The U.S. campaign in Afghanistan has added fuel to a long-smoldering
debate in the nation’s capital about the future of the Air
Force’s long-range bomber fleet.
Most strike operations were conducted by Navy tactical jets from
carriers in the Arabian Sea. But about 10 percent were by B-1, B-2
and B-52 bombers. These heavy bombers expended more than 80 percent
of the tonnage dropped thus far, according to Air Force officials.
During the first weeks of the assault, U.S.-led air forces flew
more than 2,000 sorties against Taliban and al Qaeda targets. They
dropped more than 6,000 bombs, ranging from cluster bombs, which
break up into hundreds of smaller bomblets while in the air, to
5,000-pound “bunker busters,” which burrow deep underground
before exploding. In early November, the Air Force began dropping
15,000-pound “daisy cutter” bombs for the first time
since the Vietnam War.
At first, the attacks concentrated on command and control elements
in bunkers, airfields, tunnels and caves, said Air Force Gen. Richard
B. Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The bombers were
particularly useful, officials noted, because they can carry large
loads over long distances, they are not reliant on airbases in the
politically unstable Middle East, and they can drop their bombs
from great heights, safe from enemy antiaircraft fire.
Then, in late October, the lumbering B-52s—the largest bombers
in the U.S. inventory—began engaging in “long-stick”
or carpet bombing against Taliban troop concentrations in Northern
Afghanistan in preparation for possible ground assaults by opposition
All of the bombers flew great distances to make their attacks.
The stealthy, batwinged B-2s cruised from their headquarters at
Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., flying nonstop for as long as 44 hours,
with pilot and copilot taking turns at the controls, to hit their
targets. Afterwards, they landed at the British island of Diego
Garcia in the Indian Ocean, refueled, changed crews and returned
home. The B-52s and B-1s flew out of Diego Garcia, a 12 to 15-hour
The bombers did not deploy to the immediate vicinity of Afghanistan
for a number of reasons, officials said. First, the United States
has access to few bases in the area that have the long runways and
security required for bombers. Most U.S. allies in the region—such
as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia—have large Moslem
populations who are sympathetic to the Taliban, and they are reluctant
to provide bases for the United States to use in this conflict.
The United States is exploring the idea of using former Soviet airfields
in Central Asian republics, such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazhakstan,
but these airfields have not been used for years and may be in considerable
Second, unlike tactical combat aircraft, the bombers are capable
of transoceanic flight, particularly when refueled. The B-2s refueled
in mid-air six times between Whiteman and Diego Garcia.
When a Bomber Lifts Off
“You accomplish an amazing feat each time a B-2 bomber lifts
off from the plains of Missouri and crosses oceans and continents,
undetected, to deliver justice from the skies over Afghanistan,”
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told personnel from Whiteman’s
509th Bomber Wing, which flies the aircraft.
Still another reason that the bombers operate from the safest possible
havens is that they are considered a limited national resource.
While the Air Force has thousands of tactical combat aircraft, capable
of short-range strike missions, it has no more than 208 long-range
bombers in its active and reserve forces, and many of them are more
than 40 years old. They include:
The Defense Department has had little to say about how well these
aircraft are or are not performing in Afghanistan. However, this
summer—before Sept. 11—the Pentagon announced plans
to reduce its bomber fleet substantially and upgrade the remaining
In June, Rumsfeld proposed to cut the numbers of B-1s by one third—from
93 to 60—and to use the estimated $165 million in savings
to improve the remaining aircraft. The reduction would close down
an Air Force B-1 wing in Idaho and Air National Guard units in Georgia
The B-1cutbacks are necessary to improve performance, said Air
Force Secretary James G. Roche. “The B-1 aircraft’s
mission-capable rates have remained between 51 and 62 percent during
fiscal year 2000 and fiscal year 2001, below the goal of 75 percent,”
he told a Senate armed services subcommittee.
“The B-1 aircraft missed Operation Desert Storm, because
of its poor reliability and limited survivability in high-threat
environments,” Roche said. “Furthermore, only Block-D
modified aircraft were available for deployment to Operation Allied
Force. Although five aircraft dropped 20 percent of all bombs over
Kosovo, they could only be deployed during the second week of the
war following suppression of enemy air defenses.”
The money saved during the planned consolidations would be applied
“to upgrade the remaining B-1 aircraft and improve both its
mission-capable rates and modernize its precision weaponry, self-protection
systems and combat reliability,” Roche said. “The Air
Force believes strongly that this plan will make the B-1 bomber
into the survivable, effective, long-range precision strike platform
in this century that had been envisioned when it was built in the
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper agreed. “When
we go down to 60, we have more combat capability,” he told
a recent DFI International seminar. “We have 60 airplanes
that we will send to war, versus 93 that we wouldn’t.”
For the past seven years, Roche noted, the Air Force has attempted
to cut 18 B-52s from Minot Air Force base, N.D., and use the savings
to help modernize the rest of the B-52 fleet.
