Sunday, January 18, 2015

War and Isolation

ComNavOps has seen a spate of comments in the last few months, both on this blog and others, that have highlighted a major problem that both the military and commenters suffer from: we've forgotten what war is. In a war, people die and planes and ships get destroyed. We've been conducting police actions and limited actions against third rate opponents for so long that we've forgotten what real war is.  

A consequence of forgetting what real war is, is that along the way we've adopted a zero-loss mentality about war.  If the mere theoretical possibility of one of our planes being shot down is enough to push us to standoff roles only, then we're not very serious about the conflict.  If the mere theoretical possibility of a ship being hit by a missile is enough to push our amphibious assaults out to 50 nm or more than we aren’t very serious about the objective.  If the mere theoretical possibility of a carrier being hit by an anti-ship ballistic missile is enough to push us back beyond a 1000 nm A2/AD zone then we don’t have a compelling reason to enter the zone. 

War is about attrition and war is about the balance between risk and reward.  If the objective is worthwhile then it’s worth some losses.  Too many of our recent military interventions have not been worth the losses which tells us that the reward wasn’t very compelling and we should have seriously questioned our involvement.  In these kinds of scenarios, prevention of losses is often the main objective rather than any military goal.

Because we’ve forgotten what war is, too many people have taken to evaluating weapons and systems in isolation.  We’ve forgotten that weapons rarely (never) operate in isolation against an opposing weapon.  For example, the A-10 doesn’t fly alone against an isolated SAM system as if it were a target drone.  The A-10 operates with supporting ECM, supporting ground forces, AWACS and spotters, helos, anti-radar missiles, etc.  It also operates as part of a squadron whose other aircraft provide mutual support, spotting, and suppression.  The A-10 also doesn’t operate in a clearly unfavorable situation.  The A-10 is not tasked with penetrating the heart of an enemy’s capital city.  That’s someone else’s job.

An LST (if we had one) doesn’t attempt to land all by itself against the entire arrayed enemy force.  Of course, it wouldn’t survive that!  It lands as part of an overall effort that attempts to support and maximize the LST’s chance of survival and mission accomplishment.

And so on …

Unfortunately, as we argue for and against various weapons and systems we tend to pick and choose individual matchups which support our contention instead of making realistic assessments of how a weapon or system would actually be used in combat.  That’s tactics, people!  Arguing without an understanding of the tactics relevant to the weapon under discussion is just arguing for the sake of arguing.  We don't fight in isolation (one A-10 versus one AAW system) yet we persist in discussing these things in isolation to prove our points.

The fact that an A-10 might be shot down doesn't render it obsolete. If we're not willing to face the possibility of losses then we should be looking very closely at our rationale for being there (wherever and whatever there is). Jumping into zero-loss police actions at the drop of a hat may not be the wisest policy. But, I digress...

This post is not about the A-10 or any particular weapon system.  It’s about the reality of war and the flawed basis of isolated arguments.  It applies equally to any weapon or system.  By all means, let’s continue our discussions and continue weighing the pros and cons of systems and weapons but let’s do so with the totality of the item’s usage kept firmly in mind.  Yes, that makes the discussions more complex and may require more thought and research but that is, after all, the point of this blog – to raise the level of discourse.  Have at it!


  1. To perform the CAS mission, the doctrine requires local air superiority. Since that mission belongs to fighter aircraft, one should be able to surmise that A-10s - as well as AV-8Bs and attack helos - are going to be flying with counter air assets in the vicinity.

  2. Agree.

    Obviously this does require a broader understanding of all capabilities not just US. And a massive learning curve in other warfare doctrines, Many can be quite different even within NATO.

    You've issued a challenge, Ill up my game :P


  3. Attrition of combat aircraft does have to be taken seriously. It's not just casualty aversion. If your attrition rate per sortie is high enough, your squadrons will quickly become combat-incapable.

    High attrition rates are unsustainable.

