Long Range Blind Spot

June 1, 1998

It appears that time and circumstances have run out on the idea of producing additional B-2 bombers. The Department of Defense and the Air Force are opposed to buying more of them. In any case, that would mean reopening the production line, which is closed.

In March, the congressionally chartered Panel to Review Long Range Airpower recommended unanimously that the funding available to the B-2 program be spent on upgrades and improvements rather than on trying to increase the number of B-2 aircraft beyond the present 21.

That panel, chaired by retired Gen. Larry D. Welch, former Air Force Chief of Staff, had good news and bad news. The good news is that, with upgrades and advanced munitions, the current fleet of B-2, B-1B, and B-52 bombers will most likely meet the nation’s needs for the next 15 years.

The bad news is that beyond that, there has been no consideration of long range airpower. There is no plan.

A study group headed by Brent Scowcroft, former national security advisor, made a similar point in a report to Congress last summer, deploring the absence of any plan “to keep the bomber force viable in the long run. Every other major weapon system–fighter, submarine, destroyer, carrier, tank, etc.–has either a system in continuing production or a planned, programmed replacement.”

It is a strange lapse in planning, since the requirement for long range airpower is increasing rather than diminishing. The National Defense Panel report in December said that air forces should “place greater emphasis on operating at extended ranges, relying heavily on long range aircraft and extended range unmanned systems, employing advanced precision and brilliant munitions and based outside the theater of operations.”

Surely, a defense program that looks ahead to a new destroyer for battles at sea and to a new howitzer for the field artillery ought to make some provision for future systems that can strike over great distances with large payloads.

Long range airpower is more than a capability. It is also a perspective. Other forces are concentrated on local or intermediate range operations that may extend anywhere from several kilometers to a few hundred miles into the battle area. Long range airpower strikes deep into the enemy’s homeland to deny the enemy control of forces and events and to decrease his capacity to make war.

Furthermore, as the Quadrennial Defense Review said last year, modern bombers, equipped with precision guided munitions, would be highly effective in stopping an invasion force in the opening days of theater conflict.

For many years, the focus on long range airpower in the strategic nuclear role obscured its contribution in conventional conflict. “In Vietnam, for example, the bomber force comprised on average only 7 percent of the force and delivered 44 percent of the bomb tonnage,” the Scowcroft report said. “In the Gulf War, the B-52 force only represented 4 percent of the force, but delivered 32 percent of the bomb tonnage (more than twice as much as the entire carrier force combined).”

Impressive as that is, the value of newer bombers in theater conflict will not be measured by tonnage. The B-2, to cite the most obvious example, has already demonstrated that it can attack 16 separate targets with precision weapons on a single sortie.

Why, then, do defense plans have a blind spot about long range airpower? Several explanations are offered. One is that the long range airpower discussion has been preempted, for all practical purposes, by the B-2 production dispute that has gone on since 1990 when the program was reduced from the original goal of 132 aircraft.

“The Air Force has permitted airpower critics to parlay Air Force lack of support for more B-2s into a perceived lack of confidence in airpower as an independent contributor to military success,” says retired Maj. Gen. Charles D. Link, who led the Air Force effort in the Quadrennial Defense Review.

Mainly, though, the shortage of planning for long range airpower can be attributed to relative budget priorities, in which other needs were deemed more urgent or important. No matter why the priorities drifted that way, the time has come to adjust them.

Fifteen years–if we have that long–go by quickly in the development and fielding of a bomber. The B-2 originated in the 1970s, and the B-1 dates back even further.

By the 2010s, attrition and technology will take their toll on the force of today. It is not yet clear whether the next step should be a variant of the B-2, a different bomber, unmanned aerial vehicles, or a combination of these.

Some people are no doubt convinced the day of the bomber is over. The thought has arisen before. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a flurry of opinion that the bomber would be made obsolete by the ICBM. That did not happen, nor did the bomber force lose its utility at the end of the Cold War. Among those who believe it still has a future is the House National Security subcommittee on Military Procurement.

After hearing the Welch panel’s report, the subcommittee directed the Air Force to prepare a long-term bomber force structure plan and present it to Congress by March 1, 1999.