The Need to Invest in Long-Range Fires

P-8A Missile

If a naval aviator quotes from the movie Top Gun in the wardroom, they are going to have to buy a round of beers for the squadron. We are prepared to be fined. “He’s too close for missiles, Goose. I’m switching to guns.” It’s an iconic quote. It is also outdated. With the advent and adversary deployment of long-range cruise and ballistic missiles, the distances across which belligerents can attack United States and allied forces has grown considerably. We believe that the era of short-ranged ordnance expended in near-peer conflict above the waterline is all but over. 

As the chief of naval operations mentions in his 2022 Navigation Plan, “to build the dynamic kill chains required for [distributed maritime operations], we must modernize and integrate current capabilities for long-range fires, aligning our analysis, prototyping, experimentation, requirements documentation, and capability development.” 

The U.S. Navy should acquire more long-range fires. It needs these weapons to meet and defeat threats that have rapidly proliferated in the Indo-Pacific and European theaters. By diversifying its shooter portfolio to augment the carrier air wing, the Navy can give commanders more missile shooters that can fire from ranges outside that of a peer adversary’s defenses. The P-8A Poseidon is a multi-mission maritime patrol aircraft that offers the Navy a platform capable of creating kill chains for direct attack, or of assisting the carrier air wing by passing data for different aircraft to attack.

 

 

The Department of Defense should follow the Navy’s lead, embracing and fully investing in more long-range fires, and across more platforms. The P-8A is a favorable platform to demonstrate how long-range fires on a multi-mission aircraft could augment U.S. capabilities in the Indo-Pacific. As the department considers the long-range fires effort writ large moving forward, there are several programmatic avenues through which it could gain financial efficiencies. Pursuing aerodynamic testing virtually could decrease the cost of fielding new weapon capabilities on a wider range of platforms. Selecting capable weapons that a variety of platforms can carry further capitalizes on economies of scale (in addition to the operational goodness such expanded concepts of combined employment bring). Lastly, continuing to leverage multi-year procurement will not only allow the U.S. military to continue buying more weapons more efficiently, but also signal a message of confidence to its invaluable partners in industry.

The Challengers

There is tendency to label the competition with China as a modern Cold War. The challenges to the United States, however, have evolved since 1991. American adversaries have developed over-the-horizon strike capabilities, enabled by advanced targeting through nodes and networks. These capabilities are designed to push U.S. aircraft and ships outside the range of most air-delivered weapons, which would thereby make a large aerial assault more difficult. The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force now fields the DF-21 and DF-26 ballistic missiles. These weapons are designed to deliver either nuclear or conventional payloads against both naval and ground-based targets, utilizing ballistic-enhanced trajectories that span great distances and enjoy high speeds. The People’s Liberation Army Navy has also invested in its power-projection capabilities and wields numerous anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles. China’s naval force is also expected to grow past 400 combatants by 2025. 

Russia has also developed a series of cruise missiles in the Kalibr-class family of systems. President Vladimir Putin’s regime retains formidable air defenses, and now deploys air-launched cruise and ballistic missiles to hold U.S. Navy targets at risk.

The P-8A Poseidon: A Use-Case for Flexible Kill Chains and Long-Range Fires

The carrier’s air wing is without question the center of gravity for current and future naval fires. However, fighters may be constrained by the weight of long-range weapons. The added weight limits the transit distances and loiter times for fighters. The more weight a fighter carries, the more fuel it needs (and more often). Tanker operations are vulnerable to attack and the Navy cannot assume that logistics will be able to flow into theater uncontested. Though the MQ-25 Stingray will give the carrier an additional (and attritable) organic refueling capability and thereby added lethality, that program is still developing (though, to be sure, it is progressing). Fighters will remain indispensable to carry long-range anti-ship missiles and still be tasked with sea control. However, having a diversified portfolio of shooters helps to manage risk and the P-8A has intrinsic advantages that could help give commanders more options. 

