Future historians seeking a specific date for the end of the Cold War might select the day the Berlin Wall fell or the Soviet Union dissolved; both make sense as the benchmark. For Air Force bomber crews, however, it happened on September 27, 1991, the day they officially stood down from their decades-long, round-the-clock readiness for nuclear war.
Over nearly forty years, bomber crews rehearsed to get airborne within seconds of hearing the Klaxon in alert facilities around the country. Their mission: If deterrence failed, make single-ship penetrations of the Soviet heartland to strike critical targets. Their grim preparations for this task were intended to leave no doubt that there could be no possible gain in starting a nuclear war with the United States.
Throughout the Cold War, bombers participated in other conflicts–Linebacker and Arc Light bombing campaigns in Vietnam and “battlefield preparation” and strikes against Republican Guard units in Iraq. For the most part, though, bombers in Strategic Air Command retained a unique mission and culture, setting them apart from the rest of the service.
Bombers are now fully integrated in the conventional force, demonstrating their versatility and relevance in a world seemingly no longer on the edge of the nuclear abyss. Bomber and fighter crews alike wear the Air Combat Command patch, constantly flying and training together, in what may be the closest coordination between them since World War II.
While the Single Integrated Operational Plan–SIOP, or nuclear war plan–still exists in a much-modified form, and bomber crews maintain their ability to carry it out, their emphasis has shifted almost entirely to the conventional mission.
“I think the transition has been successful,” Lt. Gen. Stephen B. Croker, commander of 8th Air Force, Barksdale AFB, La., told Air Force Magazine in a recent interview.
No Single-Ship Mentality
“Before, we did principally the SIOP and had some secondary capability in the conventional area,” General Croker said. Now, “we have very successfully trained the crews to operate not in the single-ship mentality but in . . . composite packages, where many times the bomber people are the . . . package commanders.”
The bombers of 8th Air Force belong to Air Combat Command and not to US Strategic Command, which now has responsibility for the nation’s nuclear forces. At need, however, USSTRATCOM can pull them back.
The command responsibilities for bombers were transferred to the joint-service US Atlantic Command, of which ACC is a part, in October 1993 because “it was our perception that we were more likely to need bombers in a conventional crisis over the next . . . decade than we were to need them for nuclear war,” said STRATCOM Commander in Chief Adm. Henry G. Chiles, Jr.
If the Secretary of Defense so orders, STRATCOM would again assume control over the bombers, “but I see that as only being necessary . . . in the case of very dire circumstances facing the United States, in which case we would want to reconstitute our full nuclear capability,” Admiral Chiles said.
Exercises are routinely run “to verify that we still know how to do that regeneration,” but they are mostly of the command-post variety, he continued. “Occasionally we will actually go through with the formality . . . of practicing with actual units.”
General Croker said he believes that, despite reduced emphasis on the SIOP role, his crews are actually better prepared to carry it out because they get more varied training than they once did.
During the bulk of the Cold War, he noted, bomber crews rarely deployed outside the United States because of the political sensitivities of other countries to hosting a nuclear-dedicated platform. And, because their mission was usually separate from that of the fighters and other type aircraft, bombers typically did not play in Red Flag or other large-scale exercises.
When he was a bomb wing commander in the mid-1980s, General Croker said, “my crews’ proficiency on overwater and long-endurance navigation probably wasn’t very good” because most training for the SIOP had to be done within the US.
Now, however, “every wing in Air Combat Command, at least once a quarter, has a long-endurance, global power mission of twenty to thirty hours,” he said. “Crews are regularly deploying off-station, involved in exercises,” and even deploying outside the country. General Croker had, just a few days before, “landed the first B-52 that’s ever been in Iceland,” he reported. There, crews practiced low-level missions, went on to bombing ranges in the UK, and returned to the continental US. Meanwhile, B-52s from Minot AFB, N. D., had recently deployed to Thailand for cooperative exercises there.
“They never got that type of training before,” General Croker said. He added that, in his opinion, bomber crews “are better prepared to handle the multiplicity of tasks they have today” than before the stand-down from nuclear alert.
