Small Wars

This Week at War: Size Matters

Why the Pentagon should be thinking bigger (literally).

U.S. Navy/Getty Images
U.S. Navy/Getty Images

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.

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