How the US Military is Responding to China

2022 December 7 Twitter See all posts


The US is rapidly compensating for the short range of its fighter aircraft.

China's Challenge to America in East Asia

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) has seen rapid growth over the previous two decades. The Chinese want to use this power to counter long-held American interests in the region.

The US presence near China is a constant thorn in the People's Republic of China's side, especially around flash points like Taiwan and the South China Sea. The US protects the American mainland through a defense-in-depth strategy that uses several "island chains" as fortified lines. Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and part of Malaysia make up the first chain. The US benefits from more robust defense, while our allies benefit from America's protection from larger regional rivals.

China's response is to invest in weapons that keep American planes and ships from getting close to the Chinese mainland. Their strategy is known as anti-access area denial (A2AD). The technological change driving this strategy is cheaper sensors that enable missiles to hit planes and ships hundreds of miles away. Munition effectiveness and logistics intensity dramatically improve. The strategy has an asymmetric advantage since missiles are cheaper than platforms like aircraft carriers.

US defense and alliances rest on America's ability to protect its partners and deny China access.

Countering Anti-Access Area Denial

The Weapons America Needs

Distance is the primary challenge the US military faces in East Asia. The military designed our weapons and supply lines for Europe, where distances are tiny and basing options are numerous. The root cause of the current distress is that carrier strike groups are vulnerable to mass missile attacks and must operate further away from the battle space, causing fighters to lose effectiveness. The two most critical impacted missions are destroying enemy warships and contesting airspace. China can't invade most of our allies without ships, and ceding the air makes it difficult to kill their ships.

America needs weapons to cover for the deficiency of existing platforms. Opportunities include longer-range missiles, adapting platforms that can operate without carriers, and thwarting missile attacks. These changes must have a good dollar value to provide deterrence while still allowing investment in other critical defense needs like the nuclear triad. And our allies need to be able to field these systems, especially where a massive US presence can present political problems.

The US Department of Defense is changing to develop these new systems at a pace that most would consider fast for a million-plus-person bureaucracy. There is still much to do, though.

Modular and Open Systems to Increase Capability and Nimbleness

The military has long seen the promise of digital technologies. But many early programs with significant digitization, like the F-22 or AEGIS Radar, suffered from custom and proprietary technology that is incredibly expensive to maintain and upgrade.

The Department of Defense's response is open architecture systems that avoid vendor lock-in and shorten upgrade times. It requires the government to be more involved in the design and take ownership of some systems. Munitions are ideal for open systems, given their lower complexity, faster life cycles, lower unit costs, and large production runs. The Air Force's Weapon Open Systems Architecture (WOSA) program is one of the most successful examples.

Government ownership of systems and involvement in engineering decisions seems backward if you follow NASA or other government projects. NASA-owned systems like SLS are disasters, while Commercial Resupply and Commercial Crew are massive successes. In practice, the military controls the communication layer within the weapon but participates less in the details of individual components. Often the integration is done by a contractor rather than the government itself. It is akin to NASA saying: "your commercial rocket needs to be able to dock with our existing station adaptor and use our communication protocols." There is still risk, but groups like the Air Force Research Lab have gotten much better at managing the process.

The central data interface for a munition in Weapon Open Systems Architecture Source

Joint Direct Attack Munition and Open Architecture

Before 1997, almost all guided munitions were laser-guided. There were high-end exceptions like the Tomahawk cruise missile utilizing terrain mapping. The downside of laser-guided bombs is that an aircraft has to stay on station until impact. The military wanted a "fire-and-forget" weapon. Boeing's GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) won the contract. It is a kit that straps onto surplus "dumb" bombs to turn them into precision-guided munitions capable of striking within a few meters of the target coordinates. The US military has bought over 400,000 of these kits in the last 25 years, using them heavily in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. The cost has halved from ~$40,000 to <$20,000 over time. There are add-ons like laser-guided targeting and wings to extend the max glide range from 28 km to 80 km.

JDAMs - They strap fins and a GPS-guided controller onto surplus Vietnam bombs. Source

JDAM came before the Air Force started moving heavily towards open architecture, but it has many of the same qualities. The Air Force breaks down munitions into four key areas: Propulsion, guidance, the warhead/payload, and the seeker. The JDAM kits attach to existing bombs, and gravity provides propulsion. The kit has a GPS receiver (the seeker) and software to adjust the fins to guide the bomb. The setup is simple enough that the government can credibly threaten to bring in competition if Boeing asks too much.

Over time the military tends to move older weapons into the open architecture paradigm, and JDAM is no exception. The bombs, fins, and actuators rarely need to change, but seekers need regular upgrades to evade changing countermeasures or add capability. Enabling JDAM to use a wide variety of seekers beyond simple GPS would increase its utility.

The QUICKSINK Sensor Package

The US Air Force and Navy recently tested a new weapon dubbed QUICKSINK. It adds a combo radar/infrared sensor to the Joint Direct Attack Munition kit allowing the bomb to hit moving ships. The package could add as little as $50,000 to the munition cost at full-scale production. Tens of thousands of bombs can become instant ship killers, breaking ships in half like a torpedo.

China has built an extensive fleet of heavily-armed coast guard cutters. They are relatively cheap and regularly harass our allies' cargo ships and fishing boats. Destroying them with a high-end anti-ship missile would be overkill, but they are too well-armed to keep expensive aircraft close enough for laser designation. Submarines could be another option, but firing torpedos gives away the position of our multi-billion dollar nuclear submarines that rely on stealth for safety. QUICKSINK allows the US to eliminate these vessels safely while saving higher-end munitions for frigates and destroyers.

