The United States today faces the greatest challenge to its international stature since the mid-twentieth century. America’s adversaries, despite their differences, threaten to come together in a coalition that can dominate Eurasia and by extension, jeopardize American strategic interests and values globally.
Of several potential flashpoints for confrontation, the Western Pacific has the potential to be the most decisive. The most powerful of the three US rivals is Asian, and it is the only adversary with the economic and political power to field a technologically sophisticated, quantitatively superior military force.
Of course, there has been a noticeable, necessary, and welcome increase in discussion of America’s operational and theater strategies in the Pacific, alongside a military and civilian focus on responding to renewed great power competition. But there is a current lack of appreciation for the critical role of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting (ISR/T) capabilities in naval combat success. This operational blind spot has concrete ramifications for the balance of power in the Western Pacific and the ability of the United States to force a political settlement without conflict.
This report tracks the development of naval and maritime ISR/T from the Cold War to the present day. It reveals the fluctuating relationship between ISR/T and weapons ranges that have adversely impacted the US Navy’s combat capabilities. While the United States developed longer-range weapons throughout the Cold War and revised tactics and fleet composition to better employ those weapons offensively, the gap that remained between weapons range and targeting information had a negative effect on US Navy combat power. Following the Cold War, while weapons and delivery-system range decreased, ISR/T capacity and capability rose, allowing for precision strikes against ground targets at short and medium range. Finally, the contemporary fleet, facing renewed great power competition, is increasingly receiving long-range strike weapons. However, it lacks the ISR/T complex to identify and hit targets at those ranges in most over-the-horizon combat situations.
Second, this report reviews the current ISR/T capabilities to which the US Navy has access, primarily in the Pacific theater, and performs first-order sufficiency analysis to gain an understanding of the impact the current program of record has on operational requirements.
Finally, the report concludes with several key recommendations to naval policymakers, civilian and military, including the following:
- Congress should direct a Federally Funded Research and Development Corporation to perform a classified evaluation and analysis of Navy ISR/T analytical efforts and report the results.
- The Department of Defense should consider redeploying land-based unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), specifically the MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted vehicle (RPV), from the Middle East to the Pacific, modifying them for maritime ISR.
- The Navy should assess accelerating the current MQ-4C program of record.
- The Navy should consider acquiring a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV that can be launched and recovered onboard surface combatants and deliver targeting data directly, which would efficiently and effectively negate a portion of the ISR/T coverage gaps. The Navy should modify the MQ-25 Stingray UAV to carry its own ISR/T data-gathering suite to provide the carrier air wing (CVW) with organic ISR/T, and rely less on non-traditional ISR, currently being conducted by F/A-18E/Fs and EA-18Gs.
- DoD should work to encourage key allies and partners to increase their own maritime surveillance capabilities, including advocating for foreign military sales of the MQ-4C Triton and the MQ-9B SeaGuardian/Protector.