Picture this: a nuclear weapon in terrorist hands loose in the remote regions of Pakistan. How about a mobile missile deep in Iran with a nuclear warhead standing by? Or a space launch complex in some other nation, whose leaders are threatening to take out global satellite systems? If America wants to take action or bolster crisis diplomacy in future situations like these, a lot of the military options will depend on precision weapons and long-range bombers.
So it’s risky indeed that the Pentagon’s current budget plan has eliminated a new long-range bomber. The current bomber force is too old and too small and isn’t a match for serious adversaries today, let alone in the years ahead. Until April 6, 2009, the Air Force had a new bomber development program funded. Press accounts suggested it was a classified “black” program due to be unveiled in the 2010 budget. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates instead zeroed the money and put off the bomber until, he said, “we have a better understanding of the need, the requirement, and the technology.”
Maybe Secretary Gates didn’t take time to hear those answers – despite 30 months on the job – but the Air Force and industry have studied bomber design trades exhaustively. The physics do lead to hard choices. Subsonic or supersonic? What about range and payload? High altitude performance is a given, because it bolsters survivability and increases the reach of precision weapons. Manned or unmanned? Take your pick, because optionally-manned flight is a no-brainer for the US aerospace industry. These were just the questions the development efforts underway were presumably going to answer.
This spring, Secretary Gates has left no doubt that he is opposed to advanced or what he calls “exquisite” technology. He is also against planning for future wars, and programs for one service only. He’s against buying more manned combat aircraft, except for the F-35, although he trimmed that, too. Secretary Gates and his team have seen the future and evidently they don’t believe ugly things can come to pass in distant corners of the world or that American airpower needs to be able to reach that far.
On Capitol Hill, legislators who authorize and appropriate for the armed services don’t have the luxury of blowing off the future. Here are their concerns. First, the fleet of aged B-52s, B-1s and just twenty B-2s is inadequate. The B-2 is the only bomber capable of reliably penetrating air defenses and then only at night. At best, commanders estimate the tiny B-2 force could provide just four or five bombers for a long-range mission on any given night. Now is no time to stop bomber research and its pursuit of better stealth, engines and datalinks.
Plenty of technologies are mature enough for a new bomber, thanks to lessons learned from the F-22, F-35, the Navy’s unmanned combat air system, and others. New radars, electronic countermeasure techniques and networked communications are all ready to go. Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz has maintained all along that there is a “continuing need” for long-range strike.
The smartest way to get it is for Congress to move forward with dollars to build on the work that’s already been done and keep the long-range strike option alive.