When Bombers Will Be Decisive

Nov. 1, 2007

No mission is more emblematic of the Air Force than the long-range bomber mission, that unique assignment to hold at risk any target anywhere on the face of the Earth. This is the lethal combination of range and payload that the Air Force regards as its birthright.

USAF, says Gen. T. Michael Moseley, its Chief of Staff, is “a unique entity in the American military” because it must be able to find, watch, and destroy anything on the surface of the Earth.

For all this deeply held doctrinal commitment, though, the Air Force bomber inventory is at an all-time low. Fighters have dominated theater operations since the 1991 Gulf War as their precision bombing capabilities have grown exponentially, and have arguably dominated USAF thinking since the end of the Vietnam War.

Will there ever be a future in which bombers once again are decisive

Both history and daily experience suggest the answer is yes. The 21st century concept for a new bomber will mix range and payload with networked sensor architectures in radical new ways, with radical new results.

The first evidence comes from the historical record. No matter what the circumstances, the range and payload of bombers have repeatedly been top commodities.

America’s first bombers were two-seat observation biplanes converted to carry bombs. They flew bombing missions beginning in the summer of 1918, but they never got the chance to be decisive before the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918. Still, Allied plans for the offensive in 1919 had called for massive bombing campaigns.

Later, the sleek monoplanes of the 1930s began the dedicated concentration on maximizing range and expanding payload. Bombers such as the B-17 and the B-24 consciously traded speed and agility for distance and weapons load. In World War II, many aircrews died because their bombers had these characteristics, but British and American bombers were the only weapons capable of striking directly at Nazi Germany for the first several years of the war.

There was no doubt at the time that bombers were decisive. It took just two—on Aug. 6, 1945 and Aug. 9, 1945—to deliver the atomic bombs that ended World War II.

Range and payload continued to deliver a decisive edge in Cold War campaigns. Bombers struck interdiction targets in Korea. They provided close air support and bombed Hanoi heavily during the Vietnam War.

After the F-117 stealth aircraft made its combat debut in Operation Just Cause in 1989 in Panama, the F-117s, F-15Es, and F-111s reached tremendous levels of effectiveness with laser guided bombing in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Still, range and payload mattered. B-52s flew from Barksdale AFB, La., to launch cruise missiles at key targets in Iraq during the opening hours of that air campaign.

A total of 68 B-52Gs went on to fly 1,035 sorties against strategic targets and another 527 sorties against battlefield interdiction targets such as Iraqi artillery, armor, and infantry units. The ordnance they delivered accounted for 30 percent of the coalition’s total tonnage.

Yet soon thereafter, range and payload slipped in priority. In 1997, the B-2 program was halted.

The “procurement holiday” of the 1990s hit bombers hard. In the 10 years since the decision was made to truncate bomber modernization, the Air Force has not come up with a way to begin a new bomber program, even as many of the B-52s from the early 1960s and B-1Bs from the early 1980s have been retired.

Not since World War I has USAF’s force-structure balance been tipped so dramatically toward short-range force structure.

Air operations over the last two decades have greatly favored the use of fighter forces with precision weapons. On very few occasions did adversaries present targets beyond the reach or survivability limits of the fighters.

During that time, canonical planning scenarios such as war on the Korean peninsula and another fight with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were gamed as combined-arms operations, where short-range forces were highly effective. Neither placed undue or unique demands on long-range forces. In both, for example, carrier aviation was able to make a weighty contribution despite its range limitations. The huge increase in capability from integration of precision weapons took care of whatever the models demanded.

Force structure and investment plans absorbed those priorities. “The backbone of the air fleet, which had been the heavy bombers and ICBMs, … decreased dramatically in numbers and importance,” noted historian Phillip S. Meilinger.

Of course, there were exceptions. A big one came in NATO’s Operation Allied Force in 1999. Tough targets in Serbian territory could only be reached by the B-2 bomber, which made its combat debut by flying directly from its base in Missouri. The B-2 successfully struck heavily defended fixed targets and mobile targets such as an SA-3.

Afghanistan presented another showcase for range and payload. B-1s and B-52Hs ended up dropping about 70 percent of the total tonnage during the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom in the fall of 2001.

