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Lt. General David Barno and Nora Bensahel, scholar-in-residence at the School of International Service write about 10 dangerous “embedded assumptions” in US military planning that could prove disastrous if mistaken. All are food for thought, but I found the fourth (“Stealth aircraft will remain stealthy”) to be the most interesting from a strategic point of view. Right now, all branches of the US military assume that the US Air Force and the US Navy will be able to establish air supremacy prior to other combat operations. Stealth is a cornerstone of this capability. Without stealth, you lose the ability to degrade enemy air defense systems, and without the ability to degrade enemy air defense systems, you lose the ability to establish air supremacy.

Historically, our ability to establish air supremacy relied on two factors: stealth aircraft degrading enemy command and control systems, combined with SEAD (suppression of enemy air defense) missions to destroy enemy radars and open up holes in the enemy’s defenses for strike aircraft to attack ground targets. The US military demonstrated this tactic to near perfection in the Gulf War, with stealth aircraft striking at command bunkers in Baghdad while specialized electronics warfare aircraft simultaneously opened holes in enemy air defenses by targeting surface-to-air missile radars. This was in stark contrast to Vietnam, where, thanks to underdeveloped tactics and technology, the US military was never able to fully establish air supremacy over North Vietnam, even though the North Vietnamese had relatively outdated export-grade Soviet surface-to-air missiles.

This is why technologies such as passive radar (linked from the above article) are so interesting and worrying. Historically, due to signal processing constraints, radar transmitters and receivers have had to be coupled. This is significant because while receivers have expensive and valuable signal processing equipment (and often have even more expensive and valuable people monitoring said equipment), radar transmitters are basically overclocked microwave ovens. However, improvements in computing and signal processing technologies are allowing for the decoupling of transmitters and receivers, with a relatively small number of sophisticated receivers being able to integrate returns from a large number of “dumb” transmitters in order to create the same “picture” that one would gain from a single tightly coupled transmitter/receiver pair. In addition, many of these passive radar systems can use “transmitters of opportunity”, allowing an air defense system to use civilian radio sources, like radio and television broadcasts or cell-phone towers as impromptu radar transmitters.

Why is this significant for stealth? As tacticians have pointed since the dawn of stealth aircraft, stealth is not invisibility. Stealth is camouflage. Low observability designs and radar-absorbent materials reduce the range at which observation is probable, but do not eliminate the possibility of observation. A good counter to attacks by camouflaged adversaries is to set up floodlights and motion detectors. Passive radar allows air-defense systems to do exactly that. The relative cheapness of transmitters means that an adversary can simply “tighten the net”, eliminating the shadows and gaps that stealth aircraft rely on to sneak past defenses. Simultaneously the proliferation of transmitters and their physical decoupling from receivers means that SEAD missions will no longer be as effective as they used to be at knocking holes in enemy defenses. Finally, dual-use nature of these transmitters means that they can be located in civilian areas, further increasing the risks of SEAD missions targeting these transmitters.

The US military has long been operating under a modified version of Stanley Baldwin’s famous dictum: “the stealth bomber will always get through”. Technologies such as passive radar, combined with other innovations in visual and infrared tracking are increasingly rendering the modified dictum as false as the original. However, instead of recognizing this, the US military is doubling down on stealth, with the new B-21 and F-35 programs focused on building even stealthier bombers and strike aircraft. US tactics continue to emphasize the need to establish air supremacy, even as that requirement becomes more and more infeasible to achieve in practice. I fear that this will lead to a nasty surprise the next time the US has to fight a conventional war.

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    … the next time the US has to fight a conventional war

    Is that considered likely anytime soon? When was the last conventional war? What will the next one be?

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      The last conventional war the US fought was the opening round of Operation Iraqi Freedom (the “shock-and-awe” phase of the current Iraq war). But that almost doesn’t count, because it was the US fighting at the near peak of its power against an Iraqi army that had never fully recovered from the massive defeat inflicted upon it by the Gulf War.

      The last war the US fought against a functional military was the Gulf War, in 1993. While today, we look upon the US victory in the Gulf War as an inevitability, we must remember that it was a huge surprise when Saddam’s army and air force crumpled after just over two weeks of sustained combat operations. Saddam’s military, at the time, was the fourth largest in the world, and was combat hardened after the almost decade-long Iran/Iraq war of the ’80s. It was also far better equipped, relative to the US, than the North Vietnamese military had been in the ’60s. As a result, there were many who feared that the US was getting into another quagmire by attempting to liberate Kuwait in 1993. Instead, the world was treated to the largest military surprise since the German invasion of France in 1941. Never before had a military that large been destroyed so thoroughly in so short a time.

      However, 1993, at this point, is 15 years in the past. While the US military has been distracted by the twin insurgencies of Iraq and Afghanistan, other militaries (notably China and Russia) have been studying the conditions behind US military’s victory in the Gulf War and have been coming up with ways to counter the advantages that the US displayed in that conflict. A distributed system like passive radar is one such way. Other ways include the usage of so-called “hybrid war” tactics displayed by the Russian military in Crimea, Donbass, and, lately Syria. China has been developing a system of tactics and technologies that fall under the umbrella of “anti-access/area-denial” (A2AD), which focus on keeping the US Navy at a distance, in order to secure Chinese control over the South China Sea and potentially keep the US from coming to Taiwan’s aid if China should choose to invade Taiwan.

      The US military, in my estimation, is much like the British army prior to World War 1. The British military, riding high after its victories in the Napoleonic wars and the Crimean War, was confident in its own abilities and sanguine about the perceived weakness of its adversaries (rising Germany and the fading empires of Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans). As a result, the British military focused on fighting “brushfire wars” against native rebellions in Africa, India and Afghanistan (lol). Because of this, the British army found itself ill-prepared and under-equipped to fight a “high-intensity conflict against near-peer adversaries” (to use the words of modern military analysts).

      There is a school of thought that says that conventional war against near-peer adversaries is impossible, because any such war would inevitably escalate to nuclear weapons. I actually wish this argument was true. It would simplify our threat assessments greatly. However, whenever I hear this argument, I am reminded of all the arguments prior to World War 1 or World War 2 that suggested that a major war was impossible because of the unprecedented destructive capabilities of modern weapons.

      Do I think a war is likely? At this moment, I do not. Can I tell when the next war is going to occur? If I could, I would be working for the CIA, NSA or DoD, with a top-secret clearance. What I do have is a vague sense of unease. This sense of unease comes from the fact that the world today is multi-polar and unstable. The US military no longer enjoys the unchallenged hyperpower hegemony that it had at the end of the cold war. Yet, it still acts and fights as if it does. I also remember that wars, when they do occur, can stem from causes that are extremely surprising at the time. Who would have thought that the assassination of the crown prince of Austria-Hungary by a Serbian nationalist would lead to a war that resulted in the deaths of millions?

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