war on the rocks

America is Well Within Range of a Big Surprise, So Why Can’t It See?

March 12, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the third installment in “Off Guard,” a series on surprise in war inspired by a new CSIS study. Read the rest of the series here.

It is 2020. Tensions have been rising steadily in Northeast Asia. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un resume exchanging insults as North Korea falls into another famine. U.S. attention is focused on the Korean Peninsula. As the United States reinforces its forward-deployed units in Japan and Korea, China begins moving troops toward Taiwan.

Early one Monday morning (Sunday Washington time), Japan, Guam, and Taiwan wake up to a half-dozen small drones orbiting each of their military air bases and several of their commercial airfields. The drones emit no signals. They identify parked aircraft and key command and maintenance nodes and mark them with paint. Having proved their point, they simultaneously scatter and crash in international waters. At the same time, harbormasters throughout Japan, Taiwan, and Guam report the presence of “gliders” surfacing in their ports. Upon examination, they are found to not be visibly armed, but clearly are capable of carrying significant payloads that could disable shipping. Similar devices appear in San Diego, Bremerton, and Pearl Harbor.

Through discrete channels, Beijing informs Washington and Tokyo that it will be occupying Taiwan immediately. Any effort by U.S. forces to engage from Japanese bases will result in drone swarms augmented by cruise and ballistic missiles strikes on U.S. facilities, runways, and ships in port. U.S. preparations to launch military aircraft will result in immediate attack.

China tells Japan that as long as her forces stay out of the fight, they will not be attacked. China also warns that if American aircraft or ships sortie from Japanese ports, China will shut down Japan’s airfields with drones and missiles and its ports with the already deployed smart mines.

When queried by Japanese and U.S. political leaders, military commanders admit they cannot protect their airfields or ports, nor can they preempt the mobile Chinese drone or missile launching systems. While they will be able to engage some of the Chinese attacking force, they will not be able to defeat a concentrated attack. In short, U.S. airpower and seapower in Japan and Guam will be out of the fight on the first day. And all targeted ports may already be mined.

Definitions of surprise center on actions that are sudden, unexpected, or deceptive. When considering the concept of surprise, the United States would be negligent if it did not explore technologies that have been developing in the open for a significant period of time but have been ignored because they do not conform to a target’s existing concepts or “doctrine” concerning warfare. As the opening vignette illustrates, it is not that new systems necessarily have vastly greater capabilities than old systems. In fact, new weapons systems often lack the combat power and survivability of the old. But, by virtue of their superior range, some new systems can batter old systems until they are destroyed – all while staying out of range.

Battleships and Knights: We’ve Been Here Before

The battleship is a classic example. While the all-gun battleship could, and today still can, deliver more firepower faster than a carrier and remains much more survivable, it simply could not get within range of the carrier to deliver its devastating firepower. By 1942, the battleship’s lack of range made it irrelevant in a naval fight and thus obsolete for that function. Compounding the problem, at the time, the carrier cost significantly less than a battleship and its aircraft were also cheap, as little as $35,000 for the F6F Hellcat fighter. The carrier and its air wing did not suddenly appear, but rather were the product of decades of development. Yet the navy establishments in most nations remained wedded to the battleship as the decisive weapons system. As late as June 1942, Japanese admirals based their Midway plan on the belief that their battleships would defeat the American fleet. This belief persisted despite the fact that cloth covered biplanes sank one Italian battleship, disabled two more at Taranto in November 1940, and rendered the Bismark unable to maneuver in May 1941. In December 1941, Japan’s own aircraft had sunk five U.S. battleships and damaged three more at Pearl Harbor and then sunk the Prince of Wales and Repulse off Singapore. Despite these repeated demonstrations, Japan’s admirals remained proponents of the battleship.

