Daniel Drezner wrote this past weekend that “predictions about the death of American hegemony may have been greatly exaggerated.” Drezner points out that, among other things, the preponderance of US military power vis a vis China is even greater today than it was 20 years ago. And, with older weapons systems being phased out and newer, more advanced ones coming on line, that disparity is about to grow even greater. Key to that, and a primary threat to any Chinese designs on challenging US hegemony, is the F-35 Joint Strike Figher.
Dr. Robbin Laird writing at US Naval Institute’s journal Proceedings details how, by combining the F-35 with existing (and developing) Aegis technology, the US is building a global, mobile defense network that will far outmatch anything any competitor can field:
Originally designed as a Cold War tool to bolster fleet defense against a challenging Soviet Navy, the Aegis program has since the 1970s evolved and morphed. Among the factors that have exponentially increased the core program’s capabilities, the software and microelectronics revolution has played a major role. Targeting precision, C4ISR, and missile technologies have all developed, and today Aegis is a key element in global missile defense. Of central relevance not only to the program but to global security, Aegis coupled with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will provide unprecedented modular flexibility at sea for U.S. command authority and our allies as they shape responses to inevitable future crises.
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South Korea illustrates how multiple basing in the F-35 age can work. That nation, in its ongoing defense against North Korea, has defensive systems against missiles and a good army. In the F-35 era, defense and offense are transformed into strategic mobility. Now, instead of investing in static systems able to do nothing other than await invasion, South Korea has flexible forces that can operate in national defense, participate regionally, and contribute to a global reserve capability. Aegis at-sea systems are a key element of sea-based defensive capability that has been provided with strategic mobility.
Add the F-35Bs to the South Korean military, and now you can disperse force, complicate any North Korean attack, and add this capability to the country’s mobile naval force that currently is being rolled out. Deterrence of China is also enhanced, because mobility of operations from South Korea makes China’s thinking more difficult. For one thing, there is no single line of attack on U.S. forces. If the Chinese should target Guam, we would now have multiple bases from the sea and land from which the 360-degree-enabled F-35s coupled with Aegis and other systems would provide a troubling situation for our enemy, who would not be guaranteed success with a large-area single strike.
The U.S. Navy’s Aegis program is an important contributor to shaping the foundation for such a global system. Because all current Aegis navies are potential candidates for the F-35, with the deployment of the Joint Strike Fighter will come important sensor capabilities around the world. We have the opportunity to create an integrated air-sea sensor net for deployed fleets that provides, in turn, a growing ability to shape missile-defense forces and protective cover for global-presence forces.
These F-35-Aegis offense and defense bubbles can be networked throughout the Pacific to enhance the capacity of individual nations. They represent a prime example of how one country’s assets can contribute to the reach others, together establishing a scalable capability for a honeycombed force.
Overall, the enterprise lays a foundation for a global capability in sea-based missile defenses and for protecting deployed forces as well as projecting force. Power such as this is increasingly central to the freedom of action necessary for the worldwide operation of the U.S. military and our coalition partners.
The F-35 is not without its problems – the naval variant will be delayed for an indefinite period because of a design error that renders it functionally useless – but the lead that the US maintains over the entire world in terms of military technology will remain wide for the foreseeable future.