The nuclear mission is still a feature of the academic training that new bomber crews receive, but it is no longer part of their initial flying training. In 1988, only two of fourteen sorties on the syllabus of new bomber pilots were dedicated to conventional missions. Today, fourteen of fourteen sorties are focused on conventional missions; SIOP training is given in the simulator only.
Both Admiral Chiles and General Croker said that despite the conventional focus, they are not concerned that nuclear readiness has suffered because the skills practiced by bomber crews overlap the two missions considerably. There has been “no degradation” in nuclear mission proficiency test scores, General Croker said.
The capability for reconstitution is maintained because “no one can predict” whether the Cold War will remain over, Admiral Chiles added.
And, despite several years of conventional indoctrination, crews have not forgotten that fact, either. The best-selling item at the 8th Air Force Museum at Barksdale is a T-shirt with the Strategic Air Command emblem and the simple phrase, “SAC will be back.”
“One of the challenges that Air Combat Command had early on . . . was not just merging two cultures but creating a new culture,” General Croker observed. “I think that worked out really well. I think we have a better-balanced warfighting focus today that doesn’t put undue emphasis on any one platform or weapon system.”
There is now a Bomber Weapons School, to match the long-established Fighter Weapons School, which underlines the equanimity of platforms, he noted.
General Croker also said that the new culture of ACC has created an upward flow of ideas that “wouldn’t have happened in the old days.”
“The crews at McConnell, the 384th Bomb Wing, came up with the idea of global power missions,” he said. “That wasn’t a Steve Croker idea or a Gen. [John Michael] Loh idea. That was Brig. Gen. [Charles] Ron Henderson’s crews. . . . They ran the concept up the flagpole, flew the first mission. That was a bottom-up type issue. . . . We adopted it command-wide, and we’ve been doing it ever since. . . . I feel pretty good about that.”
The 1993 Bottom-Up Review, which recast the forces and strategy of the US military, viewed bombers as the first wave of response in a no-warning conventional conflict. In the early hours of such a crisis, bombers are to launch from US bases and strike at “time-sensitive” targets in the area of hostilities. The targets would range from air defenses and power grids to armored vehicles on the march.
The idea is that bombers will buy time for the bulk of US forces to get to the theater and begin conducting operations from closer sites. This part of the strategy is known as “the halt phase,” during which an aggressor is stopped or greatly slowed.
The critical nature of this new role set the stage for intense debates on the utility of bombers when compared to other, forward-deployed forces, such as carrier-based aircraft; whether the Bottom-Up Review level of 100 deployable bombers is enough; and whether the US requires more than twenty B-2s.
Acknowledging that two near-simultaneous conflicts would greatly tax the existing bomber force, the Defense Department has developed plans to employ the airplanes with a “swing” strategy. Under this scenario, the bomber force would halt aggression in one theater first and then “swing” to the second conflict. Once the second crisis eased, the bombers would be divided among the two theaters as necessary.
Former Air Combat Command chief General Loh, at this year’s AFA air warfare symposium in Orlando, Fla., said he has some “concerns” about the swing strategy, mainly because “it is untested” and poses “a certain amount of risk.” He repeated his concerns to a number of congressional defense panels in the months that followed and advocated preserving the capability to build additional bombers.
However, General Loh’s successor, Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, said he is not worried about the swing strategy and doesn’t think that its application will pose big problems for the Air Force.
General Ralston said that the swing strategy is “very easy if you’re doing it from CONUS”–that is, operating strictly from US bases. In such a case, the Air Force would only need to change the destination of bombers from one theater to another. The preference would be to move them as far forward as possible, though, to achieve faster sortie generation.
“If we’ve deployed the bombers forward and it’s time to swing, then we redeploy them,” he said. “My personal view is it’s not all that big a deal. . . . We routinely practice mobilization and we train to deploy. We do it all the time with F-15s and F-16s, on twenty-four-hour notice, . . . and there’s no reason to use bombers any differently.”
