There has been much ballyhoo over the recent successful tests of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The Joint Strike Fighter was hailed as the all-purpose plane of the future by its designers. It was literally a flying computer chip. It had stealth and its flight capabilities were unparalleled. Pilots had unprecedented levels of maneuverability, control, and offensive (as well as defensive) capabilities that were unparalleled. But, when the plane first hit the drawing boards it was cutting-edge. It was even ahead of its time. And therein lies the rub. For, it has taken roughly two decades for the F-35 to have been conceived and built.
In the interim, the strategic environment that the U.S. finds itself operating in has changed considerably. Indeed, the environment went from being one fully dominated by the United States military to one being extremely contested–not just by rival nation-states, but by non-state actors as well. Today’s threats are more diffuse, they are diverse, and they are at once low-tech and yet highly complex. While stealth planes were cutting edge in 1991 when they were first unveiled, the simple fact of the matter is that this is relatively old technology. And, with all of the different iterations of stealth warplanes and bombers, the technology has reached, I believe, its natural limit.
As such, the over reliance on this technology has morphed it from a strategic advantage into a liability. In today’s world, stealth is good, but it is not cutting edge. As such, our adversaries are becoming increasingly adept at overcoming the protection that stealth has traditionally afforded American aircraft in combat.
Therefore, we must accept this fact and force our enemies to make a costly adaptation once again: this time, we must force them to try to defend against hypersonic aircraft and missiles. In particular, hypersonic, suborbital strike aircraft. This is the necessary next step for ensuring America’s Full Spectrum Dominance that, let’s face it, has been slowly eroding since the mid-1990’s.
Overcoming Anti-Access/Area Denial
America’s greatest military strength has been its ability to project overwhelming force, rapidly, to any region of the world. The biggest threats to American national interests: the Russian Federation, the People’s Republic of China, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), as well as various Jihadist groups, understand that America is militarily overpowering once it gains access to a contested region. This was true in Iraq. It was true in Afghanistan. It has been true everywhere that the U.S. has fought.
Yet, several actors–notably states like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea–are rapidly developing methods and means at preventing America from brining its full force to bear in their respective regions around the world. Understanding that airpower, seapower, and the rapid mobility that cyberspace and space confers upon numerically inferior, yet highly technological and integrated, U.S. forces has led states like China to craft what’s become known as the Assassin’s Mace Strategy. In military parlance, this is known as Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD, for short).
It is a very serious threat to America’s strategy of Full-Spectrum Dominance, if employed by a well-funded and resourced adversary, such as China, Russia, Iran, or North Korea. It is a strategy that essentially calls for using force to prevent American military assets from being brought in to fight an adversary by keeping the U.S. military at a distance, due to extreme danger.
There are several reasons for why the U.S. has built up an international force capable of rapid and decisive power projection. One of those reasons comes from the fact that, over the decades, America has become increasingly entangled in alliances with other (normally smaller) states along what it deems its periphery. This is best articulated in the brilliant 2016 book, The Unquiet Frontier: Rising Rivals, Vulnerable Allies, and the Crisis of American Power. These allied states tend to be smaller and under threat from larger, less friendly neighbors. For states like Taiwan, China tends to be their big bugaboo. Similarly, Japan frets over both China and its quasi-client state of North Korea. For allies like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, or Israel, their biggest fear revolves around a rising (and potentially nuclear-armed) Iran. For Eastern European states, their chief concern revolves around the not-so-quiet Russian Bear to their east.
These threats are geographically and ideologically diverse. Yet, they are unified in one area: in order for them to be most effective in achieving dominance in their respective spheres of influence, the United States military must denied access to that domain. Otherwise, they will always be rebuffed. America’s decisive advantages come from, among other things, its airpower. The U.S. air superiority globally is taken for granted. That is why, for two decades since America’s stealth capabilities were demonstrated in Desert Storm, states like China and Russia have led the world in overcoming stealth in two ways: by developing highly effective countermeasures against stealth and by building their own stealth aircraft on par with those of the United States.
In the late 1980’s, the U.S. began development on its Fifth-Generation fighter plane. This air-to-air fighter would combine the most recent advances in computer, avionics, and stealth technology to combat what the Soviets were building. This fighter craft would become known as the F-22 Raptor. Yet, given its advanced nature, it would be extremely difficult to build and maintain. Plus, by the time it was really going into development–the 1990’s–the Cold War had ended and the Soviet Union had fallen. America was enjoying its purported “Unipolar Moment.”
Even still, history did not end and peace did not reign supreme over this post-Cold War American-led world. With the loss of the Soviet Union, ethno-religious conflicts began bubbling to the surface and lighting the world aflame once again. Civil wars, failing states, and humanitarian intervention became the buzzwords during that time. These adversaries to stability were quite unlike the Soviets: they were not high-tech, they were savage in their worldview, ruthless in their application of violence, and utterly revolutionary in their aims.
Thus, a Fifth-Generation air-to-air fighter, while possessing the kind of “wow” factor that pilots and air enthusiasts such as myself love, became less of a vital weapon. Without a comparable peer competitor, and with the U.S. becoming engaged in conflicts ranging from Africa to the Balkans, a better bomber was needed. This was where the concept of the F-35 JSF entered into the discussion.
That was then.
Now, however, states like Russia and China have developed highly effective ways of penetrating stealth technology and rendering that advantage moot.