The P-8A Has a Flexible Kill Chain

The P-8A Poseidon is a militarized Boeing 737 that conducts a variety of mission sets. Its three core competencies are anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. The P-8A’s ability to collect intelligence as well as disseminate data across multiple networks leads to two notable outcomes. It can provide targeting data and information on surrounding maritime tracks to a flight of fighters or a ship that can then strike the target. Alternatively, the P-8A can also find, fix, track, target, engage, and generally assess against a hostile unit. In this way, the P-8A has a flexible kill chain that many other naval units do not enjoy at parity. It may complete the “front end” of the kill chain, the “back end,” or all of it. By employing long-range fires on the P-8A, the Navy acquires the distinct advantage of distributed choice. A commander of a strike group may choose to utilize a carrier-based attack on a unit, whereby a P-8A provides targeting data over the horizon. Or she can direct her air wing to tend to other threats and have the P-8A neutralize a particular threat on its own from a long distance. With more options from which to choose, a commander’s decision space increases, leading to the invaluable increase of maneuvering potential. Though Gen. Joe Dunford was referencing a much broader picture of warfare encompassing the cyber and information domains, as he contends, rapidly commanding the decision space is paramount, given the speed of war.

The P-8A Has the Endurance and Payload Capacity to Carry Multiple Long-Range Weapons

The P-8A can carry five weapon stores internally as well as on four wing stations and two centerline stations. It is theoretically possible to double up two missiles at a single wing station with a connecting pylon, yielding eight possible wing stations total (weight class and flight test depending of course). While the Navy has not yet conducted a full-fledged feasibility study to combine various weight-class combinations on the P-8A’s currently rated and approved stations, there is potential to explore options such as the loading of a 3,000-plus pound weapon on the centerline of the aircraft. Exploring the possibility of expanding the weapons carriage and employment envelope can open doors to more lethal fires that the Navy can employ across the force. Pending the outcome of such a study, the P-8A seemingly then could follow the carrier air wing’s lead in throwing the same “sticks” as the U.S. arsenal of long-range fires increases. This is notable not only because it increases the total number of sticks (and the axes from which they are thrown, which complicates the adversary’s risk calculus), but it is a sound business decision for big Navy. As we will reiterate later, more of the same weapon is (generally) a better buy than numerous types of weapons purchased in lower quantities.

The P-8A also can carry a large amount of fuel. Generally, the aircraft can remain airborne for 10 hours. It also has aerial refueling capability. This ostensibly can keep the P-8A airborne indefinitely with less need to refill from the tanker. The Navy wins in this regard since P-8As are naval assets. Housing such capability solely within the Navy lifeline (at least contingently) gives naval commanders the assurance that the assets they aim to employ remain theirs both before and after mission completion without risk of re-tasking. Furthermore, there are many P-8As to employ, adding to the Navy’s advantage of distributed maritime operations and thus distributed choice of kill chain. More P-8As employed in theater equals more distribution of operations, which then equals more geographic areas in which U.S. adversaries must negotiate risk. We live in a “more is more” battle space in this regard.

The P-8A Has Open Architecture Built Into Its Software

The P-8A operates on Boeing’s Tactical Open Mission Software, which makes it easy to add more weapons to the airplane. As the software builds mature, software developers are better able to design and integrate applications for operators to use on the P-8A that aid in mission planning and human-machine teaming. 

The interface also allows for the P-8A to employ a variety of weapons from a variety of defense companies. Raytheon makes the MK-54 lightweight torpedo. McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) makes the AGM-84 Harpoon missile. More recently, the P-8A has expanded its lethal reach with the testing of the Lockheed Martin-manufactured AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile weapon. The program manager for the direct and time-sensitive strike program (PMA-242) recently cited a study underway to look at warfighting potential of equipping the P-8A with Northrop Grumman’s AGM-88G Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile Extended Range. All these weapons integrate (or would integrate) through the open mission software architecture into the P-8A. Though that integration comes with a monetary cost, the process itself is straightforward enough. Using the same baseline software also provides a streamlined, familiar architecture for the operator to manipulate — regardless of the weapon.

