On March 18, 1945, the US Eighth Air Force put up 1,250 bombers for a concentrated strike on Berlin. By today’s standards, that number seems incredible. During the war years, however, the United States produced 34,400 heavy bombers and 55,500 medium bombers. The big mission against Berlin was an impressive effort but well within the limits of the aircraft inventory.
It was a different time. Bombers were not as capable (or as expensive) as they have since become. The average accuracy in “daylight precision bombing” in World War II was 3,300 feet, or more than half a mile. Modern bombers can penetrate unseen and strike within a few feet of the target, but as their precision has improved, costs have risen and numbers have shrunk.
The day is coming soon when the Air Force’s total fleet of operational bombers will be no more than 100 aircraft. In primary aircraft authorized, or aircraft available for combat, that would conceivably shake out to sixteen B-2s, forty B-1s, and forty B-52s. Only the B-2s will have the attribute of stealth, and the numbers do not leave much margin for mishap or the unexpected.
This plan is driven by cost considerations, not by calculations of actual military needs. One requirements study after another has pointed to the need for a more substantial bomber force. The Air Force’s Bomber Roadmap project in 1992 and the Pentagon’s Bottom-Up Review in 1993, for example, prescribed 184 operational bombers. The Senate Armed Services Committee similarly found the projected 100-bomber force to be “inadequate” for responding–as prescribed by the national defense strategy–to two near-simultaneous regional conflicts.
Alternatively, there is a persuasive body of data saying that a small bomber fleet is sufficient only if it includes more stealthy B-2s. That suggestion gained a definite boost on January 4, when seven former Secretaries of Defense wrote to the President asking him to consider the purchase of more B-2s. Signing the letter were Melvin Laird, James Schlesinger, Donald Rumsfeld, Harold Brown, Caspar Weinberger, Frank Carlucci, and Dick Cheney.
The B-2, the former Secretaries wrote, “remains the most cost-effective means of rapidly projecting force over great distances. Its range will enable it to reach any point on Earth within hours after launch while being deployed at only three secure bases around the world. Its payload and array of munitions will permit it to destroy numerous time-sensitive targets in a single sortie. And perhaps most importantly, its low-observable characteristics will allow it to reach intended targets without fear of interception.”
The B-2 program as originally planned would have purchased 132 aircraft. The total was cut to seventy-five for budget reasons, then cut again to twenty. Any perceived attempt to lift that cap on the program met with thunder and lightning from B-2 foes in Congress. In 1993, Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, accused Gen. John Michael Loh, commander of Air Combat Command, of conspiring to extend B-2 production, a move that the powerful Mr. Dellums opposed emphatically and blocked in dramatic fashion.
This year, the committee has a new name, a new chairman, and a new attitude. It’s the House National Security Committee now, and its chairman, Rep. Floyd D. Spence (RS. C.), says that stopping the B-2 program at twenty aircraft “was a political decision and does not make a lot of sense from a strategic or operational perspective.” The issue is open again, but it is as controversial as ever.
There is little if any precedent for the extraordinary statement by the seven former Secretaries of Defense, and it must have been a bitter pill for the Navy. A major point of contention in the current roles and missions debate is how the global power projection job should be divided between long-range Air Force aircraft and Navy carriers. As the statement recognized, the B-2’s stealth features allow it to fly through formidable modern air defenses to strike strategically critical targets. During the Persian Gulf War, flights over downtown Baghdad were left to the stealthy F-117A and to unmanned cruise missiles. Air defenses will not get any easier in the years ahead, and none of the aircraft flying off the Navy’s carriers is going to be stealthy for some time to come.
Cost comparisons were inevitable as well. According to figures repeated in the press, the nation could buy twenty more B-2s for less money (about $12 billion) than three large-deck aircraft carriers would cost ($15 billion). That ratio would be expected to widen further if operations and support costs were counted.
A question that needs asking, though, is whether it is truly necessary to raid one part of the emaciated national security program to cover legitimate military needs in another part. The share of gross domestic product that will be devoted to national security is already dropping toward 2.9 percent. There is a rising awareness that the defense program is underfunded.
As the readjustment proceeds, the advice of seven former Secretaries of Defense merits attention. “It is already apparent that the end of the Cold War was neither the end of history nor the end of danger,” they wrote. “We hope it also will not be the end of the B-2.”