In the B-52H–at thirty-two-plus years of age one of the oldest platforms in the Air Force–the “multiplicity” of missions is apparent in the form of an ever-increasing variety of weaponry. In the nuclear role, the B-52H can carry both the AGM-86B Air-Launched Cruise Missile and AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missile, as well as nuclear gravity bombs. In the conventional mission, it can carry the AGM-86C Conventional ALCM [see “The Secret Squirrels,” April 1994, p. 56], the AGM-142 TV and imaging infrared-guided Have Nap precision bomb, laser-guided bombs, cluster munitions, unguided iron bombs, and the AGM-84 Harpoon antiship missile, as well as sea mines.
“It’s definitely a more interesting mission,” said Capt. Bob Morris, a B-52 tactics officer at the 2d Bomb Wing at Barksdale.
Captain Morris, old enough to have “done his time” in alert facilities, said that, with the shift in mission, it’s now possible to “mix it up with the good guys and bad guys” in training, rather than practicing the set-piece, one-ship “duck and evade” missions of a decade ago. Barksdale B-52s can test their mettle against Army antiaircraft artillery at White Sands, N. M., and partner with the F-15Es of Seymour Johnson AFB off the North Carolina coast for other types of joint training.
When the B-52 was dedicated almost entirely to the SIOP mission, crews flew “the same seven routes,” on rather unrealistic two- to four-hour missions, and invariably alone, Captain Morris said.
“We never flew in formation and never worked with any other asset . . . except aerial refueling,” he noted.
“Now we go anywhere; . . . it’s more up to us . . . where we train.”
Formation flying receives greater emphasis now because, by sticking together, more bombers can depend on fewer jamming planes with less fighter protection. The bombers will also be able to strike several targets in a finite area simultaneously, such as various buildings in the same industrial complex.
In addition, “going in with a package . . . all at once” tends to saturate enemy defenses, Capt. Jeff Stogsdill of the 96th Bomb Squadron pointed out. This was a tactic proven in Operation Desert Storm, he said.
Not all B-52s can use all the weapons certified for the type because of hardware- or software-unique configurations. Only ten planes can carry Have Nap, for example, and those planes can’t carry Harpoon, so there is “some degree of specialization,” Captain Morris noted. Work is proceeding on a Heavy Stores Adaptor that will make a universal fit for any weapon.
Asked which modification has affected the B-52 most in its transition to the mainly conventional role, Capt. Greg Bell, a 2d Bomb Wing navigator, answered, “the GPS/INS [Global Positioning System/inertial navigation system]. . . . You don’t have to sit on the runway for an hour doing an alignment; . . . you’re rolling.”
Captain Morris added that the new weaponry for the most part diminishes the “amount of time you’re vulnerable” to enemy weapons. “Once you release” most of the guided weaponry, “you can maneuver freely” while transmitting information to the munition as it homes in on its target, he said.
Barksdale is unique in having capability for all weapons available to the B-52 and has become the center for all training, weapons integration, and tests related to it.
Out in Front
The B-52 is out in front in terms of conventional weaponry because its age and huge radar signature had begun to relegate it increasingly to the standoff role well before the Cold War ended. The B-1B and B-2 were to supplant it in the role of a penetrating strategic nuclear bomber.
Now, with the shift to the conventional mission, the B-1B is slated to shed its nuclear responsibilities entirely; but that hasn’t happened just yet.
“In the next year or so, we ought to be out of the SIOP mission with the B-1,” General Croker said. The 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth AFB, S. D., will be the first “pure conventional” B-1B wing, followed “eventually” by the 7th Wing at Dyess AFB, Tex., he said.
The B-1B can carry iron bombs on its internal racks and has now been certified for cluster munitions and is increasingly involved in joint exercises and overseas deployments. The B-1B has deployed to South Korea and has begun to do routine, nonstop, round-the-world power-projection missions.
“The B-1 schoolhouse has converted to conventional training,” noted Col. John Mangels, 608th Air Operations Group commander at Barksdale and a former B-1 squadron commander. Though some time is given over to SIOP training, much of it overlaps the conventional missions. “The bomb run is very similar,” he said.
The B-1B is more agile than the B-52, has a synthetic aperture radar, and can fly at near-Mach speeds, meaning it can go with a fast-moving package of fighters and jammers well into enemy territory, Colonel Mangels explained. The full book on “just what this airplane can do” in the conventional role is being written every day, he said.
