Bombers are the ultimate chess pieces in the US national security plan. Bombers are also a scarce resource, and, personally, I’m worried about retiring even a single one of the U.S. Air Force’s bombers. Until the new B-21 Raider bomber squadrons fill out, years from now, there’s nowhere to turn for more.
It’s not just me. Hear from Robert O’Brien, White House National Security Adviser. “While the Air Force awaits the fielding of the B-21, it’s critical that we maintain our existing long-range bomber capability and not retire legacy platforms and legacy bombers prematurely before the B-21 is delivered in substantial numbers,” he said March 11.
Air Force Global Strike Command at Barksdale AFB owns the bombers and says they need “north of 220.” Yet today the fleet stands at — optimistically — 158 total planes, with 20 B-2s, 62 B-1s, 58 active B-52Hs and 18 B-52Hs in the reserves. Air Force plans call for building more than 100 B-21s by 2040 or so, and keeping 76 B-52Hs with new engines and other gear. I’m no math major, but that’s only 176 — not 220. And, by the way, the Air Force says there won’t be a firm plan on B-21 purchases for four or five years. What’s the situation today? You can subtract 17 B-1 bombers the Air Force wants to chuck right away. Part of the reason is the Air Force flew the wings off of the B-1s during operations over Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Some B-1 airframes could cost too much to bring back.
But it’s also true that the B-1 cut is part of the Air Force’s self-imposed fundraising plan to build a digital battle network called Joint All Domain Command and Control or JADC2. This is a network to sluice information and weapons capable of rapid-fire punches to defeat a China or Russia threat circa 2030 – or sooner. Scrap old planes now and use the money to develop and buy the digital backbone to link all planes and joint forces, the Air Force reasons.
Trading proven bombers for classified communications and smart data is a tough sell, in part because everything is so classified that no one knows what JADC2 is, exactly, or what’s up with the B-21 program. (Everything is fine, says the Air Force. The Government Accountability Office is not so optimistic about the core program of JADC2, known as Advanced Battle Management System.)
The Air Staff’s willingness to cut bombers is shaped by budget concerns and analysis that may discount their most unique commodity: payload.
Bombers stay relevant because they carry an ever-changing array of weapons. The JDAM debuted in combat with the B-2 in 1999, and just eight B-1s dropped 3,900 JDAMs, or 67% of the total, in Operation Enduring Freedom over Afghanistan in 2001. Two years later in Operation Iraqi Freedom B-1s dropped 43% of the total JDAMs expended.
Bombers’ “indirect fires” — to use the Army’s term — bailed out a lot of forces on the ground. B-1s launched 19 JASSMs against Syrian chemical weapons targets in April 2018, the first combat use for any JASSM variant. Bombers will be critical to delivering firepower in the moving slugfest of joint All Domain Operations.
Looking ahead, bombers will carry advanced hypersonic weapons for air-to-ground and possibly even air-to-air missions. Directed energy weapons are a natural fit for a bomber. Bombers bring mass and advanced firepower like no other platform. I can picture a bomber using directed energy to destroy enemy drones and air-to-air missiles.
Penetrating bombers that can hunt mobile targets are central to America’s war plans. These mobile targets could include anything from North Korean liquid-fueled intermediate range ballistic missiles to Chinese Navy Type 052D destroyers carrying surface-to-air missiles. Granted, there is a great deal of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and command and control that factors into the equation. But all that fast-flowing data is useless without heavy striking power.
Picture a confrontation with China ranging across the Pacific. Did your eyes widen? If you were the air commander would you want more bombers, or less?
Of course, the bomber fleet is also one leg of the strategic nuclear deterrence triad. Then there is bomber diplomacy. Want to send a clear signal to a competitor? B-52s went to the airbase at Diego Garcia in January 2020 amidst tensions with Iran. B-52s joined an “elephant walk” with Global Hawks on Guam in April. A B-1 showed off bomber “unpredictability” with a mission from Ellsworth, South Dakota to Misawa Air Base, Japan on April 22.
But it all comes back to the special track record of bombers with new weapons.
