Attack Subs, AI, Hypersonics & Nukes - Why Some Weapons Got Budget Increase

Kris Osborn

Lockheed Martin photo

Warrior Video Analysis: What Weapons and Technologies Got Budget Increases? and Why?

Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) Hypersonic weapons, Research and Development, attack submarines, drones and AI are all massive areas of priority for Pentagon weapons developers as they seek to accelerate its growing “pivot” to major-power warfare, seeks to address deficits and - perhaps of greatest significance - stay ahead of Russia and China when it comes to weapons areas of great concern to the US military services.

The more than 700-billion Pentagon 2020 proposed budget naturally covers a wide-ranging sphere of technologies and weapons programs, yet there are handful of technologies and platforms slated for significant spending increases when compared with recent years. These areas, it goes without saying offers relevant and timely insight into the current threat environment and DoD priorities addressing an emerging new strategic landscape.

Taking a close look at where the increases are, the two largest ones in the 2020 submission appear to be $14 billion proposed for the new Space Force and an overall 10-percent increase in Research and Development spending. Large increases are also slated for AI, the Pentagon’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, an accelerated Navy fleet-size expansion and a host of Air Force programs to include hypersonics and the new stealthy B-21 bomber.

AI is, arguably, among the most wide-spread or encompassing areas of major emphasis. Not only has the Pentagon recently unveiled a new AI strategy, but AI in general has been expanding well beyond IT and more narrowly configured elements of the cyber domain to include large platforms across the services. New iterations of AI are now being woven into things like the F-35, current and future armored combat vehicles and Navy ships such as the LCS and new Ford-class carriers. Cybersecurity, senior Air Force leaders explain, is by no means restricted to IT. Rather, large networks, fire control, radar, weapons, sensors and command and control networks are increasingly cyber-reliant and informed by AI.

Overall, it is important to note that areas of proposed increases do not instantly or completely suggest that these are the most important programs - yet they do indicate significant areas of growing Pentagon emphasis as it strives to stay ahead of major power rivals -- and increasingly complex and serious challenge. The reasons “why” these areas are emphasized emerges as perhaps the most significant series of questions.

Let’s break it down a bit further:

Analysis of Where the Increases Are - and Why

It’s no surprise that, broadly speaking, the Pentagon is placing a much accelerated measure of importance upon Research and Development by asking for a nearly 10-percent increase in spending. Upon initial examination, there are naturally some self-evident or more obvious reasons for this, given the pace of global technical advancement and the commensurate need for newer technologies. These include an ambitious DoD-wide migration to cloud platforms, new AI strategy, Nuclear Posture Review and of course fast-paced preparations for Space War. Much progress has been made when it comes to implementing Acting Defense Secretary Shanahan’s directive to migrate quickly to cloud technologies, a move directed in a widely-circulated memo several years ago when he served as the Deputy Secretary of Defense. DoD is also progressing with a widespread move to Windows 10.

Other proposed increases, as well, appear to have a pretty straight forward reason. The Air Force B-21, for instance, is getting a roughly $700 million boost in funding; the program recently completed its Critical Design Review and is moving toward a new prototyping and construction phase. There is also broad consensus that a new generation of stealth is needed to stay in front of advanced, Russian-built air defenses.

Nuclear Arsenal

The much-discussed Nuclear Posture Review introduces a handful of ambitious plans to expand the US nuclear arsenal. This of course included continued rapid progress on existing nuclear weapons programs such as the new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent next-generation ICBM and progress with an emerging nuclear-armed Long Range Standoff weapon. Concurrently, the NPR calls specifically for the addition of new, low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and nuclear cruise missile to introduce an option to launch more pinpointed nuclear strikes if need be. Pentagon weapons developers tell Warrior Maven the early draft plans for this weapon have been completed and that the next steps are underway. The reason for these new weapons, Pentagon developers say, is not to lower the threshold to nuclear war but rather strengthen a deterrence posture.

