Air Force’s combat fleet is in crisis in large part because the Pentagon hasn’t applied a consistent formula for deciding how many aircraft are needed, what capabilities they should have, or how often they should be bought. Now, there aren’t enough, and most of the inventory is aging out.

So said retired Gen. Gregory S. Martin, former head of Air Force Materiel Command, who noted that most of the choices made in the last decade about USAF’s future combat inventory were arbitrary, based on cost rather than strategy. He urged that the Air Force adopt a firm formula, with measurable elements, that will clearly justify the pacing of new aircraft buys.

“Where we may have gone astray as a nation [is] in following basic principles of force structure development and force sizing and force structure replacement,” Martin said.

“We are in a crisis … brought about by not having a rule set that is basic, easy to articulate, and [able to] … sustain a modernization or recapitalization program.” The Navy, he said, has been successful in laying out and defending such a plan, based on the number of carrier traps each aircraft endures. The commercial airline industry uses a standard based on number of flights, after which aircraft are retired because new technology offers operating savings.

If any of this sounds vaguely familiar to Canadian readers, it is because that is exactly how our own NDHQ handles Canadian military procurement.  Like USAF, the CF doesn’t have a basic rule set, that is easy to explain—to politicians or the Canadian public—as to why we need X number of assets for mission Y, for an expected lifetime of Z years.  But don’t expect our own brass or their media boosters to wise up any time soon.  The problem, we are continually told, lies with our politicians and their inability to properly understand and fund the defence establishment.  As opposed to the chronic inability (not to mention sheer unwillingness) of the Canadian defence establishment to effectively communicate its roles, missions and requirements to the people that pay its salaries and buy its gear.

Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t expect politicians—who are overwhelmingly lawyers—to develop a sudden and burning interest in the minutiae of operational procedures and the assets that make them possible.  I do, however, expect that as a bare minimum, some members of the uniformed services might see the wisdom of boiling their roles and requirements down to simple-to-understand metrics, such that a lawyer, unschooled in the martial way of life, might be inclined to fund them.  Failure to do this is, in my mind, not entirely the fault of the lawyer.  It is the fault of the senior uniformed brass who, quite frankly, are negligent or incompetent in the execution of their duties if they cannot manage this task.  It is what they are paid to do. If they can’t do it very well, I’m not inclined to throw up my hands and sigh that we need better politicians.  The military has, historically, crafted its combat leaders from among the ranks of the enlistee pool.  It didn’t sigh and wait for steely men of courage to appear magically.  It taught Ordinary Joes what they needed to know, why they needed to know it, and when to employ it.  Likewise, the armed forces have to take a more active hand in trying to craft the political leadership that they need.  The CF (and USAF) need to build bridges across the mindspace divide, and help politicians understand what they do and how the newest billion-dollar gizmo will help.  Help demonstrably.  Help in neatly defined measurable ways.  If the US Navy can do it, other services can too.

There’s one other realm where a Canadian negative example may be instructive to the United States Air Force.  We have a lot of experience operating old, decrepit gear.  This is something I hear touted all the time, particularly in relation to our CC-130Es, and can’t quite understand why it is supposed to be a source of pride.  So we have some of the highest-time C-130s on the planet.  The ability to keep them in the air is due to some incredible work by the aircraft maintainers, and they have every reason to feel satisfaction at that effort.  Everyone else does not; in fact, they should feel an overwhelming sense of shame.

Airframes age every time they fly, every time stress is placed upon the wing box and spars, every time they climb into the thinner air above 10,000 feet, every time their cabin is pressurised and depressurised.  These are not vintage cars that get trotted out at shows and paraded to envious admirers a couple of times each summer.  These are working aircraft that have to be mission-ready every day, and certainly ready more often than they are not.  When they become breakdown-prone ramp queens, that inversion of work vs. reward has serious consequences.  Ancient aircraft get flight restrictions placed on them, like our oldest CC-130s.  That means that they are no longer capable of doing the job they are supposed to do, that they were bought to do.  They can no longer carry the maximum payload they were originally rated for.  They cannot execute the most demanding combat manoeuvres lest their wing boxes fail and they fall out of the sky.  They have to be treated more gingerly than their younger brethren, and in combat that might translate into the difference between life and death.  For every hour they spend in the air, they increasingly spend several times that on the ramp, undergoing maintenance.  So the maintainers work like dogs to keep them airworthy.  And this is where a modern air force frays at the seams, and eventually fails.

Faced with an ever-increasing maintenance workload, and no chance of getting newer assets, you have three choices.  Hire more maintainers to keep the work hours reasonable.  Fly the assets less often, reducing the maintenance workload.  Finally, since this is the military, you have the option of compelling the maintainers to work more often and for longer duration than they would like.  All three of these will work in the short term, but ultimately results in highly skilled technical trades voting with their feet.  They leave the service, tired of years of extraordinary, unrelenting, unrewarded effort.  This sad state of affairs is not cause for pride; it is a national disgrace.

Yet that is precisely what has been happening with the Canadian Forces since the mid-90s, and continues to happen into the present day.  The low-density, high-demand fields of vehicle, aircraft, marine and electronics technicians are being highly utilised, their workload is increasing exponentially, and the CF cannot recruit and train replacements fast enough to keep the finely-tuned apparatus of a modern force operating smoothly.  This is why we have ridiculous operational pauses every couple of years; to try and catch up.  But we never quite do catch up, because the workload—owing to the age of the assets—is always going up.  The trend never reverses, unless and until the old failure-prone assets get replaced by newer, more reliable gear.

This, then, is the forseeable (but entirely avoidable) future of the United States Air Force.  Let us hope the senior uniformed and political leadership have the courage to fix it.