Washington Watch: How Many Bombers Are Enough?

Feb. 1, 1994

The Air Force took delivery of its first operational B-2 at Whiteman AFB, Mo., late last year, amid lingering questions about the adequacy of its future bomber force. Will its bomber fleet of B-52s, B-1s, and B-2s be big enough to do the job? Will it include enough of the stealthy B-2s? Will the Air Force propose additional B-2s

Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, Air Force Chief of Staff, and Gen. John Michael Loh, commander of Air Combat Command, addressed those questions on separate occasions as 1993 came to a close.

Both denied that the Air Force has a hidden agenda, as alleged in some circles, for extending the production of B-2 bombers. They said they would prefer more than the twenty B-2s that Congress and the Defense Department set as the maximum two years ago but that USAF could make do with that allotment for the time being.

The generals appeared to part company on whether the Air Force should prepare to continue producing B-2s at low annual rates after the last of the currently authorized lot, a B-2 now being assembled, comes off the line. General McPeak said, in effect, that there is no hope for such production. General Loh, on the other hand, refused to rule it out.

Both officers emphasized that the adequacy of the future bomber fleet–a mixture of B-2s, B-1s, and B-52s, and likely lacking in F-111s–will depend on what is required of it under the national military strategy.

That strategy would compel US military forces to cope with two “nearly simultaneous” major regional contingencies (MRCs). It leaves a lot to the imagination about the nature of those MRCs.

Pivotal PGMs

USAF’s Bomber Roadmap, issued in 1992, noted that precision guided munitions (PGMs) will be central to the success of, and would influence the shape and size of, the future bomber force. That conclusion rings even truer today. Both generals emphasized that the Air Force is relying on the several varieties of PGMs now being developed to do wonders for bomber firepower in years to come.

Nothing is certain in that respect, however. There are no guarantees that the PGMs will pan out as nicely as planned in terms of cost or performance. The Air Force did not issue a request for proposal for the PGM that General Loh called “particularly important”–the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), a self-guided glide bomb–until late last year.

The B-2 issue loomed large in year-end bomber-force discussions. At a December meeting with Washington defense writers, General McPeak declared, “We will not lobby as an organization for more B-2s. It’s clear that the consensus does not exist in the nation to buy more B-2s, so it really doesn’t make any difference what we think about this. I think it’s a shame, because the B-2 is a revolutionary capability. It will have an enormous impact.”

Reports had been circulating that the Air Force, under the influence of Air Combat Command, was lying in the weeds, waiting to spring on the Defense Department and Congress a proposal for more than the allotted twenty B-2s. Among others, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a longtime B-2 supporter, wondered aloud if such were indeed the case. Rep. Ronald Dellums (D-Cal.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, went further.

Late last November, Mr. Dellums alleged in a letter to Defense Secretary Les Aspin that ACC’s General Loh and Northrop Corp., the B-2 prime contractor, were conspiring on a concrete proposal to extend B-2 production at the rate of two bombers a year through the next ten years. Mr. Dellums accused General Loh of “planning for the apparently premature retirement of roughly one-third of the B-1B bomber fleet” to make way for and help pay for the additional B-2s.

Expressing “disappointment and concern” at any such move, Mr. Dellums wrote that it “would clearly abrogate” the agreement between Congress and the Defense Department to cap B-2 production at twenty bombers and total B-2 spending at $44.5 billion.

“Any attempt to request additional B-2s will be met with strong opposition that could endanger your entire defense budget,” he warned.

More B-2s, in Context

Two weeks after the Dellums letter and one week after General McPeak’s statements, General Loh gave his views at a Pentagon press conference.

“The truth,” he said, “is that I do not have a plan, and I am not submitting a plan, for additional B-2s. . . . I would like to have more B-2s. We in the Air Force sought more B-2s. But the fact of the matter is that, in this budget environment, we can’t afford any more B-2s.”

The ACC commander emphasized that the main issue is the total number of bombers, not the number of B-2s per se. He acknowledged that he “had talked about wanting to have additional B-2s,” not in isolation, but rather “in the overall context of [the Air Force’s] needing a large number of bombers to support our national security strategy.”

