Breakthrough Force

April 1, 2001

Within days of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, American forces began pouring into the Middle East.

By the time Operation Desert Storm began six months later, we had put, without opposition, 430,000 troops and almost 2,000 aircraft into the Gulf area of operations.

Many of them were based well forward, within convenient reach of the Iraqi and Kuwaiti borders.

That won’t happen in theater wars of the future.

Ten years from now, a regional adversary will have the land and sea approaches covered, hundreds of miles out, with theater ballistic missiles and cruise missiles.

There will be no easy access-as there was in the Gulf-to forward bases where we could mass large numbers of short-range land, sea, and air forces at the beginning of the fight. They would be sitting ducks for the missiles aimed at them.

The enemy will also be protected by a solid wall of overlapping air defenses. Most aircraft will not be able to penetrate that wall to attack ground targets, and until we can wrest control of the air, no other forces will be going in, either.

The Air Force believes it can solve some of this problem with a “Global Strike Task Force” built around stealthy, radar-evading B-2 bombers and F-22 fighters. Their job would be to kick down the door for the other land, sea, and air forces.

The concept has two main parts.

  • The initial strike mission would shift to the B-2s and cruise missiles, which would attack from locations well outside the theater.
  • An “enabling force” of several F-22 squadrons, operating from the outer edge of the theater, would thread the defenses, protect the bombers and support aircraft, and supplement the B-2s in the strike mission.

When the threat has been whittled down enough, the surface forces and non-stealthy aircraft can move in and join the fight.

The basic idea is not new. In 1996, for example, Gen. Charles A. Horner, commander of coalition air forces in the Gulf War, told Congress that the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction had made it necessary “to shift as much of the power projection burden as we can-as fast as we can-to long-range systems” capable of fighting from greater distances.

The feasibility of doing this was enhanced by the performance of the B-2 in the air war over Serbia, where it proved its critics colossally wrong. Its capabilities had been woefully underestimated, and so had its value.

Night after night, the B-2 made the 30-hour round-trip from its home base in Missouri. The Serbs did not know it was there until the bombs started falling.

It hit an average of 15 different aim points per sortie and destroyed 90 percent of its targets on the first strike. Improvements coming up in a few years will make it possible for the B-2 to strike 80 aim points on a single sortie.

The concept becomes further feasible with the advent of the F-22, which is built with the latest generation of stealth and which cruises faster than the speed of sound at 40,000 feet. It will negate large segments of advanced air defense networks, leaving it free to operate in 12 times more of the enemy’s airspace than the current fighter, the F-15, can.

A small force of F-22s-two to four squadrons-would be enough to defend the B-2s, enabling them to attack in daytime as well as at night, and also provide cover for non-stealthy intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft.

Those same F-22s could be equipped to bomb enemy air defenses and strike some of the ground targets.

Thus, the access problem in the lethal early going might be reduced to manageable proportions. There would be no requirement to base or protect a host of airplanes or ground troops. The B-2s and the cruise missiles do not need forward bases.

The F-22s would need only a few main operating bases around the perimeter of the theater, dispersing as the situation requires, and rearming at austere landing fields closer to the threat.

The Global Strike Task Force concept has a lot going for it, but it faces a number of hurdles.

To begin with, strategies that emphasize airpower do not set well with the other services. The Air Force will have to convince them that this concept gives them their best chance to survive and succeed.

There are resource questions, too.

There are only 21 B-2s. It was a huge mistake to cut production to that level. The capability of each B-2 is encouraging, but it would be far better if there were more of them. There are proposals to reopen the production line, but the expense would be formidable.

There is time, however, to avoid making the same mistake with the F-22. That program has been cut three times already, and there are people eager to cut it again.

The Air Force should also revisit the decision, made two years ago under budget pressure, to wait until 2013 to begin work on a new long-range bomber, which would not be operational until 2037. That made little sense then, and makes no sense now.

If the nation plans for its armed forces to operate in the most difficult battle arenas of the future, we had better stop undercutting the systems that will take us there.