Eventually, the Chinese will try to jam QUICKSINK's radar and blind its IR sensors. Open architecture will make the transition to the next iteration faster and cheaper.

Expanding Open Systems to Platforms

Platforms like AEGIS cruisers or stealth bombers are much more complex than munitions. Change is inherently slower and more expensive. Like munitions, the focus is on standardizing avionics, electronics, and communications protocols. It isn't always clear how "open" these systems are, but there was massive low-hanging fruit in making them able to use things like off-the-shelf displays, keyboards, etc.

Anytime an aircraft or ship goes through an upgrade cycle, the military moves its electronics and software to at least semi-open systems that are easier to maintain and upgrade in the future.

Managing Aircraft Costs

Most challenges with aircraft and ships are classic project management/design issues. The B-2 bomber saw enormous cost overruns because the Air Force wanted to add high-speed low-level capability mid-program, requiring significant design alterations. The F-22 has horrifically high maintenance costs driven by the stealth coating and other quirks rather than its avionics. A venerable plane like the B-52 can fly 100 years because it is mostly analog and lacks fancy features like supersonic speed or stealth. B-2 and B-1 will lead much shorter lives.

Long-range stealth bombers are essential for projecting power in East Asia since basing options might be limited, and stealth will be critical to maintaining survivability without persistent fighter cover. The Air Force has gone to great lengths to keep its newest stealth bomber, the B-21, on time and budget. The Air Force Rapid Capability Office manages the program instead of using the traditional procurement process. The project has kept requirements constant, and the design has advanced technology but nothing bleeding edge. For example, the B-21 uses the same engine as the F-35 to save development time and reduce costs. Northrop Grumman also designed the plane to minimize maintenance and sustainment costs. Typically the Air Force and Congress are cutting plane orders due to budget overruns at this point in the process. They are looking at increasing planned B-21 numbers instead. The public rollout happened in December 2022.

It is hard to overstate how important having hundreds of these bombers will be to US power projection in East Asia because they make any Chinese target vulnerable to attack even if carrier aircraft are ineffective.

The Quest for Cheap Missiles

Unpowered munitions like gravity bombs and artillery shells are taking a back seat to missiles and rockets as range becomes critical for platform survival. But classical cruise missiles are too expensive for everyday usage. The US and other nations are striving for cheap missiles.

The Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMRLS) rocket that fires from HIMARS and the M270 is a perfect example of the shift. It can hit critical targets far behind enemy lines that are too dangerous for aircraft or too far for tube artillery. Each round costs ~$100,000 - a bargain compared to most cruise missiles that cost millions. The warhead (90 kg) and range (80 km) are smaller than cruise missiles, but the rocket can destroy an ammo depot, troop concentrations, or a headquarters.

Suicide drones or "loitering munitions" are another variation of cheap missiles. The Iranian Shahed-136 costs $20,000-$50,000 and has a 1000+ km range. It sacrifices speed (120 km/h), payload (40 kg), and survivability to achieve cost and range goals. Other drones, like the American Switchblade, serve as squad weapons that improve on mortars.

The Air Force "Gray Wolf" program's goal was a $100,000 subsonic cruise missile with a 400 km range and a 230 kg warhead. It successfully tested a low-cost engine, and other programs absorbed the follow-on phases. The engine is the Kratos TDI-J85 which can meet the program goals while costing less than $40,000. Kratos already has multiple customers using it for drones and missiles.

Notably, Boeing wants to use the TDI-J85 engine to power its 230 kg JDAM bomb, giving it a 370 km to 750 km range (depending on configuration). The US could lob more QUICKSINK-equipped JDAM cruise missiles in an engagement than the Chinese Navy has vertical launch tubes - all for less than the cost of a frigate. The munition would be 1/10 the price of a Harpoon Block II anti-ship missile with double the range.

All of these weapon systems are merging toward more capable, inexpensive missiles. Evolutionary pressure is forcing longer-range rockets, powered bombs, and better suicide drones. Lack of range, speed, cost-effectiveness, or survivability will obsolete many existing systems.

Low Hanging Fruit to Defend East Asia

Making up for less effective fighters requires changes across a range of applications.

Air Defense

The better the US military is at stopping enemy air attacks, the more flexibility and capability our short-range fighters have. Modern air defense requires many layers to counter various threats. The Military still needs expensive systems to counter threats like fifth-generation fighters or ballistic missiles, but they can't waste those systems on cheap missiles.

A quirk of the US military is that the Army is responsible for most ground-based missile defense, even on Air Force bases, leading to incentive mismatches. The Navy, which faces an existential threat in anti-ship missiles, has had an automated battle management system in AEGIS for forty years. The Army is trying to field a similar protocol with its Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS) to manage air defense radars and weapons.

Handling Cruise Missile Swarms

Subsonic cruise missiles are a rising threat because their volume can overwhelm high-end air defenses like the Patriot Missile System. It is a weak point in the Army and Air Force arsenal.

The Army tried to design a system called the Multi-Mission Launcher. It canceled development after the complexity of trying to incorporate many different missiles, and the Army's slow pace, caused cost and schedule overruns. It serves as a warning about taking open systems architecture too far.