  4. Attrition rates for combat aircraft have more to do with replacements. In a real high intensity conflict that lasts for a few months or years, we can lose aircraft at a rate much faster than we can produce. Additionally, to manufacture an aircraft takes months and costs so much that we have to spread out the expense of an aircraft over decades. Emergency production of aircraft would be very expensive and beyond our production capacity. That said, instead of looking at production rates and aircraft in isolation, my thoughts would be to look at high-low mixes and where we can use other more plentiful aircraft. An example would be if we lose A-10, to pull some old C-130s out of mothball and turn them into Harvest Hawks with Mavericks and Hellfires and pair them with some A-4s or A-7s out if mothball when we need guns. None of those are survivable on their own, but together they can bring a great combination of weapons.

    1. It is about replacements, but even flying existing, reserve aircraft into theater takes time and may not be realistic in a widespread conflict. The aircraft may be needed elsewhere.

      Pulling aircraft out of mothballs has its own set of challenges, especially for types withdrawn from service a long time ago. How many crews have experience operating and maintaining A-4s or A-7s?
      Building that knowledge may take longer than taking the aircraft out of mothballs.

      IMHO, UCAVs offer opportunities here. If we can design and build a reasonably affordable and flexible aircraft, we can buy them and keep most in storage, greatly extending their service lives. Crews can fly simulators and/or a few operational aircraft for training.

  5. The ridiculous idea that we must launch an amphibious attack from 60+ miles is really about some in the USMC/USN leadership wanting to abandon amphib altogether and replace it with all air assets...ignoring that these too can be shot down.

    As you say, one system over another not one or the other.

    A full war uses full assets.
    Imagine this: the island the Marines are going to storm being assaulted by 360 land attack tomahawks simultaneously. A pipe dream? No, math: two Ohio SSGNs with 154 missiles each, plus 5 Virginia or Improved LA class subs with 12 each gives a total of 360 and they can be fired from 7 different vectors. Assuming 10% don't guide and 50% of the remaining are are shot down, that leaves 162 hitting their targets with over 70 tons of ordinance taking out SAM sites, bunkers, and airfields. They are then pounded by Jets. And commando assaults behind the beach with troops carried by choppers and MV-22s while the amphibs move in closer to launch their landing craft and Burkes move in to launch follow up Tomahawks or shoot down enemy aircraft. That leaves one very softened up beach head.
    Combined arms not one arm. Will they still experience casualties?, well of course they will. But a full onslaught of power needs projected not miniscule raids here and there. The army understood this the first time we invaded Iraq.

    Would we ever do the scenario above? I worry the, because that sounds too much like a real war and all we seem to wan to fight are low-intensity, counter-insurgency or whatever the current buzzword is not real wars.

    1. Agree...believe we should avoid the counter-insurgency efforts on the DoD end though. It never works out unless the locals are more adamant about the fight than then we are. Let CIA handle those since they are better at the "inside job" stuff.

      Also, if the country is really just a bunch of 1000 year-old tribes (which comprises most of the middle and near east), stay-the-F-out. They don't know what it is to be a country except if a king or tyrannical ruler takes over.

    2. milspecmusings, you've described a fuller scenario and that's good.

      I'll offer one caveat for your consideration. Remember the WWII island assaults that underwent days of pre-invasion bombardment by all manner of ship and aircraft ordnance and yet still contained significant enemy forces. You've illustrated one of our modern problems and that is the lack of munitions. We've forgotten what true destruction is and have come to believe that 162 Tomahawks constitutes an overwhelming application of force but history suggests that amount would have a relatively minimal impact on overall enemy force levels and capabilities. History suggests the need for 162 Tomahawks per hour for a few days! Something to think about!

    3. Even if that works, you probably don't want to only conquer one island. How long does it take for the submarines to travel back to base, reload and get to the next island?

    4. John L... weeks. if not a month or more.

      Tomahawk shooters in the form of SSGNs and Burkes will never be more than bit players in strike warfare.

      Even if you find a way to reload them at sea, you'll still be better off putting the same cruise missiles on aircraft.

    5. John & Smitty, even during WWII when we had unlimited soldiers and ships (at least compared to today) we didn't invade an island every week. Major assaults were months apart. In any realistic scenario (kind of the point of this post!) there would be months of prep time - more than enough for subs to reload and move to the next target.

