Gen. Timothy M. Ray is commander of Air Force Global Strike Command and commander, Air Forces Strategic-Air, U.S. Strategic Command. Based at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., he is responsible for global strike and combat support to USSTRATCOM and the geographic combatant commands. The questions and answers here are adapted from an interview with retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, and Douglas A. Birkey, Mitchell’s executive director for Mitchell’s Aerospace Advantage podcast. To listen to the recorded interview, visit https://MitchellInstituteAerospaceAdvantage.podbean.com/
Q. From your perspective as the commander of global strike command, what unique value do bombers afford our nation?
A. First of all, [bombers are] flexible, right? So, when you watch what the Bomber Task Forces [BTFs] are doing today, the ability to be just about anywhere in a number of hours, and to do it very quickly—invisibly—is huge. … It’s not just the U.S. bomber force, it’s the only bomber force on the western team. And it certainly becomes, both from a conventional and a nuclear standpoint … the version of extended deterrence that our partners and allies probably embraced first. … But what we can bring with range, speed, and payload, and flexibility … is probably one of the strongest things. … It’s classic air power.
Q. Requests for these aircraft from combatant commands is high. How has this demand signal grown in recent years and what’s driving it?
A. Well, as we start looking away from the counterterrorism part of what we’ve been doing, to no kidding, the [National Defense Strategy] and great power competition, it becomes very clear the role that bombers play. When I get up every morning, I have my Intel read book. It’s the INDOPACOM, it’s the EUCOM read book, it’s the NORTHCOM read book, the STRATCOM read book, the Joint Staff read book. I read all those Intel books, because I need to understand what’s happening everywhere in the world. And then I’m routinely on the phone with my air component teammates to really understand what they’re dealing with. And what the bomber task forces have really proven is you don’t have to be static. In fact, if you’re not, and you can come into and out of the theater, you’re very effective. … I get a lot of good feedback, particularly from the combatant commands and from their components. And part of their feedback is how deeply the partners and allies appreciate it. So, they’re in very high demand. And I think you just talk to the crews, their morale is through the roof. I now have the highest bomber aircrew readiness in the history of the command, even in COVID. … That really allows us to be much more capable, much more ready for very high demand.
Q. How would you gauge our allies and our adversaries? How do they respond to this new concept?
A. You can make the case that imitation is the highest form of flattery, and we’re watching now the Russians try to do the same thing—they’re just not quite as good at it. … Our partners and allies get a lot out of this. The one that really comes to mind is when we went to Europe and we flew over every NATO country, you know, in a single day, with the B-52s. Gen. Tod D. Wolters [U.S. European Command boss] said, ‘You have no idea the boost you guys gave this entire command, this entire alliance, by showing up and showing that commitment.’ But it begins to teach and show how we can push back in areas and how fast we can move in and when we integrate our capabilities with fifth-generation [fighter] capabilities and other things like that. It’s a huge deal.
Q. How about in the Pacific?
A. I had to go brief the Chief, the Secretary, I had to go brief the STRATCOM commander, I had to brief the Chairman, and the SECDEF, all in the single day. There was a little bit of a challenge by the Chairman and the SECDEF to deliver, … and you know the message back was, ‘Throw us in there because we’re ready for this … go ahead and test us.’ Getting them to believe that we could do it at that level was the first step, and as we watched it unfold, you know the SECDEF—then Secretary [Mark] Esper—was pretty cognizant of what we were saying from a readiness standpoint, … how it helped us in the nuclear mission, but later how the crews and the maintenance teams were really, really enthusiastic, so he saw the greater engagement and the greater presence around the globe. … What we really want to do now is just constantly take that bomber [agile combat employment concept of operation] and just drive the TTP—tactics, techniques, and procedures—and really refine the logistical, the communications, and the weaponeering, and integration, so … we are actually able to sit back and use our imaginations. Some of our teammates in the theater say, “Well, if you did that, can you do this? Have you thought about this place?” That’s not just me to my teammates, but my teammates to me. We’re having fun … we’re actually having fun doing this, and that’s at the four-star level and at the crew-dog level.
Q. What does that suggest for the B-21 buy? That is still several years into the future, but what are your thoughts in that regard?
A. The B-21 program is incredibly healthy. There’s something I want to highlight that’s unique. Randy Walden and the RCO [Rapid Capabilities Office] and Jason Voorhees—Col. Jason Voorhees is the program manager—that unique relationship with RCO and a major command to go do things is actually incredibly effective. And then we start thinking about Randy Walden, and [him] leading the Air Battle Management System [ABMS program] … the connection with the B-21 to ABMS, is total. It’s not an add-on or afterthought, It’s part and parcel [of ABMS]. … Since we have a modular design on the airplane, because it is very mature technology compared to what you might think—far more mature technology—it’s open mission systems and we … were able to be very, very steady on the requirements. … We can very rapidly bring new radios, new emitters, new weapons—those kinds of things—very quickly to the airplane. It took me many years to get a [joint air-to-surface missile] onto a B-2; I’m going to be able to do that in a year. So, when I say it’s the B-21, it’s not the “B two point one.” Right? It is a fundamentally different plane. We briefed Congress on the process, … how we’ll keep requirements stable, and how we’ll keep adding really fresh tech and sustaining the plane in a way no one’s thinking about. And when we start talking about, you know, how we’re doing stuff with bombers around the globe, then the power of that becomes pretty obvious. … So, I’m pretty optimistic about the future of the B-21.
