The USAF’s consolidation of heavy bombers in one formation may spur productive intra-service rivalry, and new roles for long-range aircraft.

The US Air Force announced this week that it will be consolidating all its heavy bombers in its Global Strike Command. This realignment will be culturally significant, as it will provide a single organizational home to all big bomber crews, including those of the forthcoming Long-Range Strike Bombers (LRS-Bs). While the requirements of the LRS-B are a public mystery, technological trends point to an expansive mission set. With that art of the possible emerging, the organizational heft of this new ‘Bomber Command’ may then spur some really new thinking, which the USAF genuinely needs for dealing with the mounting threat from China.

Let’s start with the org chart. GSC was (re)established in 2009, when Air Force Headquarters combined the nuclear-capable B-52Hs and B-2As of the 8th Air Force with the Minuteman III missiles of the 20th Air Force. But the de-nuclearized B-1Bs stayed behind as part of the 12th Air Force of Air Combat Command, where they had resided since 1992, when ACC was formed from the the merger of the Cold War Tactical and Strategic Air Commands. This realignment thus effectively reconfigures GSC as a Bomber and Missile Command. It’s not quite fair, though, to describe the remainder of ACC as Fighter Command, as it also houses the reconnaissance, surveillance, attack, and rescue aircraft.

This suggests that the proximate motivation may be focus. Kevin Baron of Defense One (@DefenseBaron) tweeted this morning how General Welsh, the chief of staff, noted that the Schlesinger Report had recommended the realignment, and that he thought it “made sense”. As the press release put it, “a single command will help provide a unified voice to maintain the high standards” expected of training for penetrating, long-range combat missions. It’s not that a Fighter and Bomber and Everything Else Command can’t do that; the thinking is simply that a single Bomber (and Missile) Command might do so better, and possibly by adding a literal dash of esprit de corps.

That single Bomber Command has not always been an unalloyed good. For decades, the political dominance of the old Strategic Air Command unhelpfully propagated its pernicious safety obsession—admittedly born of nuclear surety requirements—throughout the Air Force. Ss Steve Davies wrote in Red Eagles: America’s Secret MiGs (Osprey Publishing 2012), 

     There was some truth in the old saying that the Air Force had a book for all the things you were allowed to do in the air, and anything not specifically written down was prohibited; whereas the Navy’s rule book contained all the things you were not allowed to do, and anything not written down was perfectly legal (p. 205).

In part by watching the Navy’s positive example, in combat over North Vietnam and in practice over San Diego, Tactical Air Combat got its act together. So contrary to the mantra too often heard inside the Beltway, inter-service rivalry sometimes spurs healthy competition. You know, competition—that Anglo-American capitalist concept we should all revere. There’s a long literature, taught in the war colleges, about how inter- and intra-service rivalry is important for military innovation. You know, innovation—that thing that the Pentagon brass can’t stop invoking. It’s amazing how often all this is forgotten amidst the centralizing tendencies of Big Government. 

So what might be different with this reestablished Bomber Command? To begin, the nuclear mission just doesn’t dominate the USAF anymore, and won’t. But more positively, those future LRS-Bs may bring combat capabilities broader than just bombing things. Little is publicly known about the aircraft’s stated requirements, but it’s quite possible that it will be a flying sensor array, much like the F-35. Assuming that the program doesn’t founder on its software integration problems (think F-35, just bigger), the LRS-B could serve as a flying frigate—reconnoitering, surveilling, bombing, and even shooting down enemy fighters.

How’s that? As John Stillion argues in his new monograph Trends in Air-to-Air Combat: Implications for Future Air Superiority (CSBA, April 2015), air combat hardly involves dogfighting anymore, so with the right sensors, big bombers could defend themselves from fighters. Indeed, the bigger the plane, the further the bigger array can see. In a further development of the views he and Scott Perdue briefed in the infamous Air Combat Past, Present and Future (RAND, August 2008), he also argues that magazine size matters, as not all missiles hit, so this again favors the bombers. Between RAND and the CSBA, Stillion spent a few years at bomber-builder Northrop Grumman’s Analysis Center, so his thinking might align with at least one contractor’s conception of the LRS-B.

Earlier this month, Colin Clark of Breaking Defense related the musing of an unnamed industry source that this shift in what’s technologically logical for the LRS-B might result in “a fleet of roughly 400 aircraft as the core of the United States’ power projection force.” But his source doubted whether that would happen, wondering “how will the Air Force leadership—primarily composed of fighter pilots—react to the idea of using ‘bombers’ to do the air superiority mission?” Well, they might not get the opportunity to squelch the idea, now that there’s a rivalrous unified branch behind the concept.

This new Bomber Command, that is, presumably won’t be run by fighter pilots. A bomber-heavy USAF could prove either a really good or really bad idea, but to know, bomber crews need early models of new aircraft equipped for operational experimentation. By generating the right requirements and allocating money for testing, 8th Air Force could show us whether there’s something worth developing. And over the vast distances of the Pacific, in the face of legions of long-range Chinese missiles, an expansive mission set for long-range aircraft could be worth buying.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security.