I outline some of these roads not traveled below. Some of the ideas below have been implemented in other countries or at other times. Some have had advocated in the military procurement process, but either weren't adopted, or were only adopted on a limited basis. Other ideas have never been tried to my knowledge. Few of these ideas are original, although I cannot always easily source where I came across the ideas.
This list is not complete by any means. Options involving drones have been omitted and some ideas have been noted and not filled in unless this post is later edited to keep the idea afloat.
Homeland Defense Interceptor
The ATG homeland defense interceptor proposal.
The basic concept in this and a number of other of the ideas below, is that a solution to a particular mission can often carry out that mission just as well or better than a multi-purpose solution, at a lower cost, because it is detrimental to devote resources to capabilities that aren't plausibly a part of the mission that needs to be carried out.
The homeland defense interceptor would be a fighter aircraft designed to be operated by the Air National Guard to replace F-16 fighter aircraft (and ultimately F-35A fighter aircraft) in U.S. territory from 9-11 style attacks and misconduct by civilian aircraft, possibly with improvised armaments. Essentially, they serve a Coast Guard type role patrolling U.S. airspace.
These aircraft would have no air to ground bombing capability, no stealth features, no short takeoff and landing or vertical takeoff and landing features, and no aerial refueling capabilities. It would have sophisticated sensors, but light air to air combat capabilities and defensive systems (perhaps machine guns and a couple of air to air missiles), that are adequate against an unsophisticated opponent. It would be faster than almost all commercial civilian aircraft (perhaps Mach 1.6), but not "hypersonic".
It would be designed to be cheaper to acquire, cheaper to operate, easier to maintain, lighter, and easier to operate for a part-time National Guard pilot, than an F-16 or F-35A. A proposal in 2004 by firm ATG would have cost $6 million each (v. $26.9 million for each F-16 and more than $100 million for each F-35A), and $950 per flight hour to operate v. $3,600 per flight hour for the F-16.
Small Intra-Theater Fixed Wing Transport Plane
This would be a fixed wing, short takeoff and landing plane suitable for operating on primitive field airstrips over short to moderate distances for cargo loads smaller than those of a C-130.
They would offer higher speeds, longer ranges, greater fuel efficiency, and lower acquisition costs and maintenance costs than comparable transport helicopters, which the U.S. Army has developed so that it can control its own intratheater logistics.
The C-27J Spartan aircraft was proposed to fill this role and reached an advanced state of development with a few actually purchased, but was ultimately quashed by the Air Force fighter mafia and opponents of foreign military purchases. These planes cost $53.3 million each, are sold to many countries, and about half of the 22 ton payload of a C-130J which costs $67 million-$120 million each.
A C-27 Spartan is depicted above.
A-10 and AC-130 Replacements
In the existing military, there are two kinds of aircraft used primarily for close air support, both of which are no longer being produced and have Vietnam era designs.
One is the A-10, a fighter aircraft designed for close air support. The other is the AC-130, a modified intra-theater transport C-130 aircraft with a howitzer artillery piece and heavy machine guns that can be used to support ground troops.
Both designs are conceptually sound and have proven useful in warfare. But, both are unpopular with the fighter mafia, which wishes it didn't have the mission of close air support at all, and have aging aircraft currently in service because replacements were not authorized for several decades based upon the false promise that the F-35A and F-35B would be suitable replacements for the A-10.
One design that could replace the AC-130 (each of which is now more than 40 years old) is the AC-27 gunship with a 30mm cannon, rather than the 105mm howitzer of the AC-130.
An Artists conception of the AC-27
The time has also come to design a new manned close air support aircraft in the tradition of the A-10, but taking advantage of the technological advances that have taken place over the last forty years. Such a design might take the basic concept of the A-10 (low speeds, armor for the pilot, high levels of redundancy, a canon designed for air to ground fire on small targets, etc.), and simply update them with modern materials, electronics, and weapons. One candidate considered about six years ago is the significantly smaller but similarly CAS optimized SM-27J (see also here).
