It’s time to save our long-range bomber fleet
In his article “Lowering risk,” [AFJ, July-August] Phillip Meilinger made the valid but largely disbelieved point that air power is the least destructive major force element available to military commanders. Air attack is often condemned by its hand-wringing critics for the high level of near instantaneous and dramatic destruction such attacks inflict. Of course, the experts tend to ignore how this compares to the long-term grinding attrition that a ground assault can impart over large swaths of territory — territory with many hapless civilians in the way of advancing armies that often have genocide as an objective. Air power’s reputation for wholesale and indiscriminate destruction has at times been deserved on a selective scale, but when compared to other options for overcoming a powerful enemy, it is comparatively humane.
Even as Afghan politicians lament civilian casualties to airstrikes, the fact remains that unless we wish to put many young Americans in harm’s way each time we have an international dustup, air power is the most effective and efficient force element available to U.S. leaders.
The fact is that air power still has a vital, dare I say critical, role to play in an era of justifiable aversion to collateral damage and noncombatant deaths, and that role is sorely incomplete without true long-range strike capability. This is the capability that should have strident support from Air Force leaders as the one most able to provide global power projection, nuclear and non-nuclear, on very short notice. I would take that one step further and focus here on one particular element of the U.S. air arsenal: what has been traditionally called the “strategic” bomber.
Today, some knowledgeable practitioners of the military arts and, even more, those of the political ones, view bombers as “strategic” weapons, which, for them, means “nuclear.” That is because of the long Cold War association with Strategic Air Command’s nuclear weapons and their major role in deterring the Soviet Union. By the same token, fighters are viewed as “tactical” because of their perceived long association with all other forms of aerial mayhem, such as close-air support and air superiority. I would posit that history has shown that despite their long range and nuclear capability, bombers have proven useful in attacking more than factories and capital cities in the enemy’s backyard and certainly with more than just nuclear weapons. I don’t know of any rule that says an aircraft can’t fly a long way (hundreds or thousands of miles) to attack tactical- or operational-level targets with precision non-nuclear weapons, and it has certainly been done. A review of the air wars over Vietnam and Afghanistan prove the point. There, tactical and operational targets were the prime business of our B-52s. But the myth persists. More often than not, the word “strategic” precedes bomber and “tactical” precedes fighter.
But our bomber force is on the endangered species list with a force structure only 10 percent of what it was in the late 1950s. Sixty-two of these aircraft (the B-52s) are more than 45 years old and cannot operate over even a moderately effective air defense system. The 67 B-1s are now more than 25 years old and also would have trouble penetrating an enemy’s defenses — admittedly not as much as a B-52 with the radar cross-section of Mount McKinley, but they still would have trouble. That leaves only the 20 stealthy B-2s that we can be at least fairly assured can “go deep.” That’s not much.
Of course, not every mission involves operations over heavily defended territory. Iraq and Afghanistan are good examples of what are referred to as “permissive environments,” where the entire fleet could operate. But anyone who is satisfied with that should surrender their national security merit badge. There’s Iran, North Korea, an unpredictable Russia and then the wild card: the enemy we don’t suspect yet, but that is always there and tends to pop up on short notice.
Yes, there are very effective long range (around 1,500 miles) conventional standoff weapons, such as the conventional air launched cruise missile, that multiply the bomber force’s overall range and effectiveness, but these come with some issues. The B-52 must stand off well out of harm’s way; their accuracy, while good, is not as good as the GPS-guided gravity bombs; they are considerably more expensive than the precision-gravity weapons; and the inventory is limited. Our fighter and attack aircraft could employ them — maybe two at a time, thus tripling or even quadrupling their range but reducing their total payload considerably — but they don’t.
Then there is the issue of nuclear vs. non-nuclear weapons specialization. Back in SAC’s heyday, bombers were reserved for the nuclear mission until the latter part of the Vietnam War. Then it dawned on some politicians and senior military officers that the bombers were just sitting on the parking ramps of U.S. bases waiting for the Russians to do something monumentally stupid. Some of them were then given non-nuclear weapons capability and flown off to war. Because of the fear that somebody up North (North Vietnam, China, Soviet Union) would get the wrong idea, B-52s — being “strategic” — were not used to attack North Vietnam. So, we had this absurd situation where supposedly strategic bombers were attacking troops and supply dumps (tactical targets) in South Vietnam while the “tactical” fighters were operating against strategic targets in the North. Both did a good job of what they were allowed to do, proving again that there is no such thing as strategic or tactical weapons, just strategic or tactical targets. That changed at the end of the U.S. commitment to the war when the B-52s finally went North and blitzed Hanoi and Haiphong, real strategic targets, in a successful bid to get the enemy to the negotiating table. But after that, they were sent back to nuclear roles until circa 1990 when the Soviet Union went extinct. After that, conventional bombardment became the preferred mission for our bombers, and they were even removed from nuclear alert.
