Air Force Global Strike Command Commander Gen. Timothy Ray sees no reason for the US Army to duplicate its long-range weapon capabilities. Credit: USAF photo.

The gloves are off at the Pentagon.

And no, it doesn’t involve an enemy, per se … this battleground involves missiles, big budgets and fierce military rivalries.

Air Force and Army leaders are now trading insults over which branches of the military should secure long-range strike capabilities, as they each look to revamp their warfighting roles.

Following nearly two decades of counterinsurgency operations, the Army has made long-range precision fires a top priority, according to an in-depth analysis by Jon Harper at National Defense.

Billion-dollar initiatives include the Extended Range Cannon Artillery; Precision Strike Missile; Strategic Long-Range Cannon; Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon; and modification of existing Navy SM-6 and UGM-109 missiles for ground launch.

However, some officials in other branches say, not so fast.

They don’t believe those are smart investments as the US military gears up for a potential fight in the Indo-Pacific region against China, the report said.

The gauntlet was dropped, by Air Force Global Strike Command Commander Gen. Timothy Ray, who did not hold back.

“It’s a stupid idea to go invest that kind of money and recreate something that [the Air Force] has mastered,” Ray said in a recent podcast by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, in which he touted the capabilities of his service’s long-range bombers.

Keep in mind, missiles cost millions for each fire, whereas bombers are reusable and can employ larger numbers of lower-cost weapons. The argument has some weight.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute, said the Army is “aggressively trying to grab missions that they think will help them become more relevant in our new national security strategy.”

When asked about Ray’s criticism, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville suggested service parochialism is at play.

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense interceptor missile launches during a flight test at the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site in the Marshall Islands. The Missile Defense Agency and soldiers assigned to the 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade conducted the intercept test. Photo courtesy US Army.

“Where you sit sometimes depends on where you stand,” he said.

“Sometimes, you know, people say certain [critical] things, but … at the chief level we’re not going down that road. We’re really trying to work together,” he added.

The Army’s long-range fires will give commanders additional options and present “multiple dilemmas” to adversaries, McConville said.

In an op-ed for Breaking Defense, retired Gen. Robert Brown, executive vice president of the Association of the US Army, called Ray’s comments “a stunning slap at a sister service … at a critical time in the defense budget process.”

Exercises have demonstrated the “impressive capabilities” that ground-based long-range precision fires would give a commander in the Indo-Pacific, Brown wrote.

Furthermore, some have also expressed doubt that any countries in the Asia-Pacific will allow the Army to base long-range systems on their territory, the report said.

Why aren’t US allies and partners happy about that?

Nobody wants to be pounded into oblivion by China, for one thing.

Master Sgt. John Malloy and Staff Sgt. Jacob Puente, both from 912th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, secure the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon Instrumented Measurement Vehicle 2 as it is loaded under the wing of a B-52H Stratofortress at Edwards Air Force Base. (Air Force photo by Giancarlo Casem)

“Countries that host them have to worry that they might become a target [during a conflict], or it might just antagonize China,” said Stacie Pettyjohn, director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security.

Enter Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) systems, which could potentially be stationed on Guam, a US territory in the Pacific.

“Guam is definitely relevant for any sort of conflict with China,” Pettyjohn said. “LRHW could be based there and actually range targets of interest.”

However, some analysts say the Army is on target.

“I favor a strategy of duplication where each of the services, in a co-ordinated but overlapping manner, present the [People’s Liberation Army] with a targeting dilemma across the air, land, sea and subsurface” said Eric Sayers, a visiting fellow at AEI who specializes in Asia-Pacific security policy.

“I don’t think we want the PLA to believe they can paralyze America’s power projection forces by just targeting a carrier strike group and several air bases,” he added.

Notably, Navy leaders have largely refrained from wading into the squabble, although it too seeks long-range strike capabilities, Pettyjohn said.

As long ago as 2015 and earlier, the Navy began announcing and moving on a Distributed Lethality strategy intended, simply put, to massively arm the surface fleet with newer, far more capable and much longer-range weapons, the report said. 

Arming the LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) with deck-launched Hellfire missile to extend ship-based air-defense ranges and giving the ship the new “over-the-horizon” NSM (Naval Strike Missile) missile, a strategy also employed on the Navy’s new Frigate, emerged years ago as part of the Distributed Lethality concept. 

“It’s likely going to be a simmering issue underneath the surface for all the services …” said Pettyjohn. “Everyone’s going to be crying for more [money], and they all have ambitious modernization agendas.”

Sources: National Defense, National Interest, Breaking Defense