The Air Force is also moving quickly, through use of digital engineering techniques, on its Ground Based Strategic Deterrence new ICBM.

Hellfire & Small Diameter Bomb II

A lesser-recognized proposed budget increase can be seen with two key munitions -- the Hellfire Missile and Small Diameter Bomb II. The Hellfire is greatly expanding it uses beyond helicopters and some of its regular applications, to include arming the Navy Littoral combat ship and the Army’s Short Range Air Defense arming Stryker vehicles with vertically-launched, counter air Hellfires. The Small Diameter Bomb II, an air-dropped weapon brining a new generation of precision targeting and attack technology, is now more fully integrating to F-35s and other aircraft. The SBD II brings integrated seeker systems to include semi-active laser technology, millimeter wave guidance, RF guidance and infrared heat seeking sensor targeting. The SBD II is also capable of essentially “tracking” moving targets, changing course in flight and hitting targets at ranges out to 40-miles. In development for several years now, the SBD II is fast-entering new stages of testing, early production and integration on various aircraft.

Raytheon photo - SBD II

Also, as part of this, there are also two broad often discussed trends. The first is that, given the persistent scope of attacks on ISIS in recent years, there has been an overall ammunition stockpile shortage. For example, in recent years the Air Force has made rapid moves to increase its stockpile of laser-guided rockets, 2.75 inch Hydra Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System. Secondly, the Air Force in particular is now making a massive push to modernize its arsenal of air-dropped bombs - with much of this falling under the R&D proposed increase. A recent Mitchell Institute study pointed out that, despite the well-document massive improvements in bomb-guidance technology, precision and targeting, bomb bodies themselves have not seen a commensurate level of modernization. As a result, the Air Force Research Lab is now fast-tracking a handful of new air-dropped weapons to include new “variable yield” weapons and new large penetrating “bunker-buster bombs.”

Massive Navy Fleet Expansion - 11 Carriers & Large Drones

The 2020 Navy budget asks for increased funds to pay for an 11th Aircraft Carrier, three attack submarines per year, large new surface and undersea drones,a new Frigate and -- most of all -- an overall fast jump from roughly 280 ships up to 301 in the near future. Of course the Navy is now in the early stages of pushing toward its fleet goal of 355 ships. For its part, the Marine Corps is expecting funding increases to, among other things, fund its new Amphibious Combat Vehicle now entering production.

Also, Naval Sea Systems Command is in the early phases on engineering two large Unmanned Surface Vehicle drones to coordinate command and control for fleets of smaller USVs, hunt submarines, counter mines and possibly fire weapons. Called the “Medium” and “Large” USVs, the emerging drones are considered fundamental to the Navy’s “Ghost Fleet” initiative. This Navy and Office of Naval Research effort is now developing swarms of networked small boats -- drawing upon advanced AI - operate in a coordinated fashion to conduct ISR, sweep for mines and submarines and launch attacks while sailors remain at a safer standoff distance.

Virginia-class Attack Submarines

The Navy budget also seeks to implement a new plant to build three Virginia-class attack submarines per year moving forward to address a current and anticipated future attack submarine deficit. For quite some time, Combatant Commanders have expressed serious concern that the availability of attack submarines continues to be dangerously lower than what is needed. Navy leadership has, for quite some time, been working with Congress to rev up production.

The previous status quo had been for the Navy to drop from building two Virginia-Class boats per year to one in the early 2020s when construction of the new Columbia-Class nuclear armed submarines begins. The service then moved to a plan to build two Virginia-class submarines and one Columbia-class submarine concurrently, according to findings from a previous Navy assessment.

The new Navy plan is to jump up to three Virginia-class per year when Columbia-class production hits a lull in “off years,” senior service leaders have told Congress.

There are many reasons why attack submarines are increasingly in demand; undersea vehicles are often able to conduct reconnaissance missions closer to targets than large-draft surface ships can. Forward positioning enables them to be “stealthier” in coastal areas, inlets or islands. As part of this, they can also move substantial firepower, in the form of Tomahawk missiles, closer to inland targets.

