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Even before China began building military bases in the South China Sea and taking over commercial ports in Asia, the U.S. Navy was facing a nearly impossible task in trying to police the Indo-Pacific region.
The U.S. Seventh Fleet headquartered in Japan and the U.S. Fifth Fleet headquartered in Bahrain have barely a hundred warships and a few hundred aircraft to cover ocean areas stretching from the Horn of Africa to the Korean Peninsula. That is a significant portion of the Earth’s entire surface; within it the two fleets must be prepared to prosecute surface warfare, undersea warfare, counter-mine warfare and expeditionary warfare in concert with the Marines.
Unlike the various adversaries they might encounter in the region, U.S. naval forces are operating many thousands of miles from home. A casual observer could easily conclude that America’s Navy simply doesn’t have sufficient resources to enforce the peace in so vast a region. And yet, the Indo-Pacific littoral is where a majority of the world’s population and its most dynamic economies are located. So the Navy has to try.
President Trump has advanced a plan to increase the size of the Navy to 350 warships from fewer than 300 today, but building more warships will take many years. New threats might arise in the Persian Gulf, or in Southeast Asia, or on the Korean Peninsula, long before the U.S. naval presence there grows.
So the Navy needs to think about near-term solutions to whatever operational shortfalls it faces in the area — solutions that materially improve capabilities without draining money from other vital missions (like sustaining nuclear deterrence).
It seems the biggest gap in capabilities concerns intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — in other words, achieving the kind of situational awareness necessary so that scarce naval assets can be deployed in the most effective fashion across vast expanses of ocean.
The Navy gets some help from airborne and orbital assets operated by the Air Force. It also gets help from allied military forces in the region. But even with the ongoing deployment of the new P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft in the region, there are yawning gaps in Navy intelligence, surveillance and recon.
For instance, the Navy has great difficulty discerning friendly forces from hostile ones at long distances, particularly when weather conditions don’t cooperate. Whether those forces are distant warships or military units operating under a jungle canopy, it is often hard to determine what is a threat and what isn’t.
The Fifth Fleet and the Seventh Fleet have both identified this challenge as a major concern in their respective areas of responsibility. So here’s a solution that would fix the problem for an amount of money equal to maybe two or three hours worth of federal spending.
The Air Force’s U-2 spy plane has long hosted a multi-spectral infrared sensor capable of detecting and assessing remote targets in haze, precipitation or the dead of night. In recent years the sensor has been adapted for use on the Air Force’s Global Hawk unmanned aerial system — the same airframe the Navy has modified to serve as its own Triton long-endurance drone.
It thus would not be difficult to carry the sensor, officially designated as the MS-177A system, on the Navy drone. It could also be installed on manned maritime patrol aircraft such as the Poseidon.
I should note that the sensor in question is manufactured by United Technologies Aerospace Systems, a modest contributor to my think tank. That’s the same part of United Technologies that will soon be merged together with Rockwell Collins to form Collins Aerospace.
But let’s stay on the fiscal and operational challenges the Navy is facing in the Fifth and Seventh Fleet areas of responsibility. The fiscal appeal of adapting an Air Force sensor to Navy needs is obvious: the Navy benefits from all the money the Air Force has spent to get the sensor to its current state, and doesn’t need to devote years to developing a new system.
Near as I can tell, no other system in the joint arsenal comes close to filling the gap in Navy recon needs. Beyond that, the fact that the MS-177A is a passive infrared device means it does not generate the kind of beacon effect that a radar would, potentially guiding enemy munitions to U.S. warfighters.
The sensor provides high-resolution target identification from far enough away that in most cases enemies won’t even know they are being watched. That not only minimizes the danger to U.S. warfighters, but maximizes the element of surprise if they should elect to act on the information the sensor has provided.
The latest version of the sensor scrutinizes targets in ten separate bands of the infrared spectrum. With so many different readings of the same target, it isn’t likely that weather conditions or deliberate attempts at camouflage could conceal its nature.
If the target is hostile, the sensor will be able to determine that from far away, and identify what kind of threat it represents. If the target can be approached more closely, the sensor can detect fine features such as the movement of people on a ship deck. Decades of improvement have made the MS-177A a uniquely capable system for figuring out when danger is near.
However, that doesn’t mean the Navy should launch a crash program to install the sensors on its aircraft in the Pacific. What it needs to do is buy one and test it in realistic conditions — conditions that mimic the operational environment of the Indo-Pacific and Persian Gulf regions. I gather that the Navy is more than willing to do that if Congress provides funding.
Military reformers often talk about saving money and speeding operational enhancements by sharing technology across different services. This seems like a case where that approach to equipping the force might work well. The MS-177A sensor should be given an opportunity to demonstrate what it can do for our over-committed forces in Asia.