Washington Watch: The Pentagon Declines More B-2s

July 1, 1995

The bomber force authorized in the 1993 Bottom-Up Review is still the best one taxpayers can afford, and no further purchases of the stealthy B-2 Spirit are warranted, a Defense Department study concluded in May.

The Heavy Bomber Force Study, mandated by Congress and performed by the Pentagon and the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), yielded findings that were hardly surprising. They coincide precisely with what Pentagon leaders have been saying for the last two years–namely, that more B-2 bombers would be useful in a crisis, but no more can be bought without dislodging higher-priority items from the defense budget.

Air Force and Pentagon leaders have long since closed ranks behind this position. Many on Capitol Hill, however, remain skeptical of the findings because, they argue, the study’s basic assumptions do not jibe with real-world experience or reasonable expectations. Some congressional supporters of additional B-2s–on both sides of the aisle–found enough flaws to dismiss the study outright.

Still, as the official opinion of the Defense Department, the study’s conclusions carry political weight. A second part of the analysis-deciding whether a unique bomber industrial base must be preserved-was still under way. Results of that study are expected this month.

Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the Senate Armed Services Committee’s ranking Democrat and former chairman, favored the production of more bombers, but he said the study’s findings make it “an uphill climb” to obtain any more of the stealth bombers.

The study results “do not make the case for buying additional B-2s,” announced Paul G. Kaminski, under secretary of defense for Acquisition and Technology, at a May Pentagon press conference.

Dr. Kaminski said that, while the research showed there is indeed “additional value” in having more B-2s, what stood out was “the much greater cost effectiveness that can be derived from [investing in] advanced and accurate weapons” that boost the abilities not only of existing bombers but of tactical aircraft as well.

The analysis, he said, was the “most comprehensive” look at bomber requirements in nearly two decades and took into account “all the relevant forces” that affect this nation’s ability to project power at long range, including tactical air forces, which often have been considered separately.

Dr. Kaminski also owned up to being “the culprit” for a two-week delay in the release of the report’s findings, having “forced more severe” scenarios, “just to be sure I was satisfied that we had covered the waterfront” and rendered the report as complete as possible.

Dr. Kaminski reported that the IDA study “illuminated the overwhelming importance that tactical air plays in the two-MRC [major regional conflict] scenario and the fact that you can’t ignore the impact of tactical air in making this decision, as have many other studies of this issue.”

The money that might be spent to acquire more than the planned twenty B-2s would be much better devoted to precision munitions [see box, p. 14] and conventional attack upgrades for the existing bomber fleet, including the B-2, Dr. Kaminski said.

The B-2 upgrades–beyond the currently planned final Block 30 configuration–could include radar upgrades, the ability to carry more and different munitions–such as the Wind-Corrected Munition Dispenser (WCMD)–improvements to communications, and software updates.

The bomber question has flared repeatedly in recent years. USAF’s June 1992 Bomber Roadmap revised the requirement, reducing it from 300 or so to only 211 operational B-1s and B-52s. One year later, Gen. John Michael Loh, commander of Air Combat Command, told Congress that USAF needed “about 180 to 200 operational bombers.”

Then, in late 1993, the Bottom-Up Review concluded that, though the US required 100 bombers for each of the two MRCs in the strategy, it could safely keep a total of 180 bombers, of which only 100 needed to be operational. In Senate testimony, Under Secretary of the Air Force Rudy de Leon said, “The analysis concluded that deploying 100 bombers forward . . . would, in conjunction with other forces, including fifty-four F-111Fs, be sufficient to fight two nearly simultaneous major regional conflicts. Deployed bombers were shifted from the first to the second MRC, so that the total needed for the two-MRC scenario was still 100 bombers.”

At present, the planned bomber force consists of a total aircraft inventory of 181 aircraft: sixty-six B-52Hs, ninety-five B-1Bs, and twenty B-2s.

The new analyses behind the Heavy Bomber Force Study set existing forces against several scenarios–some more “stressing” than others–that were then gamed in computer simulations, or “excursions.” Most scenarios postulated two nearly simultaneous MRCs: one war already under way in southwest Asia when another breaks out in the Far East.

