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While cheap precision weapons, supposedly expendable drones, and invulnerable standoff fires continue to fascinate publics and intrigue policy makers, we should be careful before subsuming these developments into a coming “new way of war.” As a recent RAND study points out, in a comparison between reusable platforms (think strategic bombers and strike aircraft) and expendable weapons (think cruise missiles), expendable weapons become less cost-effective during prolonged conflict. As Thomas Hamilton explains:
The conflict duration at which exclusive reliance on expendable platforms becomes prohibitive depends on a number of assumptions about the cost, availability, and utilization rates of weapon systems, but for any realistic possibilities, expendable platforms become costly for conflicts persisting on the order of ten days.
Of course, no war uses purely expendable weapons, and no expendable weapon is purely expendable – weapons such as the TLAM are incredibly dependent on the presence of naval vessels which costs enormous sums and must be made to stick around for a long while. But the limitations of expendable weapons have important implications for thinking about future warfare.
For example, despite the proliferation of cheap precision-guided munitions, as my co-blogger pointed out in a recent post, these payloads are still extremely dependent upon reliable platforms to deliver them. The greatest recent advances have not been in expendable long-range weapons (U.S. efforts to develop hypersonic weapons and Prompt Global Strike munitions have been marred with difficulty lately), but with small, inexpensive missiles or bombs that tactical attack aircraft can carry. Colombia’s Super Tucanos and America’s relatively small Predator and Reaper drones are so feared by their insurgent targets because precision weapons, when loaded on such platforms, allow for sortie generations to attack insurgent groups and other irregulars that were too mobile and dispersed to target before.
When the U.S. chooses to conduct combat operations in countries such as Kosovo and Libya, strategic bombers must still make an appearance alongside expendable weapons such as TLAMs. Strategic bombers played a significant role in target servicing over Kosovo, and B-1s had record-breaking persistence during their deployment in Afghanistan. But reusable platforms are aging, expensive, and save for B-2s, very dependent on SEAD sorties to clear the way for their operation.
One concern frequently leveled against armed drones is that they make wars easier, because they are inexpensive, and since they are remotely piloted, morally expendable too. Of course, if drones made war easier to conduct, they would hardly be the first system to enhance the margin of superiority of the U.S. over its opponent. But how credible of a claim is expendability, and how much does the low price of blood and treasure in drones shift the paradigm for warfare? Not so much, it should seem.
While there is no blood price to shooting down a drone, the cost is still hefty, and it comes atop a high accident rate. It is telling the U.S. secures permission or acquiescence from countries such as Pakistan and Yemen when it flies armed drones, and in the case of Libya, waited out the destruction of its air defenses by conventional means. If completely expendable Tomahawk missiles do not drastically reduce costs of prolonged strike operations, armed drones, which are fundamentally reusable platforms by nature, are even less likely to do so.
Another question this study suggests is how the U.S. and its allies will keep up with the logistical costs of future conflicts. Even the relatively low-intensity period of sustained strikes in Libya early on taxed the resources of NATO allies. Campaigns such as Iraq required 800 cruise missiles, and Syria might take up to 700. While standoff expendable systems such as the TLAM and ALCMs allowed NATO countries to support U.S. counterparts in the way Europe’s lack of strategic bombing capability cannot, ultimately it is America’s vastly superior stocks and financial resources for warfighting that allow it to conduct such sustained bombardments.
Preventing the overstrain of that logistical chain is increasingly important, and ultimately, it will severely limit the ability to treat remotely piloted systems as expendable assets like cruise missiles, and ensure a continued role for larger and costlier platforms in the vein of B-2s, F-16CJs, and EA-18Gs that help make operating environments safe for drones fulfilling the strike roles of their manned counterparts.
Similarly, the pervasive role of dispersal and deception in countering U.S. fire superiority demands the persistence of ISR assets that standoff expendable systems simply cannot provide on their own. Though “shoot and scoot” weapons are becoming more advanced, putting enough of them into a theater at a reasonable price requires reusable platforms if only to defend non-expendable C3I and ISR assets.
The logistical challenges of keeping future offshore warfare cheap will likely pose a significant problem in future conflicts. As the fiscal sinews of American war power weaken, maintaining meeting voluminous sortie generation demands will get more challenging, even cheaper PGMs will remain largely dependent on a host of platforms to find, fix, and finish targets, while expendable standoff munitions, let alone exepndable UAVs, will be unable to take a central role in conflicts of longer duration. While covert wars and conflicts such as Libya seem within U.S. limits, even prolonged periods of high-intensity strikes will ensure that the “old way” of air warfare will remain quite persistent.