A little while ago, I posted a quick essay, Suddenly Desert Storm Looks Hopelessly Primitive, which tried to bring to light just how significantly the existence of true mil-spec beam weapons changes the military game and strategic balance..
Let's look at one angle of that essay: it's 2012. What could one of our opponents put up on the game board that might change the equation? It's a legitimate question, given the Chinese military's desperate fixation on the US as the hegemon to be toppled with shashoujian weaponry. Let's assume that the Israelis have, as usual, screwed us over on technology transfers, and have leaked China beam-weapon tech (call it 100kW), and that their UAV program has gone forward with Russian assistance to something that would be ambitious but not unthinkable given what we can put up now.
Let's try this: UAV tech meets the Soviet Tank Army.
A stupidly-expensive-to-produce 50-by-50 UAV array, each separated at cruising speed by a distance of 5000 feet horizontal and 1000 feet vertical, communicating with each other via a distributed laser-comm suite run via a dozen "quarterback" airplanes bringing up the rear by a healthy margin. It's crude, overwhelmingly massive, and technically ambitious but by no means impossible. If you can create a "Beowulf" massively-distributed supercomputer, you can network this puppy. And by its very nature, it has precisely the sort of perverse appeal of inhuman scale put to direct, top-down control that fascist and communist governments love.
The result: an array that can be converted to any size aerial formation that makes sense, from a tight-mesh blanket flying ground suppression at stomach-churning cruise missile heights just above the treeline, to a fifty-mile-wide by fifty-thousand-foot-high flying wall sweeping the ocean like a giant net, to a giant flying donut flying continual station over Taiwan and shooting anything demonstrating the proper speed and/or heat-signature.
How do you counter this?
1) It can put massive overkill on anything within the horizon it can see, including missiles and kinetic-kill railgun rounds (and, nota bene, from high altitude, that horizon is significantly greater than 12 nautical miles).
2) It can evade radar by flying low prior to "assembling in formation" for deployment with strategic surprise.
3) It's huge, but mobile: it has, in theory, the ability to evade satellite recon that's not actively looking for it, if satellite flyover schedules are known.
4) Flight range and refueling is a massive issue, but flight speed in theater is not.
5) It has psychotic radar coverage, and if all units are engaged in active radar, massive radar-image parallax for defeating stealth technology.
Is it sci-fi? Yep. But it's hard like diamond, near-term sci-fi. If DARPA's not in the middle of some 1980s SDI-style information sting, this is something that could be on the planning desk somewhere in the Pentagon right now.
So here's your challenge, folks. Assume the following:
a) The opposition is smart enough to anticipate top-down and bottom-up attacks via satellite and submarine.
b) The opponent knows that it can get away with massive destruction and collateral damage in a limited-theatre war, given the conventional (non-nuclear) nature of the threat.
c) Cutting the array to a smaller size is acceptable by making economic arguments, but you are then limited to realistic procurement assessments yourself.
Knowing that first-deployment counts, put yourself in Schlieffen's shoes. What can you put up to counter this?