However, Dr. Kaminski set up one extreme case–a war in which no tactical aviation, landbased or carrier-based, could get to the scene for fifteen days and in which bombers alone had to halt the advance of enemy troops. Under such conditions, the planned bomber force gave up fifty percent more ground than would have been the case if the total force, including tactical aircraft, participated.

It was not until the bomber force was enhanced with sixty more B-2s, for a total of eighty, that its performance was equivalent to that of the already planned bomber force abetted by tactical airpower.

In this scenario, “additional B-2s certainly helped to mitigate the absence of tactical air,” Dr. Kaminski said. “But one needs a significant number [of them] to make up the difference.”

Moreover, he added, a “substantial increase” in advanced antiarmor munitions would be needed to make the B-2s perform at the postulated levels. The bombers would also have to operate from forward bases, rather than by mounting their missions from their home bases in the continental US.

Dr. Kaminski stated that the “no-tacair” scenario, despite being unrealistic, was useful in that it came closest to comparing “apples to apples” in relation to previous studies that didn’t take into account the tactical strike aircraft. That was important to do both to verify previous assumptions–on which current force levels are based–and to corroborate previous cost estimates.

Dr. Kaminski presented a chart [see p. 16] that explains much of the confusion over just how much it would cost to increase the B-2 force by twenty aircraft. It presents six different figures ranging from $14.8 billion to $24.5 billion. All are accurate, in their own way but cover different items. “Not surprisingly, different people who do the [cost estimates] get different results,” Dr. Kaminski said.

He noted that studies done by the Air Force, the Pentagon’s Cost Analysis Improvement Group, and the IDA are “all really close,” at about $25 billion in life-cycle costs for twenty additional B-2s. Numbers developed and publicized by Northrop Grumman, maker of the B-2, came in around $17 billion, a figure that was lower because of “things that aren’t included, . . . such as warranties, sustained engineering, and reserve for engineering change orders, additional spares, . . . and learning curve,” Dr. Kaminski pointed out.

The IDA-Pentagon study looked at the bomber force as it would be in 1998, 2006, and 2014 and in different configurations involving as few as 114 bombers and as many as 201. The combinations of aircraft in these scenarios varied as well, including no B-1Bs, more B-52Hs, and simply tacking on another twenty B-2s to the planned force.

One scenario looked at the benefits of retiring all ninety-five of today’s B-1Bs and using the resulting savings–plus another $4 billion to $5 billion–to buy twenty more B-2s. However, the study found that wartime losses went up substantially because the Air Force had far fewer platforms available.

Looking ahead to 2014, when all the currently planned and a notional extra twenty B-2s would be in the field, “it’s very hard to see” the additional effectiveness of more B-2s, Dr. Kaminski said. In aircraft losses, “we did somewhere between five and ten percent better” with twenty more B-2s “than we did with the baseline case.” In the number of sorties necessary to complete the mission, “we also did slightly better. But [there were] small differences in each of these cases.”

Asked why doubling the number of B-2s didn’t seem to help much, Dr. Kaminski explained that “we have ten times more tactical aircraft than bombers involved, so the differences caused by varying the bomber forces are very small when all these tactical aircraft are present. . . . It’s lost in what all the rest of the tactical forces are doing.”

He noted, though, that bombers are “far more important in the ‘halt’ phase as tactical air is arriving.” After everything has arrived, bombers become less significant in the overall picture.

That assertion is a key one because the study assumed the US would have fourteen days’ warning before the outbreak of an MRC, something that isn’t borne out by experience. In both the Persian Gulf War and the Korean War, the US had less than a week’s warning before the aggressor attacked.

Rep. Floyd D. Spence (R­S. C.), chairman of the House National Security Committee, Senator Nunn, and other members of Congress criticized the fourteen-day warning time as “unrealistic.”

That contention was backed up by a separate report, worked up by the staff of the Commission on Roles and Missions of the Armed Forces, which, in addition to studying the division of military tasks and functions between the services, also looked at bomber requirements.

Noting that basic assumptions strongly influence final conclusions, the commission staff report said that if there is an assumption of “little or no warning time,” the tide turns in favor of acquiring additional B-2s “to hedge against surprise and increase warfighting options,” such as the potential to stop armor invasions without deploying large surface forces.

