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Expert: Navy Should Revise Outer Air Battle Concept

USS John Paul Jones (DDG 53) launches a Standard Missile-6 (SM-6) during a live-fire test of the ship's aegis weapons system on June, 19 2014. US Navy Photo

USS John Paul Jones (DDG 53) launches a Standard Missile-6 (SM-6) during a live-fire test of the ship’s aegis weapons system on June, 19 2014. US Navy Photo

WASHINGTON, D.C. — One way to restore offensive punch to the surface Navy is to discard the idea of Outer Air Battle to defeat a Soviet Cold War fleet in the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas and the North Atlantic and concentrate on dense air defenses 30 nautical miles out.

Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the idea then was, “going after the archer before he could shoot his arrows,” speaking Wednesday at Capitol Hill.

Today, “we could not execute Outer Air Battle” for a host of reasons: U.S. ship missile defense ranges are less than the attacking missiles’ ranges and an enemy is capable of overwhelming existing defenses by launching hundreds of missiles at a time from ships, submarines and aircraft.

In releasing the center’s “Commanding the Seas: A Plan to Reinvigorate U.S. Navy Surface Warfare” at the event, he added the Navy likely would no longer be in an ancillary role to the main engagement as it was in the Cold War.

In short, in a potential engagement with China or Iran, the aircraft carrier and its air wing would be in a power projection role and unable to provide the kind of air defense, including targeting, the Cold War plan envisioned.

Clark called the center’s recommendation calls for a “much denser” than the layered approach. In the Outer Air Battle, the idea was to fire the most expensive longer-range missiles first and then missiles with shorter ranges.

“It also would be bringing in new capabilities like electronic warfare and integrating new capabilities like lasers and rail gun. Now, they would be used as backstops” to destroy “leakers” that penetrated the first layers of defense and were about 30 nautical miles from a ship. He said this new approach also would “improve the cost exchange between U.S. air defense and enemy [anti-ship cruise missiles].

“We would be using SM-6s to shoot down airplanes not cruise missiles,” he said.

An added benefit would be to introduce these weapons between now and 2025, the outer limits of the center’s study but still five to 10 years ahead of the Navy’s current plan to build a new surface combatant. The report recommended putting lasers aboard DDG 51 Flight III and rail gun on some additional Joint High Speed Vessels and the three Zumwalt-class DDG 1000s.

“Why not do that now?” Clark, a retired Navy officer, asked rhetorically. The report noted that these weapons and the long-range anti-ship missile, surface warfare improvement program (SEWIP) Block 3 and Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR) are expected to be fielded by the mid-2020s, also the time when the Ohio class ballistic missile submarine begins making its largest effect on the shipbuilding budget.

He added that the shipbuilders who now produce the Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) said they could install vertical launch systems on the small surface combatant with work in starting 2019. Yesterday in a meeting with reporters, he said he would install VLS on existing Littoral Combat Ships when the final design for the small surface combatant is approved.

The report stated, “The 21st century version of Outer Air Battle is offensive sea control. This differentiates it from defensive sea control, which consists of defending forces from adversary weapons. It also differentiates the new concept from Outer Air Battle which focused mainly on defeating enemy aircraft, offensive sea control is intended to defeat the whole range of enemy weapons platforms.”

Defeating does not necessarily mean destroying the platform itself. Clark said by reducing payloads and size of warheads existing missile ranges would increase. A lighter missile could take a ship out of action in a “mission kill” by destroying its radar or some other capability it needed to fight effectively.

These smaller warheads also would free space in the Vertical Launch Systems for antisubmarine warfare, surface warfare and anti-air warfare offensive weapons instead of heading back to a port to reload different weapons. “The Navy needs to get a re-load system for VLS.”

Clark said the Navy is already making decisions on how it will modernize its existing ships and introduce new weapons to the fleet. He said the report’s recommendations build on that work and realize the fiscal constraints the department is operating in now and likely to 2025.

  • sferrin

    Get rid of the Outer Air Battle concept but we’re going to use SM-6s to shoot down airplanes at 30 miles? Huh? What pilot in their right mind would get anywhere near 30 miles from a CVBG? Why would we let him in the first place? Why waste an SM-6 on targets only 30 miles away? The whole raison d’etre of the SM-6 IS Outer Air Battle. Much of this article makes no sense.

    • allbuss84

      Use SM6 at normal range for aircraft, new weapons to be developed at 30 miles. They say let the missile close to 30 miles before bothering to engage instead of at first detection.

      • Can you imagine the real life scenario where the AAW boss lets inbounds travel ~100m without engaging? This also makes the SM-6 almost useless since they won’t be used to engage inbounds, but can’t engage threats beyond ~125m, which is well inside the lauch envelope almost all ASCMs.
        Changing doctrine on this is going to be a very heavy lift, the level of confidence in the shorter range defensive systems, even including fully matured EMRG or LaWS sytems would have to be extremely high.
        Just imagine a CBG commander in 1986 not engaging inbound Backfires because he had faith his Aegis escorts would down their ASCMs (that’s not a perfect analogy, but I hope you get my point).