Plus, the expense involved in Fifth-Generation stealth fighters, such as the F-35, coupled with their numerous setbacks, means that critical gaps may be forming in America’s aging Fourth-Generation fighter plane fleet. The air defense systems that the Russians and Chinese have developed are now also being disseminated to rogue states, such as Iran and North Korea, meaning that America’s new stealth planes are increasingly vulnerable to attack.
This is the point of A2/AD: prevent America’s airpower (well, all of its military power, but for the purposes of this essay, its airpower) from being brought to bear against states like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. In so doing, America’s first-line of attack is mollified. Once America hesitates in deploying its airpower against a rival, the entire credibility of America’s military response is called into question.
In such an event, the United States runs the risk of losing critical allies at key junctures in time. Imagine if China had a viable counter to America’s stealth technology and decided to rapidly launch an attack on Taiwan. Under such circumstances, how would the U.S. respond? We would likely hesitate to deploy critical fighters into combat, for fear that they would become a wasted asset–being destroyed before they can damage the enemy effectively.
America has taken stealth technology to its reasonable limits and then some. The Fifth-Generation Fighter has been an excruciating tale of high-minded hope, hard-hitting reality, and terrifying setbacks. As talk already begins to surface of the Pentagon’s Sixth-Generation Fighter, defense planners should take heed of the grotesque failures and excesses that dominated the development of the Fifth-Generation fighter. Stealth need not be our priority any longer. Our enemies can now be reasonably expected, if you’ll pardon the expression, to see through the shroud that stealth once granted our fighters.
Instead of blowing money on what can only be marginally improved, let us reassess and realize that speed, altitude, and firepower will be the things that are most capable of overcoming enemies who are wedded to an A2/AD military strategy. Therefore, America’s next planes must be faster than anything on Earth; they must have the ability to reach fast and deep into an enemy’s territory and conduct devastating attacks and return to friendlier skies long before the enemy’s defensive systems are even alerted to their presence. They must also fly higher than anything that we currently have.
A suborbital, hypersonic fighter is needed to overcome A2/AD.
Going Fast & Deep
What I am proposing is already being discussed and developed at the highest levels of America’s defense apparatus. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), for instance, is developing hypersonic glide craft to deliver devastating non-nuclear bombs over any target in under an hour.
This project is part of the Prompt Global Strike capability that the United States has been developing for over a decade. Most experts see this as a necessary step toward moving America’s airpower to the next level. Of course, this is only the beginning. Yet, stealth advocates still have the upper hand in this debate. The promise of stealth retains its “wow” factor. And it is a proven commodity.
But to those of us who truly understand this issue, stealth is just not what it once was. And, while DARPA’s program is promising, it is only a fraction of what the U.S. military needs. The DARPA initiative involves unmanned glide vehicles. But, the U.S. still desperately needs manned aircraft. Unmanned vehicles will always have an important place in our arsenal. Manned vehicles, though, will continue to be the most reliable in a pinch.
Recently, the Air Force tested their X-37B unmanned spacecraft. It holds the record for the longest flight time of an unmanned spacecraft in orbit. At 400 days, the X-37B conducted its highly classified mission in Low-Earth Orbit.
It was more than just an unmanned spaceplane. It was a testbed for a myriad of new technology that will be instrumental for the U.S. Air Force to fulfill its mission of total air superiority. Let’s take this a step further, though.
Imagine, if you will, America’s Sixth-Generation fighter having the ability to enter Low-Earth Orbit. Imagine needing to penetrate Chinese air defenses by not only flying faster than any anti-aircraft battery can target, but also higher! Should the Chinese decide to try to invade Taiwan, and should they effectively employ a strategy that keeps the bulk of America’s military response over-the-horizon, how useful would it be to have a bomber that can launch from Missouri, enter Low-Earth Orbit, and then arrive over targets in mainland China in an hour, deploy a devastating salvo on a Chinese target, and then return home in under an hour–employing hypersonic and high-altitude means of escape? Talk about overcoming A2/AD.
What I am proposing was first thought of by none other than Werner von Braun, the so-called “father of NASA.” During the Second World War, von Braun was a highly-respected Nazi scientist (highly-respected, for a Nazi, at least). He was obsessed with space and rocketry. He fundamentally believed that it was Man’s destiny to inhabit and utilize space as routinely as we use airplanes today.
Among his many concepts was that of a space bomber. A bomber that could launch from Berlin, for instance, enter orbit, and then, in an hour after launch, deliver bombs over a distant target, such as New York City, and return home in the same amount of time was something von Braun thought possible.
When he came to the United States and headed America’s fledgling space program following the Second World War, he held firm to his concept of a space bomber (among other ideas for space technologies).
This is where the U.S. military must take its fighters and bombers. It is not enough any longer to possess advanced stealth technology. Hypersonic and suborbital planes are needed. A2/AD represents a unique challenge to American airpower. It can only be overcome by thinking outside of the box. Looking higher and going faster should be the operating principle for the military hereon out. If not, our adversaries will continue to catch up with stealth technology (as the Russians have with their Su-50 stealth fighter and the Chinese are doing with their J-20 stealth fighter) and continue to increase their ability to overcome our stealth advantages.
Why should we wait for the Russians, Chinese, Iranians, and North Koreans to catch up with us? Especially when these four states are wedded to a grand strategy that harms America’s allies, threatens U.S. interests, and weakens America overall? Stealth fighters and bombers were absolutely great while they lasted (for the most part). They were certainly revolutionary concepts that conferred considerable advantages on to the U.S. military. But, those days are numbered.
Speed, altitude, and firepower is how we will overcome our enemies. That’s where the bulk of the defense R&D budgets should be spent.