Airliner Sized Transport Bombers
The B-52 Stratofortress was a good design. It has a top speed of 650 miles per hour and no stealth whatsoever. Yet, we are using 53 year old B-52s in active duty military service. Most recently, the plane shown above built in 1962 from a design that entered service in 1952 was returned to service after being sent to the Boneyard in 2008, because a B-52 in active service broke down. Even with upgraded electronics, the B-52 is due for a replacement. The planes are just plain old and need to be replaced. No trucking company would maintain a fleet consisting primarily of 1962 delivery trucks.
A transport bomber would replace the B-52 in mission of delivering large payloads of bombs, cruise missiles and supply drops over long distances without stealth or exceptional speed in circumstances where air superiority has been accomplished. Mostly likely, they would use commercial off the shelf technology found in air freight jets adapted from commercial airliners. Conceptually, this is a B-747 or a B-777.
In U.S. Navy service, this role is partially fulfilled by the P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft (based on the Boeing 737-800 airliner), shown below, which entered service in 2012, replacing the P-3 that entered service in 1962.
Fighter Sized Transport Bombers
A similar concept, in place in many military forces of the world with small budgets, for use in situations where air superiority has been accomplished and precision guided bombs are available, is to use small commercial aircraft or training fighter aircraft, with little or no air to air combat capability, no stealth, and no supersonic flight capabilities, to deliver precision guided bombs from altitudes higher than enemy anti-aircraft weapons can reach. These aircraft can cost a fraction of what a multi-purpose fighter aircraft like an F-16 or F-35A would cost, and yet carry out its much narrower mission in much more limited (but common) conditions, just as well.
This might be particularly useful in supporting small Army or Marine units in a theater if they need to call down air strikes occasionally on enemy positions, in a counter-insurgency action where skirmishes and ambushes, rather than major battles, are anticipated.
For example, the post-Iraq War military of Iraqi currently has a number of Cessna general aviation aircraft which have been outfitted with modern avionics and air to ground weapons that it uses in this role. The U.S. military could use something more sophisticated than a Cessna as a platform for a small transport bomber, but certainly wouldn't need to use something as expensive and sophisticated as the F-16s used in that role today by the U.S. military.
Iraqi Air Force AC-208 Cessna Caravan launches a Hellfire missile
via Wikipedia article on AGM-114 Hellfire
The A-67 Dragon, pictured below, is another aircraft in this class.
Seaplanes can land lots of places without needing true and hugely expensive aircraft carriers (and perhaps could be winched from sea into hangers without the need for sophisticated takeoff and landing facilities). Similar uses have been made of them in the past, but none are currently in U.S. military service.
There are far more small bodies of water where a plane could land in much of the world than they are field air strips. Helicopters can land almost anywhere but are slower, have shorter ranges, and are less fuel efficient and are less reliable than fixed wing aircraft.
Seaplanes are well suited to search and rescue missions in the open sea (where helicopters have shorter range), and to resupply naval ships other than aircraft carriers while they are at sea. One can also imagine seaplanes supported by a chain of resupply ships or submarines, which are much cheaper and easier to keep in continuous service than air tankers.
A seaplane the size of a C-27 carrying a Marine amphibious armored personnel carrier could land in a lake or a large river or near a coast, deploy the amphibious vehicle, and depart (reversing the operation to retrieve an amphibious vehicle). This would allow us to deploy medium weight U.S. forces in all sorts of places in the world where it would be more difficult to deploy ground forces that heavy by other means.
A key weakness of the U.S. armed services is an insufficient investment in the high speed transport resources needed to deploy a credible military force quickly. Air transport is the state of the art when it comes to speed, but the U.S. Air Force's logistics capacity is quite modest. Moreover, many key Army vehicles and military systems can't be carried by anything other than large C-5 and C-17 transport aircraft, and C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft can't land at unimproved field airstrips.
A transport airship concept
An airship that achieves some or all of its lift from lighter than air vacuums or gases that it encloses, can carry loads ten times larger than the largest transport aircraft (in the U.S. military, the C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft), and as large as a smaller transport ship.
An airship can takeoff from a loading point on land and deliver its cargo to another loading point on land, without having the shift cargo from rail or a truck to a ship at a port and back at coastal areas, without having to have intact bridges over rivers and canyons, and without having to have a functional or IED free road infrastructure. It can reach roadless areas or areas where control of the ground is contested, with only minimal infrastructure at the destination.