But unlike the B-52, whose crew compartment is by comparison quite spacious and able to carry “augmented” crews to take the controls during a lengthy power-projection mission, the entire B-1B crew sits on ejection seats, and there’s no room for extra personnel. For rest, one crew member can stretch out along the access door, but that’s about it.
Colonel Mangels said the staff at Brooks AFB, Tex., is studying ways to fight crew fatigue on the B-1B and B-2, which has a two-crew cockpit and even less “space available” for additional flyers.
For years the B-1B suffered from maintenance difficulties and problems with an electronic warfare system that just wouldn’t work right. Last year, however, the airplane got a chance to prove it could be a dependable performer if given an adequate supply of spare parts, crews, and maintainers, which had consistently been denied by Congress. The B-1B Operational Readiness Assessment silenced many critics and showed that the airplane itself was not to blame for all its problems.
“I think the Operational Readiness Assessment at Ellsworth was a real success,” General Croker said. “We proved with the right spares funding the MC [mission capable] rate could be above seventy-five percent–it was eighty-four percent for the test, very successful–and I think it had a very significant input on the congressional decision to support the [B-1B] conventional upgrade.”
Changes On the Line
The mission of the B-2 was changing while the plane was still in development. Making its public debut as the Cold War was ending, changes were–and are–being made right on the assembly line to optimize the plane for the conventional role.
The B-2 initially can carry only iron bombs but will soon receive the GPS-Aided Targeting System/GPS-Aided Munition (GATS/GAM), recently proved successful in testing, and will eventually receive many of the same precision strike weapons destined for the B-1B and B-52. (See box.)
It will be several years, however, before the B-2 gets a chance to live up to its billing as a star conventional bomber. Only a couple of weapons have been test-dropped from the airplane’s capacious bomb bay, and it will not be fully ready for conventional duty until several block upgrades have been put in place.
“It’s going to take some time until we get the mods into the airplane to get it full-up” for the conventional role, General Ralston noted.
In the meantime, ground crews and flight crews are operating with the B-2 and “writing the book” on it, so that, as it receives capability for new munitions, they can be swiftly integrated, tested, and added to the airplane’s repertoire.
General Croker said he sees no reason to doubt that the B-52 can continue in service into the 2040s, as currently envisioned by Defense Department planners. Stress-induced fatigue is “mathematically predictable,” he said, and with good attention and routine upgrades, the B-52’s airframe should be able to hold out.
“Most B-52s average around 11,000 to 14,000 hours. Airlines are flying 747s with over 70,000 hours,” Captain Stogsdill pointed out. “There’s a lot of life left in these planes.” The low “mileage,” given its age, is a result of the B-52s’ having sat on alert rather than flying very much over the last few decades.
General Croker noted, though, that one thing that cannot be predicted is corrosion fatigue, and making reasonable guesses about it is more difficult because many of the alloys used in B-52 construction are no longer made and there are few parallels to study in other type aircraft.
“We have lead-the-fleet airplanes,” and these are being watched for problems like those that have afflicted the C-141 StarLifter in recent years, he reported. So far, “cost of ownership” on the B-52 has turned out to be manageable. It was the cost-of-ownership problem with the G model–increasingly scarce parts and obsolete systems–that forced the type into “the boneyard” in the last few years. Costs were cut on the H model by eliminating the tailgunner position and the need to support the associated 1960s-vintage hardware.
Reengining the B-52s, proposed many times during their service life, does not look necessary, General Croker added. “The [turbo]fans have been very reliable and very cost-effective,” he said. But if there were to be a dramatic breakthrough in engine technology that would sharply lower operating cost and maintenance, “then we might be faced with a reengining decision like we did on the KC-135,” he said.
Overall, “I don’t see any dramatic threats to the functionality or the life of the B-52,” General Croker concluded. He acknowledged that the B-52 is already heavily dependent on defense suppression and electronic warfare to operate in enemy airspace and will increasingly be forced to fly standoff attack missions rather than penetrator missions.
Both the B-1B and the B-2 were designed to have 10,000 hours of service life, meaning they will probably be structurally sound for the next twenty to thirty years, perhaps longer.
