The Pentagon’s “pivot toward the Pacific,” a strategy shift from fighting Middle East insurgency to deterring a broad range of threats over a vast area, will require major changes in the way military forces conduct surveillance, ground and maritime battle management, and control.
Iraq and Afghanistan spawned the growth of unmanned surveillance drones with short ranges, and large, fixed-base battle management centers. However, the Asia-Pacific region, because of its huge expanse, few land operating bases, and many far-reaching potential battle scenarios, will require airborne all-weather sensors for wide-area surveillance, and airborne battle management, command and control (BMC2) centers. Today, there are few aircraft that perform this mission and none planned in the future.
Predator and Reaper drones, the predominant surveillance sensors in Afghanistan, are not suited to the long-range, faraway bases and adverse weather in the western Pacific and south Asia. Except for the Air Operations Center in South Korea, the U.S. does not have the fixed BMC2 centers needed to deal with the threat scenarios ranging from northeastern Russia and China, through Japan, Korea and the Philippines, to Thailand, Indonesia and India in Southeast Asia.
These vast distances and differences in operating conditions demand changes in the surveillance of fixed and moving ground targets and BMC2 toward flexible, airborne, wide-area and long-range systems with onboard BMC2.
The Libya campaign underscored the need for this mission and served as a prototype for western Pacific scenarios. Libya flared up almost overnight. The U.S. and NATO had to come as they were. There was no established command-and-control center, no nearby air bases, no wide-area surveillance of the battle area, a situation similar to most scenarios likely in the Asia-Pacific areas.
The strategy for Libya quickly changed from setting up a no-fly zone in which the E-3 airborne warning and control system was to be the primary surveillance and control system, to a strategy supporting ground forces with surveillance and detection of ground targets in which the E-8 Joint Surveillance, Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), played the dominant role.
JSTARS was deployed immediately and was able to provide around-the-clock, wide-area surveillance, detection and tracking of ground targets, both fixed and moving, and a full BMC2 center onboard to direct ground forces and assign targets for attack.
Every senior commander involved in Libya, from U.S. Gen. Carter Ham, the Africa Command joint commander, to U.S. Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward, the air commander, and every NATO commander has testified to the critical role of airborne surveillance and BMC2. Every senior commander acknowledged that without this capability, the Libya campaign would not have succeeded in so short a time, if ever.
The lessons learned from Libya are many, but one analogy is unmistakable — most scenarios projected for the western Pacific resemble Libya in terms of non-existent BMC2 centers, bases remote from the battle area, and no wide-area surveillance of the battle space. A large fleet of modern airborne surveillance and BMC2 aircraft will be necessary for the Asia-Pacific region.
Despite this obvious requirement, most attention and funding for the “pivot” are for new long-range strike systems, long-range cruise missiles, new submarines and surface vessels, but not for airborne surveillance and onboard BMC2. Yet, the surveillance and BMC2 capabilities are a prerequisite for the proper employment of these and other forces. The Pentagon seems to be putting the cart before the horse.
The Air Force began an analysis of alternatives in December 2009 to determine the best way to perform these missions in the future. Results of the analysis provided to Congress on June 9, 2012, concluded that a business jet with onboard surveillance sensors and BMC2 capabilities was the most cost-effective solution.
But Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff, testified that the service could not afford a new program and it would have to live with existing capabilities, including Global Hawk and JSTARS. Yet, the Air Force is unwilling to upgrade the system for the increased demands of the Asia-Pacific theater.
The worst scenario imaginable would be for the U.S. to invest hundreds of billions of dollars to field new weapon systems tailored to the Asia-Pacific region, capable of defeating high-threat, anti-access, anti-denial systems of potential adversaries, yet lack the eyes and brain to employ them effectively. Pentagon planners should readdress this deficiency in gearing up for the Pacific pivot.
Retired Gen. John Michael Loh, a former U.S. Air Force vice chief of staff and former commander of Air Combat Command. He consults for several defense contractors, including Northrop Grumman.