Congress forced the Army to buy several Israeli Iron Dome missile defense systems as an interim solution. Dynetics is building Enduring Shield, a simplified Multi-Mission Launcher that shoots AIM-9 missiles and still uses the Army's IBCS. The Army has fought against more Iron Domes because they value capability over price or schedule.

There are other options. The newest National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS) shoots the ubiquitous AIM-120 and AIM-9 missiles and meets most of the Army's requirements. Taiwan has several NASAMS on order, which will help fix its gap in defending against cruise missiles.

The Navy AEGIS radar/combat system paired with SM-2 missiles, Rolling Airframe Missiles (RAM), Sea Sparrow missiles, and the Phalanx Close-in Weapon System provides a formidable shield. The main concern is hundreds or thousands of munitions coming at once in saturation attacks.

Navy destroyers can boost island base defenses, wasting a multi-billion dollar asset. Instead, the Army should work towards having enough assets to defend fixed bases while also deploying medium capability systems around East Asia to take some heat off the Navy AEGIS ships and US fighter aircraft. The Army will be well on its way to that capability if the Dynetics system works out or they switch to an already proven system like NASAMS.

Countering Low End Suicide Drones

It isn't hard to shoot down low-end suicide drones, but it can be expensive. Saudi Arabia regularly shoots down Iranian Shaheds with million-dollar air defense missiles. Classic anti-aircraft guns with modern fire control have proven effective in Ukraine, and bullets are much cheaper than drones. Vehicles like the German Gephard are great when defending a wide area because the drones are so slow that vehicles can redeploy to shoot them down.

In East Asia, the US will be defending relatively small positions. One or two Centurion Counter Rocket Artillery Rocket (C-RAM) Gatling guns could probably defend Andersen Air Force Base on Guam. The Marines and Army have new mobile systems with 30 mm cannons to counter UAVs in forward positions. The Army also wants to incorporate guns and lasers into its battle management system.

The Centurion has its own radar and fire control, allowing it to rapidly fill capability gaps. Source

US Navy ships already have Phalanx CIWS Gatling guns that can make mince meat of these drones.

Our allies will have to defend their populations and civil infrastructure. The answer is many anti-aircraft guns, WWII-style. Inexpensive rather than bespoke fire-control systems would be a bonus.

Defeating Ballistic Threats

Ballistic missiles are a top threat to carriers and US bases in the region. Base hardening, more ammo for existing anti-ballistic missile systems, denying the Chinese intel on ship and aircraft positions, and gaining early warning of Chinese strikes are critical to defending against these weapons.

Bases in Okinawa would be under constant threat from cruise missiles, but only China's priciest ballistic missiles can reach Guam's Andersen Air Force Base. Airfields are notoriously hard to take offline. Munitions designed to crater runways only keep a base offline for a few hours. The US has made recent improvements at Andersen AFB, like armoring fuel lines, adding a hardened maintenance hanger, and making fuel bladders available to replace damaged storage tanks.

The worst-case scenario is a surprise attack that kills personnel and destroys aircraft on the ground. The Air Force plans to use smaller dispersal bases to keep the Chinese guessing where the planes are. Investments in better dispersal options and more base hardening (like aircraft shelters for bases on Okinawa) would be beneficial. It would be a win if the Chinese waste their limited amounts of $10-$20 million ballistic missiles to crater a few runways.

The Chinese will find it harder to target Navy ships since they move. Even the fanciest missile is useless if you can't find the carriers. If a conflict does escalate to space, China will quickly lose its ability to spot the US fleet with satellites. The Navy would expend incredible effort to splash any drones or submarines trying to break into the Pacific to find strike groups. Our carriers could have more freedom of movement than assumed.

The US has invested heavily in ballistic missile defense over the last few decades. There is typically a battery of THAAD missile interceptors deployed in Guam. And the Navy can fire SM-3 and SM-6 missiles at incoming threats. The record for these systems in testing and limited combat use is exemplary, with 90%+ success rates. They are also cheaper than the high-end Chinese missiles they counter. The only issue is that there might not be enough missiles in the theater to counter saturation attacks. Manufacturing more missiles and keeping an adequate number of AEGIS-guided missile ships in East Asia is critical. A credible active defense would force the Chinese to shoot their most valuable missiles in wasteful barrages that drain their missile inventory.

High Volumes of Long Range Missiles

Some of the easiest wins are new munitions and adapting existing weapons.

The AIM-260 air-to-air missile is a fast-track program nearing completion. It nearly doubles the range of the mainstay AIM-120 and is ~20% faster. That allows it to exceed the performance of the Chinese J-15 air-to-air missiles and gives our fighters extra legs. Low-rate production could already be underway.

Having more missiles in the air to handle Chinese mass attacks is also critical. An idea floated by the Pentagon and analysts is to equip bombers with long-range air-to-air missiles, allowing them to act like a missile magazine to support frontline fighters.

The AGM-88 HARM missile is the primary weapon for US aircraft to counter surface-to-air missile batteries. It homes in on their radar signals and forces the enemy to turn off their radar and move or eat a missile. A new extended-range version is faster and can go up to 300 km, allowing US fighters and bombers to counter longer-range surface-to-air missiles. Low-rate production started in 2021, with operational status following in 2023. The Stand-in Attack Weapon program will add more advanced sensors and warheads over the next five years.