General Loh had never made any secret of how he felt. He had been saying all along that the Air Force may well require additional B-2s to make its bomber force as brawny as it ought to be at the turn of the century. He had openly discussed on several occasions ACC’s hopes for a larger-than-planned bomber force and for additional B-2s, if that’s what it would take.

ACC’s “combat forces roadmap,” unveiled in Air Force leadership circles last June, reflected his viewpoint. At about the same time, the ACC commander testified on Capitol Hill that “we need about 180 to 200 operational bombers” and, thus, “a total bomber force of between 210 and 230” to allow for attrition, training, and downtime for maintaining and upgrading the operational fleet.

He told the lawmakers, “We currently anticipate having a force structure of 184 operational bombers”–sixteen of the total twenty B-2s, eighty-four of the total ninety-five B-1s, and eighty-four of the total ninety-five B-52s. Such a force, he said, would enable ACC to “deal with sequential major regional contingencies, provided some of the bombers swing between conflicts.”

Then came the conclusions of the Defense Department’s Bottom-Up Review of weapons and forces, a document that passed muster in all the services. Issued last September, it decreed that 100 operational bombers should be enough for the Air Force to do its part in fulfilling the national military strategy.

Many Air Force officers said privately that the BUR was asking miracles of the bomber force and that it would be extremely difficult for 100 bombers to handle two major regional crises, simultaneously or even consecutively, over transoceanic distances on opposite sides of the world. The corporate Air Force did not reflect this view in endorsing the BUR.

A month after the review came out, General Loh told an AFA symposium audience that budget pressures would make it difficult for the Air Force to build as big a bomber force as he would like. Nevertheless, he broached for consideration a bomber acquisition “replacement strategy” in which the Air Force would buy additional B-2s at low annual rates in the years ahead while continuing to upgrade B-1Bs and B-52s.

Dellums’s Last Straw

This suggestion seems to have been the last straw for Mr. Dellums. General Loh made it again in the aftermath of the Congressman’s irate letter to the Pentagon.

At his December press conference, the ACC commander declared that he was still “looking at some kind of replacement-based acquisition strategy” for the Air Force, perhaps “to buy a few [B-2] bombers a year, to sustain a low-rate production.”

“This is not just a military question; it’s an industrial base question,” he declared. “It doesn’t mean I’m promoting more B-2s. It means I’m looking at how we’re going to buy the next bombers that we’ll need when our B-52s wear out or, for that matter, when our B-1s wear out.” He asked reporters not to interpret this as his “advocacy for more B-2s in the near term.”

Once again, General Loh warned against foreclosing future B-2 production. He claimed that the Air Force may be forced to buy substantial numbers of additional B-2s in the future as wholesale replacements for venerable B-52s and that the service would be better advised to procure them at low, steady annual rates than to put off their production and then have to come up with very big money to buy them in bulk.

It would be “much more difficult and expensive” to reconstitute B-2 production resources than to keep them functioning in low gear, the ACC commander claimed. He proposed that the Air Force make “a relatively small investment to retain the design and manufacturing team” of B-2 prime contractor Northrop Corp. and its major subcontractors. This, he said, would “allow us an option to build more B-2s in the future, at a relatively cheaper cost, than if that team is allowed to wither away.”

He noted that Northrop has begun assembling the last of the B-2s currently scheduled for production and that there is no time to lose in keeping the line alive. He said he had asked Northrop to figure out what it would cost to implement his proposal.

In making that proposal, “I’m not violating any laws,” the ACC commander asserted. He said he has “a responsibility–indeed, an obligation” to press for bombers and other weapon systems that ACC needs for its “many missions.” He is also obligated to “look at our national industrial capacity to provide for [ACC’s] needs in the future.” That capacity “will be affected if the B-2 manufacturing capability goes away,” General Loh declared.