Grayer–and More Experienced
Bomber crews are more experienced now than they were eight years ago, in large part because of the big drawdown of the force and the consequent constriction of opportunities to move up. The 96th Bomb Squadron seems to be made up almost exclusively of captains, and they generally appeared to be older and more experienced than their Cold War predecessors.
“I think we have a second lieutenant around here somewhere,” joked one pilot. “I know we have a major, but I haven’t seen him lately.”
The drawdown has accelerated a trend that General Croker said has been gaining momentum for the last ten years: a narrowing of opportunities to fly different kinds of aircraft.
Though “a very small number . . . of special opportunities” exist for pilots and navigators to go on an exchange program with fighters or other services, or B-52 and B-1B pilots who go to the B-2, the day of the pilot with experience in many types–like General Croker himself, who has been checked out on eleven different planes–is fading, he said.
“A large driver is cost,” he observed. “The training cost to requalify someone on a new system is quite high. . . . The reality is that people will spend a much greater percentage of their career in one particular aircraft type.”
One of the most significant changes to the bomber mission in the postCold War era is that the Guard and Reserve are starting to get bombers of their own.
The first unit equipped was the 17th Operations Group at Barksdale, which gave up some of its A-10s to adopt the B-52. It became “combat ready” July 1.
Col. Jim Mills, who commands the 17th, said most of his personnel “just came down the street” from the regular Barksdale B-52 units, and so his crews and maintenance people are “extremely experienced.” The unit has nine aircraft, eight of which are “tasked.” The ninth is a “floater” that fills in when a plane is absent for depot maintenance, a “spare tire that you rotate every day.”
The Guard and Reserve units that fly bombers are not “coded” for the nuclear mission, but, in a national crisis, the aircraft could be ceded back to STRATCOM. Regular crews would fly the planes in such circumstances.
The Reserve B-52s–the Guard is getting B-1Bs at McConnell AFB, Kan., and Robins AFB, Ga.–will fly aircraft that are as “close in configuration as possible” to the ones flown by the active force. There will be “some specialization,” Colonel Mills said, just as there is in the regular force.
Bombers In Reserve
ACC’s 8th Air Force has a number of aircraft that are in what is called “attrition reserve” status, meaning that they occasionally fly but, technically, are not funded and do not count against mission capable rates or aircraft available rates. The money saved by keeping these aircraft in limbo is being used to offset the cost of conventional weapons upgrades for the bomber fleet.
“What we decided . . . was that it didn’t make sense to keep all the bombers flying day-to-day until the conventional weapons upgrade was complete . . . at the turn of the century,” General Croker said.
“We’ve put a number of B-1s into this status where they’re still modified and maintained. We fly them periodically, but we’ve retained the option to buy back some of them when the upgrade is complete,” he said.
Although the Bottom-Up Review level of 100 deployable bombers was predicated on the availability of the F-111, which is now being phased out early to save money, General Croker doesn’t see that as a reason to bring some bombers “back” early.
“I don’t see anything in the calculus to change” the bomber plan, he said, and “I see no move on the part of the Defense Department to add more bombers sooner.” The departure of the F-111s is a loss, but until the precision weapons capability that will arrive with the conventional upgrades, “I don’t think it makes sense . . . to backfill bombers just to backfill bombers,” he added.
“We’re satisfied in Air Combat Command with the number of bombers we have today, in the program and on the books.”
Admiral Chiles said he is not concerned that in the age of missile proliferation, the bomber–either as a conventional or a nuclear weapons platform–is in its sunset years.
“We would be wrong, in my judgment, to withdraw the bomber entirely from the strategic force,” he said. “It just plain has utility and flexibility that is appropriate for . . . as far as I can see . . . into the future.
“What other part of our strategic forces can be used conventionally with ease or in a nuclear role with equal ease?” he asked. “And the skills of the folks that make that happen are ideally suited to both.”
USAF tends to modernize in cycles. Fighters saw a big wave of replacement in the 1970s. In the 1980s, it was strategic forces, including bombers. In the 1990s, airlift is getting most of the attention, and in the next decade, fighters will again be the focus. On this timetable, by around 2010, “it may be time to start looking at bombers again,” General Ralston said. “At some point, we’re going to have to look at a replacement for the B-52.”
