The fielding of hypersonic anti-ship missiles by America’s competitors have created a pressing need for the U.S. military to adjust its peer warfare strategy.
America’s fleet of Nimitz and Ford class super carriers serve as the nation’s primary method of force projection the world over, but when held at bay a thousand miles from enemy territory by the anti-ship missile threat, these massive power houses of military force find themselves neutered by simple math. Carrier based aircraft simply don’t have the range to fly combat operations from that far out at sea.
As SOFREP has covered extensively, the Navy has set about launching a number of new programs with this challenge specifically in mind. Everything from landing F-35s on hasty airfields inside enemy territory for refueling to bolting new fuel tanks to the fuselages of aircraft are being incorporated into this new extended range strategy, and the Navy’s MQ-25 drone refueler program hopes to offer increased carrier-based refueling capabilities, but there’s still one piece of war fighting technology America retains the lead in that has yet to be incorporated in the endeavor: stealth.
The advanced stealth incorporated into the design of America’s fifth generation fighters, the F-22 and F-35, is widely considered to be the best on the planet, and one can assume the forthcoming stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider, will extend that legacy. However, to date, bomber and fighter applications remain the primary platforms that see the benefit of this technology. This is, of course, for good reason: “stealth” is one term that describes a variety of things ranging from overall aircraft shape to spray-on radar absorbent coatings. As diverse as the methodologies employed in making a “stealth” aircraft are, the one thing they all have in common is expense: there’s nothing cheap about building a stealth airplane.
But the benefits of incorporating stealth into other platforms are hard to deny. With programs underway to field kinetic defenses on all kinds of unarmed aircraft (ranging from refeulers to reconnaissance), stealth could offer decreased visibility on enemy scopes and reduce the chances of intercept or missile lock. Reducing the radar signatures of the support aircraft relied upon in the fight could help ensure the survivability of combat control aircraft networking fighters, drones and ground assets in a combat zone, increase refueling opportunities in contested airspace, and as Tyler Rogoway at The Warzone pointed out, may offer new capabilities to the Special Operations community.
Currently, special operators rely on high altitude jumps or low-flying helicopters for insertion in contested areas, and although some of these helicopters offer stealthy capabilities, they’re limited in range and speed. A stealth personnel carrier (that could be outfitted for any number of other uses) would allow for deeper penetration into enemy territory with reduced risk at a higher rate of speed. That’s a tough bunch of benefits to ignore.
America’s competitors are aware that they don’t need to develop offensive capabilities that are comparable to what the U.S. can bring to bare — they need only to develop defensive capabilities to match. It’s far easier to shoot down an aircraft than it is do design and build one, after all. This means air and ship defenses are only going to continue to improve, and America’s aging platforms will find themselves at higher and higher risk.
As older platforms age out of service, it may be time to start incorporating stealth into more than just our bombers and fighters. It may have to become the norm in the contested airspace of the future.