He expressed satisfaction with the BUR for having “recognized that bombers play a very valuable role in future national defense strategy” and that they are “critical to . . . power projection.” He said ACC can live with the BUR-prescribed fighter and bomber forces “if we can hold to those forces” and “if they are applied jointly, in concert with the forces of the other services.”

But he warned again that ACC “will probably not be able to fulfill [force-structure] expectations” if the defense budget continues to go downhill, a prospect that was looking all the more likely at the end of the year.

The New Command Arrangement

The ACC commander emphasized that each of the US armed services now depends on the others to get the most out of its forces.

“That’s the big advantage of the new Atlantic Command–ACOM,” he declared. “It puts together all the Stateside-based forces of all the services in joint packages of military capability and makes them available to overseas commanders.

“This is enormously important, because we are becoming a home-based military force.”

Last October 1, US Atlantic Command took on a new look and broader responsibilities. It was expanded to encompass all CONUS-based air, land, and sea combatant forces. Its name remained the same, but its acronym changed from USLANTCOM to USACOM to reflect the changes in its makeup and mission.

The new command–commonly called ACOM–is an outgrowth of the report on military roles and missions that Gen. Colin L. Powell issued last year as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It recommended enfolding all CONUS-based military forces in a unified command that would train them in combined-arms operations and integrate them in “joint-force packages” on call to the CINCs of the theater combatant commands: European Command, Pacific Command, Central Command, and Southern Command.

The erstwhile USLANTCOM was predominantly a naval command, always with an admiral as its CINC, that concentrated almost exclusively on defending the Atlantic Ocean against the Soviet threat and on delivering US forces to NATO. It comprised the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet and Marine Forces Atlantic. ACC’s 8th Air Force was an element of USLANTCOM’s multiservice joint task force.

The new ACOM features the Air Force and the Army in full partnership with the Navy and the Marine Corps. ACOM wields training and combat authority over nearly 1.5 million CONUS-based forces, excluding Navy and Marine units on the West Coast that come under US Pacific Command. It is responsible for such nontraditional Stateside missions as humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and military assistance to civil authorities in dealing with civil disturbances.

Under the new setup, an overseas theater CINC’s request for forces from CONUS would go to ACOM and not directly to Stateside service components, such as the former Tactical Air Command, as in the past. ACOM would then form a joint force, already trained and ready to go, and send it to the theater CINC.

Army Forces Command is ACOM’s ground component. Air Combat Command is its air component. Thus, said General Loh, “the commander of Air Combat Command is the air commander for the unified command,” which can lay claim to all but a handful of Air Force combat aircraft based in the US, including bombers, fighters, Airborne Warning and Control System planes, C-130 tactical airlifters, and reconnaissance and rescue aircraft. Excluded from ACC ownership are air defense fighters assigned to North American Aerospace Defense Command, some C-130s that remain organic to the multiservice US Transportation Command and to the unified US Special Operations Command, and a handful of command-and-control aircraft assigned to US Strategic Command.

ACOM’s first CINC is Adm. Paul David Miller, who commanded USLANTCOM. Future ACOM CINCs will be drawn from each of the services.

Power at Home

General Loh described ACOM as markedly different from CONUS joint commands of yesteryear–US Strike Command and US Readiness Command–because “in those days, our overseas commanders had large numbers of forces in place, and they could wait a while for augmentation from Stateside-based forces. Now, ninety percent of the Air Force’s combat firepower is resident in Air Combat Command in the States, and the same is, or soon will be, true of the other services.

“So it’s extremely important that we are able to put together joint-force packages both for training exercises and for real crises and contingencies overseas. The expanded mission of the new Atlantic Command to do just that comes just in time.”

General Loh sees ACC’s bombers as the big hitters in combined-arms combat teams. No other weapon system in the US arsenal, he claimed, is capable of applying “credible firepower at any point on the globe as quickly as bombers can. With bombers at the ready, we can attack targets anywhere in the world within twenty-four hours of the President’s tasking.”

The ACC commander also claimed that the threat of long-range, heavily armed bombers should make potential aggressors think twice. In this vein, he said, the B-2, with its stealth and its ability to attack targets around the world without benefit of supporting aircraft, has “a big advantage” over other types of bombers.