A transport airship uses about the same amount of fuel per pound of cargo per mile as a truck or efficient transport aircraft, although more than shipping by boat or rail. An airship is comparable in speed to rail or a truck, but can travel on "as the crow flies" paths, and is three or four times as fast as a typical military transport ship.
Transport airships travel at lower altitudes than aircraft and aren't stealthy at all, so they are not well suited to supplying cargo over contested territory. But, they are relatively fast and efficient ways to get large volumes of cargo from U.S. territory or a U.S. base to the allied controlled fringes of a regional conflict zone, without straining the resources of scarce, heavy transports like the C-5 Galaxy.
Transport airships would also be useful for moving men and material within U.S. controlled territory and to U.S. bases in peacetime. For example, to promptly ship tanks or tank parts to Japan from the U.S. when there is not currently military action in the Pacific theater, or deliver supplies from New England or Hawaii to Fairbanks, Alaska.
Another possible way to deploy airships in conflicts where the opposition lacks any naval resources, would be to deliver cargo to landing ship docks off shore and over the horizon from opposition forces, and then having the cargo that is delivered deployed to shore from the ship as if the ship had carried its cargo there itself.
Ships and Submarines
Reallocating Responsibility From Surface Combatants
The almost 10,000 ton Arleigh Burke class destroyer is the most common major surface combatant in the U.S. Navy's fleet and new ones are still being built. It entered service in 1991 and has a unit cost of $1.84 billion. It is a multi-purpose surface combatant mostly used to escort aircraft carriers.
U.S. Navy destroyers, and until recently cruisers and frigates (which are no longer in active U.S. naval service), serve primarily as floating bases from which sea to land missiles, anti-surface combatant missiles, anti-submarine missiles, and anti-aircraft missiles are launched.
Destroyers are large (typically just under 10,000 tons and hundreds of feet long), slow moving (under 50 miles per hour at top speed and much slower at cruising speed), and are home to several hundred crew. These ships must carry not only weapons systems, but long term room and board facilities for their entire crews.
Naval exercises and a handful of actually naval encounters in the post-World War II era, have revealed that surface combatants are a high risk of suffering massive casualties from attack submarines, hypersonic missiles, aircraft launched cruise missiles or suicide aircraft attacks, or attacks by swarms of small, fast missile boats. Their deployment can also be substantially slowed with sea mines. No amount of armor can protect them from powerful missiles, and active defense systems are not 100% effective.
These ships also pose a logistics problem in a larger conflict. It can take months for a surface combatant to redeploy from one theater, for example, the East China Sea, to another, for example, the North Atlantic Ocean. Typically, about a third to two-thirds of the surface combatant fleet is in port between deployments, at any given time.
But, the same missiles that are launched from surface combatants can also be launched from heavy bombers (the P-8, the B-52, the B-1, the B-2 and possible future aircraft), as autonomous cruise missiles from based on the ground, and from submarines outfitted to the task (as some Ohio class submarines have been).
Only about 5% of the total crew for an aircraft is on the plane when it is deployed on a sortie, while the room and board for the flight crew and the support crew remain out of harms way at a remote base. Typically a heavy bomber crew will have a few of two to a dozen people on a flight, compared to about 300 on a destroyer. Surface combatants are also very expensive (while the $1 billion cost of bombers like the B-2 were exaggerated because R&D costs were spread over a much smaller number of aircraft than anticipated, and is still less than the cost of a destroyer) and surface combatants can be difficult to resupply promptly as sea.
Aircraft move at least ten times as fast as surface combatants, are much smaller targets and can employ stealth technology in many cases, stay in the active combat theater for just a few hours rather than continuously for weeks, and take days rather than months to redeploy from one theater of combat to another. Airborne refueling can address the range limitations of aircraft.
Submarines are large, crew heavy, and slow like surface combatants, but are much harder for even a sophisticated enemy to locate and destroy. Yet, they can be just as effective as surface combatants in many roles. For example, submarine launched missiles were just as useful as surface combatant launched missiles in the bombing campaign against Libya during its Arab Spring uprising.