Though Dr. Kaminski said that the Pentagon-IDA analysts “went down to zero tactical warning time,” he could not discuss those results or the planning involved because they are classified.

The Roles and Missions Commission staff report also argued that the Heavy Bomber Force Study gave the Pentagon a fourfold benefit of the doubt as to how fast tactical air assets could reach a theater of operations. The Pentagon study assumed that the US could deploy 800 tactical aircraft in two weeks; in the Gulf War, the US moved only 200 in two weeks.

The Pentagon report, too, assumed substantial host-country basing support, clearly not available in all parts of the world. It also failed to give adequate consideration to a nuclear strike on a forward base of operations, the report contended.

Finally, the Pentagon-IDA study didn’t take into account the normal and predictable attrition of bombers over the next twenty to thirty years that, by historical measure, could claim up to twenty-five bombers.

The basic conclusion of the Roles and Missions Commission’s staff report, however, was disavowed by the voting members of the commission itself. They released their final report in late May–after the Heavy Bomber Force Study findings had been released.

“We agreed with the DoD conclusion that money spent on precision weapons and other improvements is better spent than on more B-2s,” said Gen. Larry D. Welch, USAF (Ret.), the former Air Force Chief of Staff who served on the commission. In a session with defense reporters, General Welch explained, “What the staff reported and what the commission decides can be two different things.”

He added that, among the roles and missions panel members, the vote had been “unanimous” on report language supporting the investment in precision weapons “for existing bombers and other strike aircraft or otherwise improving the conventional warfighting capabilities of existing bombers.”

But the roles and missions panel urged that no decisions be made that would rule out additional B-2 buys until the Bomber Industrial Base Assessment is completed.

In explaining the results of the Heavy Bomber Force Study, Dr. Kaminski pointed out that the capability of bombers is “very sensitive” to the number and type of munitions available.

When the analysts factored in a twenty-five percent cut in the currently planned number of munitions, “the number of aircraft losses went up almost sixty percent over what they were in the baseline. . . . This has a big impact.”

By doubling the planned inventory of advanced munitions, he added, “we reduce the number of losses to a little less than forty percent of what they were in the baseline situation.”

While he agrees with the idea of investing more in precision weapons, Senator Nunn said he’s worried the Pentagon won’t follow through because, historically, it has shortchanged such accounts in the budget.

“It’s a bias we have to work against,” Dr. Kaminski said in response to Senator Nunn’s assertion. He told defense reporters that there has long been a tendency in the armed services to “buy the platforms this year and buy the munitions [that go with them] next year.”

Now, he said, budgeteers are beginning to see the vast improvement in capability that will be offered by the advanced munitions and are beginning to give them the budget priority they deserve.

He allowed, though, that many of the Heavy Bomber Force Study’s assertions were based on the success of a long-range, stealthy, standoff munition, very much like the canceled Triservice Standoff Attack Missile (TSSAM).

“The requirement has not gone away” for a weapon of TSSAM’s planned capabilities, Dr. Kaminski said, but he acknowledged that TSSAM failed to perform after nearly a decade’s worth of effort and would not have appeared in the force “on the schedule advertised.” This, he said, “had a fair amount to do with its being canceled.”

Though Air Force leaders have testified that the TSSAM’s planned replacement, the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), could be deployed by the time the TSSAM would have entered service, Dr. Kaminski said this was unlikely and that JASSM will probably not reach the field until the early part of the next decade at the earliest.

However, JASSM is not starting from a “clean piece of paper,” he said, noting that the Air Force already has a usable powerplant, guidance system, and other subsystems that can be readily applied to it. Northrop Grumman, though, the maker of TSSAM, “most certainly is not” the de facto successor to itself as prime contractor.

Rand Corp. tried to drive home the importance of munitions in testimony to the House Appropriations Committee in May about its own analysis of the munitions issue.

Glen Buchan, a Rand analyst, said that without increasing the number of munitions and accelerating the timetable on which they are fielded, the bomber force “will have very limited capability regardless of how large it is.”

He added that, with the budget constraints of the last few years, the munitions stockpile early in the next decade “will only be large enough to provide the bomber force with a very limited capability during the early critical phases of a campaign.” Adding advanced munitions to the bomber repertoire is “a prerequisite, . . . not a trade-off.”

