Some of the recent posts have engendered discussion about
strike aircraft with people offering opinions about multi-role versus single,
one-seat versus two, adapting existing aircraft versus purpose built, and so
on. In essence, everyone is endeavoring
to answer the question, what kind of strike aircraft do we need? Lost in this discussion is the most
fundamental question: why do we need a
strike aircraft? No one has addressed
this and yet no discussion about strike aircraft can begin until this question
is answered. The universal reaction of
commenters is that of course we need strike aircraft. It goes without saying. It’s a requirement because it’s always been a
requirement and always will be.
strike aircraft will always be needed.
What I just described is a paradigm – a mode of thinking that has become so ingrained that it’s not even possible to consider an alternative (see, “Knee Jerks and Paradigms”). Most people are locked into the paradigm of strike aircraft and are incapable of considering any alternative. Thus, asking the fundamental question of why we need strike aircraft, let alone answering it, is not even a possibility because the paradigm, itself, is the answer: we need strike aircraft because we’ve always needed strike aircraft.
ComNavOps, in solitary contrast, has opined the we don’t need a strike aircraft, at least not as we think of it today. I’ve brought this up in multiple posts and comments but it’s time to focus in and address the question of why we need strike aircraft … or *gasp!* not.
As always, let’s start with history.
Historically, strike (meaning, generically, the ability to reach out and touch someone with lethal effects) has been notable for two characteristics:
Limited Range – Prior to the advent of the aircraft, naval strike was performed by ships carrying large caliber guns. Range was limited to a maximum of twenty miles or so and this rendered many land targets inaccessible and, therefore, immune. The rise of aircraft changed that by providing immense range, on a relative basis.
There is a subset to the range discussion and that is the aircraft weapon’s release range. While the aircraft may be able to fly hundreds of miles, thus greatly extending the host vessel’s strike range, the aircraft still has to approach the target fairly closely to reach weapons release range. Stand off missiles have somewhat increased the release range but, at the same time, defending surface to air missile (SAM) ranges have hugely increased which results in the aircraft still often having to enter the defender’s engagement zone.
Nearly Non-Existent Accuracy – Prior to the advent of the aircraft, naval gunfire was wildly inaccurate and required many, many rounds to achieve a single hit. Even the development of aircraft did not change the fundamental inaccuracy of strike. Aircraft bombing was wildly inaccurate, requiring many bombs, torpedoes, or bullets to achieve a hit. Dozens and dozens of aircraft, concentrated in a single, massive strike, were required to offer even a slight chance of hitting a target, whether on land or at sea.
In more modern times, precision guided weapons have offered a partial solution to the accuracy issue. I say, ‘partial’, because the accuracy of precision guided weapons is overstated (consider the glowing accuracy claims in Desert Storm versus the substantially less impressive post-conflict documented results) and the performance of precision guided weapons in the face of peer defenses and electronic warfare has yet to be established but is absolutely going to be far less than we’ve grown used to while attacking terrorists and third world countries. Still, precision guidance offers a significant improvement over dumb bombs.
We see, then, that the advent of the aircraft seemingly solved the first characteristic of limited range and, with the dawning of precision guided munitions, has somewhat solved the accuracy issue. However, defenses have not been static, either. As aircraft have increased strike range, defenses have increased defensive ranges. As aircraft and precision guided weapons have increased accuracy, defenses have decreased accuracy by forcing greater standoff distances, employed sophisticated electronic warfare measures, deployed highly effective point defenses, constructed hardened shelters, and employed obscurants and decoys (chaff, flares, etc.), among other measures. That leaves us with aircraft still having to penetrate robust defenses, face significant attrition, and struggle to achieve accuracy without excessive losses … not an ideal situation. That’s asking a lot of aircraft, especially non- or marginally stealthy aircraft. The F-18 Hornet, for example, has few of the characteristics (range, speed, stealth, armor, redundant systems, dedicated air-to-ground sensors, etc.) necessary to have a reasonable chance to penetrate a peer defended target, destroy it, and survive to return home.
So, where does this leave us as regards the question of why we need strike aircraft?
It leaves us with the realization that aircraft are not ideally suited to the task, even stealthy aircraft. Considering the kinds of A2/AD zones an attacker will face, the range of modern SAM systems, the effectiveness of point defenses, the development of modern electronic warfare and decoys, the steadily decreasing value of stealth, and the existence of highly effective defending air forces, the odds on successful strikes by aircraft are poor.
Well, poor odds do not alleviate the need for strike. We still have to destroy the enemy’s assets. Does that mean we just have to do the best we can and accept the likely high attrition rates from aircraft strikes – kind of an aerial Charge of the Light Brigade? If so, then that’s our answer, right there. Yes, we need aircraft strikes and our job is to maximize the effectiveness and minimize the losses, as best we can. Of course … if there was another option … an alternative … some other way to strike …
Fortunately, there is another option … an alternative. Cruise missiles!
Cruise missiles have almost all the characteristics for an effective strike asset and few of the limitations of aircraft.
Cruise missiles have,
- Great range
- Potentially supersonic speed
- Potentially excellent maneuverability, especially terminal approach maneuvering
- Large payloads,
- Low cost
- No pilot risk
Consider … for the cost of a single $100M strike aircraft carrying, say, two JSOW AGM-154C 500 lb warhead bombs, we could procure 33x $3M Tomahawk type cruise missiles with 1000 lb warheads. That’s 33,000 lbs of explosive cruise missiles versus 1000 lb of JSOW explosive. It makes no sense, whatsoever, to use an aircraft when cruise missiles are available. Thus, there is no role for strike aircraft.
Cruise missiles can do everything a manned strike aircraft can except return home and their small cost renders that exception irrelevant.
Consider … a carrier strike group, even with four carriers as ComNavOps calls for, can muster a maximum of around 80 aircraft for a strike and even that’s more wishful thinking than reality (see, “Carrier Strike”). With two major strike weapons per aircraft, that’s a total of 160 strike weapons. By comparison, a single SSGN carries 154 cruise missiles. There is no role for strike aircraft.
It is clear that strike aircraft have no role in modern strike against a defended target. Cruise missiles can do everything a strike aircraft can, and more, with few of the drawbacks and none of the risk. This makes the role of the carrier and air wing that of escort for the true strike assets (Burkes, SSGNs, and Air Force bombers) and localized air superiority.
So, the question of why we need a strike aircraft has been answered: we don’t !
Now, instead of discussing what type of strike aircraft we need we can move on to discussing what type of long range air superiority fighter we need for our carriers.
Note: The only role for strike aircraft is in very low threat scenarios like striking terrorists or unresisting third world countries. The aircraft for such a role are Tucano/Skyraider types flying off a WWII Yorktown type carrier.