      • sferrin

        That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. The idea is to push the enemy AWAY, not invite them onto your lap.

        • RedStatePatriot

          I think you guys might want to read the article again. The dense defense would be for attacking missiles once they are close in, as like they said, you can not stop the number of incoming with SM6 there will be way too many to deal with. So you build a super dense close defense for those that can kill them fast and cheap and in great numbers, while SM6 can be used to go after aircraft threats further out.

          I am pretty sure Naval planners are not suicidal or stupid, so if they are looking at this option I would guess its just a reassessment of how to handle the more modern threats as opposed to Cold War threats.

          The biggest problem war planners have (and a trap I think you may have fallen into as well) is to fight the last war, when you need to fight the next war.

          • El Capitan

            Yes, that’s why replacing the Perry class frigates with a new frigate was a bad idea and we needed something “innovative” like the LCS. Meanwhile the rest of the world continued to equip their navies with advanced frigates. Now the US Navy is trying to modify its LCS to be more like a frigate, and shift future shipbuilding to SSC, a frigate. The fact that something worked well in the past shouldn’t be held against it when evaluating its potential effectiveness in the future. Obviously.

  • airider

    If the Navy’s going to have a chance in the weapons cost versus threat space, they need cheaper weapons to use against cheaper threats. Everything they’re building now is top-of-the-line and therefore expensive. Smaller, lighter and cheaper “point” defense weapons fit in this category. ESSM is a good start compared to SM-6, but trying to get even cheaper would be a benefit.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    This article implies that the application of the OAB is centered on ship-launched missiles, and only them. The article also flat-out says that planes won’t be available to defend the carrier group, because they’ll all be in offensive mode. Why? The air groups of the CW era were certainly much more specialized. A typical wing had 24 F-14s with their Phoenix and other missiles for that OAB, The rest of the wing was composed of attack planes like the A-6 and the A-7. The defensive capabilities were later augmented with the introduction of the F-18, but they were there mainly to replace the A-7s and thus take over their attack responsibilities. Today’s wings are composed entirely of F-18s. It seems that devoting considerable aircraft resources are thus a possibility. It would certainly help if the F-18 was provided a capability that the F-14 had with the Phoenix (in its ability to target planes at extreme distances and take them out). I think ‘shooting the archer’ still makes perfect sense. With the introduction of the F-35, that should be all the more possible. While neither of those planes has the range that the F-14 had, they can certainly go much farther out than 30 miles! Mating a missile with the range and performance of the Phoenix makes eminent sense. Can industry do that in this day and age? Obviously such a missile would have to weigh less and probably be less bulky than the Phoenix was, given the size of the Tomcat vice the F-18 and F-35. The F-35 will have to be able to carry at least some of those weapons internally to preserve its stealth features. Another obvious aspect is that the planes need to be able to carry multiple rounds of that. Concentrating everything within a 30 mile range when facing today’s generation of supersonic and increasingly stealthy anti-ship missiles just doesn’t inspire much confidence in me, and I’m safely on shore! How will those sailors and Marines who depend on them feel about that?

    • USN also needs to look at how to “Shoot the Archer” in sub form. A fast response ASROC is needed since the engagement time for Sub to Sub warfare is painfully slow and the lack of an S-3 replacement significantly limits the airgroup’s ability to conduct OAB in ASW form.
      Imagine an enemy SSGN firing an ASCM without the CBG being able to respond before it has expended it’s full load.

      • sferrin

        No kidding. Cancelling Sea Lance was towards the top of a long list of poor decisions when it came to weapons cancellations.

    • sferrin

      And how about the Hawkeyes? They’re not for defense? The more I read the article the worse it sounds. I’m starting to wonder if it was written to attract eyeballs (it’s controversial afterall) rather than communicate a well thought-out path forward.

    • Curtis Conway

      When you look at the capabilities of the AIM-54 Phoenix as compared to the AIM-120 AMRAAM there is not that much difference in effective range, and the new front end on the AIM-120 is extremely capable. The warhead size is significantly different. With the advent of NIFC-CA and AIM-120D/SM-6, as long as a friendly is near and equipped we can cover the bases. Unfortunately many surface combatants probably will not be so equipped (new USN FFG, or LCS upgraded, or what ever it’s going to be). Even the amphibs should be equipped with Mk41 VLS and some SM-6 in addition to the required ESSMs. Those platforms certainly have the space and weight for the Mk41 VLS launchers.

