Long-Range Strike in Two Jumps

June 1, 2004

Americans used to build bombers—lots of bombers. In World War II, the Army Air Forces took delivery of 34,780 long-range combat aircraft. Each day of that war, the vast “arsenal of democracy” churned out, on average, 26 of these flying heavyweights.

The early postwar Air Force was no slouch, either. It executed several massive Cold War bomber programs, the result of which was 400 B-36s, 2,000 B-47s, 115 B-58s, and 750 B-52s, with most of them committed to the nuclear mission.

Then, in the early 1960s, the big production runs played out. Over the past four decades, in fact, the Air Force has acquired a relative handful of heavy bombers—100 B-1B and 21 B-2 aircraft. Since 1992, it has made no purchases at all. None are planned.

Inevitably, the fleet has aged and shrunk, a development that engenders unease in some quarters. USAF in the 1980s had boasted a force of 360 combat-coded bombers. The Air Force’s most recent “Bomber Roadmap,” however, calls for making do with 157 bombers, only 96 of which would be kept combat-ready.

At the same time, the requirement for conventional long-range strike has increased. The US overseas base system has contracted. The future promises no easy access to war zones; the enemy could be shielded by a wall of lethal modern defenses, requiring attack launched from afar.

Such realities—plus the fact bombers performed superbly in recent US wars—have stirred pro-bomber partisans in Congress and elsewhere. These advocates—staunch Air Force supporters among them—have been trying to push the long-range strike issue back to center stage, and they are having some success.

The bomber partisans contend that today’s small fleet leaves the US with too little margin for error. They have pushed the Air Force to pursue the next generation system with greater urgency.

For years, Air Force leaders answered by making several sound points. One was that, as individual bombers become more powerful (and expensive), fewer are needed. Integration of sophisticated precision weapons makes today’s fleet many times more potent than that of a decade ago. Then, several bombers and scores of bombs were required to eliminate a single target. In the 1999 Air War Over Serbia, however, a single B-2 hit an average of 15 targets in a single pass. Today, the airplane could attack 80 different targets per sortie. Aircraft of the future might be able to strike hundreds of aim points.

Also, said USAF, today’s B-1s, B-2s, and B-52s aren’t exactly wheezing along on life support. The roadmap says the three should be structurally sound “for the next four or five decades.”

Moreover, the Air Force argued that a new bomber is unaffordable, given other urgent needs. USAF leaders have openly stated that fighter modernization is top priority. Much as it might like to start a new long-range strike system, USAF, given the realities of the budget, can’t do that and also put sufficient F/A-22s on the ramp.

Those arguments have never been persuasive to bomber partisans, who warn that a technological surprise—counterstealth systems, directed energy weapons—or unexpected combat losses could spell problems. A small bomber fleet “doesn’t give us much margin for surprise,” warned Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

In recent months, the Air Force has adjusted its position.

First, the Air Force appears to have moved up the date for acquiring a next generation system. Formerly, USAF planned to bring a new long-range strike platform into operational status in 2037. Now, the new target is 2025-30, declared Gen. T. Michael Moseley, vice chief of staff. Moseley told the House Armed Services Committee on March 3 that USAF had set up two offices to work on the problem, one at Air Combat Command and one at Air Force Materiel Command.

The terms “long-range strike” and “bombers” once were synonymous. No longer. The new long-range system could be a hypersonic craft. Other prospects include unmanned combat vehicles, suborbital, exoatmospheric, and orbital systems, as well as directed energy weapons.

Second, USAF opened the door to possible acquisition of an interim strike system to help ease pressure on the bomber fleet between now and the arrival of the “2025 system.” This so-called “bridge bomber” may be an FB-22—a variant of the F/A-22 fighter optimized for strike. Secretary of the Air Force James G. Roche said the aircraft should have a range of about 1,800 miles and payload of up to 30 Small Diameter Bombs. However, the bridge bomber could be a modified B-2 bomber or something else. Development could start next year, with operational status in 2018.

This may be the start of a significant new pursuit of long-range strike capability for the nation. However, the Air Force has quite a bit of work to do if it wishes to convince the skeptics, a group which includes a number of former senior Air Force leaders. These critics note that USAF has provided or promised no actual funding to start serious work on either system and that the “interim system” wouldn’t be available for more than a decade.

We think the Air Force deserves the benefit of the doubt. As USAF implicitly concedes with its new plan, however, the nation must pay closer attention to its future long-range strike capabilities.