Asymmetric Power in Advanced Munitions
For decades, our opponents, both state and non-state actors, have been working on ways of countering American and Western advantages in conventional military power. Many of the approaches they are using are relatively cheap, but could be extremely effective.
One approach is to use numbers — aircraft, rockets, missiles and small boats — to overwhelm defenses. Hamas hoped to do this with its missile and rocket attacks on Israel only to discover the power of that country’s Iron Dome system. China has deployed a massive arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles intended to be employed in saturation attacks on U.S. and allied land and at-sea targets in the Western Pacific. Iran’s Republican Guard has amassed a large flotilla of small boats and fast attack craft precisely for the purpose of conducting swarming attacks on U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf.
Another approach is to counter the West’s domination of air and space and its ability to see, track and strike land targets with a combination of dispersal and cover and concealment tactics (including in locations occupied by civilians). Proliferating targets can create lots of casualties but simultaneously exhaust the enemy’s inventory of missiles, shells or bombs. Concealment can challenge an adversary’s rules of engagement or negate the effectiveness of available weapons.
The West has struggled to find counters to these relatively simple, low-cost asymmetric challenges. Against high priority and well-defended targets or long-range ballistic missiles that could carry weapons of mass destruction, the response has been to develop sophisticated and effective but costly platforms and weapons. But against low-cost, proliferated threats, a different solution is needed.
The West is now investing in a new generation of guided munitions and advanced weapons that could radically alter the cost-exchange ratio in its favor, reduce collateral damage and even defeat concealed targets. These munitions and weapons incorporate two critical features of the information technology revolution. The first is extremely precise position location and navigation. The second is miniaturization of the fuses, sensors and guidance systems on the munitions themselves. As a result, the size of projectiles and weapons can be reduced while their lethality and engagement ranges are increased.
Air-delivered weapons have been the first to benefit from these advances. Everyone is familiar with laser-guided bombs and the GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition. Improvements in technology are leading to radical reductions in the size of aircraft weapons with equal or greater lethality. An example of this is the Small Diameter Bomb (SDB). Using a combination of GPS-aided inertial navigation and infrared/radar seekers, the SDB can attack a wide range of above ground targets relatively cheaply. At 250 lbs., four SDBs can be carried in place of one standard 2,000 lb. bomb. Another example is the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System which converts an unguided 2.75-inch rocket into a precision laser-guided weapon.
Even more significant advances are coming in artillery projectiles and tactical rockets. Guided projectiles such as the Copperhead and Excaliber and tactical missiles such as the ATACMS and MLRS have demonstrated the value of long-range, extremely precise fire support. New developments will soon provide additional range and accuracy at lower costs for both naval and land artillery. The Navy’s state-of-the-art Zumwalt DDG-1000 destroyer is armed with two 155mm Advanced Gun Systems capable of firing the extremely accurate Long-Range Land Attack Projectile out to ranges in excess of sixty miles. The Pentagon is also developing new precision guided rounds for the Navy’s standard five-inch gun and for the Army and Marine Corps’ 155mm howitzers.
The potential exists to turn even smaller caliber guns into delivery systems for precision weapons offering a relatively low-cost complement to anti-ship and even anti-aircraft missiles. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has asked for industry proposals for a new defensive gun system based on a precision-guided medium caliber munition. The goal is a projectile with the guidance, precision and accuracy of a missile and the speed, rapid fire capability and large magazines of traditional projectiles.
Beyond improvements to the accuracy of traditional artillery shells, there is the growing potential of directed energy weapons, including both lasers and rail guns. These systems are tremendously attractive as they offer the prospect for low cost per shot, extremely high speed engagements against a wide range of targets. These systems could provide the West with a potentially decisive asymmetric counter to an adversaries’ use of mass. Israel is planning to supplement its Iron Dome defense system with one based on directed energy called Iron Beam. Moreover, both lasers and rail guns can create extremely accurate effects thereby reducing the risk of collateral damage and casualties. Another directed energy system, the Active Denial System, is a non-lethal weapon that uses microwaves to heat only the surface of human skin to control crowds or establish area security without the risk of permanent harm to individuals.
Advanced munitions build on enduring Western asymmetric advantages and counter many of those our adversaries currently possess. They leverage the investments the military has made in long-range guns and payload capacity of our tactical and strategic aircraft. The Pentagon needs to continue to invest in developing the kinds of low-cost, precision projectiles and weapons that can turn the numbers game into one that favors our military.