The evolution of the carrier was gradual — taking over two decades — but there was a distinct pattern to its replacement of the battleship. At first, aircraft were seen as a way to assist battleships with scouting and gunnery. During World War I, they became the eyes of the fleet and by the mid-1920s, spotting was perceived as so important that U.S. battleships added seaplane catapults to their aft turrets to ensure aircraft were available. To further increase the availability of aircraft and relieve battleships of the burden of recovering their aircraft, these functions were soon assigned to the newly developed aircraft carriers. As the carrier’s air wing evolved into a mix of capable fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers, the carriers performed as full partners with the battleships during the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Exercises in the 1930s. When World War II proved conclusively that carrier aviation could destroy battleships at range, carriers replaced the battleship as the key striking element of fleets. In short, naval aviation started out as an assistant to the battleship, then became a partner, and finally a replacement. Yet despite two decades of highly visible development and tactical success in wartime, the power of the carrier still surprised the Japanese at Midway.

Of course, the failure of Japanese battleship admirals does not represent the first time military leaders failed to see how new technology had changed the battlefield. French armored knights paid the price at Crecy, then Poitiers, and again at Agincourt. Battleships and knights represented the end result of centuries of technical, social, and political development. They were also the most expensive and complex systems of their days – and were defeated by cheaper, simpler systems that relied on range to defeat them. Both the battleship admirals and the armored knights had decades to observe and understand the new threats. Yet, they and other leaders throughout history failed to do so.

Given the speed with which the Fourth Industrial Revolution is unfolding, national security thinkers need to question whether we are overlooking existing technologies that will “surprise” us. Success will be based on the foresight to integrate the technology while developing the concepts and organizations that exploit the advantages of new systems. The convergence of advances in task-specific artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing, and drones are creating a new generation of small, smart, and cheap weapons that have a significant range advantage over America’s current arsenal of few but exquisite weapons. The area in which the new weapons currently have the greatest advantage is range. Thus, the key question is whether Western militaries will imitate the battleship admirals and armored knights by continuing to invest in obsolete systems and then be “surprised” when newer, cheaper weapons use their superior range to defeat them.

U.S. Systems at Risk

The most obvious and potentially most expensive U.S. systems at risk are the family of fighter bombers. And since these fighter bombers are the main weapons of carriers, these behemoths of the sea are at risk too. New generations of ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as relatively cheap drones, already outrange these systems. This divergence will get worse with time since it is extremely difficult to extend the range of existing aircraft while the operational ranges of cruise missiles and drones are rapidly increasing.

The chart below shows the fundamental problem. U.S. tactical aircraft are outranged by a wide variety of drones as well as ballistic and cruise missiles. As you look at the chart, it is critical to remember these ranges reflect individual aircraft flying point to point. Operational requirements shorten these ranges significantly. The U.S. Naval Institute reports the strike range of the F-18 carrier air wing is currently about 450 nautical miles. With the addition of the MQ-25 Stingray unmanned tanker, Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, commander of Naval Air Forces, expects the strike range to be extended only to 700 nautical miles and the MQ-25 will not be in service until 2026.

In addition to their long range, some drones can carry significant payloads. The QX-222 Valkyrie and UTAP–22 Mako can each carry 500 pounds. The Israeli Harop delivers 51 pounds. While the manufacturers do not list payload weights for the Aerovel Flexrotor Mk2 or Defiant Labs DX-3, they can certainly carry an explosively formed penetrator capable of penetrating a half-inch of steel. Such a device can weigh under half a pound and fit in a tube only one inch in diameter and four inches long. It is also possible to create warheads with multiple penetrators and self-forging fins. At a cost of only $200,000 each, either the Flexrotor or the DX-3 provides affordable, long-range, precision strike. Small explosively formed penetrators can destroy aircraft on the ground or cause secondary explosions at fuel and ammunition dumps. All of these drones operate autonomously so do not require a link back to a ground based pilot.

