A reader, Benjamin Oliver, recently made a very succinct comment regarding the use of the LCS and every other Navy ship as shooters. To paraphrase slightly, he said that distributed lethality won’t work without distributed targeting. This is a brilliant summation of the issue.
The LCS will have 100+ nm anti-ship missiles coupled with 20 nm sensors. Yes, the ship will have a helo and a UAV but the helo will be reserved for ASW and near-ship ASuW. The UAV will have a very limited sensor field of view and a single UAV will be woefully inadequate for broad area target searches. Thus, the ship will have to depend on off-board sensing and targeting. We’ve discussed this many times.
The Navy’s plan to use P-8s and Triton UAVs is unworkable. Both are large, slow, non-stealthy aircraft that will serve only as target drones for enemy aircraft and missiles.
Submarines simply don’t have the sensor range or speed to cover the large swaths of ocean needed to find enemy ships. Plus, our submarines will have more important tasks than acting as search platforms for the LCS.
Satellites are not capable of real time targeting, contrary to what many people believe, and they won’t last long in a peer war.
So, where will the distributed lethality get its distributed targeting? The short, simple, and painful answer is that there is no viable distributed targeting system. The kill chain is missing a key link and the Navy’s distributed lethality is just another unworkable Navy fantasy without it.
The concept of distributed targeting is, however, viable with the right sensors. Unfortunately, the Navy does not have the right sensors and, worse, seems to have no grasp of the problem and no intention of getting the right sensors. The task falls, then, to us to define the right sensors.
The requirement is simple. The sensor needs to be able to penetrate many hundreds of miles of enemy territory undetected, find targets, and transmit the data back to the shooters. For the sake of this discussion, we’ll assume the shooters are ships, the LCS specifically, although the shooters could also be aircraft or land bases.
So, the sensor needs great range, long endurance, stealth of some form, a decent size/power radar and/or good optical sensor, and secure communications. There are also a couple of implied characteristics.
Unless the sensor is a very large AWACS / E-2 Hawkeye / P-8 Orion size platform, the radar it carries (assuming it uses radar) will, of necessity, be small and low powered which means the field of scan will be limited. This suggests that large numbers of sensors will be needed to make up for the limited individual coverage.
This, in turn, implies the characteristic of affordability. Large numbers of sensors can only be produced if the individual sensor is cheap.
By definition, many of these sensors won’t make it back. This, again, argues for extreme affordability to be able to absorb the losses and costs.
So, having defined the requirements, what form of platform can meet the requirements?
Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) are stealthy but too close to the surface to have much sensing range and are too slow to cover much territory. UUVs, then, would not make good general purpose distributed sensors. They could, however, be useful for monitoring limited, fixed areas like navigational chokepoints or harbors.
Unmanned surface vessels (USV), like UUVs, lack the sensor range and speed to cover sufficient territory. In addition, they lack the inherent stealth of a UUV.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) potentially offer the range, endurance, and speed to cover larger areas. Combined with the high altitude they operate at, the sensing area is correspondingly greater. UAVs also offer the potential to be stealthy through a combination of small size (compared to an AWACS or P-8) and airframe shaping.
UAV’s, then, seem to be the best choice for distributed sensors. The concept of operation would be to flood a region with many dozens of UAVs at any given moment. Although an individual UAV would provide limited coverage, the large numbers would ensure adequate area coverage and compensate for the inevitable high attrition rate.
The key question is whether the desired characteristics can be made to fit in an affordable package. Can we build a UAV with great range, small size, stealth, and decent radar/optics for a low enough price to allow us to build thousands of them? That’s a difficult challenge but that’s the part of the kill chain the Navy needs to be working on. An LCS with a hundred or thousand mile anti-ship missile is useless if we can’t provide targeting.
Side note: An upsized Blackjack UAV might make a good design starting point for a distributed targeting sensor. The Blackjack has an operational radius of 480 miles and is small enough to be operated from any ship. It has a degree of stealth by virtue of its size and the airframe could probably be shaped to provide a greater degree of stealth.
Alternatively, a downsized MQ-1 Predator might also make a good starting point. It has an operational radius of around 1000 miles.