The US effort to pull away from military peers is what Secretary of Defence Hagel calls the “third offset strategy”, because it is the third time since the second world war that America has sought technological breakthroughs to offset the advantages of potential foes and reassure its friends.
1. In the early 1950s, when the Soviet Union was fielding far larger conventional forces in Europe than America and its allies could hope to repel. The answer was to extend America’s lead in nuclear weapons to counter the Soviet numerical advantage—a strategy known as the “New Look”.
2. In the mid-1970s. American military planners, reeling from the psychological defeat of the Vietnam war, recognised that the Soviet Union had managed to build an equally terrifying nuclear arsenal. They had to find another way to restore credible deterrence in Europe. Daringly, America responded by investing in a family of untried technologies aimed at destroying enemy forces well behind the front line. Precision-guided missiles, the networked battlefield, reconnaissance satellites, the Global Positioning System (GPS) and radar-beating “stealth” aircraft were among the fruits of that research.
3. Colossal computational power, rapid data processing, sophisticated sensors and bandwidth—some of the components of the second offset—are all now widely available. China and Russia are using a lot of cheap missiles.
China has an arsenal of precision short- to medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles, submarines equipped with wake-homing torpedoes and long-range anti-ship missiles, electronic warfare, anti-satellite weapons, modern fighter jets, integrated air defences and sophisticated command, control and communications systems.
The US military now has five critical vulnerabilities.
* carriers and other surface vessels can now be tracked and hit by missiles at ranges from the enemy’s shore which could prevent the use of their cruise missiles or their tactical aircraft without in-flight refuelling by lumbering tankers that can be picked off by hostile fighters.
* defending close-in regional air bases from a surprise attack in the opening stages of a conflict is increasingly hard.
* aircraft operating at the limits of their combat range would struggle to identify and target mobile missile launchers.
* modern air defences can shoot down non-stealthy aircraft at long distances.
* the satellites America requires for surveillance and intelligence are no longer safe from attack.
The goal of the DARPA Tern project is to give forward-deployed small ships the ability to serve as mobile launch and recovery sites for medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial systems (UAS). These systems could provide long-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and other capabilities over greater distances and time periods than is possible with current assets, including manned and unmanned helicopters. Further, a capacity to launch and retrieve aircraft on small ships would reduce the need for ground-based airstrips, which require significant dedicated infrastructure and resources. The two prime contractors selected by DARPA are AeroVironment, Inc., and Northrop Grumman Corp.
Tern, a joint program between DARPA and the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR), seeks to enable forward-deployed small ships to serve as mobile launch and recovery sites for medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial systems (UAS). In an important step toward that goal, DARPA has awarded prime contracts for Phase 2 of Tern to two companies: AeroVironment, Inc. and Northrop Grumman Corp.
“To offer the equivalent of land-based UAS capabilities from small-deck ships, our Phase 2 performers are each designing a new unmanned air system intended to enable two previously unavailable capabilities: one, the ability for a UAS to take off and land from very confined spaces in elevated sea states and two, the ability for such a UAS to transition to efficient long-duration cruise missions,” said Dan Patt, DARPA program manager. “Tern’s goal is to develop breakthrough technologies that the Navy could realistically integrate into the future fleet and make it much easier, quicker and less expensive for the Defense Department to deploy persistent ISR and strike capabilities almost anywhere in the world.”
The first two phases of the Tern program focus on preliminary design and risk reduction. In Phase 3, one performer will be selected to build a full-scale demonstrator Tern system for initial ground-based testing. That testing would lead to a full-scale, at-sea demonstration of a prototype UAS on an at-sea platform with deck size similar to that of a destroyer or other surface combat vessel.
B52s and C130s would become drone carriers
Military air operations typically rely on large, manned, robust aircraft, but such missions put these expensive assets—and their pilots—at risk. While small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) can reduce or eliminate such risks, they lack the speed, range and endurance of larger aircraft. These complementary traits suggest potential benefits in a blended approach—one in which larger aircraft would carry, launch and recover multiple small UAS. Such an approach could greatly extend the range of UAS operations, enhance overall safety, and cost-effectively enable groundbreaking capabilities for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and other missions.
DARPA wants to explore the feasibility and potential value of an ability to launch and recover multiple small unmanned air systems from one or more types of existing large manned aircraft, such as C-130 transport planes.
DARPA is interested in proving the feasibility and potential value of the ability to launch and recover multiple small unmanned air systems from one or more types of existing large manned aircraft. The agency has issued a Request for Information (RFI) seeking technical, security and business insights to support the agency’s pursuit of future distributed airborne capabilities.
DARPA program manager. “We envision innovative launch and recovery concepts for new UAS designs that would couple with recent advances in small payload design and collaborative technologies.”
To get its hands on the technologies it needs, the military establishment and the armed forces themselves may have to take an axe to cherished programmes. One possibility would be to scale back plans to buy nearly 2,500 F-35 fighter jets, which have too short a range for many situations, and use the money to buy unmanned combat aircraft and a bigger fleet of long-range strike bombers. The navy might have to give up on two of its fabulously expensive carrier groups in recognition of their growing vulnerability in favor of investments in submarines, both manned and unmanned
These efforts would be an attempt by the USA to match affordability with the cheaper swarming attack of missiles and drones that China and Russia will deploy. This would be combined with the advanced military technology edge that the USA will still maintain for a few more decades.
SOURCES – DARPA