“The Air Force believes that maintaining 76 B-52 aircraft
meets the current force-structure requirement called for in today’s
national-security strategy, especially as we see it principally
as a standoff, conventional cruise-missile carrier,” Roche
“To keep the B-52 relevant in the near future, we need to
modernize this aircraft,” he said, citing the need for improvements
in avionics, situational awareness, electronic countermeasures,
the Link 16 datalink, advanced weapons integration into the internal
bomb bay, global air-traffic management and advanced munitions capability.
“Continued aggressive modernization and investment will allow
the B-52 to remain an effective long-range strike platform through
2040,” Roche said.
The B-2 received a good report card for its performance in Kosovo,
where “each B-2 destroyed multiple targets with an 83 percent
hit rate, all while flying combat missions from Whiteman Air Force
Base,” Roche said.
“However, the 20-plus-year old B-2 design requires continued
modernization to remain effective, including the latest secure UHF/VHF
communications, in-flight data-link, in-flight replanning and advanced
integration of follow-on hard target and other munitions.”
As might be expected, the planned cutbacks ran immediately into
flak on a variety of fronts. On Capitol Hill, a group of senators
from states that would be hit by the B-1 reductions sent Rumsfeld
a joint letter attacking the proposal. “The B-1 has the largest
and most diverse weapons carrying capability of any aircraft in
the Air Force inventory,” said the senators. “At this
time, we believe the decision to cut B-1B force structure by more
than one third is premature at best.”
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., was quick to defend the B-52s based in
his state at Minot Air Force Base. Most B-52s are based at Barksdale
Air Force Base, La., making Minot potentially vulnerable in any
cutback. “Minot is one of just two B-52 bases in the nation,
and experience tells us that our versatile, reliable B-52s are among
the first aircraft to be deployed in conflicts around the globe,”
Conrad said. “It makes sense to keep our forces based in multiple
locations. Further closings would put all our eggs in just a few
baskets. That’s a bad idea.”
Attempting to placate the lawmakers, Roche assured them that the
airbases in their states would receive new missions, with no net
loss in personnel. In mid-October, for example, the Georgia delegation
received word that the 116th Bomber Wing at Warner Robins Air Force
Base, south of Macon, would be replaced with the Joint Surveillance
Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS.
JSTARS uses a modified Boeing 707 aircraft to provide an airborne,
stand-off range, surveillance and target acquisition radar and command
and control center. It provides a picture of the conditions on the
ground equivalent to that of the air situation provided by AWACS.
Meanwhile, interest is stirring concerning proposals to build additional
In May, the B-2 manufacturer—Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman
Corporation—submitted an unsolicited letter of offer to restart
the production line.
Northrop proposed to build 40 new B-2s over the next 10 years—four
per year—at a total cost of $29.5 billion, explained company
spokesman Jim Hart. That would bring down the average cost per aircraft
to $545 million in fiscal year 2000 dollars, Hart said.
Originally, the Air Force had intended to buy more than 100 B-2s,
but it ended up ordering only 21. Because of all of the research
and development expenses that went into the project, the average
cost of each aircraft shot up to more than $1 billion.
Many Air Force leaders argued that the service should take advantage
of this opportunity to expand the B-2 fleet. Retired Air Force Gen.
Richard Hawley, former head of the Air Combat Command, told a Cato
Institute forum, in Washington, D.C., that the service should add
B-2s and retire its B-52s and B-1s.
“The bomber force ought to be one bomber,” Hawley said.
Now, he added, the Air Force has three platforms, which are becoming
increasingly difficult and expensive to support.
The one bomber in the Air Force fleet should be the most survivable
that is available, and for the next 15 to 20 years, that is the
B-2, Hawley said.
“The bottom line is we don’t need the B-52,”
he asserted. “We’ve got a hundred boats out there that
can shoot cruise missiles. I say cede that mission to the Navy.
They love it.”
The B-1 “is an excellent airplane for today,” Hawley
said. “But it doesn’t really have the reach of the B-52
or the B-2. Get rid of it.”
Many in the Air Force and on Capitol Hill would like to see more
B-2s, but their number does not include the Air Force secretary.
“If we buy 40 more B-2s, I don’t think we’ll add
one drop of sweat to any enemy,” Roche told the Washington
Post. He noted that B-2s cannot fly at supersonic speeds, operate
most safely at night, need climate-controlled hangars to protect
their stealthy skins and are most effective against stationary targets.
Rather than buy more B-2s, Roche said that he would prefer to upgrade
communications aboard F-15E fighter-bombers so that they can swoop
in and hit mobile targets.
Rep. Norman Dicks, D-Wash., a member of the House defense appropriations
subcommittee, disagrees. Roche’s position on the B-2 “is
a terrible mistake,” Dicks told the Defense Writers Group.
“We ought to be buying at least another 10 or 20 of these
Another new bomber couldn’t be ready until 2017 “or
somewhere down the liner” at a cost of at least $40 billion
“just to get it into production,” Dicks said. Meanwhile,
“for $3 or $4 billion, you can get this line reopened and
build some more airplanes.”