The Next War

Today’s budget battles will determine what U.S. troops carry into real battles for years to come.

The war in Afghanistan is not over yet, but back in Washington the battle has already started over what the next war will be. On one side stands the Army, struggling to reorient itself to a wider world after a decade of all-consuming counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq. On the other stand the Air Force and Navy, tired of playing supporting roles and looking to future conflicts in the Pacific. The Marine Corps, meanwhile, straddles both camps.

Much of this conflict is fueled by perennial service rivalries over funding, whose flames are now fanned high by the prospect of at least half a trillion dollars in cuts coming over the next decade. But there are deep divisions in institutional outlook and serious professional differences among senior leaders as well.

In this war over the next war, the Air Force and Navy have stolen an intellectual march over the Army with their joint AirSea Battle concept. It is a vision of future conflict well-matched to America’s exhaustion with ground wars, its preference for high-tech, long-range engagements and its growing anxiety over the rise of China. AirSea Battle’s presumed opponent is a well-funded and technologically sophisticated nation state—like China or, on a smaller scale, Iran—that seeks to dominate its region. To keep out any U.S. intervention forces, such regional powers are creating what military officials awkwardly call an “anti-access/area denial” system: a layered defense of long-range cruise and ballistic missiles to attack American ships and bases; anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down U.S. planes; and shorter-range weapons ranging from fast attack boats and diesel submarines to naval mines and roadside bombs.

“The price of projecting power is going up,” says Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, who is the leading civilian exponent of AirSea Battle.

To pry apart these defenses, the Air Force and Navy hint at secretive electronic and cyberattack capabilities that will open the way for long-range precision strikes from drones, stealth aircraft, surface ships and submarines. In this scenario, the Army plays mainly on the margins, providing land-based missile defense and perhaps seizing strategic locations alongside the Marines.

AirSea Battle and the anti-access/area denial threat have come to dominate the debate, with the Army still struggling to respond. The ground force has no grand concept yet to carry its banner in the interservice battle over missions, roles and funding. The Obama administration’s strategic guidance, issued in January, explicitly swears off the kind of “large-scale, prolonged stability operations” that the Army and Marines spent the last decade learning, slowly and bloodily, how to do. Now the Army in particular is wrestling with how to institutionalize its hard-won counterinsurgency skills and justify its relevance in the coming post-Afghanistan world while at the same time rebuilding long-neglected capabilities for conventional war.

The emerging attempt to reconcile counterinsurgency and conventional combat is an idea—not yet a formal  doctrine—called “hybrid war.” While AirSea Battle focuses on hostile nation states, the hybrid model predicts ugly alliances of states, guerrillas and criminal groups through which irregular forces will acquire sophisticated weapons once exclusive to conventional armies (hence the term “hybrid”). The paradigmatic case is how Hezbollah bloodied the vaunted Israelis in 2006, when the Lebanese militia best known for suicide bombs instead made skillful use of long-range rockets, anti-tank missiles and even anti-ship cruise missiles, all believed to be provided by Iran.

The United States has plenty of painful experience against guerrillas armed with short-range weapons like AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, but an arsenal such as Hezbollah’s is deadly at much greater distances, said David Johnson, one of the leading hybrid-warfare theorists, in an interview shortly before being named director of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno’s Strategic Studies Group in May: “It’s no longer a 500-meter problem, it’s a 5-kilometer problem.”

Army leaders from Odierno on down increasingly invoke the hybrid buzzword. For today’s Army, the hybrid threat hits an institutional sweet spot. It would require the Army to come up with its own opposing hybrid of its traditional blitzkrieg capabilities—heavy tanks, massed artillery, large-scale maneuver—and its new counterinsurgency skills—languages, cultural knowledge, human intelligence—to root out adversaries who are far better armed than the Taliban but still take cover among sympathetic civilians.

The Army is still thrashing out its concepts for hybrid war even as it fights for a greater role in AirSea Battle. As different as they are, the two visions of future conflict could complement each other instead of simply contradict. They address, respectively, the long- and short-range manifestations of the same problem: the proliferation of smart weapons—once a U.S. monopoly—to a widening range of ever more sophisticated foes. Air Force and Navy AirSea Battle tactics can break down an enemy’s long-range defenses so the Army and Marines can close in to root out the hybrid adversary on the ground.

