Research Brief

Much has been written about an incipient "revolution in military affairs," in which U.S. forces, by exploiting new technologies and operational concepts, will be able to accomplish their missions more quickly and effectively than before. Yet, to date, little work has been done to quantify the value of investing in these new technologies, leaving many defense planners reluctant to shift investments in procurement and force structure to capitalize on the new developments.

Future U.S. forces could suffer as a result. There is ample evidence that key regional powers are equipping their forces with ballistic and cruise missiles, weapons of mass destruction, advanced air defenses, antiship weapons, and other weapons that could be used to impede access by U.S. forces to overseas theaters and suppress their operations once deployed. Without new investments in enhanced capabilities for rapid power projection and expeditionary operations, U.S. forces could find themselves hard-pressed to defeat potential aggressors without risking unacceptably high casualties and costs.

A team of researchers from RAND's Project AIR FORCE investigated the potential of new concepts for destroying moving mechanized forces. These new concepts incorporate advanced munitions with systems for theaterwide surveillance and control. Such an approach would allow rapidly deployable, longer-range firepower systems—such as aircraft and missiles—to locate, identify, and destroy enemy forces far more quickly and effectively than ever before.

Their report does not argue that the nation should spend more on defense. Rather, it argues that the Department of Defense should shift its investment priorities and force mix in favor of early-arriving forces and should take advantage of new opportunities to dramatically enhance the ability of those forces to deter and halt attacking mechanized forces.

Competing Approaches to Warfare

Traditional approaches to theater warfare demand that large numbers of U.S. or allied ground forces be deployed abroad in areas threatened by short-notice attack. This approach was appropriate for Europe's central front during much of the Cold War, but much has changed since then. The United States no longer routinely stations massive forces abroad in threatened regions, such as the Persian Gulf or Korea, and neither U.S. leaders nor the electorate seems prepared to accept heavy casualties in these or other theaters. Therefore, relying on a traditional approach carries high risks in the face of such challenges as a future Persian Gulf scenario.

Fortunately, emerging technologies can allow information and firepower to perform many of the roles previously shouldered by mechanized ground forces in defensive operations. Airborne surveillance platforms—such as the E-8 Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) carrying moving target indication (MTI) and other radar sensors—can detect moving vehicles at ranges of 100 miles or more. Soon these assets will be supplemented by other platforms, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) carrying multispectral imaging sensors. Together, such sensors will give commanders and control centers an accurate picture of the movements of large-scale mechanized formations in near-real time, permitting rapid attacks on the most important targets. Aircraft and missiles delivering large numbers of smart, antiarmor munitions—such as the BLU-108 sensor-fuzed weapon and the Brilliant Anti-Tank (BAT) weapon—now not only can delay and disrupt moving columns of vehicles but also can damage and destroy them in large numbers. Thus, many more of our long-range attack assets will find their targets, and those attacks will be vastly more effective. Moreover, because the new sensors and munitions no longer will be degraded by conditions of poor visibility, enemy forces will have no sanctuary at night or in bad weather.

The centerpiece of Project AIR FORCE's analysis is a novel and fairly transparent quantitative approach that estimates the ability of U.S. forces to damage and halt an invading mechanized ground force. The researchers designed a generic scenario involving forces that a reasonably competent and fairly well-equipped regional adversary, such as Iran or Iraq, might bring to bear roughly 10 years from now. In this scenario, enemy forces attempt to seize key territory and assets. Enemy forces include several army corps (including 12 heavy armor or mechanized divisions), about 500 attack aircraft and interceptors, chemical and biological weapons, tactical and theater-range ballistic and cruise missiles, and reasonably modern surface-to-air defenses.

Even under scenario conditions that represent conservative assumptions of future U.S. capabilities and generous assumptions of enemy capabilities and resolve, the RAND analyses show that modern, longer-range firepower systems—coupled with new surveillance and control capabilities and equipped with advanced antiarmor munitions—can engage and heavily damage large numbers of moving mechanized forces. In theaters that do not feature heavily foliated or urbanized terrain, joint U.S. forces will be able to rapidly halt armored invasions short of their objectives even in highly stressing scenarios, provided that sufficient investments are made in the emerging information and firepower systems.

Figure 1. The MTW Building Block

The MTW Building Block

Paying for Needed Enhancements

In its 1993 Bottom-Up Review, the Department of Defense identified a "building block" of forces from each of the services to describe the total forces required to defeat aggression by a major regional opponent. That building block, reproduced in Figure 1, represents the major elements of a joint force that would be needed to fight one major theater war (MTW) on the scale of the Gulf War. Total U.S. warfighting force structure would comprise two of these building blocks in order to be able to fight and win two nearly simultaneous MTWs. When many defense planners consider cuts to force structure, they tend to think in terms of across-the-board, "vertical" cuts to this service-defined building block (see Figure 1).

Figure 2. A Functional MTW Building Block

A Functional MTW Building Block

However, current U.S. defense strategy, as outlined in the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review, recognizes that success or failure in a future conflict will hinge largely on the outcome of the opening phase of the campaign—what has come to be called the "halt phase." Therefore, a more useful building block is the one shown in Figure 2. This block is built not on assets provided by each service, but rather on functions performed by those assets. Given this approach, it is possible to identify three functional types of deployable forces:

  • Those that contribute to the initial "halt" phase (as well as succeeding phases);
  • Those that provide key enabling functions throughout the operation; and
  • Those available only for the later counterattack or counteroffensive phase, in which enemy forces would be expelled from captured territory.

From this perspective, if cuts must be taken from force structure, cuts should be taken "horizontally," either from those forces that are not deployed at all or from those forces that arrive later and contribute only to the counter-offensive, as illustrated. Cuts of 10 to 15 percent in these forces would suffice to fund the most important modernization needs of early-arriving forces. Such cuts are warranted both because of the importance of halting enemies early and because advanced information and firepower systems now enable a shift in the division of labor among the types of forces for theater warfare.

Defeating (or deterring) attacks by large-scale mechanized forces remains an important objective—perhaps the most important objective—assigned to U.S. military forces. With the proper levels of attention and investment, U.S. forces have the potential to render this form of warfare virtually obsolete for their opponents.

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