Congress appropriated $125 million last year to preserve a capability to produce B-2s beyond the twenty now planned. The money was earmarked for those manufacturers involved in the early B-2 production process who were beginning to close up shop because all twenty of the bombers have progressed to the midpoint of assembly or further. The funding was designed to keep these companies capable of producing parts until the issue of producing more B-2s could be resolved.

Of the $125 million, some $52 million had been spent by the time the Heavy Bomber Force Study was completed. This was enough to keep the restart option open through the end of this month.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Loh, then ACC commander, said, “We must preserve our capacity to produce bombers for the long term. We have invested heavily in technologies based on stealth and modern manufacturing techniques that are unique to bombers. Our bomber industrial base is a national asset; we must find a way to preserve it.”

Dr. Kaminski, however, said, “If our industrial base study predicts that we don’t need to use” the leftover amount from the bomber industrial base preservation funding, “I would then be redirecting those funds back to those high-payoff areas, . . . back into munitions or conventional upgrades.”

Another item that emerged from the disclosure of the Heavy Bomber Force Study was that the Air Force plans to retain the B-52H in the active inventory into the 2030s, when the youngest of the type will be more than seventy years old.

Dr. Kaminski told Air Force Magazine that he’s not concerned about fielding such an elderly aircraft in such a critical role.

“Those are essentially modern airplanes,” he asserted. With the Air Force having diligently replaced parts and systems over the years, “it’s just like lifting up the nameplate and driving a new plane under there.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who opposes buying more B-2s on the basis of affordability, said he “doesn’t have a problem” with maintaining B-52s in service for such a long time, if they continue to get adequate inspections and routine system upgrades.

During markups of the Fiscal 1996 defense authorization bill, Representative Spence included $500 million to procure long-lead items necessary to build the twenty-first, twenty-second, and twenty-third B-2 bombers, but he was expecting significant debate and was uncertain whether the provision would survive throughout this year’s entire defense budget cycle.

Precision Munitions

The Heavy Bomber Force Study favors spending money on advanced precision weapons rather than on further production of B-2 bombers. Some of these weapons are:

  • AGM-86C Conventional Air-Launched Cruise Missile (CALCM): A nuclear cruise missile converted to carry a 1,000-pound conventional warhead with blast effects comparable to those of a 2,000-pound bomb. Guidance is by Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite receiver.
  • Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM): A GPS/INS tailfin kit that will permit a standard bomb to guide itself to within a few meters of a target without the need for the launching aircraft to guide it by means of laser or TV tracker. JDAM was undertaken to provide a precise target attack capability in bad weather. There will be 500-, 1,000-, and 2,000-pound variants of JDAM. A later version will have a terminal seeker.
  • Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW): A stealthy glide bomb or dispenser that can be launched fifty miles from a target. Intended to be inexpensive, partly through use of some common components with JDAM. A more sophisticated variant is planned with a terminal, man-in-the-loop imaging infrared seeker.
  • Wind-Corrected Munition Dispenser (WCMD): An INS tailfin kit that will allow attack aircraft to drop dispenser weapons from high altitude or without directly overflying the target, while maintaining the accuracy of a low-altitude drop.
  • Sensor-Fuzed Weapon (SFW): A dispenser of submunitions that seek out armored vehicles and destroy them by firing down a shaped copper projectile. The SFW is intended to permit multiple-kills-per-pass, minimizing the kind of “tank plinking” required of aircraft in the Gulf War.
  • Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM): A stealthy weapon with a 2,000-pound-class warhead, able to strike a target with high accuracy after a flight of several hundred kilometers. This is the replacement for the canceled AGM-137 TSSAM system.

How Much for Twenty More B-2s

(billions of FY 1996 dollars)

Source: Department of Defense

Type of Cost

Items Included



Recurring flyaway cost

Government-furnished equipment, sustaining engineering, and engineering change orders.



Aircraft flyaway cost

Adds nonrecurring costs: facilities, warranties, etc.



Weapon system cost

Adds technical data and training equipment.



Procurement cost

Adds initial and mission readiness spares kits.



Program acquisition cost

Adds program’s research, development, test, and evaluation costs.



Life-cycle cost

Adds project operations and support costs over twenty-five years.