Missiles and drones have two other major advantages over current manned aircraft. First, they do not require a major facility or ship as a launch platform. The vast majority of land-based cruise missiles are truck mobile, as are a growing number of drones. The Russians are selling an entire family of cruise missiles in standard 20- and 40-foot shipping containers. In this configuration, any truck or ship that can handle standard containers is a potential weapons platform. The Russian SSN-30 Kaliber land attack variant has a range of 2500 kilometers. By packaging cruise missiles in standard shipping containers, the Russians have created a system that essentially places all airfields in the Indo-Pacific theater and even the continental United States within range of a commercial ship loaded with these containers. Russia has found a creative way to threaten U.S. bomber bases without the risk of launching a ballistic missile at the United States. The United States is spending billions to develop the B-21 Raider even though its potential enemies have already devised a cheap way to defeat it. The threat to our airfields exists today but we have not even requested funding in the Five Year Defense Plan to protect U.S. continental bases.

Second, these methods to threaten bomber bases are cheap. Kratos is offering the QX-222 for $2 million a copy or 1/60th the cost of an F-35. The cost advantage actually increases with time. As an unmanned, vertical takeoff and recovery system, the QX-222 has minimal monthly training costs, needs no airfield, and requires no training pipeline for pilots and maintainers. Thus, these systems generate long-term continuing savings on personnel since they require no pilot bonuses, no retirement costs, no health care, etc.

But the primary advantage remains range. Today’s missiles and drones can reach range most U.S. in-theater airfields. Thus, unless the United States fields many more aerial tankers or massive anti-missile and drone defenses, its fighter-bombers can be destroyed on the ground. In June 2017, First Strike: China’s Missile Threat to U.S. Bases in Asia, a paper authored by two U.S. Navy officers, examined the outcome of a Chinese first strike using ballistic and cruise missiles against U.S. facilities in Japan. Using just 20 percent of its short-range ballistic missiles, 25 percent of its medium-range ballistic missiles, and between 34 and 95 percent of its cruise missiles (depending on which source one uses for the total available), the first strike accomplished quite a lot. The missiles struck almost every major fixed American headquarters and logistical facility, with key headquarters struck within the first few minutes of the conflict. Ballistic missiles hit nearly every U.S. ship in port in Japan. They cratered every runway and runway-length taxiway at U.S. air bases in Japan. As a result of runway cratering, headquarters destruction, and air defense degradation, more than 200 trapped U.S. aircraft were destroyed on the ground in the first hours of the conflict.

To appreciate the scope of the threat, it is important to recognize that new explosives technology is set to dramatically increase the striking power of unmanned systems. With nano-explosives now credited with ten times the explosive power of dynamite for the same weight, cruise missiles will be able to deliver a much larger payload. China’s ability to go from prototype to product in the field in 3 to 5 years means it well may beat the United States in fielding these explosives.

On the positive side, the Department of Defense should be able to achieve major cost savings on new missiles using advanced manufacturing. Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles currently have a unit production cost of about $750,000 and carry a thousand-pound warhead for a distance of up to 2500 kilometers, or about 1350 nautical miles. Using advanced manufacturing, Lockheed Martin expects to be able to cut the cost of two new satellites by 40 percent using advanced manufacturing which would reduce the price to $450,000. Recently, General Electric used 3D manufacturing to reduce the number of parts in a jet engine from 855 to 12. Further, if the Department of Defense buys cruise missiles in large numbers, their price should be reduced even more. While the Tomahawk is an old cruise missile, it provides a guide for how much the cost of cruise missiles will be reduced by advanced manufacturing. Moreover, by employing nano-explosives the warhead can be made either much more destructive or its weight reduced and the missile’s range extended.

Cruise missiles such as these can provide long-range heavy strike capabilities. Since cruise missiles can be fired from a variety of land and sea launchers, they can be either dispersed in a cluttered environment or hidden in underground facilities or even warehouses until minutes before launching. They will thus be immune to most pre-emptive strikes and much less expensive than ballistic missiles. The combination of cheap drones and much more capable cruise missiles may offer small- and medium-sized states anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) and precision, long-range strike capabilities. A recent U.S. Marine Corps experiment fired a Multiple Launch Rocket System from the deck of an amphibious ship. This demonstrated the feasibility of employing rockets in a box from a ship. The next step is to replenish rockets at sea by lifting new rockets aboard in a box launcher.

