The Air Force’s next budget submission should include funds to begin to procure up to 100 new bombers over the next several decades, says a think-tank report.
The new breed of bomber — regardless if it is manned or unmanned — should have broadband stealth, on-board surveillance, up to 20,000 pounds payload and be able to fly 5,000 nautical miles between aerial refuelings, says “Sustaining America’s Strategic Advantage in Long-Range Strike,” a report issued by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
The United States had a bomber in production or development from 1917 until the last delivery of the B-2 in 1997. There have been only modifications to current aircraft since then. “Our strategic advantage is about to go away,” said Mark A. Gunzinger, a senior fellow at the research institute and author of the report.
Pentagon officials, meanwhile, have stated that the Air Force should develop a family of long-range strike capabilities instead of pouring its money into a single new aircraft with a narrowly defined mission.
If that plan comes to fruition, the Air Force would still need a new bomber, say air-power advocates.
“We are now in what I would personally call a bomber gap,” said Rebecca Grant, director of the Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies, which hosted the discussion. The United States has a significant force of B-52s, B-1s and stealth B-2s that have seen action in Afghanistan and Iraq, but “it’s high time for a new and lasting solution,” Grant said during a discussion about long-range strike options at this week’s Air Force Association Air and Space conference.
Bombers provide key support to maintaining global stability, said Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Robert J. Elder Jr., now a research professor at George Mason University. They don’t just hit targets. They achieve “peace through power,” building up allies and deterring enemies, he said.
But the B-52 and B-1 will become “logistically unsustainable” by 2040, Elder said. The Air Force needs a new bomber that is both stealthy and can perform standoff missions, he said.
The standoff capability probably can wait, Gunzinger said. Future wars will likely be fought in increasingly contested airspace, and the United States needs better penetrating capabilities, he said.
“In a non-permissive environment, let’s face it, we’re down to a handful of B-2s,” he said, adding that there is a significant capability gap that continues to grow in the nation’s long-range strike force. The Pentagon plans to spend $78 billion on new fighter programs from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2015 compared to $9.2 billion on long-range strike.
The Defense Department has four options, Gunzinger writes in his report. The first is to keep upgrading current bombers and defer a new one until the 2020s. The second option is to move to an all-standoff strike force until the 2040s. Another option would be to take “one bite of the apple” and buy a penetrating bomber to replace the entire existing long-range strike force.
But the best option, Gunzinger said, is to field a new penetrating bomber first. Because current aircraft can perform standoff attack missions, the Pentagon should hold off on a new standoff strike platform until production of a penetrating bomber nears completion. To fill the gap, the Navy and Air Force should invest in a joint cruise missile that can be launched from short- and long-range platforms and carry conventional or nuclear warheads, Gunzinger said.
Elder added that he likes the idea of a hypersonic cruise missile.
Whatever the approach, it needs to leverage a mix of capabilities and not lean too much on one expensive platform, Gunzinger said.
The next few months will provide more insight into the Pentagon’s plans. The long-range strike dilemma could re-energize the aerospace engineering community, Gunzinger said.
His organization found that at any given point over the past 40 years the U.S. military has had between seven and 13 major systems in development.
“Today there are none,” he said. “Not a single program.”