The AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) in this illustration shows the hypersonic missile after launching from a B-52 bomber. ARRW is encapsulated in a rocket that accelerates the weapon to hypersonic speed. Lockheed Martin illustration
Photo Caption & Credits

Strategy & Policy

June 1, 2020

A New Bomber Vision

The Air Force is slowly revealing a new blueprint for its bomber force, offering revised ideas regarding how many it wants, how and where they will be deployed, and how they will be armed. 

The 16-year-old “continuous bomber presence” mission at Guam is gone, replaced with “dynamic force employment,” in which bombers will pop up unexpectedly around the world to demonstrate a perpetual ability to project power. 

The Air Force’s stance on how many new, stealthy B-21 bombers it needs is changing. Instead of “at least 100,” the number appears to be 145. Air Force leaders don’t actually quote that number, but they’re now comfortable saying they need 220 bombers overall to fulfill the National Defense Strategy (NDS), and that 75 of those will be re-engined B-52s. That leaves 145 other aircraft, after the B-1 and B-2 retire.

Gen. Timothy Ray, whose Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) flies those bombers, used that 220 figure throughout a media blitz this spring. It amounts to five squadrons more than the old figure of 175, which he told defense writers in April was “programmatically derived,” rather than a practical answer to NDS requirements.

Today’s bomber fleet includes just 158 airplanes: 7 B-52s, 20 B-2s and 62 B-1s, and would shrink by another 17 B-1s if the Air Force’s 2021 budget request is approved. Giving up its most maintenance-hungry B-1s would leave the B-1 fleet at 45, but Ray said he’ll retain the same number of crews and maintainers to keep the jets more ready for action. Once available, they will receive hypersonic ARRW (Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon) missiles mounted on external hardpoints. The B-2s would remain the sole “penetrating” bomber until the B-21 comes along, but with only a down-scoped version of the planned Defensive Management system upgrade.  

Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff  for Plans and Programs Lt. Gen. David Nahom said the longer-term goal is a “two-bomber fleet.” Speaking at a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies “Aerospace Nation” event, Nahom said the B-1 will stay in the inventory just long enough to “shake hands” with the B-21—circa 2032. 

“I know the reality of developing new programs,” Nahom said. The B-21 is certain to experience “bumps along the way,” which could require extended service from the B-1 and B-2.  The B-21 is “just starting production” now and will soon enter the test phase, Nahom said, adding the Air Force plans to accelerate production once the planes start flying. 

That forecast is what happens “in a perfect world,” Nahom said. “And in a very perfect world, we’ll get to 220.”

Even 220 bombers may not be the ceiling, though. 

“Right now, we know the requirement for long-range bombers is north of 220,” Ray said. The B-1’s readiness is far better now than it’s been in a long time, he said, with the “Bones” able to fly “more sorties in a month than we’ve seen in the last three or four years.” B-1s logged 100 sorties in March alone, he noted, thanks to “a significantly larger number of mission-ready crews” and “good momentum.”

Ray said in addition to fitting the B-1s with up to six ARRW hypersonic missiles, the Air Force is also still thinking about fielding a derivative of the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, or HAWC, a joint USAF-Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program.

“We think we’ve got a good game plan” on hypersonics, Ray said. “We think an air-breathing missile in the long run would also be something to consider, but we’re very comfortable with where the Air Force is going in their selection” of ARRW.

With more emphasis on the near-peer mission, Ray also signaled the end of using B-52s and B-1s for close air support in Afghanistan and, more recently, in Syria and Iraq. That mission was tough on the aircraft, requiring them to fly outside their design profile.

The National Defense Strategy “by necessity … focuses us to increase our long-range strike regardless of the platform,” Ray said. 

A future “arsenal plane” could help with that requirement. Ray envisions it as a new design, rather than a converted B-52, and imagines it could be developed using the Air Force’s “Digital Century Series” model. Lower-cost “attritable” platforms, such as the Air Force’s “Skyborg” airframe, or short-lived platforms intended to remain in service only until newer technology emerges, are both options. Under Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper’s “Digital Century Series” concept, new designs would be rapidly developed, built, fielded, and upgraded—then retire after 10 or so years of service. Shorter life spans would translate to lower costs. 