Far Greater Distances

Defense analysts Steven M. Kosiak and Barry D. Watts, a former director of program analysis and evaluation at the Pentagon, recently wrote for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments that “in future wars, US aircraft may have to operate at far greater distances than they have in the recent past.”

A new appreciation for the bombers emerged during the ongoing operations when B-52Hs and B-1s proved the value of turning range into loiter time, allowing the aircraft to stay overhead with large weapons loads to support varied ground operations.

On missions in 2004 and 2005, it was common for aircraft to drop just one weapon, or none at all. By the fall of 2006, strikes increased as larger formations of Taliban fighters emerged in Afghanistan. One B-1 crew told of releasing eight 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions, plus six 500-pound bombs, on a single mission that fall.

The work of the bomber crews drew Army accolades. Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley praised Air Force bombers—and the B-1 in particular—for their work in Afghanistan. Freakley singled out the B-1 because the “Bone” can carry a bigger payload, loiter longer, and get anywhere in Afghanistan “in minutes” at dash speed.

The historical record—and daily events—strongly suggests that the future will throw in more challenges that call for long range and a heavy weapons payload as part of the mix.

Currently, the Air Force has more than 2,300 fighters but less than 200 bombers. That ratio reflected the needs at the end of the Cold War. But does it provide the basis for future needs in both warfighting and deterrence

The Air Force has answered the question in a way by repeatedly accelerating its plan to develop and field a new bomber, which now has a target date of being ready for squadron service in 2018.

There’s another wrinkle. The days of fighters (or bombers, or unmanned systems) operating alone are over. In 21st century scenarios, all these platforms will need to share information and achieve a tactical dependence to get the job done. Heavily defended airspace will present challenges that call for platforms to work together in new ways.

There’s an inexorable image dating back to World War II of bomber formations conducting long-range missions all alone. Even when the P-51 at last provided fighter escort with legs, the Mustang tactic was not to cling to low group or high group, but break away to challenge and chase German fighters.

The B-2 missions over Serbia in 1999 briefly returned the bomber to lone wolf status. NATO fighters pinned down Serbia’s last MiGs, and EA-6B jammers worked to protect the skies. However, on target approaches the B-2 crews counted on their own resources and skillful mission planning.

Bombers in 2020 scenarios will not be lone wolves. They will be part of a wolfpack.

It’s an evolution in strike operations that is already under way, underpinned by the networked force. Strike platforms are being modified with data links that share status, images, combat tracks, chat, and even voice.

The net result is an air battle network that adds up to far more than the sum of its parts. Each platform in the 2020 air battle will be able to draw from both on- and off-board sources to securely share information.

New fighters such as the F-22 and F-35 are being built with many of these advanced capabilities. An F-22 may spot “red” Su-30s at several points, thanks to its exceptionally high volume air search radar. As the F-22s move to attack, they can pass that picture to bombers, marking out the “safe” corridors for operations or redirecting the more vulnerable aircraft to defensive tactics.

No More Lone Actors

No doubt it will take time and practice to hone the tactics. However, US airmen excel at finding better ways to blend new ingredients into situation awareness. They will also have plenty of ways to do it in advance. Widespread use of simulation on the F-35, for example, has already demonstrated new tactical options for the many customers for the aircraft—all before any Joint Strike Fighter deliveries have been made.

The “2018 bomber” will be stealthy and will boost the Air Force’s ability to take that network deep. This is a new sight picture for the Air Force. Up through the F-22, today’s platforms were built with a big emphasis on what the aircraft itself could do. Until recent years, the F-22 was seen as yet another lone actor—with its deep stealth, it would cross-communicate only to other nearby F-22s.

Perhaps the ultimate example of solo warfare was the F-117. Difficulty with fitting the F-117 into a future network battlespace was part of the reason why the Air Force decided it was time to retire the groundbreaking stealth warbird.

On the other hand, older systems—from B-52s to Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18s—that can incorporate network enhancements are keeping their jobs even in a world decades removed from their original roles.

Just what will the wolfpack and its bombers be doing deep in enemy territory in the 2020s? It will be a mix of missions, such as supporting special operations forces. However, the main mission will likely be hunting mobile targets.

Mobile targets range from most-wanted terrorists in SUVs to road-mobile missile launchers. A representative target is the mobile surface-to-air missile.

