The Obama Bomber

Jan. 1, 2010

The Obama Administration, seeking to wrap up nearly a year’s worth of pondering and probing on the subject of what to do about USAF’s heavy bomber fleet, last month gave its unofficial blessing to a new long-range strike program. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates on Dec. 11 announced the project “probably” will start in the 2011 budget plan, due out next month.

Gates said he wants “a family of capabilities” and “manned and unmanned” systems. This was not unexpected. The subject has been studied for years. The issues and pitfalls are well-known.

More details might emerge when DOD unveils its spending blueprint. For the moment, it is enough to say that a new system is needed. As the Air Force Association has often noted, the fleet of B-52s, B-1s, and B-2s is the oldest on record (half predates the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis). With no new aircraft coming in, the nation’s long-range attack force would simply fade out.

The singular requirement for this new bomber, whatever its programmatic details, is that it have an unquestioned power to go deep into enemy airspace and threaten, in a variety of ways, a foe’s most critical targets. (The threat could be kinetic attack; at other times, it could be mere observation of a target set.) Such aim points, given their importance, usually are remote, hardened, or buried, and heavily defended by surface-to-air missiles and fighters.

The classic bomber attributes of range, payload, and rapid responsiveness obviously offer value. Yet the deep-strike mission puts an even higher premium on penetration of hostile airspace and thus on bomber stealthiness. Standoff weapons, though useful in many missions, are of less utility. They possess weaknesses such as high per-missile cost, relatively small payload, and less-than-optimum accuracy, compared to penetrating bombers.

Stealth is the key. The less vulnerable an aircraft is to detection by radar, the better it penetrates. It needs far fewer escort aircraft to suppress enemy air defenses—important in light of the inexorable spread of advanced defenses. Very low observable aircraft qualities would offer another kind of benefit as well—extending the aircraft’s ability to cruise in a target area. Because a bomber might have to wait for hidden targets to reveal themselves, it must be able to loiter for long periods. On-station survivability is key, especially in a subsonic aircraft, as the new bomber almost certainly will be.

The needed technology—advanced stealth, integrated avionics, and efficient propulsion—already is pretty much in hand, developed in the course of the F-22 and F-35 fifth generation fighter programs. For all that, other factors could complicate the effort, and these must be handled with care.

One is a debate over whether, and to what extent, the new bomber should rely on a human pilot, as opposed to a pilot located at an Earth-bound site, or even no pilot at all. Gates and others see great value in going unmanned, for several reasons. First, it eliminates risk that a crew might be killed or captured. Second, it would simplify design requirements. Third, an unmanned bomber could persist on station for long periods, perhaps even days.

USAF officials, on the other hand, lean more heavily toward manned systems, and not because the Air Force, long steeped in the culture of combat pilots, is a slave to tradition. There are obvious drawbacks to remotely piloted aircraft. One is their vulnerability to interruption or disruption in electronic links between an aircraft and its controller. Another is the remote pilot’s relative lack of situational awareness, caused by limitations of aircraft sensors.

The long-term solution, say technologists, could be fully autonomous “robot” aircraft. At present, that would take a much higher level of computer-based machine intelligence. The human brain is cheaper and better.

Another problem posed by the “unmanned option” is the need for nuclear surety. Without a man in the cockpit, the Pentagon would find it virtually impossible to deploy nuclear weapons on the bomber. Dangers of a mishap would be too great.

Indeed, the nuclear factor poses a fairly comprehensive set of problems. One is that nuclear-capable (therefore manned) aircraft would lack the persistence of remotely piloted types. Another is cost; hardening the bomber for nuclear operations is extremely expensive, leading to reduced numbers. And arms control poses a threat because nuclear bombers would almost certainly be caught up in tight numerical limits.

A recent study by the Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies suggests DOD start withdrawing bombers from the strategic nuclear triad of bombers, ICBMs, and sub-based missiles. The authors of this paper—Dr. Dana Johnson, Dr. Chris Bowie, and Dr. Robert Haffa—point out that failures to modernize the bomber fleet and bomber weapons already have pushed the US near a “de facto dyad” anyway. They call for directing nuclear-related bomber funding toward a conventional bomber with greater future utility.

Within the active and retired Air Force community, this is—to put it mildly—a minority opinion. Retired Gen. John Michael Loh, former head of Air Combat Command, says the manned nuclear-capable bomber is, if anything, increasing in importance. Writing in the Dec. 7 issue of the Omaha World-Herald, Loh calls for building a new nuclear bomber, noting that “defense officials have continued to validate the triad as the best mix of delivery systems for effective deterrence.”

That, in Loh’s view, also applies to “extended deterrence,” the spreading of the US nuclear umbrella over allies such as Japan, South Korea, and NATO nations. Confidence in the US prevents these nations from going nuclear, he said. And, because it is a visible token of US commitment, “the strategic nuclear bomber is the delivery system that is most effective for achieving credible, extended deterrence.”

As can be seen, the bomber is still a lightning rod for debates and disputes, many of which are serious and likely to persist for quite a while. Yet to be seen is whether the Administration will find the money, patience, and political will to see this vital program through to completion.