Many of the existing Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles in the Navy's inventory are getting mid-life upgrades to target ships. These cruise missiles are less stealthy than new models but have more range and are well-proven.

The relatively new AGM-158 JASSM cruise missile variants have ranges of 370 km to 1900 km, a 450 kg warhead, are stealthy, and cost between $800,000 and $1.5 million per missile. The AGM-158C is a brand-new anti-ship missile akin to an advanced loitering munition. It can autonomously find targets without GPS and defeat electronic countermeasures. The missiles cost ~$3 million each and can launch from numerous platforms, including warship vertical launch tubes.

The Air Force also built a palletized launcher named Rapid Dragon that allows cargo planes like the C-130 and C-17 to launch up to 45 JASSMs or (soon) JDAMs by dropping pallets out of the aircraft. Using cargo planes (Cumulative C-130 production is 2500+) increases surge capacity for saturation strikes, enables usage of rough airstrips, and gives allies with cargo planes new capabilities.

The US has historically relied on naval aviation for land strikes and especially to attack enemy ships. That is a lot to take on for a bomber fleet that must maintain readiness for a strategic nuclear mission. There is also a limit to how many planes our tankers can service on extended-range strikes. Cargo planes loaded with thousands of missiles or QUICKSINK JDAMs free up bombers to hit challenging targets like command and control bunkers or hardened bases and let tankers focus on getting the maximum amount of fighters into the battle to clear the skies.

The technology is there. It is only a question of buying enough ammo.

More Capable Drones

Drones can absorb some fighter roles and make them more productive. But the current crop of inexpensive drones that highlight conflicts in Ukraine or Armenia are poorly suited for the Indo-Pacific theater. Most US bases are thousands of kilometers from Taiwan, eliminating smaller drones and quadcopters. Slow drones like TB-2 or Predator are not survivable in contested airspace. Drones must be expendable or much more capable to add value to US power projection.

One example is the RQ-180. The Air Force has never acknowledged its existence, but the rumors and evidence are strong that it exists. It replaces the Global Hawk in the high altitude, theater-wide surveillance mission. The Global Hawk has close to zero survivability and can't function against near-peer threats. The RQ-180 is a flying wing like the B-2 and is stealthy, allowing it to operate in contested airspace. It likely costs hundreds of millions per copy, but small drones can't replace it.

The Scan Eagle and its successor, the RQ-21 Blackjack, are current "attritable" surveillance drones. They are capable aircraft with high-end sensors, the ability to laser designate targets, and 16 hours of loiter time. The Navy and Marines have hundreds but want to replace them. Newer drones in this class have vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capability, allowing them to ditch expensive launching/landing systems. Software flies the drones and soldiers only input waypoints. The competition is fierce, with AeroEnvironment's Jump 20 and Shield AI's V-Bat as examples. These drones are more capable than the RQ-21 at a fraction of the acquisition and operating cost, costing less than $1 million per unit even at low rate production. A limitation is they can't stray more than ~150 km from the base station. Some obvious solutions are to use StarLink, drone relays, or autonomous software that can broadcast findings over the tactical data net. Much of the cost is in sensors, less expensive ones would make the drones more expendable. Production could ramp up fast because scrappy companies are the prime contractors.

The V-bat takes off vertically and transitions to horizontal flight under the control of its flight computer. Source

The Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie drone is somewhat stealthy, has exceptional range, carries 550 kg of payload, doesn't need an airfield to operate, travels at high subsonic speeds, and costs less than $5 million for a base model. It could enter service as early as 2023. Manufacturability is another big bonus, with Kratos estimating they could make 250-500 per year. Early roles figure to be strike, electronic warfare, and reconnaissance, but it could gain air-to-air capability further down the line. One intriguing mission is combat air patrols over Taiwan. Our current fighters and tanker fleet would struggle to maintain a constant presence over Taiwan. Valkyries could more efficiently patrol with their endurance and ability to launch from any landmass. Manned fighters could conduct hunter/killer missions under more favorable conditions.

The XQ-58 Valkyrie. Source

Anduril's Altius-700M is a cheap loitering munition with a ~400 km range and a 16 kg warhead. The 600M has a similar range with a ~3 kg warhead. The Coyote Block 3 is another option, but the details are thin. These drones probably cost $100,000-$200,000 because they use more advanced seekers and have difficult-to-jam uplinks that allow operator input until impact. They have small warheads and are vulnerable compared to other cheap missiles. But their range and flexibility are good for the price point. They can launch from C-130 cargo planes, pickup trucks, the XQ-58 Valkyrie drone, and the Orca autonomous submarine, among others. It would be a neat trick to have dozens of radar-homing killer drones pop out of an unmanned sub to disrupt enemy air defenses before a coordinated strike. At a minimum, these weapons force the enemy to invest in anti-aircraft guns. Program maturation could happen quickly.

Anti-Submarine Warfare

Submarines threaten ships just like missiles. Naturally, China has built a force of diesel-electric and nuclear submarines to keep the US Navy at bay. These subs would stretch the US anti-submarine warfare capability due to their sheer number. The amount of dedicated anti-sub platforms has decreased with the retirements of US attack subs, the P-3 patrol plane, and the S-3 carrier-based sub hunter. The gap is especially problematic for carrier strike groups since they lack a fixed-wing sub-hunter and rely on the MH-60R helicopter. Several options could quickly supplement existing US assets.