All these targets share two vexing traits. They are important to the enemy, often carrying key capabilities or weapons, such as anti-satellite missiles. Also, when under threat, they can scoot out of most weapons’ blast zone in just a few minutes.

The ability of mobile targets to relocate limits options for attacking them. Standoff weapons incur two penalties. First is their time of flight. Subsonic or low Mach weapons cannot count on a clean hit on most types of mobile targets. The target may relocate under normal procedure, or it can move in response to missile detection. Either way, unless the weapon can track or be redirected to the target after release, it is likely to miss.

A second problem is that glide weapons—or even cruise missiles launched at a distance—may slow too much as they approach the target, and could be shot down themselves.

Killing mobile targets requires taking minutes out of the kill chain. One way to do that is by bringing the weapon and the platform closer in. Behind the SAM belts, there will be high priority, mobile targets assigned to the air component. These are the prime turf for a penetrating, long-range bomber.

This is exactly where the current force structure of the Air Force falls short.

Plans for a 2018 bomber call for rebalancing the force. Currently, the only candidate for hunting mobile targets in defended airspace is the B-2. However, the fleet of 16 combat-coded B-2s does not provide enough long-range force structure for the highest-threat scenarios.

The Air Force’s stealth bomber fleet is simply not big enough to provide sustained attack over several days—even assuming no combat losses or damage to cut into sortie rates. Consider the numbers. Assume the Air Force can put all 16 combat-ready B-2s in forward locations for a major campaign. If the bombers flew 12-hour missions, with only 12 hours turn time, commanders would struggle to keep two B-2s operating over a target zone.

That’s hardly the kind of persistent attack an air commander requires when mobile targets are on the loose.

The Air Force has judiciously invested in the B-2, making it an exceptionally capable aircraft. Next up are plans to integrate Link 16, the secure battle channel in use by fighters and other aircraft for several years. B-2s with Link 16 will truly enter the networked force, further increasing their relevance.

Onward To Mach 6

Airmen also need to develop the next generation of advanced weapons. One of the bomber’s most decisive features in the 2020s may be hypersonic weapons. True hypersonic aircraft—transiting Mach 6 or greater—have remained stubbornly out of reach.

Experiments with hypersonic weapons, however, are yielding results.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Office of Naval Research, and others have kept hypersonic research simmering over the last several years with a series of weapons-scale programs.

One, known as Hypersonic Flight Demonstration (HyFly), has been developing a high-speed, long-range hypersonic air-breathing test vehicle. The HyFly demonstrator combines a rocket-like booster with a dual combustion ramjet engine. Tests and simulations have suggested the cruise missile-like demonstrator could reach speeds of Mach 6 and strike a target 400 miles away in less than five minutes.

If HyFly passes its fall 2007 tests, it could grow into a valuable contribution to the bomber arsenal. Together, a penetrating bomber and hypersonic weapons could help master the “time of flight” problem that gives mobile targets an opportunity to scatter and escape.

Still, no matter how sophisticated the upgrades, nothing changes the fact that the Air Force has only a handful of stealthy bombers.

Despite the current shortfall in “tails,” waiting until now to begin a new acquisition program has had some advantages.

Since the B-2 began development 30 years ago, the major defense contractors have made significant advances in everything from materials, to engines, to avionics, to manufacturing techniques. These have primed the US aerospace industry’s ability to deliver a sophisticated new bomber.

Joint commanders more than a decade hence will count on the Air Force to be able to hunt and destroy the most vital targets, deep in the interior of any potential adversary. Nations such as China, Iran, and Russia all benefit from “strategic depth” that complicates targeting within their borders. Maintaining the ability to strike anywhere, at any time, is a critical part of the conventional deterrence equation.

Possible future adversaries cannot feel as if they are invulnerable, and the next generation bomber should eliminate any confusion about that.

Rebecca Grant is a contributing editor of Air Force Magazine. She is president of IRIS Independent Research in Washington, D.C., and has worked for RAND, the Secretary of the Air Force, and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Grant is a fellow of the Eaker Institute for Aerospace Concepts, the public policy and research arm of the Air Force Association. Her most recent article, “Up From Kasserine Pass,” appeared in the September issue.