What Obama’s Air Force Budget Request Says About the Future of Warfare

Nuclear Missile Silo

The Defense Department budget request is full of high tech-items aimed at countering the capabilities of technologically advanced adversaries.

In President Obama’s final defense spending request, the Air Force looks beyond ISIS toward the rising technological capabilities of China and Russia, asking Congress for more money for intercontinental ballistic missile modernization and long-range striking, new semi-autonomous robotic missiles, offensive cyber operations, and lasers.

The research, development, test, and evaluation portion of the Air Force budget paints a picture of changing priorities inside a Defense Department grappling with new technological realities and evolving threats.

Offensive and Defensive Cyber Operations and Electromagnetic Warfare

Obama requests $6.7 billion in base cyber operations, a slight bump from last year. More revealing in this year’s Air Force budget request is a line for “offensive cyber operations,” which would double from $12.8 million this year  to $25 million.

What are offensive cyber weapons? The Stuxnet virus that infected various industrial systems in Iran, including a uranium enrichment plant back in 2010, remains the quintessential example. The offensive cyber weapons of the future could be more tactical and work alongside electromagnetic warfare weapons like jamming.

Relatedly, the Air Force budget requests $12 million for electronic warfare development, versus $843,000 last year, an exponential increase showing the rising importance of EW to Pentagon planners, the emergence of programmable radar (with attendant consequences for stealth aircraft like the Long-Range Strike Bomber and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter) and a tacit acknowledgement of the rapidly improving capabilities of Russia in particular.

Robot Missiles and the Return of Distance Warfare

In 2010, China announced that it had successfully developed an anti-ship ballistic missile with a 900-mile range, dubbed by some, “the carrier killer.” The 2017 budget answers that threat … with artificial intelligence. In budget documents given to reporters Tuesday morning, the Navy describes the long-range anti-ship missile, or LRASM, as a “semi-autonomous anti-ship missile which [sic] reduces dependence on external platforms and GPS navigation in order to penetrate sophisticated enemy air defense systems.”  

Why a “semi-autonomous” robot brain in something as dangerous as a missile? The more thinking and navigating the Navy’s new smart dart can do on its own, the less it will rely on potentially vulnerable communications links to operators or the global positioning system.

Also, for ICBMs, the Air Force is asking for a big jump in research, development, and testing at $108 million in fiscal 2017 versus $39.7 million this year.

The budget also requests $95 million (versus $16 million last year) for the continued development of a controversial nuclear-armed cruise missile called the long-range standoff weapon, or LRSO. The total cost of the program will be between $15 billion for the missile and at least $7 billion for the nuclear warhead, according to budget experts.

Lt. Gen. Stephen W. “Seve” Wilson, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, has said that the military needs the new cruise missile because “there may be air defenses that are just too hard, it’s so redundant, that penetrating bombers become a challenge. But with standoff, I can make holes and gaps to allow a penetrating bomber to get in, and then it becomes a matter of balance.”

Defense Department Under Secretary Frank Kendall has said that “without LRSO’s advanced stand-off capability, the bomber leg of the Triad will gradually become a symbol of our decline rather than a bellwether of enduring American strength.”

But the program has some notable critics, including former Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Andy Weber, former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs (2009 to 2014.) In a Washington Post op-ed in October, they wrote “Some have argued that a new nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missile is needed to allow future presidents the ‘flexibility’ to engage Russia or China in limited nuclear war. That is Cold War thinking, and it is dangerous. Such ‘tactical’ use of nuclear weapons would be a grave mistake.” Mistake or not, they’re on the wish list.

Related: No More Nuclear-Tipped Cruise Missiles

Related: Obama Is About To Launch A New Nuclear Arms Race. There’s a Better Way.

The budget also requests more than $1.3 billion for research and development into the new Long-Range Strike Bomber, or B-3, over $736 million last year. The Air Force is expected to eventually procure 80 to 100 of the aircraft.

Space Wars and Lasers

The race for space dominance is changing rapidly and that’s reflected in the budget, which doubles money for a satellite control network from $7.8 million to $15 million and continues key spending in space situational awareness (space control systems). There’s also a $14 million dollar ask to fund the new space operations center that the Defense Department is setting up with the intelligence community.

Why the rush back to space?

Related: Defense One’s complete coverage of ‘space’

“Threats to our use of military, civil, and commercial space systems will increase in the next few years as Russia and China progress in developing counterspace weapon systems to deny, degrade, or disrupt U.S. space systems,” James Clapper wrote today in testimony before the Armed Services Committee.

Those threats include ever more strange and exotic anti-satellite satellites, such as a Chinese-made satellite with a robotic arm that could potentially disable an enemy satellite without leaving much debris or, that perennial favorite, lasers.

The Air Force budget requests $127 million in funding for direct energy research and development (versus $115 million from last year) and $42 million for high-energy laser research. Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, head of Air Force Special Operations Command, has said that he wants to incorporate lasers onto the AC-130J gunship by the end of the decade. And drone maker General Atomics has undertaken research to build a massive 150 kw laser onto it’s Avenger (or Predator-C) drone, with hopes of a demonstration in the next few years.

With the Air Force budget’s emphasis on high tech weapons and Great Power rivalry, you might—for just a moment—forget that the United States is currently at war against a much less technologically developed adversary, one for whom stand-off weapons and nuclear cruise missiles pose no real threat. For the war against the Islamic State and terrorism perhaps the most relevant Air Force budget decision was to defer retirement of the A-10 Warthog.

The single item that perhaps speaks best to this strange disconnect between the wars being planned for and the wars being fought is a large increase, from $993,000 to $29 million, for something called the Combat Survivor Evader Locator, a secure radio to help downed pilots and special operators phone home when they’re in trouble behind enemy lines. Take that as an acknowledgement that sometimes the shiny new cruise missile is not enough.

Correction: An original version of this story stated that the Air Force budget request for offensive cyber operations had grown from $12.8 billion to $25 billion. In fact it grew to $12.8 million to $25 million.

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