      The time between assaults is going to be lengthy, if for no other reason, because we simply don't have enough ships, planes, and soldiers to conduct weekly assaults. Any argument focusing on assaults and the time required to reload subs is invalid and incomplete. A major assault will involve every asset we can bring to bear: SSGNs, bombers, surface ship Tomahawk shooters, the small amount of ship gunnery we bring to bear, etc. The discussion is not an either/or for subs or bombers. Both will play vital roles. Again, this was the point of the post - to discuss things in the context of a complete scenario.

      SSGNs will offer an undectectable and near totally survivable strike platform able to launch a large pulse - quite a beneficial capability. To trivialize that capability is to fail to consider the larger tactical and doctrinal setting.

      Another aspect to the cruise missile/Tomahawk issue (whether launched from bombers, subs, or surface ships) is targeting. We just aren't going to find that many clearly defined targets suitable for cruise missiles. After we crater an airfield and hit some obvious buildings and whatnot, then what do we do for targets? Cruise missiles aren't really practical against moving targets. History (including very recent) demonstrates that finding clearly defined targets, even in a concentrated area, is very difficult (Israel-Hamas, for example). The Serbia/Bosnia conflict ran out of targets after a week or so. Our Iraq/Afg conflicts have never had more than the occasional clearly defined target worthy of cruise missiles. Desert Storm had an initial pulse but targeting then gave way to manned air. Unless we want to use $1M-$2M Tomahawks as blind area bombardment munitions we'll have only a limited number of cruise missile-worthy targets in an assault. This underscores the need for a large explosive, sustained ship gun support capability - but that's another topic.

      As I urge in the post, consider these questions in the larger context. Don't isolate discussions.

    6. "large pulse" is debatable.

      Six B-1s can launch a similar-sized pulse in one sortie using JASSM-ERs.

      However unlike SSGNs, the B-1s can launch the same pulse every couple days, from basing half way around the world.

      In your war against China scenario, there will be tens or hundreds of thousands of fixed, easily identifiable, cruise missile targets if we choose to hit the mainland.

      Firing 150+ cruise missiles from an SSGN takes time. During that "indiscretion" period, SSGNs are vulnerable to detection and attack. They are not invulnerable unless they don't shoot.

      If an SSGN(X) costs as much as an SSBN(X), they are a waste of money. Buy more bombers, or converted, cruise missile-shooting transport aircraft. They at least have utility outside of a single, drop-in-the-bucket, pulse of missiles, followed by a several week wait for the next pulse.

      Just MHO.

    7. Smitty, we're specifially addressing a given assault in this bit of comment. For a single, major assault I assume we'd make every effort to have three or four of the SSGNs available and their total missile inventory would certainly qualify as a large pulse.

      For a given assault, the number of missile-worthy targets will certainly be finite and limited. Three or four SSGNs would cover any foreseeable assault requirement.

      For a sustained (months and years) bombardment of mainland China we'd certainly need bombers that can reload and reattack on a short cycle. On the other hand, we have nowhere near the missile inventory to sustain such an effort for very long.

      An SSGN is the ultimate in survivable. Assuming they launch in the middle of an enemy ASW force, they will be long gone and undetectable by the time any ASW forces can reach their launch position. Even worst case, if a nearby ASW asset happened to be on the spot and pounced, an SSGN is still a very, very difficult target to find.

      Have you considered the vulnerability of bomber bases? China may not possess the ability to hit all of them today but in the relatively near future they will have their own fully functional SSGNs. I would think China would devote considerable effort to hitting known bomber bases in some manner. To be fair, sub bases would be vulnerable, also but the subs are only sporadically present. We've grown used to fighting "away" and have given little thought, I suspect, to what happens if an enemy decides (correctly and wisely!) to bring the fight to us and attack our home bases.

      You seem intent on making the SSGN/Bomber discussion a one-or-the-other proposition. Both will have roles to play.

    8. The only useful roles I see for an SSGN(X) are conventional deterrence (marginal value owing to their limited capacity) and hitting a handful of early-conflict, pre-planned targets.