The most capable sub-hunter is the P-8 maritime patrol plane. The P-8 entered service in 2012 and appears to be extremely capable, but the Navy only has 110, and they cost ~$150 million a pop. The P-8s must hunt for subs theater-wide while also protecting carriers. The production line is still hot, and the military could order more than the 125 under contract.

A much cheaper option is the MQ-9B Sea Guardian. It is a variant of the classic Predator/Reaper drones with anti-submarine warfare capability. The MQ-9B's upfront and operating costs are a fraction of the P-8, and it can patrol for 18 hours at a time. Some versions can fly from carriers, giving strike groups a long-range sub-hunter. The US Navy has not made a final decision yet, but it will go into production because other countries like Japan and Taiwan have already placed orders. Buying Sea Guardians would be a cost-effective way to increase anti-submarine warfare capability.

A paradigm-bending idea would be to use hordes of drones with magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) sensors. The P-3 used magnetic anomaly sensors to pinpoint submarines. The P-8 ditched these sensors because sonar improved its accuracy, and you must be within a few hundred meters of the surface for magnetic anomaly detection to work. The loss in speed and range to fly low became a poor tradeoff. But magnetic anomaly detection sensors have gotten cheap and small. A recent model weighs 2.5 kg, uses 30 watts, and can detect submarines 1500 meters away. The new VTOL drones could be outfitted with these sensors and fly from islands or patrol boats. Thousands of these drones could blanket the Pacific for the cost of a few P-8s.

Submarines are immune to advances in missile sensors, but sonar and magnetic anomaly detection are digital technologies that have improved rapidly. Top-of-the-line diesel subs cost $500+ million, and nuclear subs are in the billions. It is challenging and expensive to make a survivable submarine! The US has ample opportunity to neutralize the Chinese submarine threat.

Autonomous Boats and Submarines

The US Navy's ~50 nuclear attack submarines are stretched thin between their primary roles of hunting enemy nuclear missile subs, protecting carrier groups, collecting intel, land attack, etc. The Navy desperately needs more hulls to tackle lower-priority tasks like intelligence, minelaying, and land attack. An answer is the Orca Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (XLUUV). It is diesel-electric, autonomous, has a 12,000 km range, usually travels at 5 km/h, and is 26 meters long (including the payload module). The first module/mission will be minelaying around enemy naval bases and other risky but rewarding locations. The Navy wants surveillance, electronic warfare, and minesweeping modules to come next. Eventually, hunting subs and launching missiles or drones will be capabilities. At $50 million each, the Navy could buy fifty for every nuclear attack sub purchased. Sacrificing speed, size, and mission scope has allowed this concept to mature quickly. Five are already under construction, and capability will increase as contractors develop new modules, freeing up the nuclear subs to focus on the critical missions that require speed and versatility.

The Navy has a long history with UUVs for minesweeping and underwater mapping. Programs like Viperfish look to improve on existing models.

Another program reaching early production is the Common Unmanned Surface Vessel (CUSV). It also has a modular payload bay and will be a minesweeper in the first iteration. These boats are cheap ($6 million), quick (65 km/h), and have a 2200 km range. The Navy has already tested the CUSV with a weapons payload of Hellfire Missiles and a .50 caliber machine gun. Other roles could include electronic warfare and anti-submarine warfare. These could evolve into modern-day PT boats with many weapons and capabilities.

Cheap, autonomous systems provide an incredible opportunity for handling unsexy but critical roles like mine warfare.

Electronic Warfare (EW)

Electronic warfare is a blanket term that covers many use cases. The major categories are confusing sensors, locating enemies from their electronic emissions, and protecting friendly signals from jamming or interception.

Confusing Enemy Sensors

The easiest way to stop a missile or drone is to confuse it.

There is a non-zero chance that the US Navy could defeat every Chinese ballistic anti-ship missile due to some combination of jamming, electronic decoys, or faulty design in the Chinese missiles.

As sensors get more sophisticated, jammers and decoys have to follow. Old infrared homing missiles would target the strongest signal, allowing flares to fool them. Newer sensors look for something that looks like a plane or boat signature. Synthetic aperture radars aren't impacted by brute force jamming, only by nuanced signals that confuse the processing software. It is a constant cat-and-mouse game, and many US munitions are gaining "over-the-air" update capabilities to stay ahead.

Locating Enemies

Older communications that use omnidirectional antennas leak emissions everywhere. Listening in offers another way to find enemy units and command posts. Those locations can be tasked for strikes or jammed during attacks.

Most munitions have or will soon gain sophisticated "home-on-jam" capabilities to destroy emission sources. Improvement in machine vision could favor passive sensors that are harder to jam or detect, especially in low-end drones.

EW Protection

Making emissions hard to detect also makes them challenging to jam. Frequency hopping and using unidirectional antennas are classic counters. Better software can detect and filter clumsy jamming signals.

One example is GPS jamming. Some older munitions are still vulnerable, but newer variants have jam-resistant receivers. They can sense the direction of the signals and ignore a transmission that isn't coming from satellites.

Stealth aircraft need the most sophisticated EW protection. F-22, F-35, B-21, and B-2 use low probability of detection comms links and synthetic aperture radars to avoid leaking emissions.