Perhaps the most fertile soil for defense investment in the lean years to come are those systems essential for both hybrid war and AirSea Battle. Both concepts depend on missile defenses against the global proliferation of long-range threats, ranging from China’s sophisticated ship-seeking ballistic missiles to North Korea’s souped-up Scuds to Hezbollah’s crude Katyusha rockets. Both concepts call for an array of sensors and unmanned systems to detect enemies before they can kill U.S. troops. Above all, both AirSea Battle and hybrid warfare— and, even more so, any overarching concept combining both—require communications networks to link the separate services, from foot soldier to warship to satellite, into a coherent whole. Those networks, in turn, require sophisticated cyber and electronic warfare capabilities to defend them from attack.

Those are the areas of common ground. But even the most sophisticated electronic system requires some kind of platform—a ship, a plane, a tank, a drone, a satellite—to carry it. Those platforms still dominate military budgets and drive the interservice fight. In the long run lives are at stake, as well as dollars. Given the years it takes to develop weapons and the decades the successful ones remain in service, today’s budget battles will determine what U.S. troops use in real battles for a long time to come.

Air Power: The F-35 Problem

As powerful as the idea has proved, AirSea Battle poses one big problem for its Air Force and Navy sponsors: The two services’ largest program, the Joint Strike Fighter, doesn’t actually fit the concept very well. The Air Force, Navy and Marines are committed to buying 2,457 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, also known as Lightning IIs, for an estimated $395.7 billion. It’s the Pentagon’s top procurement program, with correspondingly big problems, making it an epic challenge for program manager Vice Adm. David Venlet to keep on track.

In the even bigger picture, however, the question is the plane’s place in future wars. The F-35 is intended as the radar-evading replacement for a host of nonstealthy fighters. The F-35’s stealth could well be critical in penetrating the anti-access/area denial defenses that are the target of AirSea Battle, although skeptics, especially in the Navy, have doubts that stealth will still work against ever improving sensors. What’s more, given AirSea Battle’s emphasis on long-range strikes, especially over the vast distances of the Pacific, the military is arguably over-investing in relatively short-range fighters and shortchanging long-range bombers —something Krepinevich and his colleagues have repeatedly pointed out.

The F-35 has a combat mission radius —the maximum distance at which it can strike a target and return without refueling—of about 600 nautical miles (not quite 700 statute miles). While the aircraft itself is a small, stealthy, agile target, the platforms from which it must refuels are not: Air Force tankers, aircraft carriers and air bases. As adversaries acquire ever longer-range and more accurate missiles, they can make it increasingly dangerous to refuel short-range fighters within 700 miles of their final target. 

To penetrate defended airspace without depending on vulnerable bases or tankers, the Air Force has only recently begun investing in a new long-range bomber, optimistically expected to enter service in the 2020s. Its current bomber fleet is not up to cracking a sophisticated anti-access defense. The venerable B-52 is so slow and unstealthy that it suffered heavy losses over North Vietnam 40 years ago. The B-1 is supersonic but not stealthy. The B-2 is stealthy but not supersonic, and there are only 20 of them.

After much uncertainty, the Air Force has put real money into a Next- Generation Bomber program. “It’s about $5 billion in the next few years, which is enough to design the landing gear, but it’s a commitment to get going,” said aviation industry analyst Richard Aboulafia, tongue only partially in cheek. “I think it’s got some traction at this point.” Total cost is estimated at about $55 billion, most of which the Air Force will have to find at the same time it’s funding full-rate production of the F-35. Even if the current budget climate improves, the service may face hard choices about which program best fits the AirSea Battle concept.

Sea Power: Big Ships, Little Ships and Gators

In the air, the short-range Joint Strike Fighter is a distinctly imperfect fit for the long-range warfare envisioned by AirSea Battle. On the seas, the Navy faces a similar square-peg, round-hole problem with the vessel it plans to buy more of than any other—the Littoral Combat Ship. “These are not large surface combatants that are going to sail into the South China Sea and challenge the Chinese military; that’s not what they’re made for,” Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, said at a Government Executive event in April. “You won’t send it into an anti-access area” by itself.

Greenert’s candor triggered a cascade of other Navy leaders insisting that LCS was, indeed, a warship. The service has committed to buying 55 Littoral Combat Ships at an estimated cost of $37 billion, and the program already was under fire for cost overruns, schedule slips and construction defects on the first two vessels.