      Yes, they have SPECOPS capabilities, but do we really need to spend $7 billion per SSGN(X) for a SPECOPS boat? Just put SPECOPS on Virginias.

      Hitting 154 aimpoints just isn't worth $7 billion either.

      We can hit those missile-worthy, assault targets with SLAM-ER, JSOW, SDB, JASSM, HARM or JDAM. No need to tie up $21-28 billion worth of subs to hit a max of 450-600ish targets.

      All land bases are vulnerable, but we can and have flown bombers from CONUS.

      We need to SEAD/DEAD the enemy to the point where we can use JDAMs.

      We capped production of Tomahawk missiles at 4000.

      OTOH, Boeing has delivered over 250,000 JDAM kits.

    9. Well, Billy Mitchell, you're welcome to your opinion! :)

    10. History vindicated Billy Mitchell's ideas. ;)

    11. History did! - to an extent. He preached air power over land and sea, believing that air power was the only determining factor. He utterly dismissed aircraft carriers in favor of purely land based air. An interesting man, for sure, and accorded quite a bit of recognition!

      Perhaps history will judge you as kindly!

    12. Smitty, for sake of discussion, let's say we accept your views on air power. Do you see the 80-100 new bombers that the AF wants to build as replacements for the B-52 and B-1 as being a sufficient quantity along with the 19 B-2s we have, to wage a major war? A total bomber force of 100-120 seems a bit thin to me.

    13. I'm not looking for a court-martial. ;)

      His ideas were generated during the formative years of airpower. A such, they were simple in their zealotry. We've learned a lot since then.

      I don't think 80-100 new bombers are sufficient. If we are even a bit off in our attrition modeling, we could lose that entire force before we know it.

      If that 100-120 is backed by a large number of long-range UCAVs and long-ranged FB-22-class fighter bombers, I might feel better.

      A large number of F-35As doesn't fill me with confidence, but it's better than nothing.

  6. CNO, a great blog you are running. I have been lurking for a short time and I'm enjoying all your posts (whether I agree or not).

    Speaking about the combined arms approach, what roles and contributions the Special Warfare community would bring in a conflict with China? I have notice very little mention of these guys in articles and other blogs discussing this scenario. It is quite sad that a lot of people forget that the Special Warfare community and Marines are part of the Naval service and operate in the maritime domain.

    I also like to ask about your thoughts on the recent carrier debate held at the USNA.

    1. Gray, glad you enjoy it and welcome aboard. Feel free to contribute!

      You bring up a great topic. I don't mention Special Warfare because I just don't know enough about their activities and capabilities to intelligently discuss it.

      That said, my vague impression (which someone could easily change my mind about) is that Spec Ops is more useful in peacetime than war. The kind of focused, narrow operations are most effective during peace. Once a shooting war starts, that kind of operation tends to take a back seat to large explosions, so to speak.

      Still, there may be a role for Spec Ops in countering Chinese expansion efforts via sabotage, surveillance, and the like. In a Chinese war, there may be a role in disrupting some of the small outposts that China is looking to set up.

      Maybe you have some thoughts of your own on this topic?

    2. Gray, regarding carriers, I've written a number of posts on carriers. You might want to check the archives via the keyword "Aircraft Carrier".

      Briefly, carriers are pricing themselves out of existence, carriers should be smaller given the shrinking air wings, and carriers now exist to escort the Tomahawk shooters.

    3. Since there is no political appetite to land forces into mainland China including Hainan island, I think this applies to Naval Special Warfare (NSW) too.

      They may play a role in recapturing islands taken by the PLA if PACOM is in a rush (most likely for political reasons). Missions could be inserting covertly before the Marines and JGSDF make their amphib landing.

      There are various Chinese facilities built on disputed islands in the South China Sea. Instead of lobbing a $1.2M Tomahawk, it could be a ripe target for SEALs to go back to their underwater demolition team (UDT) roots.

      In conclusion, I think NSW would make a big bang in whatever mission they execute but their utility across the wider theater of conflict would be limited.

    4. Gray, well reasoned. On a related note, Gen. Schwarzkopf had a very dim view of spec ops forces in Desert Storm, believing that they would only get in the way and have to be rescued while producing little in return. For what it's worth.