  • So shooting 20 missiles at a ship its better to smash all the arrows than to kill the hunter…………So now our bad guys only need to make cheap weapons with no warhead that simulate a weapon, shoot a bunch at a ship, and now that ship is distractedand cannot conduct its primary mission because it moves into a supershield defensive posture. I highly doubt an extreme inner battle defense would allow other systems to operate simultaneously. It’s an argument for a cheaper Navy, that’s it. It’s not a logical arugment for a more effective and capable Navy. It’s the current culture of do the best we can with what we got instead of continuing to develop and obtain weapons and tactics that provide an extreme edge in the event of conflict. Parity is losing, not saving money. Replace that think tank please.

    • James B.

      The point is that SM-2s can no longer hit the launching aircraft, while SM-6s can, but we want something in large numbers for the inbounds which do get launched.

  • Defense Density vs Defense in Depth is a valid path, but this “U.S. ship missile defense ranges are less than the attacking missiles’ ranges and an enemy is capable of overwhelming existing defenses by launching hundreds of missiles at a time from ships, submarines and aircraft.” is bullshit.
    Unless you’re talking about Ballistic Missiles, you can’t just throw that out without addressing what platform(s) are capable of launching hundreds of missiles in a contested environment. Unless we’re talking about a lone or small group of DDGs without a CVN in the Taiwan straights that’s just silly.

  • OCHO

    Another terrible idea from CSBA, Bob Work’s think tank. It actually calls for spending money to develop new weapons that will provide less capability than our current weapons, while pretending that carrier tacair does not exist in the Fleet as a legitimate defensive or offensive tool. Scary to think that Bob Work is now in charge of DOD’s latest defense technology initiative. Seeking innovation for innovation’s sake is not a good way to run a military. Work’s enthusiasm for LCS should have taught him that already.

    • James B.

      Evolved Sea Sparrows already exist, and are even fielded on foreign ships that don’t have Aegis capability.

      • OCHO

        No kidding.

      • Roberts150

        ESSM requires target illumination all the way. Non AEGIS/APAR ships won’t be able to kill anymore supersonic AShM’s in the last 30 miles than they have directors.

        • James B.

          That is an excellent point. Fixing that might involve an Even-More Evolved Sea Sparrow with new guidance, but even they would take up less space in magazines than SM-2s.

          • Roberts150

            AIM-120 seeker should fit.

    • Herodoti

      Innovation for the sake in innovation is how we shift control of the battlespace. Indeed we need more of this type of innovation. However, I will be quick to point out that we do not need to star relying on unproven technologies. The Navy should be focusing on growing its number of repsonses to hostilities by employing new and innovative weaponry. After all the carrier was a silly expendature at one point in time.

  • James B.

    Since most posters here didn’t ready any of the CSBA’s report, here’s the gist of their air defense recommendation: eliminate SM-2s, replacing them with ESSMs (which pack 4-to-a-cell) and more SM-6s. At both engagement ranges it would make more shots available.

    • TASM

      Totally agree, James B. The author is talking about the surface fleet only. A mix of 142 SM-3, SM-6 and ESSM (plus more offensive strike weapons) makes much more sense than a mix of 72 SM-2, SM-3, SM-6 and ESSM (plus less offensive strike weapons). And it doesn’t mean that aircraft cannot continue to shoot down archers in the outer air battle just as they did before.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    Help me here, but hasn’t modern-day amphibious doctrine evolved from having the amphib ships ‘close the beach’ to discharge their cargos to ‘standing off’ shore because of the weaponry that might be arrayed against them? Unless something has changed from everything else I have read and heard, the distance from shore I see bandied about is a minimum of 75 miles. That’s why the MV-22 is so important, because of its range and ability to carry large and/or heavy loads. But the REASON for that distance is to provide some ‘depth’ that hopefully will enhance the task group or fleet’s ability to detect and engage hostile threats like planes and anti-ship missiles coming at them. Will that now change? It would certainly facilitate the amphibs mission if they can close on the shore. Will that ’30 mile’ engagement zone be applied to the amphib operations as well?

  • This seems more like the “Aegis Mafia” looking for a way to maintain its status in the face of a increasingly negative cost ratio. They seem set on remaining relevant in such unrealistic ways, sure kill the archer, but the scenario for a DDG being the platform for that job is so unlikely. The CGB airwing and Submarine Screen/Advance have the job of shooting (or blinding) the archer.
    Regardless of the intentions, a AAW commander holding back on engaging an inbound with his SM-6s seems unrealistic. No new ASSM or EMRG or LaWS is going to give the confidence to wait for a target to travel from ~120nm to ~30nm.

  • Foton

    He’s making a very valid point. This is switching from having a perceived strength, to having actual persistent fighting strength. Bryan Clarks’ idea is clearly pointed at China.

    If the US Navy is really considering going this route. They are going to have to invest a lot more into the dense defense weapons.