USAF Bomber Chief Unloads On ‘Stupid’ Army Hypersonic Plans

Gen. Timothy Ray
Credit: USAF

A top U.S. Air Force commander on April 1 said the Army’s plan to deploy ground-launched, hypersonic missiles in the Pacific theater is “stupid,” throwing gasoline on a largely behind-the-scenes turf fight raging inside the Pentagon over budgetary resources for long-range strike programs. 

“A few congressmen have asked me [about the Army’s plan], and I just, you know, I said I think it’s stupid,” said Gen. Timothy Ray on a Mitchell Institute podcast recording. “I just think it’s a stupid idea to go invest that kind of money to recreate something that this service has mastered, and we’re doing already right now.”

Ray’s comments offer a rare public glimpse inside the usually private, bureaucratic brawls that take place within the Pentagon’s corridors over high-stakes budget decisions affecting each service’s prized acquisition programs. 

In this case, Ray, a careful public speaker, decried the Army’s plans to deploy ground-launched missiles, such as the Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW), the Lockheed Martin Precision Strike Missile and land-based versions of the Raytheon SM-6 and Tomahawk, to the Pacific theater to counter China. 

Ground-launched hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV), such as the LRHW, cost “double-digit millions” each, Ray said. The Air Force also is investing in a more advanced HGV—the Lockheed AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon—but Ray questioned the logic of fielding the land-based version in the Pacific.

“I kind of get [placing long-range Army missiles] in Europe and I kind of get it in [the Middle East], but I completely don’t get it in the Pacific,” Ray said. “I genuinely struggle with the credibility of that entire plan.”

Unspoken in Ray’s assessment is the potential impact of the Army’s plans on the amount of resources available for the Air Force’s preferred long-range strike options; namely, the Northrop Grumman B-21 stealth bomber and a re-engining program for the Boeing B-52. 

The Air Force’s argument is that the B-21 can penetrate into contested airspace and release less-expensive, shorter-range munitions than an Army artillery battery stationed thousands of miles away. Unlike an expendable missile, the B-21 can return to base if it survives the mission, rearm and return to battle. Meanwhile, the B-52 can remain safely outside contested airspace, lobbing long-range missiles at targets shielded by air defense systems, including the air defense systems themselves. 

But Army leaders have been circumspect about relying solely on Air Force bombers to strike targets that threaten their own maneuvering forces on the ground. Instead, Army leaders have consistently said in public that ground-launched, or surface-to-surface missiles, can be used to eliminate air defense systems, opening corridors for Air Force and Navy strike aircraft to enter previously contested airspace.

“Our aircraft have become incredibly vulnerable,” Brig. Gen. John Rafferty, head of the Army’s Long Range Precision Fires programs, said in October 2019. “I think there is a realization across the joint force that surface-to-surface fires by themselves don’t eliminate the [anti-access/area denial] complex, but they enable the Air Force and the maritime component to penetrate and then disintegrate the A2/AD complex.”

But Ray’s comments may be an indication of the Air Force’s rising frustration with the lack of pushback against the Army’s plans from senior Pentagon officials. In February, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued that it would be premature to have a roles-and-missions debate between the services. The Joint Staff is assembling a new Joint Warfighting Concept, which seeks to blur and in some cases eliminate the formerly rigid lines that defined each service’s roles and missions in a conflict. 

“Trying to have that argument now is just a waste of oxygen. It doesn’t do anybody any good,” Hyten said. “We may not have the right roles and responsibilities. But why the heck would you stop and try to figure that out when you actually don’t know the answer?”

But for Ray, the answer is black and white. The Pentagon should leave the long-range strike mission in the Pacific theater—along with the budgetary resources—to the Air Force, not split the mission with the Army. 

“Why in the world would we entertain a brutally expensive idea?” Ray said. “We don’t, as a department, have the money to go do that when we’ve already proven this.”

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.

Comments

4 Comments
Me thinks the General doth complain too much.....this is all about budget. What it should be about is optimizing target/weapon pairing. Why expose a billion dollar aircraft to S-400 when a hypersonic missile can execute SEAD? Are any labs simulating these types of engagements?
@PALADIN... Yup, it's always about who gets how much of the budgetary pie, and if the weapons systems work as advertised on the first try, then that's a bonus. Anyway, if there any labs simulating hypersonics vs SEAD, the Air Force is happy to fund it so long as the missiles are air-launched.
While it's still too early to make the cost/performance call regarding hypersonic weapons, there is more than enough data showing that cruise missiles, like Tomahawk, are orders of magnitude less expensive than manned aircraft for the long-range strike mission. Opponents like to argue that cruise missiles cost multiple millions while a JDAM is $20k, however, this argument misses the true drivers of Bomber delivered weapons cost which are the incredibly expensive platforms, their even higher Operations & Maintenance cost, and the total infrastructure needed to support these aircraft. The argument for employing cruise missiles versus Bombers can be made on this cost/performance comparison alone and rarely touches on the CONOP advantages of using cruise missiles such as eliminating the risk of putting such a high-value asset into harm’s way and the complexity added when the enemy must defend itself against hundreds or thousands of cruise missiles attacking from every angle versus a single platform on one axis of attack.
The Army’s plan to detach cruise missiles from their expensive delivery platforms, such as Ships, Submarines, and Bombers, will provide a new level of both cost savings and CONOP advantages beyond the already compelling cost/performance comparison discussed above, and will further highlight cost/performance and CONOP advantages of cruise missiles over Bombers for the long-range strike mission.
I hope this is just Intel disinformation for Chinese and Russian consumption because if it isn't SecDef better call this folks in and read them the new line. Buster is for parades not for taxpayers.