Q. What are some of the attributes you’re looking forward to seeing in the B-21, and what are the things on the table that are going to be most important?
A. We talked about my ability to design in a data-driven sustainment game plan that’s not exquisite and unique like other programs, but that we can be really purposeful about monetizing. That’s going to be one of the key pieces: the fact that you are data driven, and your digital [insight] is going to be a real key piece of how you can do … developmental and operational tests—a synthetic training environment, right? So, we’ve started to work with some of the experts outside the Air Force who’ve been helpful to the Air Force on the Defense Science Board and the Scientific Advisory Board, on how best to create training systems of the future. … We are bringing in some more folks from the outside who are great at the human-machine interface, … we’re going to build that from the beginning. We know that we’re going to reduce the number of specialty codes inside the maintenance world. … We have our maintenance guys right now embedded with the RCO to make sure we design in sustainability and simplicity and to really limit the number of things we have to do uniquely. You take an opportunity to be a different kind of team, with these kinds of capabilities, and it’s really a match made in heaven, with us and RCO.
Q. We’re now seeing a major surge by all the services to go after the long-range strike mission. Some of the other services are even moving out. Is it time for DOD to exert some leadership over what solutions are the most cost-effective and efficient?
A. In the end, I completely struggle with the reality check that’s required here. I mean, … I kind of get it in Europe, I kind of get it in CENTCOM. But I completely don’t get it in the Pacific. I mean, I genuinely struggle with the credibility of that entire [Army] plan. I deeply struggle with the credibility of it. And we’re doing it. I mean, if you like BTFs, then we’re there. Imagine that with hypersonic weapons: the ability to be there in hours, not days, months, or weeks, … the ability to keep up the operational pace. So why in the world would we entertain a brutally expensive idea, when we don’t as a Department [of Defense], have the money to go do that? When we’ve already proven this?
You know, I’ve had a few congressmen ask me, and I just, you know—honestly, I think it’s stupid. I just think it’s a stupid idea to go invest that kind of money to recreate something that this service has mastered. And, and we’re doing already, right now. Why? Why in the world would you try that? So I try to make sure that my language is not a little more colorful than it is. But, give me a break.
Q. What is the calculus when you’re talking to people about this decision?
A. Look, you can measure in a lot of ways, but you know, just go ask your allies. “Hey, do you think the bombers can do this for us in 18 months?” Are we willing to wait five years for the Army to perhaps do this and have to stage it, you know, over a month or two period of time to get to the theater? Do you actually think that that has a return value? They’ll probably give you the, ‘I don’t think so,’ right? Because there’s a lot of countries, who’d have to agree to this. I can see some of them probably agreeing in the European theater, maybe in the Central Asian theater. But I don’t see it coming together with any credibility in the Pacific anytime real soon. So, that’s one measure: … What [do] your partners and allies really think? … Proving the CONOPs [concept of operations]. … I mean, I can, I can prove to you in a matter of months, with real capability [hypersonic missiles on bombers], versus a theoretical capability that’s far more expensive. And [surface-to-surface missiles are] going to require a fundamentally different approach to basing. … For some reason, we just skate right past that brutal reality check: Some of those countries are never going to let you put stuff like [hypersonic missiles] in their theater.
Q. People often ask, if we have ICBMs and ballistic missile submarines, why do we still need nuclear-equipped bombers? How do you answer that?
A. There are those out there who don’t quite get all the complementary attributes of the triad—the flexibility, the survivability, the responsiveness. When you start thinking about, you know, the manned bombers role, if you’re interested in counterproliferation, then you’re a fascinated individual when it comes to extended deterrence. [Because] the subs and ICBMs are phenomenal. But our South Korean teammates aren’t going to derive the same kind of physical reassurance that we’ve got their back—or the Japanese or the Australians—[compared to bombers, which] … become an important part of that. But when you start talking about older systems, you need to be able to manage the risk either from a technical or strategic reality. If any one of those things starts to fall through, you need to pick it up another way. But it’s also that very visible way to say to anybody, ‘I’m getting ready to do something different. And I can very clearly message where you are on the escalation later.’ And then the last part, of course, is there are things we can do with a bomber [that can’t be done with the other legs]. … When you launch an ICBM sortie, it’s gone. There’s no calling it back. … [But a bomber,] while it may not be as fast, it does have the ability for you to do something that is reversible.