While there are niches (e.g. the diplomatic usefulness of threatening force by deploying surface combatants in the vicinity of a potential conflict area, or providing a base for Marines where no land base is available), it makes a great deal of sense to shift a large share of responsibility for anti-surface combatant warfare, anti-submarine warfare, and launching missiles at coastal land targets, from war ships to submarines and long range heavy bombers and patrol aircraft and cruise missiles. Neither submarines nor aircraft are nearly as vulnerable to enemy attack as large surface combatants. This is one reason that many nations have refrained from purchasing large warships.
The Zumwalt class DDG-1000 destroyer
Modern ships, like the Littoral Combat Ships and the Zumwalt class destroyers (DDG-1000), operate with crews of about a third of the crews of comparable Oliver Perry Frigates, Arleigh Burke destroyers, and recently retired classes of cruisers. Simply automating replacements of these ships from the bottom up would allow crews to be reduced from 200-300 sailors to 70-100 sailors.
One of the main responsibilities of frigates, cruisers and destroyers in the U.S. Navy is to escort aircraft carriers which have few missile batteries, anti-missile/anti-aircraft weapons, and anti-submarine sensors of their own.
Most replacements for today's destroyers, in addition to being automated, should be designed narrowly for the purpose of escorting air craft carriers by providing defensive capabilities it cannot provide itself (like the Aegis sensor network and anti-submarine warfare sensor network of the carrier group as a whole, extended over many miles at sea, defense from swarm attacks of small missile boats, and anti-missile firepower), while ceasing to be bases for sea to land missiles, or playing a central role in destroying large enemy warships or submarines.
Carrier escorts might be 3,000-5,000 tons rather than the 10,000 tons or so of a modern destroyer or cruiser, and have a crew of 80 sailors or so.
Missile Defense Cruisers
The San Antonio Class Marine Amphibious Transport Dock (LPD-17) Hull is one design that has been considered for a ballistic missile defense cruiser. The Zumwalt has also been suggested as a template for a ballistic missile defense cruiser.
One niche where a surface combatant might be useful is in a ballistic and cruise missile defense role against missiles launched by rouge states like North Korea or Iran.
In this role, having a ship present on task at all times close to the expected launch location of the missile where it is not possible to secure a local military base would provide an opportunity for a prompt launch of an intercepting missile. The Navy has shown success with this kind of missile defense technology, while similar programs in the rest of the armed forces have not been nearly as successful.
This ship might be nuclear powered, since it would need to spend long, uninterrupted tours on task in distant locations where resupply is not easily available or commercial shipping has been disrupted.
The military would often like to be able to covertly deploy significant numbers of ground troops and heavy equipment (like tanks and trucks) by surprise or in blockaded coastal areas. It would also like to be able to resupply allies whose access to commercial shipping has been disrupted (something that doesn't necessarily take a very sophisticated naval force, or even any naval force, to accomplish as aircraft and artillery can also disrupt shipping), or to evacuate troops or civilians from an area where surface cargo ships are at high risk of being sunk. A concept drawing of one can be found here.
The military would also like to have the capability to deliver cargo under ice sheets, such as those found in the Arctic, to reduce shipping times.
One sensible way to achieve these objectives would be with large (Ohio class sized, for example) transport submarines. These submarines would not have to have the sophisticated and expensive weapons of attack submarines, without the ability to function at the depths of existing U.S. Navy submarines, and could probably manage with air independent propulsion systems which allow submarines to stay submerged for weeks instead of months or years. They could be more automated than existing attack and nuclear missile submarines, both because of their more modern designs, and because they would have fewer crew intensive military capabilities.
A variant on the transport submarine is the Littoral Warfare Submarine concept designed for inserting troops with stealth in coastal environments.
Submarines As Command Ships
Submarines are also attractive alternatives to surface combatants as command ships, i.e. a base for executive and intelligence staff and support personnel for a military unit (e.g. a field hospital) that does not engaged directly in combat as part of a naval group. Since command ships almost by definition have reduced offensive and defensive capabilities relative to primary combatants, it makes sense to put these functions in a less visible and difficult to determine location to the extent feasible.
One obvious way to create a submarine command ship would be to adapt a submarine transport ship for the purpose.