Navy leaders have consistently talked about an expected submarine shortfall in the mid 2020s and that more attack submarines were needed to strengthen the fleet and stay in front of near-peer rivals such as Russia and China.

The Navy plan reinforces findings from a completed comprehensive Navy analysis in 2017, which found that producing more Virginia-Class attack submarines on a much faster timetable is "achievable" and necessary.

The Navy report, titled The Submarine Industrial Base and the Viability of Producing Additional Attack Submarines Beyond the Fiscal Year 2017 Shipbuilding Plan in the 2017–2030 Timeframe, was delivered to Congress in 2017, Navy officials said.

The Virginia-Class Submarines are built by a cooperative arrangement between the Navy and Electric Boat, a subsidiary of General Dynamics and Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries. Each industry partner constructs portions or “modules” of the submarines which are then melded together to make a complete vessel, industry and Navy officials explained.

Virginia-Class subs are fast-attack submarines armed with Tomahawk missiles, torpedoes and other weapons able to perform a range of missions; these include anti-submarine warfare, strike warfare, covert mine warfare, ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance), anti-surface/ship warfare and naval special warfare, something described as having the ability to carry and insert Special Operations Forces.

Future Virginia-Class submarines provide improved littoral (coastal waters) capabilities, sensors, special operations force employment, and strike warfare capabilities, Navy developers said.

​Virginia-Class submarines are engineered with this “Fly-by-Wire” capability which allows the ship to quietly linger in shallow waters without having to surface or have each small move controlled by a human operator, according to published Navy information and Warrior Maven interviews with program managers in recent years. With this technology, a human operator will order depth and speed, allowing software to direct the movement of the planes and rudder to maintain course and depth. The ships can be driven primarily through software code and electronics, thus freeing up time and energy for an operator who does not need to manually control each small maneuver, Navy program managers have told Warrior in prior interviews.

Also, unlike their predecessor-subs, Virginia-Class subs are engineered with what’s called a “Lock Out Trunk” – a compartment in the sub which allows special operations forces to submerge beneath the water and deploy without requiring the ship to surface.​

Development of Virginia-Class submarines are broken up into procurement “Blocks.” Blocks I and II have already been delivered. The Block III subs, now under construction, are being built with new so-called Virginia Payload Tubes designed to lower costs and increase capability.

​Instead of building what most existing Virginia-Class submarines have -- 12 individual 21-inch in diameter vertical launch tubes able to fire Tomahawk missiles – the Block III submarines are being built with two larger 87-inch in diameter tubes able to house six Tomahawk missiles each, according to Navy data.

The Block III Virginia-Class submarines also have what’s called a Large Aperture Bow conformal array sonar system – designed to send out an acoustic ping, analyze the return signal, and provide the location and possible contours of enemy ships, submarines and other threats.

​For Block V construction, the Navy is planning to insert a new 84-foot long section designed to house additional missile capability. “Virginia Payload Modules.” The Virginia Payload Modules, to come in future years, will increase the Tomahawk missile firepower of the submarines from 12 missiles up to 40.

The VPM submarines will have an additional (approximately 84 feet) section with four additional Virginia Payload Tubes, each capable of carrying seven Tomahawk cruise missiles, for a ship total of 40 Tomahawks.

Hypersonic Weapons Acceleration

The Air Force is taking another step in an aggressive plan to prototype, test and deploy hypersonic weapons on an expedited schedule -- to defend against enemy attacks by fast-tracking an ability to launch high-impact, high-speed attacks at Mach. 5 - five times the speed of sound.

