Why We Need the B-3
There’s a reason Pentagon leaders are obsessed with outreach to Silicon Valley and furiously pursuing ventures in innovation like the “Third Offset” strategy. That reason is because the U.S. military is being challenged in a fundamental ingredient of what makes America a superpower: Power Projection.
Advanced enemy air defenses, newer ballistic and cruise missiles, shrinking overseas basing, and hardened, buried and mobile targets are increasing. The geriatric B-52s and aging B-1s cannot survive against the surface-to-air missiles of China, Russia, and even Iran. Additionally, both Russia and China will soon field long-range fifth-generation interceptor aircraft sporting longer range air-to-air missiles, a combination specially designed to destroy non-stealthy bombers and their support aircraft at great range.
Until the Navy develops a long-range carrier drone, its carrier air wing will have a relatively short range; to make a difference, it will have to put a $13 billion carrier directly in harm’s way. Combined with the fact that U.S. overseas basing has shrunk and advanced air defense systems threaten our Reagan-era aircraft fleet, few American military assets will be able to freely enter enemy airspace, which leaves the United States vulnerable.
All of these developments make a new bomber a strategic asset and essential investment: America does not win the war without it. Even more important, buying a new bomber that can attack any target in the world should help prevent the war from ever starting in the first place.
In every conflict since Operation Desert Storm in 1991, American bombers have kicked down the door for follow-on strike fighter aircraft from the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Stealthy B-2s were first to fly and clear the skies for other air assets and ground forces to maneuver in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
But America’s current bomber fleet is old, and small. The bombers available number large enough for a raid; not a campaign. That is hardly a fleet size that will deter potential enemies or factor into their decision making.
(Chart taken from David Deptula, Lieutenant General, United States Air Force, “Beyond the Bomber: The New Long-range sensor-shooter aircraft and United States National Security.” Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. Arlington, VA. August 2015.)
For decades, America’s strategic bomber force represented the strongest deterrent to adversaries considering conventional or nuclear aggression. As a maritime power with global commitments, the United States relied up the long range and high payload of America’s Cold War bomber fleet for strategic messaging, shows of force, extended deterrence, opening strikes, and holding protected targets at risk.
When China announced an exclusive Air Defense Identification Zone, it was B-52s that flew through that airspace. When North Korea heightened its saber-rattling to unacceptable levels two years ago, stealth B-2s took a pass over the Korean Peninsula. When Iran considers the credibility of the U.S. military option, it fixates on B-2s carrying 30,000-pound concrete-penetrating weapons.
The last B-52 Stratofortress was built when Kennedy was president, and its airframe can only accept upgrades for so long. While a valuable aircraft to launch salvoes of expensive cruise missiles, the B-52 cannot enter enemy airspace in a high-end conflict. The B-1B Lancer, resurrected by President Reagan, remains a reliable heavy-payload bomber, but cannot outrun or hide from enemy aircraft or ground-based air defenses. The stealth-pioneering B-2A remains effective in penetrating strike missions, but its avionics are antiquated. Because it is difficult to maintain, the fact that only 20 B-2s exist is even more problematic.
Adversary advances designed to keep the United States away from the battlefield of tomorrow have eclipsed the current bomber force. These advances in adversary technology threaten the Air Force’s core mission of “global precision strike”—the ability to threaten anyone, anywhere, any time. As predicted in this year’s new Air Force Future Operating Concept: “the [future] global precision strike discipline considers air, space, and cyberspace as an integrated operational environment.” The current bomber force simply cannot operate in cyberspace effectively nor communicate with key evolving space-based Air Force platforms.
Why does the ability to strike targets anywhere matter? Because it is a central factor in adversary’s calculations about the seriousness of American Presidents’ threat to use military force. The new bomber program features prominently in all recent strategic documents, from Secretary Robert Gates’ 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance to President Obama’s 2015 National Security Strategy to the Pentagon-wide Joint Operational Access Concept and the Asia-Pacific Maritime Strategy. In each, the ability of the U.S. military to penetrate highly defended areas and deliver explosive or cyber ordnance is front and center.
Though the Pentagon plans to initially buy 80 to 100 aircraft, the expected cost savings and the scope of future threats supports the analysis by General David Deptula at the Air Force Association that at least 174 long-range strike bombers are required to carry out current Air Force missions. Buying a large and new fleet of modern bombers—and avoiding the truncation of the B-2 program—will present American presidents over the next 70 years with a diverse set of options to deter, prevent, and, if necessary, defeat aggression anywhere across the globe.