Saturday, December 27, 2014

How will the US Navy Cope with Enemy A2AD?

In face of rapid development of A2AD capabilities among America’s enemies, the US Navy needs countermeasures to secure freedom of international navigation and their maritime operations. Currently, the US Navy faces critical threats of advanced antiship missiles posed by challengers like China and Iran, but post Cold War defense spending cut has constrained America’s fleet defense capability. The United States must rebuild this capability so as not to allow any challengers to defy its maritime superiority.

The rise of enemy A2AD is nothing new. During the Cold War era, the Soviet Air Force challenged US naval supremacy with strategic bombers equipped with carrier killer missiles, notably Tu-22 Backfire and Tu-19 Badger. In order to defend carrier squadrons from Soviet saturation attack, the US Navy explored to make a fleet defense fighter for air superiority and interception. The Navy required a fighter equipped with powerful radar and long range missiles. That was F-14 Tomcat.

F-14 was not only capable of shooting down enemy attackers and missiles far away from the fleet. As a counter A2AD weaponry, its powerful radar enables the crews to find the enemy attackers before it was detected. Also, the fighter could hit multiple targets simultaneously with Phoenix long range air to air missiles to nullify saturation attacks of carrier killer missiles by the enemy. Tomcat was highly capable fleet defense fighter for “first look, first shot, first kill” missions. See the video below.

However, when the Soviet Union collapsed, air threats to American fleets were supposed to have expired for the time being. Therefore, the Congress demanded the Navy to replace F-14 fighter with F/A-18 which is less costly and more adaptable to multirole requirements. Americans were so unvigilant as to take Holidays from History, and China and Iran were preparing for their own Monroe Doctrine to claim dominance in their neighboring maritime sphere. In those days, Aegis combat system destroyers were supposed to assume fleet air defense, and F-14 squadrons were overcapable and too expensive to maintain. Even though, destroyers are vulnerable to enemy air attacks, however sophisticated, as seen in the HMS Shefield hit by an Argentine Exocet missile during the Falkland War.

F/A-18 Hornet and its advanced version Super Hornet are good fighters as they are multirole and cost effective. Some American allies like Canada, Australia, Spain, and so forth, deploy them instead of US Air Force F-15. However, they are not specialized for intercepting saturation attacks by the enemy. Also, F/A-18’s combat radius is shorter and flight speed is slower than F-14’s. During the Afghan War, F-14 flew farther beyond F/A 18’s flight range to attack Taliban and Al Qaeda. In view of rapid progress in enemy A2AD capability, the US Navy needs a reliable interceptor that can shoot down enemy missiles and attackers as far away as possible from the carrier squadron.

Currently, the Navy pushes for the Sixth Generation fighters such as F-X and F/A-XX projects, along with the Air Force. They are planned to be deployed by 2030 to replace Super Hornets. With more advanced engines, they will be able to fly farther, and boost performance. However, current budget constraints may force the Navy to give up new ideas presented by defense contractors. According to Dave Madjumdar, a freelance defense writer, the Navy may upgrade F-35C with new engine and missile system. However, Air Force pilots comment negatively to this idea. Even if advanced version, F-35 is no match for their F-22 in terms of air to air combat and SEAD/DEAD (suppression of enemy air defenses/destruction of enemy air defenses), says one pilot. Some even say a single engine fighter is underpowered, compared with a twin engine one, and thus, lower performance and less payload (“A New, "Super" F-35 to Rule the U.S. Military?”; National Interest; December 19, 2014). Remember F-14 had comparable capability and performance level to Air Force F-15.

The end of the Cold War has not resulted in the end of American enemy. They were honing their claws during a seemingly peaceful period. If the United States is too thrifty on defense, the price of it must be paid later. American enemies will be emboldened to see the US Navy balked by their A2AD capabilities. On the other hand, unnecessary rising costs and procurement delay must be curbed to proceed the project for fleet air defense smoothly. Senator John McCain is likely to chair the Armed services Committee next year, and he is a vocal critic to inefficient management of defense industries and bureaucracy at the Pentagon (“GOP Win Sets Stage for McCain to Put Pressure on Pentagon, Industry”; Military Times; November 5, 2014). In addition to technology, the US Navy must overcome so many challenges to defend the fleet from enemy A2AD.

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