“Because of their ability to swing quickly from one theater to another, bombers will allow us to conduct effectively–and perhaps even deter–a second major regional contingency after becoming involved in [the first] one,” the ACC commander said.

He cited “enormous support for bombers from the other services” in ACOM, because of their importance in that command’s scheme of things. “We’ve already put together [ACOM] adaptive-force packages with bombers in them,” General Loh explained.

“Conversely,” he continued, “I will be giving more support to aircraft carriers [than in the past]. What this [ACOM] construction allows us to do is to understand each service’s capabilities and limitations much better, and I’m learning a lot about the capabilities of naval forces and land forces.”

The ACC commander said he would like to know a lot more about the nature and the timing of the two MRCs on which the national military strategy and BUR force structures are predicated. For example, he asked, “what do we mean by ‘nearly simultaneously?’ And what do we mean by ‘two MRCs?’ Do we mean two Desert Storms? Do we mean a Desert Storm and a Panama?”

“A Fairly Good Match”

General McPeak seemed somewhat more sanguine about the MRCs. “From the standpoint of the nation’s air and space forces, there’s a fairly good match between the force structure resulting from the Bottom-Up Review and the national military strategy of two MRCs,” he said.

By the late 1990s, said the Chief of Staff, the Air Force will have equipped its bomber force with PGMs and will have fielded, in the B-2, a “large-capacity, long-range bomber capable of penetrating and surviving rather sophisticated defenses.”

“All this,” he said, “will make the force structure as defined in the [BUR] enormously more productive. Therefore, I’m quite confident that [the Air Force] will be in pretty good shape by the late nineties.”

General McPeak said that “the risk, if there is any, lies in the near term, in the mid-1990s,” or before the B-2s and the PGMs come into the picture. In that period, “the force structure will be pretty well stretched to accomplish the two-MRC strategy,” he declared.

The Chief of Staff seemed fairly optimistic about that. He called two MRCs “a worst-case scenario” because “the work load we can expect in the 1990s is not a two-MRC work load. . . . By and large, the kinds of security problems that face us–the Bosnia, Somalia kinds–are nasty little ambiguous exercises but not what I’d describe as a major regional crisis.”

In his outlook for the bomber force, General McPeak put a premium on PGMs. “The importance of PGMs is overwhelming,” he asserted.

He noted that the B-52 fleet now has “pretty good precision guided munitions capability” with Harpoon and Have Nap standoff missiles, plus “a couple of other things” (such as air-launched cruise missiles). The Air Force will “continue to operate B-52s but probably in much smaller numbers,” in order to capitalize on their PGM potency and to comply with Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty bomber-counting provisions, he said.

PGMs being developed for bombers and other attack aircraft are the Triservice Standoff Attack Missile (TSSAM), the JDAM, and the Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW). The Air Force plans to equip the B-1 with all three varieties and the B-2 and the B-52 with TSSAM and JDAM.

B-1B bombers are currently capable of delivering only “dumb” gravity bombs on target. USAF is moving as quickly as possible to outfit them for, and equip them with, PGMs.

General McPeak called the B-1 “a marvelous airplane” but noted that there is no point in having it “carry a heavy payload [of unguided bombs] a long distance and then miss the target by half a mile.” Arming the B-1 with PGMs is “what we need to do before we phase out the B-52,” he explained.

The bomber force is shaping up as “much smaller than we’ve had over the Cold War period,” he said. “I don’t celebrate that, but I’m also not that unhappy about it, so long as [the bombers] get the PGM capability.”

As the Air Force phases out the B-52 and brings in the B-2, its bomber force will dwindle to “on the order of 100” aircraft over the next ten years, General McPeak predicted. He said he expects the operational bomber force to include “seventy or so” B-1s, of which “one-quarter will be in the Air National Guard,” leaving the remainder of the present fleet of ninety-six B-1s to be used for spare parts and as wartime “reinforcements” for the operational fleet.