Full disclosure, I’ve flown as a passenger in the B-52H and the otherworldly B-2, and I “landed” a B-1 in a simulator once. But what really impresses me is the combat record of how the Air Force bombers deliver, in campaign after campaign, because of their payload capacity and adaptability. The Air Force is well aware of what bombers can do with new weapons; my point is this should be a principal element in future planning for the bomber force.
The B-1 fleet is being groomed to become a bomb truck for hypersonic weapons. Tests last year showed the B-1 could hold eight new hypersonic missiles. The B-1 also has hard points on its wings and using them is permitted under arms control treaties, an arrangement negotiated specially with the Russians in 2002. Global Strike Command is taking advantage of the B-1s capacity, with plans that could add significant conventional firepower to improve exchange ratios in the Pacific and elsewhere. Forget the B-1s readiness woes from last year. AFGSC has “more flyable airplanes and ready crews than we’ve seen in many, many years,” Ray said on Apr. 9. The B-1s at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota, flew 100 sorties in March 2020.
As for the B-2 stealth bomber, it’s at the absolute center of war plans due to its stealth, diverse and enormous payload. On its most recent combat mission in January 2017, two B-2s carrying 80 500-lbs. weapons each flew 32 hours roundtrip to strike a terrorist camp in Libya. The B-2s were selected for their payload and loiter.
B-2 stealth bombers can be tasked to strike fixed or mobile targets at multiple sites. They can bomb, wait for several hours on patrol or refueling, and circle back to hit additional targets. The B-2 can get pretty close to the targets before releasing weapons. As a result, a mobile missile battery has little time to pack up and motor down the road before the ordnance hits. The B-2s can also get up close with heavy, penetrating weapons to smash through underground bunkers, tunnels, or whatever the bad guys have built to hide their evil tools.
The B-2 has lived on a steady diet of upgrades over the past 20 years. The skin, wiring, radars, sensors and electronic warfare capabilities all have been improved so that this stealth bomber can work with battlespace information and keep its tactics dominant.
Cutting the B-52Hs isn’t on the table. Truth is, I’ve never heard anyone on the Air Staff talk seriously about retiring the B-52. The very first decision package I worked for the Air Force in the Pentagon in the 1990s was approving a series of B-52 upgrades including night-vision goggle compatible cockpit lighting and a bunch of other stuff.
The Air Force is planning to spend more than $10 billion on new B-52 engines. What crews will like right away is the increased take-off power, for example, and more forms of power from the engines for other sensors and weapons. B-52s long ago integrated MALD-J Miniature Air-Launched Decoys with stand-in jamming
The Air Force keeps finding new uses for the B-52. Two B-52s, in two hours, can monitor 140,000 square miles (364,000 square kilometers) of ocean surface, according to Air Force Global Strike Command. Carrying a weapon like LRASM, B-52s can rattle Chinese navy captains.
Now let’s talk about the arsenal plane, a bomber which doesn’t exist yet. Right now, Global Strike command says they’d prefer a clean sheet design, something streamlined, that can tote munitions closer to the fight. Think of releasing dozens of semi-autonomous weapons that fly in timed waves to a Pacific target, like one of those nasty little Chinese bases built on ravaged coral reefs in the South China Sea.
The recurring arsenal plane discussion proves the point about payload. To me, the current USAF bombers already are arsenal planes, complete with tested wiring and experienced crews. The next exotic bomb truck had better be an orbital space plane.
Strategic bombers have few friends in Washington. The seriousness of their mission does not inspire affection and they cost a lot. But commanders have called on bombers time and time again to carry the latest weapons, in large numbers, against the most difficult targets.
Keep in mind bombers get the call to strike targets that no one thought of before the war started. That’s been true since Jimmy Doolittle launched B-25s to bomb Tokyo from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet back in 1942. Two specially-modified B-29s dropped the atomic bombs on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945.
None of those missions were foreseen when the bombers were designed. But bombers (and their crews) were good at adapting to emergencies.
Ten years from now, the B-21 Raider should be rolling off the line fast enough to provide America with a highly capable force to pin down key targets in China, Russia and other hotspots. Until then, I don’t want the Air Force to cut a single bomber.