December 9, 2015
Seven years ago, Robert Haffa and Michael Isherwood of Northrop Grumman’s Analysis Center argued that the US Air Force urgently needed a new bomber—indeed, by 2018. Enemy missiles, they thought, could shut down the remaining forward airfields from which American fighter-bombers could fly. Those fighters were already fewer in number, and thus not so available to escort B-52s and B-1s. Rumors of forthcoming Chinese stealth fighters seemed threatening enough at the time. The strategic situation hasn’t improved since then, but is the USAF’s planned Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) still urgently needed? Whether or not it is, it’s not coming soon, but some useful stopgaps should be.

This question of urgency has been around almost as long as some of those aircraft. As Congressmen Randy Forbes and Chris Stewart argued in the National Interest two years ago, the existing bombers are old. The average age of a B-52H is fifty-three years, a B-1B twenty-eight years, and a B-2A twenty years. All the same, as Julian Barnes of the Wall Street Journal was reporting even then, the Air Force has long been advertising that it can keep the older bombers flying until 2040, and the B-2s longer yet. Even the B-52s are not really half-century airplanes—during the Cold War, when not flying for training, they mostly waited on strip alert. And since then, the wings, the fuselages, the engines, the cockpits—almost every part of the aircraft—have been replaced.

Concern that bombers designed in 1952—against a vastly different security landscape—might be irrelevant in combat today is easier to understand. All the same, advancing technology does not render all things equally obsolete. Remember that Nelson’s flagship Victory was forty years old at Trafalgar. The battleships Wisconsin and Missouri were forty-five years old when they bombarded Kuwait in 1991. The C-130 has been in continuous production for almost sixty years, and notably still flies as a gunship. Fairly, AC-130 crews do not attempt to penetrate impressive air defenses, but this indicates how combat utility is a matter of both the clock speed of technology and the tactical expectations of the system. As such, firing long-range cruise missiles from old bombers may still be a relevant tactic in many scenarios.

That’s the USAF’s modern equivalent of the US Navy’s high-low mix of the 1970s. Ships meant for sea control could be less expensive than those meant to accompany carriers on strikes across the beach. They could also be design and built faster. So perhaps bombers meant for bombing ISIS or firing standoff weapons needn’t be so costly, and maybe the existing force has decades of life left. But twenty B-2As may not be enough in the biggest of wars, and cruise missiles are a marginally expensive way of fighting a big and long war. Of course, the missiles’ survivability isn’t guaranteed either. Until the extended-range version of the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (the JASSM-ER) entered service last year, the Air Force and the Navy had no stealthy long-range cruise missiles. With just a short production run so far, the inventory is far from full.

Worse, as Mark Gunzinger and Bryan Clark of the CSBA recently argued, perhaps the toughest missions now require stealthy standoff missiles fired from stealthy long-range aircraft. Indeed, the Air Force may already be thinking that penetrating the strongest air defenses may need to be a tactically cooperative venture. In Defense News last month, Robert Elder of George Mason University (and a retired USAF bomber general) argued that the LRS-B’s open mission systems architecture, incorporating “stealth communication technologies,” will make it a “key element in the future networked force”.

As we heard a former B-2 pilot say last night, getting aeronauticists who speak Bernoulli to work with electrodynamicists who speak Maxwell was once a tall order. Now it may be military necessity. Perhaps that’s why the Air Force plans to have Northrop Grumman work on its new bomber—presumably built substantially from proven technologies—for ten years before fielding its first squadron. For a system of this size, the integration of all those proven concepts may really take that long. As one of us wrote last month, that’s akin to the difference between the JLTV and the M-ATV: sometimes, a deliberate process produces better results than racing to meet a wartime need. 

So is the USAF already late to the game? One reason that the Pentagon hasn’t pursued a new stealth bomber earlier is that its enemies of the past fifteen years have been mostly insurgents and terrorists. The service tried in 2008 for a Next Generation Bomber to be ready by 2018, but Defense Secretary Gates ended that effort with his 2010 budget submission, explaining to the Congress that advances in autonomy led him to ask “does it need a pilot in it?” Gates also brought to the job a novel focus on fighting the wars he was in before preparing for the ones that might come, and so favored Reapers and MRAPs over F-22s and NGBs. Today, of course, the LRS-B isn’t needed for fighting ISIS. If it’s needed, it’s for fighting China, whether by penetrating or flying around its Maginot Line. Whether or not it’s urgently needed, it’s not coming soon. In the meantime, though, some more stealthy drones and cruise missiles would be a useful stopgap.

James Hasík is a senior fellow and Rachel Rizzo is a researcher at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

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