In an essay from last year titled “Hypersonic Missiles: A New Proliferation Challenge,” Rand scholar Richard Speier further specifies the seriousness of hypersonic missile threats. “They are able to evade and conceal their precise targets from defenses until just seconds before impact. This leaves targeted states with almost no time to respond…..Hypersonic missiles require a reconsideration of traditional second-strike calculations, as they have the potential to decapitate a nation's leadership before it has the opportunity to launch a counter attack,” Speier writes.

The Air Force has awarded several deal to Lockheed to expedite prototyping of a hypersonic weapon, called the “Air Launched Rocket Response Weapon.”

The effort involves two separate trajectories, including the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon and a Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon. The Air Force has now awarded developmental deals for both systems to Lockheed.

Recent thinking from senior Air Force weapons developers had held that US hypersonic weapons might first be deployable by the early 2020s. Hypersonic drones for attack or ISR missions, by extension, were thought to be on track to emerge in the 2030s and 2040s, senior service officials have told Warrior Maven. Now, this aggressive new Air Force hypersonic weapons prototyping and demonstration effort is expected to change this time frame in a substantial way. In fact, an Air Force Magazine report citing senior service leaders said the Air Force should have operational hypersonic weapons in about 2 years.

A "boost glide" hypersonic weapon is one that flies on an upward trajectory up into the earth's atmosphere before using the speed of its descent to hit and destroy targets, senior officials said.

The Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon effort involves using technologies which have not yet been integrated for air-launched delivery, an Air Force spokeswoman told Warrior Maven last year.

Senior Air Force weapons developers, including Air Force Acquisition Executive William Roper, have explained the rationale in terms of not waiting many more years for a "100-percent" solution if a highly impactful "90-percent" solution can be available much sooner. A weapon traveling at hypersonic speeds, naturally, would better enable offensive missile strikes to destroy targets such and enemy ships, buildings, air defenses and even drones and fixed-wing or rotary aircraft depending upon the guidance technology available.

A key component of this is the fact that weapons traveling at hypersonic speeds would present serious complications for targets hoping to defend against them – they would have only seconds with which to respond or defend against an approaching or incoming attack.

Along these lines, the advent of hypersonic weapons is a key reason why some are questioning the future survivability of large platforms such as aircraft carriers. How are ship-based sensors, radar and layered defenses expected to succeed in detecting tracking and intercepting or destroying an approaching hypersonic weapon traveling at five-times the speed of sound?

Hypersonic weapons will quite likely be engineered as “kinetic energy” strike weapons, meaning they will not use explosives but rather rely upon sheer speed and the force of impact to destroy targets, developers explain. A super high-speed drone or ISR platform would better enable air vehicles to rapidly enter and exit enemy territory and send back relevant imagery without being detected by enemy radar or shot down.

Although potential defensive uses for hypersonic weapons, interceptors or vehicles are by no means beyond the realm of consideration, the principle effort at the moment is to engineer offensive weapons able to quickly destroy enemy targets at great distances. Scientists explain that speed of sound can vary, depending upon the altitude; at the ground level it is roughly 1,100 feet per second. Accordingly, if a weapon is engineered with 2,000 seconds worth of fuel – it can travel up to 2,000 miles to a target, a former Air Force Chief Scientist told Warrior in a previous interview.

This hypersonic weapons acceleration is taking place within a high-threat global environment. Both Russia and China have been visibly conducting hypersonic weapons tests, leading some to raise the question as to whether the US could be behind key rivals in this area.

A report in Popular Mechanics sites Chinese State Media as having announced a successful test of a new “wave-rider” hypersonic vehicle. “The hypersonic vehicle that detached from the booster rocket flew for 400 seconds, achieving a maximum speed of Mach 5.5 to 6 ( 4,200 to 4,600 miles an hour) and reaching an altitude of 100,000 feet,” the report says.

Also, a report in The Diplomat earlier this year outlines Chinese DF-17 hypersonic missile tests in November of last year.

Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army - Acquisition, Logistics& Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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--- Kris Osborn, Managing Editor of WARRIORMAVEN (CLICK HERE) can be reached at krisosborn.ko@gmail.com--

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