The ability to conduct long-range strike operations has long provided the United States with a decisive military advantage over its enemies. Today, that advantage is dissipating. Despite the crucial role long-range strike capabilities have played in our nation’s wars over the last seventy years, it is unclear whether the United States will make the investments needed to sustain this advantage in the future. Chronic underinvestment in the US military’s long-range strike “family of systems” — land-based bombers, carrier-based strike aircraft, cruise missiles and supporting airborne electronic attack platforms — combined with the creeping obsolescence of current systems could lead to a future force that is relegated to fighting on the periphery and cannot effectively penetrate anti-access/area- denial (A2/AD) battle networks. Considering the time that is required to develop and field new weapon systems, if the next defense budget continues to defer needed long-range strike investments, a gap is likely to emerge in which the nation could lose its conventional long-range strike advantage for a decade or more. Consequently, the United States has a critical choice to make: either accept this loss on the assumption that long-range strike is less relevant in the future, or implement a plan and provide sufficient resources to maintain its long-range strike advantage. This paper suggests options for the latter choice as a point of departure for developing and sequencing new capabilities that will sustain America’s long-range strike strategic advantage for the next thirty years
A Framework For Thinking About Long-Range Strike
Defining a framework of assumptions for thinking rigorously about the opportunities and risks of various capability options is a first critical step toward assessing the US military’s long-range strike requirements. Using the wrong assumptions about the character of plausible conflicts, airbase availability, emerging threats and potential target sets could lead to flawed analysis and, ultimately, plans and investments that would leave the United States ill-prepared for the future.
The planning framework developed by the Defense Department in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War was based on assumptions that its power-projection capabilities would be able to deploy and operate from forward bases relatively unhindered by enemy threats. This “sanctuary” status extended to in-theater operations of tactical fighter aircraft, aircraft carriers, aerial refueling tankers, C4ISR networks and supporting logistics systems. The First Gulf War reinforced these assumptions and contributed to the Defense Department’s development of a new force-planning construct based on sizing and structuring US military forces primarily for conducting two nearly simultaneous “rapid halt” regional conflicts,putatively in Iraq/Iran and Korea. Pentagon planners viewed long-range strike as a “first day” capability that would be needed to help rapidly halt invading enemy forces, after which short-range tactical aircraft flying from nearby bases in relatively permissive operating environments could carry out the majority of strike missions. Collectively, these assumptions led to twenty years of defense budgets that have favored investments in both land- and carrier-based short-range fighters at the expense of major new long-range strike programs.
On reevaluation, the Defense Department’s 1990s planning assumptions provide an unsuitable framework for assessing strike capabilities that may be needed for future contingency operations. Today, a number of foreign militaries — including, but not limited to, those of China and Iran — are investing in A2/AD battle networks that can pose a direct and formidable challenge to the traditional forms of US conventional power-projection in all operating domains. Conflicts involving such A2/AD networks would likely require US short-range land- and sea-based strike aircraft to operate from much longer ranges, nullifying their ability to attack land targets at depth and greatly reducing sortie generation rates. Moreover, enemy integrated air defense systems may render areas under their coverage all but impassable to non-stealthy aircraft and cruise missiles. Potential adversaries are also adopting defensive measures to defeat attacks from US precision-guided munitions, such as concealing, camouflaging and mobilizing military systems, and hardening or deeply burying key facilities.
This monograph offers an alternative framework for evaluating options for the next long-range strike family of systems. It is based on the fundamental premise that future operating environments will be increasingly non-permissive in nature, regardless of the level of conflict. This new framework should assume US land- and sea-based forces will have to operate from longer ranges, will need to penetrate and persist in high-threat environments, may not be supported by on-call C4ISR, and will need the capacity to strike thousands of targets that are increasingly mobile, relocatable, hardened, deeply buried, and located deep in an enemy’s territory.