This brings us to another area where U.S. systems are outranged: ground vehicles. Researchers at the University of Virginia successfully 3D printed a drone body in one day. By snapping in place an electric motor, two batteries, and an Android cell phone, they made a fully autonomous drone that could carry 1.5 pounds approximately 50 kilometers — six times the range of the U.S. Hellfire missile. In 2014, it took about 31 hours to print and assemble the drone at a total cost of about $800. Since then printers have become over 100 times faster and will get faster still. UPS currently plans a 1,000 printer plant, which at today’s printing speeds could potentially print 100,000 drones a day. The limitation is no longer the printing but the assembly and shipment of the finished products. Both processes can be automated with robots. In the near future, drones could be produced at a rate exceeding many types of ammunition — and often for less per round. A swarm of tens of thousands of autonomous but non-coordinating drones is clearly possible. Armed with small explosive loads, these drones could score mobility kills on all non-armored vehicles and even damage thin-skinned armor. Such an attack will bring an armored brigade to a rapid halt due to lack of fuel.

Further, the feasibility of launching thousands of drones has been demonstrated both by China’s 18 Harpy launcher mounted on a medium truck and the U.S. Navy LOCUST program’s 24 round launcher for an experiment. Both are roughly the size of standard twenty-foot shipping containers and could be modified to fit in them. For small drones the size of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Switchblade, it would be possible to load hundreds onto a single medium truck. By thinking of drones as expendable rounds of ammunition used as artillery, it is easy to visualize how they can be employed in the thousands.


Surprise can be inflicted on oneself by refusing to see a relatively slow-moving development in warfare. By remaining focused on offensive operations employing air, land, and sea legacy systems that have been dominant in their domains for over 70 years, the Pentagon risks going the same way as the armored knights and battleships. Rather than continue to invest in systems which are already range obsolete, it is essential for defense analysts to rethink their current procurement strategy and focus on identifying and bringing new technologies through the assistant, partner, replacement process.

The key will be to manage the inevitable transition with two goals in mind. First, maximize the benefits from existing assets. Current assets represent massive investments and there are clearly areas where the current platforms can play major roles in the assistant to partner to replacement progression. The early experiments controlling a small swarm of Makos from an AV-8 show a potential powerful partnership in the air-to-air, strike, and close air support missions. The key is to seize the advantages available at each stage.

To identify these opportunities as well as vulnerabilities, the services must experiment ruthlessly. Nothing, particularly bases, can be made off-limits. Autonomous systems must be included. Free play wargames against creative, aggressive red teams should guide concept development. These wargames should range from simple table top map exercises to sophisticated, joint, computer-supported simulations, and even use of simulations combined with live exercises. Figure out what works. It is vital to let the chips fall where they may. Do not make the mistakes the Japanese and French made prior to and during World War II. They conducted rigorous wargames. But when the results showed their doctrine and operational concepts to be losers, they changed the games, not the doctrine.

In parallel with experimentation, study how others have succeeded. There is a rich body of literature on how enthusiasts of new technologies have succeeded and failed in the complex task of changing how a service fights. Allan R. Millett and Williamson Murray’s Innovation in the Interwar Period is a great place to start. Remember that simply getting the technology right has always been insufficient. In 1940, the French had more and better tanks than the Germans but had failed to change their organizations and concepts to use them effectively.

The second goal is to move swiftly but methodically to accelerate the process. Start by examining where drones are on the assistant to partner to replacement path for each air mission. The Defense Department should start with air missions because the air environment is technologically the simplest for task-specific autonomy. Currently, drones, cruise, and ballistic missiles are already assuming some task in air missions.

Finally, the Defense Department must explore how to integrate technology and concepts to advance drones to the next step in those mission areas. Historically, concepts and technology have coevolved. As new technologies emerge, operators will see how they can be applied to current operational concepts with an eye to completely rethinking those concepts. It is essential to cast off the limitations inherent in the very mature technology of manned aircraft and think through what the convergence of new technology offers.


Dr. T. X. Hammes is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the U. S. National Defense University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Osakabe Yasuo