 

 

Rapidly Acquiring Long-Range Weapons for the Next Conflict 

The Navy needs long-range fires and fielding them on long-endurance, multi-mission aircraft such as the P-8A can meaningfully augment the carrier air wing’s lethality. To that end, we believe that there are a few avenues the Department of Defense could pursue to increase lethality, while keeping costs down.

Pursue Aerodynamic Testing Virtually Through Supercomputing

Developing and prototyping weapons can be expensive, but an often-overlooked cost driver is testing the weapon — to include all of the mechanically-based test events needed to show aerodynamic stability and release characteristics. There is a current shift in thought to move more testing into the virtual realm. Supercomputers can radically change how the Department of Defense does business and, equally important, already exist. For instance, the High Performing Computing Modernization Program is a company that uses supercomputers to do various types of flight testing through modeling and virtual simulation. For a given platform that is middle-aged in its acquisition lifecycle, research and development dollars for funding flight testing may be hard to come by unless given externally (and even then, plane availability to conduct the tests and the personnel to fly it may both be limited and thus likely to cause a bottleneck). Supercomputing could allow programmers and program offices alike to put the research money towards the weapon and software development vice the jet fuel and related plane maintenance that sandwiches physical test events. This would become even more germane as the Departments of the Navy and Defense look to deepen their roster of long-ranged ordnance.

Select Weapons with Variable Shooters in Mind

The Long Range Anti-Ship Missile is a compelling weapon because many different aircraft can carry it. The Air Force has adopted this missile as well. This allows the Department of Defense to share procurement costs across directorates and programs, and capitalize greatly on economies of scale. Niche, small-batch weapons may be exquisite in capability but they are limited in their accompanying purchasing power across the services. Further, a common weapon allows for better concepts of employment across platforms, services, and partners.

Continue to Use Multi-Year Procurement for Long-Range Fire Purposes

Another purchasing phenomenon aside from the “buy-in-bulk” is buying across multiple years. Multi-year procurement allows the Department of Defense to circumnavigate some of the risks associated with annual contracting (e.g., various costs rising every year) for certain acquisition programs. While the estimated percentage of cost savings varies, it may likely be in the realm of 5 to 10 per cent. That is still considerable when the order of magnitude is potentially in the hundreds of millions of dollars, across a score of platforms. Equally if not more important, a further gain through this tool is realized as a boost of confidence to U.S. industry partners. If industry knows that next year’s paycheck is not at risk to produce said weapons, then that is more energy that industry may put forward in the weapons manufacture, rather than hedging bets on what the production line becomes if there is no more money to come the following year. The United States continually messages that it wants a stronger industrial base… but it is a two-way street.

Conclusion

If Chinese and Russian weapon investments are indicators of how naval warfare is evolving, the next conflict will span over great oceanic distances. The shooters will not come face to face. There will be no (again, timeless and iconic, and finable for reference) “cockpit to inverted-cockpit” bird-flipping as escalations rise. Just booms of hypersonic weapons, followed by either splashes or explosions.

The Navy understands the importance of long-range fires, as evidenced by the fact that long-range precision fires show up at the top of the chief of naval operation’s force design imperatives. We believe that fielding these weapons via P-8A, and other multi-mission aircraft thereafter, in tandem with the carrier air wing will give senior leaders a multitude of options. They can use the aircraft to assist others to strike targets, or to act as the sensor and the shooter — closing the kill chain in its entirety. This gives the commander more decision space in employing fires, which thus gives her better freedom of maneuver. That option and the subsequent maneuvering space it yields is harder to exercise without multi-mission aircraft in the long-range fires fight.

We have offered several suggestions that might aid in streamlining pursuit of long-range fires across multiple platforms going forward. Though the skirmishes with which we have been concerned reside on the high seas, the force is undoubtedly a joint one — and a combined one at that! Accordingly, the Department of Defense has equity in how the U.S. military collectively pursues long-range fires. And to that end, taking a page out of the Navy’s Navigation Plan might be a sound initial step.

 

 

Lt. Cdr. Josh “Minkus” Portzer and Lt. Cdr. Jonathan “Duck Duck” Gosselin are both P-8A weapons and tactics instructors in the U.S. Navy. The views expressed here are their own. 

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jerome D. Johnson

 

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