The U.S. military’s best scientists are hard at work on a secretive new project—one that top Pentagon officials hope will stop any future Russian or Chinese attack dead in its tracks.
It’s ambitious. But there’s one simple way Russia or China could counter it.
The project is called “Assault Breaker II,” and no one much talks about it. But its name alone strongly hints at the technology it might include—and the destructive potential it could possess.
After breaking cover a few years ago in vague official reports, today Assault Breaker II only rarely gets mentioned in public forums.
One of those rare mentions reportedly occurred on Monday during an online presentation by Terence Emmert, who temporarily is performing the duties of the U.S. under-secretary of defense for research and engineering.
“Assault Breaker II [is a] very promising approach to how we can get out in front of our strategic competition,” Emmert said, as Aviation Week reporter Stephen Trimble reported. “If we do it right, we won’t need an Assault Breaker III.”
So what is Assault Breaker II? Why, a set of “new warfighting operational constructs based on new and emerging technologies and capabilities,” according to one maddeningly obtuse, 2019 congressional briefing by Steven Walker, then head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which oversees the project.
The name is telling. The original Assault Breaker effort began in the 1970s. At the time, NATO planners worried that huge Soviet formations might simply overwhelm alliance defenses. Victory through sheer mass.
The Pentagon directed DARPA to find a way to quickly, and precisely, destroy thousands of Soviet vehicles rushing to exploit any gaps resulting from an initial attack on NATO lines. The goal was to break the assault and buy time for NATO reinforcements to arrive—hence, “Assault Breaker.”
In 2015 Bob Work, then the deputy defense secretary, neatly summed up Assault Breaker in a speech that presaged the launch of Assault Breaker II. “It called for aircraft with wide-area sensor cueing [and] surface-to-surface ballistic missiles that could dispense a blanket of anti-armor submunitions,” Work said of the 1970s project.
In fact, there were two parallel efforts—one airborne, one ground-based. The aerial part involved U.S. Air Force B-52s with new radars lobbing missiles packing precision-guided submunitions. The ground portion had U.S. Army rocket-launchers, cued by surveillance planes, firing rockets with similar submunitions at the same targets.
In any event, the keys were the wide-scanning radars, the smart submunitions and the network linking them. “It culminated in a very successful demonstration in 1982 at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico,” Work recalled. “And as it turned out, the Soviets were watching. And the implications of that single demonstration, along with all of the ferment that was going on in the joint force at the time, really caused them to pause.”
Now the Pentagon wants a similar system that can smash masses of Russian tanks and Chinese ships in the early hours of a major attack, buying time for the United States and NATO to mobilize.
According to a heavily redacted 2017 report from the Defense Science Board, Assault Breaker II is a “capability, on short time scales compared to our adversary’s ability to succeed, to strike and render ineffective our adversary’s assets … that are necessary for their strategic success, and to continue to deny that success until the U.S. and its allies can bring their traditional capabilities to bear.”
The assets Assault Breaker II would target include ships, air-defenses, headquarters, tanks and supply depots, among others, the science board noted.
Important parts of the old Assault Breaker remain in U.S. service, including Army rockets, Air Force ground-moving-target-indicator radars and various targeting networks.
Assault Breaker II apparently would build on these legacy systems, perhaps by adding new sensors, munitions and network technologies.
There’s no shortage of candidates. The Air Force is fielding stealthy RQ-180 surveillance drones that, with the right radars, could expand sensor coverage. The service’s new Advanced Battle Management System software could make the network more intuitive.
The Air Force and Navy are acquiring new long-range land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles. The Air Force’s Golden Horde—a new kind of small, super-smart, swarming bomb—could do the work the old rocket submunitions once did.
The Army meanwhile is working on farther-flying rockets and even a thousand-mile artillery piece.
Tie these or similar systems together and you in theory could detect, target and attack a whole lot of tanks and ships really fast—and break an assault.
No complex system works perfectly, of course—and the enemy gets a vote, too. “There are constraints,” the science board explained.
For one, Assault Breaker II should target the enemy’s rear areas, but without ranging too far back. “To avoid the attendant risks of escalation, any credible U.S. counter-strategy cannot be dependent on conventional strikes on targets in either the Russian or Chinese homelands.”
It also can’t be too expensive. “Furthermore, a counterstrategy cannot depend on the large-scale forward deployment of U.S. manned forces,” the board continued. After all, the costs of a big forward presence “are not sustainable.”
And even if Assault Breaker II works against current Russian and Chinese forces, there’s a simple—if not cheap—way for both Moscow and Beijing to overcome it, the board explained.
Increase mass. The enemy “always has the option of imposing additional costs by simply adding more forces to the fight.”