“The arsenal plane concept is probably better described as more of a clean-sheet approach,” Ray said, that could “go down more innovative paths.” 

Meanwhile, to ensure bombers get the needed focus on readiness and modernization, Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) is creating a separate Program Executive Officer (PEO) to oversee bombers, naming Brig. Gen. John Newberry, previously the PEO for tankers, to the post. USAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office will continue to run the B-21 program, but Newberry will have the primary train and equip duty for personnel working on the B-21 at AFMC’s Life Cycle Management Center.

A B-1B Lancer, top, flies with a Polish F-16 during a long-range, long-duration training mission for Bomber Task Force Europe, May 11. Polish Air Force photo

Operationally Unpredictable

To go with all the bomber programmatics, the Air Force surprised many with the April announcement that it’s ending its continuous bomber presence mission at Andersen AFB, Guam. Bombers have been at Andersen almost without interruption since 2004, a highly visible reminder to friends and adversaries that the Air Force was ready and active in the Pacific theater. Instead, Global Strike Command will emphasize a new concept where bombers will operate without a predictable schedule in an effort to make the U.S., as the NDS states, “strategically predictable, operationally unpredictable.”

USAF mounted an “elephant walk” in Guam just days before the announcement, lining up on the Andersen runway with bombers, tankers, reconnaissance drones, and helicopters. Such demonstrations show that a base can fuel, arm, and prepare to launch a large number of aircraft rapidly—though they stop short of actually launching the airplanes.   

More demonstrations followed. A B-1 from Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., made a 30-hour training flight to form up over Japan with Air Force F-16s and Japanese Air Self-Defense Force F-2s; Pacific Air Forces commander—and the next Air Force Chief of Staff—Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. said the solo bomber mission “showcases our unwavering commitment to the security and stability” of the Indo-Pacific region. 

On May 1, two B-1s deployed to Guam and flew over the South China Sea “to support [PACAF]’s training efforts and strategic deterrence missions to enforce the rules-based international order” of the region, PACAF said. On May 7, two B-2s from Whiteman AFB, Mo., and two B-52s each from Barksdale AFB, La., and Minot AFB, N.D., launched for training missions in Europe.  

Less than  two weeks later, on May 11, B-1s flew from Ellsworth to Eastern Europe, overflying Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland alongside Danish and Polish F-16s and Polish MiG-29s. U.S. Air Forces Europe commander Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian said the exercise was meant to put adversaries and allies, alike, on notice that “we are ready, able, and willing to deter and defend when called upon.” The B-1s exercised with Canadian CF-18s on the way home.

 “We can come and go anytime they need us,” Ray said. “We don’t need to be there, physically.”

“Dynamic force employment” acknowledges that USAF must be more agile and flexible in deploying air power, particularly in the Pacific. Leaders expect combat units to be more expeditionary than ever, deploying with just a C-130 or two of support gear, and with multiskilled Airmen able to handle a wider array of duties. Brown has said he wants the Air Force to develop more mobile airbase defenses and suggests some roles and missions should be shuffled to make that possible. The threat posed by longer-ranged Chinese missiles makes this essential, Brown stated. 

Pulling back to the U.S. from the South Pacific, however, will still be a challenge. From Guam, bombers could reach the most chronic  areas of conflict in a few hours, without tanker support. From anyplace else, they’ll be at least 12 hours away, requiring extensive tanking to get to and from their destinations. Support gear and crews will also have to deploy to whatever Pacific base USAF will use to generate bomber sorties, taxing limited mobility assets. 

Esper Endorsement

Air Force leaders came under fire for offering to trade those older B-1s for better readiness and future joint all-domain command and control capabilities. Bomber advocates warned the existing force is already too small to carry out the National Defense Strategy, and members of Congress worried that giving up airframes would cost jobs at bomber bases.   

But Defense Secretary Mark Esper stated in May that modernization—not current capacity—is his priority. When asked what his budget priorities would be if COVID-19-related expenses put pressure on the Pentagon’s budget, he said he would “pull out more of the legacy programs” rather than risk modernization. Without naming specifics, Esper said there are “dozens” of legacy programs that ought to be halted across the armed services. 

DOD should “invest those dollars in the future,” he said. Despite “near-term risk,” China and Russia are modernizing too rapidly not to keep up.