Drones and Electronic Warfare

Drones are a good fit for electronic warfare. Putting jammers on a cheap drone draws anti-radiation missiles away from ships or strike aircraft. Communications get harder to detect as militaries improve their technology. Drones boost the odds of intercepting signals by increasing the number of listeners. They are convenient communication relays because units can route comms to a drone using short-range, low-detection wavelengths. The drone passes the data forward on longer-range frequencies.

The US Electronic Warfare Structural Advantage

Survival on the modern battlefield requires extensive training and discipline to manage electronic emissions and deny spectrum to the enemy. The superiority of US human capital is a massive advantage. And the US is good at making digital radios. It has the ingredients to dominate the electromagnetic spectrum.

Building a Decentralized Battle Net

The military's desire for unified communications is rapidly coming to fruition from an unlikely direction. The military first tried with the Army-led Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) program starting in 1997. It was canceled after fifteen years and tens of billions of dollars. One subprogram to upgrade Link 16 survived under Navy stewardship. Link-16 is a line-of-sight, difficult-to-jam data link that connects Air Force planes, Navy planes, air defense radars, and Navy ships. The original application in the 1970s was to transmit data from airborne radar aircraft to fighters. The capability was revolutionary because fighter pilots had near complete situational awareness and could fire missiles without using their radar.

A recent change has been the miniaturization of Link 16 radios. The first BATS-D handheld radios came out in 2019, opening the capability to any platform or soldier. From concept to field usage took 17 months. Before these radios calling in close air support often meant:

  1. A specially trained soldier calls headquarters with their information.
  2. A specially trained officer at HQ manually calculates the firing data and then radios an aircraft.
  3. The pilot types it in their weapon console and releases the munition.

The process was slow and prone to friendly fire accidents. The new radio relays the friendly position and the target information directly to weapons on the aircraft in a few seconds. Concerns about the US kill chain flexibility in East Asia disappear because almost every Air Force and Navy platform already uses Link-16, and the Marines are eagerly adding these capabilities.

Every Link 16 radio is an independent node in a peer-to-peer network, so there are no hubs to kill. The newest radios have upgrades that handle 10x more data and decrease power usage. The data links are still relatively slow (you can't transmit video), and thousands of users sending updates at once could overwhelm it. These issues are manageable because many users only need to receive data, don't need video, and the new radios can have multiple nets that accommodate more users. Another challenge is that enemies can detect the waveform Link 16 uses under some conditions, potentially giving away a transmitter's position. But most transmitters can be cheap drones, and the newer radios using lower power are harder to detect. Future iterations could use directional antennas and different radio waveforms that further reduce the emission profile.

Some hubs are necessary so high-end stealth aircraft can transmit data back to Link 16 without detection. The RQ-180 (probably), EQ-4 drone, and E-11 serve in this role. The Air Force is working on wing-mounted pods that can add the capability to most aircraft. But the trend is to put Link 16 on all platforms, including drones and small satellites. The faster that deployment happens, the better. Link 16 isn't perfect, but it provides every unit with a unified picture of the battlefield and shortens kill chains to seconds.

More Tanking Capacity

Tankers and aerial refueling are the backbones of the US Air Force's power projection, especially in East Asia. They are nearly as critical for the Navy. Tanker vulnerability is one reason why 24/7 combat air patrols over Taiwan from bases or carriers further than Guam are challenging. Fueling the patrols would stretch the tanker force thin while exposing them to Chinese attack. The Chinese Air Force could "lose the battle, but win the war" by bull rushing the few fighters on station, running them out of missiles, then splashing the string of valuable tankers leading back to US bases.

Congress requires the Air Force to operate 479 tankers. Most are 50-year-old KC-135s with a smattering of KC-10s. The plan is for a third of the fleet to be replaced by the new KC-46 by 2029. The Air Force wants to retire some tankers early and shrink the fleet to save money. The "divest to invest" theme is rampant across the military because platform procurement is cyclical. Many systems from the 1980s buildup are reaching obsolescence and suffering from high maintenance costs at the same time as China's rise adds new challenges.

The KC-46 promises to be an improvement over the KC-135 because it has lower operating costs, carries more fuel, has a shorter takeoff length, and uses less ramp space - all valuable attributes for fighting in far-flung places with limited basing options. But the KC-46 program has been non-stop drama. The plane is reaching mission readiness five years late and after 60 deliveries. The contract with Boeing protected the government from cost overruns, but several capabilities are still not mission ready. It forces the Air Force to keep aging tankers in service longer.

Getting KC-46 over the finish line is critical to stop the bleeding, and increasing the budget to keep more tankers flying would be valuable.

The Navy's organic tanker situation is even worse. The Navy also used the S-3 airframe for carrier-based tankers. Now the Navy uses F-18 fighters as tankers, cannibalizing strike planes. The solution to extending range is the Boeing MQ-25 refueling drone. It also has seen some delays, with the first deliveries expected to happen in 2025. The aircraft costs over $100 million - more than an F-35 and half the price of a much larger KC-46. Part of the cost situation is that Boeing originally designed the stealthy MQ-25 for strike and recon roles, while typical tankers are modified commercial airliners. The drone fills a critical need and may get upgrades for other missions as time goes on.

The MQ-25 Refueling Drone. Source

The delays in bringing new tankers online are painful, but the tanking fleet will be more capable. More capability equates to having more fighters available on the front lines.