Combat Boats and Missile Boats
China's Houbei class missile boats are just 225 tons v. 10,000 tons for a U.S. destroyer and carry 83 small missiles. They do not include living accommodations for the crew and can reach high speeds. They are designed to mount "swarm" attacks on larger conventional warships. In blue sea operations, a missile boat would have to be supported by a mothership that would house the crew and provide supplies for the missile boats.
Seven countries including the United States which has six of them for military engagements on rivers use the Swedish CB90-class fast assault craft which cost about $3 million each. It is the fastest and most maneuverable military boat currently in service anywhere of which am I aware, and can operate in water less than three feet deep.
It has a crew of three, three machine guns, a grenade launcher, and a small number of small mines, and can be mounted with a Hellfire missile or armor. It can also carry up to 21 troops and has been converted for use as a rapidly responding water based command post, ambulance, search and rescue craft.
It is well suited for addressing piracy, smuggling, and delivering troops to island destinations. The U.S. military all to often uses far more expensive and slower and less agile destroyers for this missions, which may win every battle, but will ultimately lose a war of attrition. It also represents the kind of basic frame that make might sense for a close fire support boat.
Close Fire Support Boats
The X-18 Fire Support Vessel concept known as the "tank boat". See also here.
Perhaps one in six or seven Marine landing craft could be converted to a close fire support role. It would be armed with a main gun the size of a tank's main gun, and/or a battery of short range missiles powerful enough to destroy fortified gun nests and armored vehicles on the shore that are engaging the landing group, in lieu of soldiers and supplies of its own. It would have armor comparable to that of a main battle tank. This should be technologically feasible because if a landing craft can carry a tank to shore, it ought to be able to integrate what is essentially a tank stripped of its treads and engine.
Essentially, close fire support boats would provide artillery support to landing parties. They would be deployed from a landing ship dock or amphibious assault ship, just like other landing craft, and would not have long term accommodations for the crew on board.
It might also have heavy machine guns for anti-personnel purposes, anti-small craft lasers, light anti-aircraft missiles primarily to address fighter sized transport bombers and helicopters and armed drones, and active point defense resources similar to the Navy's Phalanx close in weapons system to address incoming missiles and artillery rounds.
These boats could also be used in patrol roles to interdict and regulate shipping, to support operating bases near the coast, to intercept and destroy armed small craft, and to deploy fire power up major rivers.
High Speed Transport Ships
The HSV-2 Swift
The USNS Spearhead JHSV-1
Ships can carry much larger loads than aircraft, but are incredibly slow. One way to bridge that gap is with high speed transports such as the HSV-2 Swift retired in 2013 and the JHSV-1 introduced in 2011. But, because sealift capability serves the Army, another military service, it has rarely been a popular program with naval procurement officials.
The Swift, for example, can travel up to 3500 nautical miles at 45 knots while carrying 605 tons of cargo. The loaded ship is about 1668 tons, about one-sixth the size of a destroyer. It has a crew of 35.
The Spearhead with a crew of 22 can berth 150 passengers, transport another 312 troops, and can serve as a base for a medium sized helicopter while traveling at 43 knots.
A variant on this concept is the concept of "distributed lethality" which includes the notion of placing more powerful weapons on ships such as the LCS and high speed transports that traditionally have had only minimal standard armaments, such as in the concept of a JHSV-1 outfitted with a railgun shown below.
Military Systems For Ground Troops
A Medium Grade, C-130 Transportable Missile Tank, Manned or Unmanned
A British Army Light Missile Tank
An Anti-Aircraft Missile Variant of the 13-15 ton Turkish ACV-15 Infantry Fighting Vehicle
An Anti-Tank Missile Variant of the 13-15 ton Turkish ACV-15 Infantry Fighting Vehicle
A C-130 transport aircraft can only carry 19 tons. One Army vehicle designed to conform to that limitation, which makes it much easier to deploy rapidly, is the Stryker armored personnel carrier.
The Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle weighs about 35 tons (but half of the 70 tons of an M1-A Abrams main battle tank which has heavier armor and a crew of three or four) and holds a similar number of infantry to the Stryker, but with heavier armor and anti-tank missiles in lieu of a central tank gun. Despite having anti-tank missiles rather than a main gun, the Bradley was just as effective at destroying Iraqi tanks in the Iraq War as U.S. M-1A tanks.
