Service Chiefs Confer After Air Force General Calls Army Hypersonic Missile Plan 'Stupid'

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Air Force Global Strike Command commander speaks
Gen. Timothy Ray, Air Force Global Strike Command commander, hosts a commander’s call during a visit with 2nd Bomb Wing Airmen at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, Oct. 17, 2018. (Staff Sgt. Mozer O. Da Cunha/U.S. Air Force)

A U.S. Air Force general's recent swipe at the Army's plans for long-range precision strike missiles in the Pacific led to the services' top leaders talking it out last week.

The Army did not release an official comment on remarks made by Gen. Timothy Ray, head of Air Force Global Strike Command. But an Army official confirmed to Military.com that Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville spoke with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown by phone April 2 to discuss Ray's criticism of the missile effort. 

The specific details of the phone call are unknown, the Army official said Monday. Defense News was first to report the conversation.

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Last week, in a discussion with David Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general and dean of the Mitchell Institute, Ray said he "struggled" to understand why the Army wants to invest heavily to create operational hypersonic missile batteries by fiscal 2023 to take out targets from long distances -- but from the ground.

"I've had a few congressmen ask me [about it]," Ray said during the Mitchell podcast, posted April 1. "And you know what? Honestly, I think it's stupid. 

"I just think it's a stupid idea to go and invest that kind of money that recreates something that the [Air Force] has mastered and that we're doing already right now," he said, referring to the U.S. bomber arsenal. "Why in the world would you try that? I try to make sure that my language isn't a little more colorful than it is, but give me a break. … I kind of get it in Europe, but I completely don't get it in the Pacific."  

The Pentagon, which has named China the "pacing threat" in the region, has often looked for solutions to deter the enemy, especially if the U.S. can make China worry about a shifting array of locations rather than fixed bases.

Air Force officials have said the Pacific's vast expanses are well-suited for bombers to carry out this task since they are always on the move, giving friendly forces more flexibility for long-range strike.  

Over the last year, the Air Force has made its bomber fleets more visible with multiple flights around the world. Through its Bomber Task Force missions, part of the Pentagon's larger "dynamic force employment" strategy, the service sends out two to four bombers for units to test how nimbly they can move from place to place

B-1 Lancer supersonic bombers have been practicing stand-off precision strikes in the Pacific -- a dramatic pivot following years of flying close-air support missions in the Middle East, then-Maj. Gen. Jim Dawkins Jr., former commander of the Eighth Air Force and the Joint-Global Strike Operations Center, said in an interview last year. Dawkins has since been promoted to lieutenant general and is the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration at the Pentagon.

During the podcast, Ray said that the Air Force has proved it can be in specific locations "in hours -- not days, months, or weeks" through these exercises.

"There are a few hypersonic events coming up, but ... let's let the facts play out," he said, referring to B-52 Stratofortress hypersonic weapons tests scheduled this year. The Air Force is also looking at ways to incorporate hypersonic weapons into the B-1's arsenal.

By contrast, the Army's capability is stationary, making its fixed positions vulnerable to enemy attack. Developing and basing such long-range missile equipment will be a huge cost burden to the Pentagon, Ray said, and finding ally locations to host the mission will be even more cumbersome.  

The Army's plans "skate right past that brutal reality to check that some of those countries are never going to let you put ... stuff like that in their theater," he added. "Why would we entertain a brutally expensive idea, when we don't, as a department, have the money?"

The news of Ray's comments spilled over into social media, where some experts noted that the long-range strike mission should be a collaborative effort. 

"This type of parochial, 'stay-out-of-my-mission-area' thinking is fit for 1991-2015, not an era where the services have to conten[d] with a peer competitor that enjoys a geographic military advantage," tweeted Eric Sayers, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former special assistant to the commander at U.S. Pacific Command. 

"Strike is a mission, but building redundancy of strike forces across the services is a strategy," Sayers told Military.com on Tuesday. "The best strategy is one of duplication of mission in the blunt force. The People's Liberation Army wants to only worry about B-21 [Raider] bombers performing a long-range strike mission or B-1s focused on the anti-ship mission. This is a recipe toward ensuring they decide they could achieve the fait accompli. I want them to worry about overlapping strike forces across all domains and from all services. This is redundant but toward more resiliency."

Tom Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, last week pointed to an Air Force leader who objects to Ray's outlook. In a conversation with Karako, Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the services should explore how they can operate together before any one service makes a decision.  

"There's a couple [services] that are arguing pretty aggressively for a kind of a roles and missions look," Hyten said during a CSIS event in February. "But that's looking at the world from 1948. We got to look at the world from 2021. … I really would like to know the answers before I engage in some kind of broad roles and missions discussion or organizational theory discussion."

Sayers noted there isn't much time to study -- or fight over -- the intricacies of each branch's action plan. "This isn't a challenge for 2035. We need to be worried about the PLA of 2025," he said.

Just days before Ray made his comment, Brown and McConville appeared together on the "Future of Defense Summit," a March 29 webinar hosted by the news outlet The Hill to discuss how the services are working together to prepare for a possible future joint fight with adversaries such as China or Russia.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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