Flash forward to 2009. Thanks to a couple of major Air Force blunders with its nuclear weapons and components, the nuclear-conventional issue has raised its head once more. Justified concern over weapon security and effectiveness has generated a push to once again sanctify the nuclear-only bomber — most likely at the expense of non-nuclear capability. Of course, limited numbers and advancing aircraft age cause a problem.
The nation desperately needs a robust ability to project combat power over very long distances in minimum time, and it is up to the Air Force to provide it — if it can put its love affair with fighter-force structure on hold long enough. We no longer have the Cold War overseas basing structure to support fleets of fighter and attack aircraft, and those we do still have could be in range of adversary weapons, including suicide bombers.
Since its unveiling 15 years ago, the B-2 has been criticized as a “relic of the Cold War.” The critics do not or will not recognize that no other weapon has the capability of the land-based heavy bomber — B-52, B-1 and B-2 — to project global non-nuclear as well as nuclear firepower on short notice. And 20 B-2s are not enough to carry the load into the most hostile environments the nation expects in the 21st century.
And even more to the point, the U.S. can’t afford single-purpose bombers. Bombers can operate across a variety of adversaries and operational environments and can be anywhere in a matter of hours. They can be applied when precision is mandatory and can strike where low collateral damage is required — or make a real mess of things too, if that is needed. There just are not enough of them to fill all potential demands. Flexibility is the key to keeping a disparate collection of enemies and potential enemies at bay. It would be a mistake to further diminish our global non-nuclear strike capability, but the U.S. still needs an air-breathing nuclear strike force.
It has been suggested that long-range unmanned aircraft may be the answer, and they may be, but on a limited scale. Adam Lowther argues [“Unmanned and nuclear,” AFJ June] that unmanned long-range nuclear bombers can be built for $150 million each. Long-term Pentagon experience of buying everything from planes to pencils suggests that a true cost at the end of the day would likely be 50 percent to 100 percent higher, but admittedly far less expensive than the $1 billion to $1.5 billion for each B-2. I would suggest that if these unmanned systems are to be nuclear only, they should be limited in number to no more than 30. If they are dual-purpose, then I would double that number. While I agree that unmanned bombers would be a good force multiplier, I worry that a totally unmanned long-range fleet would not be as effective as a manned fleet augmented by unmanned systems. It is true that unmanned aircraft can deliver GPS-guided bombs as accurately as manned systems, but sometimes, the standard-issue eyeball is necessary in questionable situations. And with the UAV’s pilot possibly located many thousands of miles away, reaction time to threats and environmental changes extends to seconds — often too long in a hostile environment. Also, the range of a UAV, once built, is fixed. No tanker pilot in his right mind would want to refuel an unmanned plane.
However, the argument over how many unmanned systems we need in the long-range fleet is secondary to ensuring we have a fleet. The B-2’s advances in stealth, weapon-carrying capability and accuracy allow it to deliver up to16 2,000-pound munitions to 16 different targets with pinpoint accuracy. But there are only 20 of them. Would some unmanned aircraft with similar characteristics help the situation? Of course. Do we still need to ensure robust long-range manned aircraft are available? Definitely, yes.
Maybe a smart marketing move would be to stop calling bombers “bombers.” Let’s lose the fire-and-brimstone association with what is now a highly effective and precise weapon. In a 1986 monograph for Air University, I suggested that perhaps “long-range-strike aircraft” would be a better term. Whatever we choose to call them, they are not our grandfathers’ bludgeon weapons suited only for massed raids and leveling cities. Let’s stop thinking about them that way and get on with the task of ensuring we have enough of them.
Grover E. “Gene” Myers is a senior consultant with ABS Consulting in Arlington, Va. He is a retired Air Force officer with extensive experience in nuclear policy and aerospace and joint doctrine concept development.