Cluster Munitions

Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM, better known as cluster bombs) accounted for most enemy deaths in the First Gulf War. The US developed these weapons in the 1970s to counter the numerical advantage of Soviet artillery. The idea is that a conventional bomb, artillery shell, or rocket has wasted explosive force close to impact but a meager impact outside of a few dozen meters. Spraying cheap bomblets (capable of piercing 2-3 inches of armor) across a wider area is more effective and makes up for the subpar accuracy of unguided shells and rockets. US soldiers affectionally call DPICM barrages "steel rain." These weapons have fallen out of favor because some bomblets don't explode and are a hazard. The unexploded ordinance took the lives of US soldiers in both Iraq wars. As precision-guided munitions improved, they often replaced DPICM.

Unexploded ordinance isn't a concern when shooting at Chinese ships in the ocean. The bomblet dispersion pattern is wide enough to hit ships accurately, especially within 30 km. Modern ships have vulnerable, mission-critical components like fire control radars and communications masts. These munitions would shred those to pieces while also knocking holes in thinner deck armor. They are hard to counter because they are cheap, and the carrier shell bursts at a height difficult for close-in weapons systems to engage. The kill chain for these munitions is relatively simple and doesn't have outside dependencies like GPS.

The upshot is that DPICM could render any Chinese ship that gets close to Taiwan combat ineffective. Mobile and fast reloading modern artillery systems are challenging to kill, even with air superiority. Taiwan already operates a multiple-launch rocket system that shoots DPICM rockets. Expanding production, ensuring rapid communication of a target location to crews (Taiwan already uses Link-16 on many ships and planes), and adding DPICM 155mm artillery shells would make it challenging for the Chinese Navy to approach Taiwan or land on its beaches.

Guided Rockets

The US Marines are prolific users of HIMARS multiple rocket launch systems, and Taiwan will take delivery of these systems within the next two years. The current GMLRS rocket and future Precision Strike Missile (projected to enter service in 2023) use GPS for navigation, limiting them to static targets. Work is already underway on new seekers for the 500 km range Precision Strike Missile to target ships. Another possibility is GPS getting the GMRLS's Alternative Warhead close enough. It has an area effect similar to cluster munitions that would be ideal for damaging soft targets on ships. An extended-range version of the rocket is nearing deployment that could double engagement distance to 150 km and has room in the missile cone for new seekers.

Yet another option is shooting the Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB) from HIMARS. It has a 150 km range, a similar cost and warhead size as GMLRS, uses GPS or laser guidance, and can have an area fragmentation warhead. The pricier Small Diameter Bomb II has seekers capable of targeting moving ships, but it would need integration with the ground launcher. An advantage of the Small Diameter Bomb is that inventories are robust, while the extended-range GMLRS rocket is brand new.

Again, these rockets aren't going to sink a destroyer in one shot. But they are inexpensive, mass-producible, and can achieve mission kills. The Marines have already used HIMARS-fired rockets to hit ships in training exercises. They would be a force multiplier for the Marines and Taiwan's existing anti-ship missiles.

Boosting Taiwanese Training and Inventories

The US already does extensive training for the Taiwanese military. We also sell them many weapon systems. One lesson from Ukraine is that modern fighting can require incredible amounts of munitions like surface-to air-missiles or offensive weapons. If China attacks, it may be difficult for the US to resupply Taiwan while avoiding conflict. Training more reserves and increasing weapon stockpiles would leave the option of an indirect support role instead of direct participation.

Taiwan already has some of the most hardened bases and defensive positions in the world, so it can likely accommodate more supply caches without losing them in a missile strike on the first day of the war. They need to load up on ammo!

Sell More Weapons to Allies

Development is a significant portion of the total cost of weapon systems. Selling more copies lowers the unit cost while also keeping production lines hot. Exports to allies should be a top consideration in many programs.

Longer Term Technology

A New Fighter for the Indo-Pacific

The Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program seeks to replace the aging F-22 with planes that have more range and payload. At least one version will have a pilot, while others are "loyal wingman" drones. Details are few, but the Air Force wants to run the program like the B-21 and moved some leadership from the B-21 program to kick off NGAD. The Navy has a similar program for the 6th generation of fighters.

Whether the next generation of fighters should be autonomous is a hot debate but not relevant. Typically aircraft need to increase in size or decrease speed to gain range, diminishing dogfighting ability. The early challenge for the program is to develop an engine that can cruise efficiently at fuel-sipping sub-sonic speeds but still have top-tier performance while supersonic. Such an engine would soften the size/maneuverability tradeoff and is applicable for drones or manned fighters. The fuzzy goal is to reach production by 2030.

Better Missile Defense

Missile defense will likely get more challenging as missiles fall in cost. Technology will need to improve.

Lasers are one answer, but their power limitations mean they can be overwhelmed by saturation attacks. Existing ships need extensive modification to increase power levels.

Rail guns and other high-velocity projectiles have some promise, but the US Navy recently defunded its program. The projectiles cost around $85,000 each instead of the hoped-for $25,000. The advantage over current capabilities shrank because a short-range Sea Sparrow missile is $150,000, accurate, and proven. The Air Force may continue to work on the project.

Cheap laser-guided rockets are another emerging option, especially for slower-speed drones.

An underrated option might be a flotilla of Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle-type boats with anti-aircraft guns to shoot down subsonic missiles further away from capital ships.

There seem to be no easy answers, and the Navy likely needs a new class of ships that can accommodate higher power usage or serve as floating arsenals to carry hundreds (or thousands!) of low-cost munitions. Something like the Large Unmanned Surface Vessel concept could be a good starting point.

