High-End Warfare in the Indo-Pacific Theater Will Require Distributed Sensing

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The United States’ military is evolving towards a new way of warfare designed to counter adversaries’ efforts to develop a dominant anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability. This new approach focuses on the proliferation of land units, air and sea platforms employing rapid maneuver, long-range fires, and non-traditional effects such as electronic and cyber warfare to confuse, degrade and eventually disintegrate opposing forces. The pace and intensity of combat will be greater than ever before. This means that U.S. forces will need to see more, act sooner, and transmit target quality data in near real-time from any sensor to an appropriate shooter. The only way of doing this is by establishing a distributed, ubiquitous capability for 24/7 sensing across the theater.

China, in particular, is building a great power military. It has a significant, growing advantage in theater ballistic and cruise missiles. It has a massive and growing air defense network that extends far beyond its shores. It is rapidly expanding its inventory of modern aircraft and deploying the elements of a blue water Navy, including aircraft carriers and large deck amphibious warfare ships. Unless countered, these capabilities could provide Beijing with the means to pose a disarming first strike threat to the U.S. and allied forces in the Pacific.

To counter this threat and reinforce deterrence, the U.S. and its allies have two immediate needs: enhanced air and missile defenses, and the means to attack high-value enemy targets at long ranges. Both will have to be done faster and in the face of more lethal threats. Satisfying these requirements will depend heavily on finding, fixing, and targeting a wide array of threats, many mobile and fast-moving, in all domains.

In a recent public discussion, Indo-Pacific Command’s CINC, Admiral Philip Davidson, made a case for continuous, 360-degree, long-range sensing as a critical element in defense of Guam. The Admiral’s number one priority is to improve the island’s air and missile defense by deploying the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system to operate alongside existing Patriot and THAAD missile batteries. Admiral Davidson argued that Aegis Ashore’s advanced battle management system could likewise provide the core of a capability to support long-range strikes.

Allies need to improve their own ability to defend critical forces and facilities. Japan, whose self-defense forces currently operates Aegis missile defense-capable destroyers and Patriot land-based air and missile defense batteries, recognizes that it must do more to improve its air and missile defenses. The same holds true for the Republic of Korea, which relies largely on U.S. missile units deployed on the peninsula for its defense.

In support of the twin goals of creating both a more effective air and missile defense in the region and a more lethal and far-reaching strike capability, the U.S. and its allies need to develop a distributed sensing network with capabilities in all domains that span the Indo-Pacific theater, including the U.S. homeland. Compared to the current sensor system, based around small numbers of large, fixed sensors, a distributed sensing architecture provides improved information collection, graceful degradation when attacked and low overall costs.

The U.S. Navy, and allies such as Japan, already deploy a major component of such a system in their Aegis-capable surface combatants. In the near term, the U.S. should consider adding an array of land-based radars and mobile sensor platforms, first to enhance the defense of Guam, then proliferated across the region. Sensors operated by U.S. allies could be integrated into this distributed network.

Advances in the threat, particularly the deployment of hypersonic ballistic and air-breathing missiles, will increase the need for a distributed regional and global sensor network. The Department of Defense is considering deploying a large constellation of low-orbiting satellites to provide birth-to-death tracking of ballistic and air-breathing objects. In all likelihood, this network could also support the operation of long-range strike systems.

The U.S. military is investing heavily in the creation of sensor networks and the appropriate command and control for use in high-end combat across multiple theaters, as well as in outer space and cyberspace. The vision of multi-domain operations, with commanders drawing on information and fires from systems across the joint force, requires distributed sensing based on an array of systems operating in all domains.

The Navy has long pursued distributed sensing as part of its Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) capability, which ties together airborne and surface-based sensors and weapons. NIFC-CA is being developed into a system that will support not only extended range air and missile defense but also the operation of long-range strike systems.

The Marine Corps’ new force design emphasizes highly mobile land units, capable of both air and missile defense, as well as long-range strikes. These new formations also will provide advanced sensing for Navy and Air Force units.  

The Army is making tremendous progress in linking sensors to shooters. Recent tests of the Integrated Battle Command System successfully linked multiple sensors, such as Patriot and Sentinel radars, with Patriot missile defense batteries to defeat both ballistic and cruise missile threats. Army Futures Command's (AFC) Project Convergence is experimenting with employing a range of land and airborne sensors to provide cueing and targeting data for long-range systems. In a recent exercise in the Southwest desert, AFC created a mosaic of sensors, including several space systems; Marine Corps F-35Bs; Grey Eagle drones; land-based radar; and electro-optical systems. These rapidly passed high quality targeting data to a variety of fires systems.

Like the Army, the Air Force is working on a capability to connect multiple sensors with a variety of shooters, including those operated by the other Services. For example, the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) conducted an “onramp” (essentially an experiment) using multiple space, airborne and land-based sensors to track a cruise missile that was then destroyed by a hypervelocity shell from an Army cannon.

Leveraging these efforts, as well as those by Space Command, the Missile Defense Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the Intelligence Community, could provide all the elements of a truly ubiquitous sensing capability. The Pentagon is working the Joint All Domain Command and Control system to ensure that all the parts of such a system are connected.

Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Gouré has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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