  7. CNO said, "...and carriers now exist to escort the Tomahawk shooters."

    Hilarious. What evidence do you have of this?

    1. ;) Sorry CNO. I woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. I will try to temper my sarcasm. I enjoy your site and the discussions we have here.

      I completely disagree with the assertion that carriers exist to escort Tomahawk shooters. If this is truly the case (and i don't believe it is), then we need neither.

      Long-ranged aircraft are far better cruise missile shooters.

      I, of course, have read the post you linked. I agree with your assertion that the carrier air wing has to improve. I don't agree that Tomahawk shooters are now the primary long ranged weapons of the fleet. They are still, and always will be, bit players. They just can't generate the volume of DMPIs, the necessary range, or the variety of effects. And they can't find their own targets.

    2. Smitty, no problem. You've always been a reasonable and respectful commenter and I appreciate that. Continue firing away!

    3. "I don't agree that Tomahawk shooters are now the primary long ranged weapons of the fleet."

      If not, what is? Maybe you're suggesting that Hornets with cruise missiles (are Hornets certified for a cruise missile?) are the long range weapon?

    4. Super Hornets carry SLAM-ER today. JASSM/LRASM possibly tomorrow.

  8. Never fight a war you don't intend to win. We've done nothing but that for so long that I fear it has really dulled our ability to fight a real war.

    We've let rise this notion that somehow war can be this sterile, antiseptic evolution where nobody gets hurt. We can pick out which window of the building we want the missile to go through, but we can't control who is sitting on the other side of that window.

    Military forces do two things well--kill people and break things. War--real war--is all about killing people and breaking things. And inevitably some of the people who get killed, and some of the things that get broken, are yours.

    You need to plan for that, and past the extremely theoretical level, it's not clear that we do. The LCS is the perfect product of our thinking. It can't kill anybody or break anything, but it looks menacing and boy is it fast.

  9. The A10
    Yes, it shouldnt be looked at in isolation, but, if it needs a dedicated Jammer, AWACS, S/DEAD and WVR/BVR fighter pair to escort it on target, its sucking up a lot of resources for 6 anti tank missiles and a pop gun.

    Real Gun
    Toy Gun

    I find it really difficult to reconcile the viewpoint that the F35 cant survive in the face of a modern IADS, but somehow the A10 can.
    Yeah, its got a Titanium Bathtub, but I can show you pictures of Burlington Bathtubs that have been mangled.

    "The A-10 also doesn’t operate in a clearly unfavorable situation. The A-10 is not tasked with penetrating the heart of an enemy’s capital city. That’s someone else’s job."
    The problem is, where the ground forces most need CAS, is likely to be where the enemy has the most massed air defences. If Russia decided to swarm the Baltics, it would be the three spear tips charging the three capitals that would have the most and the newest air defence gear.
    The A10 might be able to punish the feints, diversions and just plain old sacrifical strikes, that have limited air defence, but the three vital armoured thrusts that actually matter, nope, couldnt touch them, and the NATO forces arrayed on D1, 2 and 3 cant hold without massed air support.7

  10. A more forgotten aspect of combined arms is the forgotten unmanned weapon: not drones, mines. Mines can be laid to deny or slow down supplies or reinforcement to islands, block enemy ports, create chokepoints, or even for barriers to protect friendly territory from invasion. And they can be used in any theater: Block Soviet...uh, I mean Russian port Crimea, placed as a barrier against Chinese invasion of the Spratleys, etc. If we felt the need to punish Iran for it's nukes, rather than a ground war, air force assets could hit pipelines and naval assets mine their harbors denying them the ability to sell their oil.
    And as mentioned more then once above there are the two-legged mines call Navy Seals who could put charges on an enemy ship's hull, sinking it as it leaves port...but most would assume it was a mine and wait to check.
    Indeed, just placing a handful of mines, with one going off, and the enemy will have to carefully sweep just in case which keeps enemy assets out of the conflict for a while....and sometimes the lack of just a few ships can lead to situational dominance.


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