It would be useful to have a vehicle with a tank sized crew, rather than an infantry carrying role, anti-tank missiles rather than a main gun, and armor closer in strength to the Bradley than to the Stryker, yet within the 19 ton and dimensional limitations of the C-130 transport aircraft. This would provide the most heavily armored and armed rapidly deployable armed military vehicle in the U.S. military and would rival comparable vehicles anywhere in the world.
Simply eliminating the infantry crew capability from the existing Bradley design, shrinking it in length, would go a long way towards trimming the necessary 16 tons from the weight of a regular Bradley to fit this role.
This lighter narrower missile tank could also be used in urban and mountain areas where passages are too narrow for a full sized main battle tank without considerable engineering work on the passage, and it could be used in places where civilian bridges are not U.S. military grade using existing infrastructure.
In a more radical version of this concept, weight could be reduced by removing all crew in a remote controlled drone version of this medium grade missile tank, rather than just reducing the size of the crew.
The 13.5 ton British Stormer would be an example of the system in this class, as is China's 13.75 ton HJ-9. A smaller 4.5 ton Ferret, Mk5 Scout Car has a similar role. A concept using Hellfire missiles is realized here and loosely based on a prototype M-113 Hellfire missile launcher.
A Next Generation Combat Patrol Vehicle
The Oshkosh L-ATV won the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle contest to replace the Humvee
This vehicle would replace the armored Humvee and smaller interim MRAP vehicles to provide transportation for four soldiers and their gear on patrol in hostile territory where small arms fire and IED attacks could be expected. As a purpose built armored vehicle, it could avoid the problems of associated with aftermarket armor that the vehicle wasn't designed to bear which plagued the Humvee.
A program to design and produce this vehicle already exists and the winner is shown above.
Long Range Sniper Rifles With Assisted Aiming And Guided Exacto Bullets
Advanced sighting systems can allow a novice to shot a sniper rifle with the precision of an expert.
Smart bullets (0.50 caliber) that swerve in flight to hit targets in motion or around corners or behind walls further ups the ante. Combine the two and the lethality of a sniper using this advanced weapon system is profoundly increased.
Short Range Grenade Launchers With Range Control
The XM-25 was proposed to give U.S. soldiers a short range grenade launcher with "smart" grenades that can detonate at a specific distance (e.g. above an enemy position in a trench or foxhole). Prototypes were tested in Afghanistan starting in 2010, but the non-experimental version is not scheduled to enter service until 2017. It has a range four times as great (600 meters) as the M203 grenade launcher (which uses "dumb" grenades) that it replaces.
Each weapon costs about $35,000 and the rounds cost about $55 each.
Carbines That Can Shoot Around Corners With Video Sights
An accessory called Corner Shot allows soldiers to shoot around corners with video sights, thereby eliminating the need to expose themselves to enemy fire in order to shoot at them from behind cover.
Mobile Point Defense Vehicles
The Army's Centurian C-RAM system puts a Navy Phalanx point defense system on a semi-trailer that can be trucked to provide active point defense to a military base or other potential target.
A prototype Army high energy laser mobile demonstrator (HEL MD)
This would be a glorified flatbed truck or semi-trailer with either a modified Phalanx close in weapons system or active defense laser weapon that could be moved to a location to provide point defense to a small military base or a civilian facility from air to ground missiles, artillery shells, and armed drones.
Active defense laser weapons are becoming standard on U.S. warships, even though land vehicle based and aircraft based laser systems have largely been duds so far.
Rapid Response Forward Observer Vehicle
The Dutch Fennek Armored Reconnaissance Vehicle is a forward observer vehicle in current military service that also has an anti-aircraft missile bearing version.
A fictional prototype vehicle called the Tumbler from the movie Batman Begins captures the concept well.
The concept here is that it is sometimes no longer necessary for the military system that is used to order a strike with a guided bomb or missile to a target to carry the ordinance itself. Instead, it merely needs a targeting system and some means of communicating the coordinates of the target to an artillery battery, aircraft with bombs, cruise missile battery, or ship or submarine with sea to land missiles like the Tomahawk, which would launch their missile or smart bomb at the target.
This would allow the vehicle itself to be small and fast, although protecting the occupants would remain a priority.