He cautioned that the B-52’s replacement “may not be another big bomber,” however. The chief advantage of bombers has always been their ability “to carry a big payload a long way,” General Ralston said. “But large payloads are less important now than they were in the past.”
With the advent of precision weapons, a small airplane with a highly accurate munition can “accomplish the same thing” that used to be done simply by saturating an area with explosives.
“One F-15E today can accomplish more than a whole squadron of B-17s” fifty years ago, he pointed out.
“Our most significant shortfall in ACC is precision weapons for our bombers,” he said. Getting those munitions–and on the planned schedule–is “absolutely our top priority.”
|Upgrading the Bomber Fleet
The bomber fleet is in the process of receiving extensive modifications to make it more capable in the conventional role.
The B-1B Conventional Mission Upgrade Program includes three phases. Phase I, now under way, will give the B-1B capability for the CBU-87 and CBU-89 cluster munitions, as well as the CBU-97 Sensor-Fuzed Weapon–an antiarmor munition that permits multiple kills per weapon per pass. Thirty CBUs will be accommodated in each of the B-1B’s weapons bays. Phase I is to be completed in the third quarter of Fiscal 1996.
Phase II will provide the B-1B with capability for the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), a GPS/INS-guided bomb with either a 1,000-pound or a 2,000-pound warhead. The B-1B will be able to carry up to twenty-four JDAMs, eight each on three modified bomb bay rotary launchers. JDAM is expected to be integrated by the second quarter of FY 2000. Phase II also involves adding GPS capability and an antijam radio to the B-1B, which should be in the airplane by the last quarter of FY 1999.
In Phase III, the stealthy Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW) glide bomb will be added, expected by the first quarter of FY 2003, as well as the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), the successor to the canceled Triservice Standoff Attack Missile.
During all three phases, there will be software and electronic countermeasures improvements. Though capability for dropping laser-guided bombs using an off-board designator has been demonstrated, there are no plans yet to give the B-1B its own laser designator.
The B-2A is still in production; conventional improvements are being made on the assembly line and will be retrofitted to earlier models.
Block 10 is the first configuration of the B-2, which permits carriage of up to sixteen Mk. 84 2,000-pound bombs on the bomb bay rotary launcher. It also has capability for the B83 nuclear weapon. The B-2s now on duty at Whiteman AFB, Mo., are of Block 10 configuration.
Block 20 adds the B61 nuclear gravity bomb and the GPS-Aided Targeting System/GPS-Aided Munition (GATS/GAM) to permit an “early, near-precision” strike capability. Up to sixteen GAMs can be carried on the Rotary Launcher Assembly.
The Block 30 aircraft will have a Bomb Release Assembly capable of carrying Mk. 82 bombs, cluster munitions (including Sensor-Fuzed Weapons), mines, JDAM, JSOW, and JASSM.
Other improvements include full in-flight mission replanning capability, threat detection and identification system, enhancements to the Defensive Management System, and various electronic countermeasures, avionics, and software.
The B-2 has provision for a third ejection seat, and ACC is considering installing it as part of a “Block 40” configuration still being defined. The additional crew member would relieve the fatigue problem on extremely long power-projection missions and bring, as one programmer explained it, “a fresh mind to the cockpit” just before the weapons-release phase of a mission.
The B-52 fleet is being upgraded to standardize the aircraft so that all planes can carry all munitions certified for the B-52. Main efforts include Heavy Stores Adapter Beams, which will permit carriage of all current precision guided munitions, nearly all bombs and Navy mines, and the Harpoon missile; the Universal Bomb Bay Adapter, which improves speed and safety of changing out Common Strategic Rotary Launchers, ARC-210/DAMA radio, electronic countermeasures improvements; and integration of advanced weapons, such as JDAM, JSOW, and Wind-Corrected Munitions Dispenser, and possibly JASSM.
Other improvements, which will change out older systems for newer, easier-to-maintain ones, such as the forward-looking infrared, are being studied.