LCS will play a vital role in the future fleet, but a supporting one. Smaller, cheaper and significantly less damage-resistant than the standard Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, Littoral Combat Ships will carry interchangeable weapons and technology packages that service leaders can use to configure the ships for specific missions—to hunt submarines, clear mines and shoot up swarms of fast attack boats, all considered major anti-access threats. But there are no plans to kit out LCS for the long-range strikes at the core of AirSea Battle, a role reserved for the more robust destroyers and the giant aircraft carriers. Indeed, the most survivable strike platform in the face of long-range anti-ship missiles is not a surface ship at all, but a submarine, which the Navy buys at a steady rate of two a year, more than any class of vessel except the LCS itself. But submarines can’t shoot down incoming missiles. So if Littoral Combat Ships go in to hunt subs and clear mines close to the coast of a well-armed enemy, they will need destroyers to escort them.

Indeed, one of LCS’ attractions for the Navy is these cheaper ships will free up destroyers for the Pacific by replacing them in the less demanding theaters of Latin America and Africa, where the threat is drug runners and pirates, not nation states. Anti-access is a high-end threat that is important to prepare for, as were the Soviets during the Cold War. But the Navy spends most of its time in much less dangerous waters: It shows the flag, exercises with friendly nations, assists disaster victims and intimidates Third World despots with gunboat diplomacy. AirSea Battle it ain’t, but these are important missions for which the LCS is well-suited.

Those are also the main missions of the Gator Navy, the Navy’s 35 amphibious warfare ships of various sizes and their associated landing craft, which carry the Marines ashore. After years of operating from fixed bases far inland in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Marines are eagerly returning to their roots as a ship-borne rapid intervention force.

The Army also wants to prove its ability to act in countries where the United States does not already have an elaborate infrastructure built up. The Army War College’s annual wargame in May showed new interest in amphibious operations alongside the Marines, in the Army’s long-disused airborne capabilities and in the general logistical challenge of supporting U.S. forces in austere locations.

One problem: The sheer weight of armor U.S. ground forces have accumulated since Sept. 11 makes them physically harder to deploy. Every vehicle from the humble Humvee to the massive M1 Abrams tank has been uparmored against the threat of roadside bombs.

Ground Forces: The Uparmor Dilemma

It is the ground forces that have changed the most since Sept. 11, suffered the most and grown the most. As budgets tighten and troops come home, they must change again—and shrink. Already the Marines are slated to cut 20,000 personnel, the Army 80,000. But their procurement programs are under stress as well. 

The Army has no program to rival the Joint Strike Fighter for size or for political momentum. Ever since 9/11, even as money poured into the ground forces, Army modernization programs were being canceled: The Crusader artillery vehicle, the Comanche and Armed Reconnaissance helicopters, and above all the Future Combat Systems, an overly ambitious attempt to build a highly deployable brigade of high-tech, lightweight tanks. The Marines, meanwhile, lost their Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, a kind of amphibious tank. The closest thing the Army has to a flagship procurement program today is the Ground Combat Vehicle, a heavily armed and armored troop carrier, but it will not enter production until 2017 if that too isn’t canceled.

Instead of fielding new vehicles with new technology, service leaders installed more armor on the vehicles they already have and buy off-the-shelf stopgaps to create MRAPs, mine-resistant ambush-protected trucks. But even the lightest, most mobile MRAP variant, the M-ATV (MRAP all-terrain vehicle), weighs in at more than 12 tons, more than twice an uparmored Humvee. Other, heavier MRAPs can hardly operate off-road: problematic but tolerable in highly urbanized Iraq, painfully limiting in rugged Afghanistan, and potentially crippling for future rapid-intervention missions around the world.

Now the Army and Marine Corps want a truck that’s much more maneuverable cross-country than an MRAP, yet much less vulnerable than the old Humvee. But their proposed solution, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program, faced cancellation threats in Congress and already has been rebooted to control its rising costs. The Army likewise revamped its Ground Combat Vehicle after initial proposals came in at 50 to 70 tons, startlingly heavy even for what is essentially a tank.

The basic problem is it is always easier to add more explosives to a roadside bomb than it is to add more armor to a vehicle. Krepinevich argues this is a losing battle the United States shouldn’t even fight. “In the absence of a major breakthrough in vehicle defense technologies, spending large sums on new systems seems ill-advised,” he said at a March event, “and we couldn’t identify a prospective breakthrough.”

Holding off on big investments until new technologies arise is a politically attractive argument in tight budget times. And if long-range AirSea Battles waged by missiles, ships and planes are the face of the future, then ground force equipment is a low priority. But if the world is really headed into hybrid wars, then armored vehicles of all kinds are essential and the current fleet is hardly adequate. That is the enormously expensive question policy- makers have yet to answer.

Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. is deputy editor at AOL Defense. Previously, he spent 13 years at National Journal, Government Executive’s sister publication. He also runs an oral history project with veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq called Learning From Veterans.

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