Increasing Dominance Over Space

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket can launch at a cadence China would struggle to match. The company recently announced StarShield (StarLink for government customers), which includes better-encrypted uplinks, a StarLink satellite with Earth observation capabilities, and support buses for other payloads. The Space Force would be wise to develop inexpensive GPS and other communications and sensing modules to fit on these satellites. It'd be challenging to build enough anti-satellite missiles to shoot down the constant stream of replacements.

SpaceX's Starship could extend the US lead in space technology and enable orbital weapons.

AI?

Most US munitions are already automated "fire-and-forget" weapons. Killing heavily-defended targets like ships and planes over long distances requires capable weapons that already justify the cost of automation. Gains from AI could allow incremental improvements in cost and resistance to electronic warfare, but they have to beat tried-and-true sensors first.

AI will be transformational in dull areas like intelligence gathering, logistics, and training. Complex ground stations and expensive, jammable satellite uplinks are limiting for recon drones. Logistics is labor intensive and often puts drivers and other personnel in danger. And AI could simplify user interfaces that are hard to use.

If AI does become useful for munitions, then the technology should be easy to integrate into modern open architecture munitions.

Avoiding Doomerism

Doomer attitudes are popular in policy circles. There are several reasons why we should be more optimistic.

The Human Capital Advantage

Even the most pessimistic analysts agree that the US and our key allies have much better officers, non-commissioned officers, and enlisted soldiers than our adversaries. The concern that our enemies will fight in a decentralized manner with rapid velocity and short kill chains, while we won't, directly contradicts the human capital reality. While our enemies' doctrine and spec sheets may be impressive, the US military is likely further along in capability - especially the Navy, Marine, and Air Force units based in East Asia.

The Red Team Always Wins

The US military regularly runs exercises where a "Blue Team" of good guys fights a "Red Team" of our soldiers pretending to be bad guys. It is a policy analyst trope that our real military will lose because the red team always wins. I think this is silly because the point is for red to win. What would be the point if our soldiers always won against the trainers that play the red team at the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin? Getting humiliated in a war game and pushed to improve is a feature, not a bug. Red teams often get our most innovative officers and have high-quality non-commissioned officers (NCOs) that can execute enemy doctrine. We also assume that our enemies' weapons work as advertised.

In real life, our enemies have political cronies as officers, have poorly trained NCOs - if they have them at all, and their weapons don't always work as advertised. We should appreciate that our military at least tries to take learning seriously when we hear about red teams winning.

US Government Procurement is Awful?

A common criticism is that the Department of Defense and Congress are terrible at acquiring weapon systems. But at the same time, a small fraction of the US arsenal is shredding Russian troops in Ukraine.

If we add more nuance, a story emerges where several headline projects with poor interactions between complexity and congressional desires look terrible. Then there are a host of smaller programs that offer incredible bang for the buck. Overall the Department of Defense is so large that we likely pay some inefficiency penalty, but not necessarily more than a corrupt totalitarian regime. Our enemies are poor, while our allies are wealthy, so our enemies have some advantage in purchasing power parity. And our programs can go extremely fast when the need is severe, especially if the weapons are lower in complexity than an aircraft carrier or fifth-generation fighter.

There are a few primary truths. The intense testing and qualification regime US weapons go through means they usually work as advertised (or better). Politicized programs like Ford-class carriers are probably wasteful, but other programs like the B-21 or Guam fuel line hardening push forward with little fanfare. Our munitions are getting more capable while often falling in price. And it is easy to see our warts while corrupt regimes shroud our enemies' weaknesses.

The correct response to hysterical Chicken Littles is to thank them for highlighting potential areas of weakness and then constructively improve. That formula leads to our military running up the score on our enemies in real-world conflicts.

The Overall Picture

Keeping China pinned down means sinking its ships and at least contesting airspace. No Chinese invasion can survive without constant seaborne resupply and air cover. The US could likely achieve these goals before the recent changes - at a cost. The new weapons promise to dramatically reduce potential losses by compensating for our fighters lacking range and the inherent vulnerability of ships to missiles.

The emergence of Anti-Access Area Denial may seem to harm the US, but ultimately it should benefit us and thwart China. Less expensive guided weapons make it easier for us to defend our allies like Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines - even if China's military spending dwarfs ours.

The US ultimately wants to preserve freedom of navigation. The combination of modern weapons and the configuration of our allies reduces the cost of keeping the seas open, even if there are a few caveats.

The best outcome would be if the US can avoid conflict altogether through deterrence or our allies having enough arms to defend themselves. Taiwan has enough high-end weapons like F-16s, Patriot Missile Batteries, and Harpoon anti-ship missiles to bloody the Chinese. The concern is a lack of depth where they might run out of missiles or attrit their fighter aircraft. Small changes like guided anti-ship rockets, additional surface-to-air missile batteries, more ship-focused cluster munitions, or Rapid Dragon pallets filled with QUICKSINK-equipped JDAMs would make for a fairer fight. A combination of America selling these weapons to Taiwan and pushing the Taiwanese to increase military spending to something more urgent, like 4% of GDP, would make it incredibly difficult for China to attack successfully.

The rise of defensive weapons combined with geography means the US and our allies can keep China hemmed in for the foreseeable future, even if the Chinese economy grows dramatically. We can maintain our deterrence capability despite negative commentary.